Tender coconut

Trip Start Jan 31, 2011
Trip End May 20, 2011

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Flag of India  , Tamil Nadu,
Saturday, February 12, 2011

Every person can recall specific experiences or days that help define the morals and values that they hold strongest. Events take place that shape the person we are - both positive and negative aspects of a personality. For me, today was monumentally positive. To say it was life-changing would be untrue, but my perspective of humankind has definitely shifted. The narrow view that I had, assuming everybody shared the same ignorant and selfish traits as the vast majority in England, has been gently eased from the back of my mind. Mistrust, lack of faith, and general pessimism toward the human race has been pushed aside slightly. Or at least, for Tamil orphan children.

I woke at about 9.30, sat outside reading and smoking and enjoying the morning breeze. The town outside was already bustling and I could hear the familiar tooting of eager traffic from all directions. Joseph greeted me with the standard "good morning, Mr. lazy!" He said that between 11 and 12 o'clock a student of his, Suresh, would come to pick me up and take me to one of the orphanages out of town. He told me to take my camera, to avoid spicy food and that he had already told Suresh that I was scared of the traffic and not to drive his motorbike too fast. I smiled and laughed it off, but was secretly thinking that Joseph was starting to know me a little too well. I had at least an hour and a half to wait, so I washed and got dressed, and then sat and played my Ebanez. I have named him Nez, for short. Suresh rocked up at about 11.45 on an old and battered Yamaha with a broken speedo. He was about 23 years old, 5'5" and had a chunky face with a big (almost handlebar) moustache. He had a huge smile and a firm handshake. I got my things together, making sure I had plenty of sanitiser. And some iodine spray, just in case I got bitten by one of the feral children.

Five minutes into the hair-whitening journey, my stomach sank as I realised that I'd forgotten my camera. I shouted over the perpetual burp of the engine, asking if we could go back to get it. Suresh said not to worry because he had a camera of his own. I gripped the bottom of the seat with white knuckles as we weaved in and out of the midday traffic, tooting and swerving as we overtook ox carts and big yellow trucks, all painted with colourful symbols and little murals, and piled impossibly high with all sorts of agriculture. We left the city and hurtled down narrow lanes deep into the countryside. The road surface deteriorated significantly, along with the standard of living in the small outskirting villages. Wicker huts with weaved coconut-leaf roofing were scattered in little hamlets. On the bike I felt a lot more engaged in the surroundings - the smells changed suddenly and constantly; from woodsmoke to spice to something truly foul to garlic and oil and incense. Viewing it from the car, I always felt like a spectator at a zoo but this was so much better. I was just starting to enjoy the wind in my face when a hornet the size of my thumb veered into our path. Suresh dipped his head casually, but I was hit square in the right lense of my sunglasses. It left a mark that would forever be in my peripheral vision and I was not best pleased. But fuck it, I could have lost an eye if it weren’t for the specs. I chuckled to myself and went back to taking in as much as I could from the blur of colours and aromas. After about 20 minutes, Suresh shouted over his shoulder that the outer villages had never seen a white man before, so I shouldn’t worry if they stare. As if on cue, a bike with a dad and child looped in front of us with the skinny little kid sitting backwards with his bare feet buffeting in the wind. He stared right at me for ages, giving nothing away until I smiled broadly and released my left hand for a split second to give him a thumbs up, then quickly went returned it to my iron grip on the seat rail. He responded with a beaming face and two thumbs in return, as the driver swung the bike to the right and they disappeared round a sweeping corner.

A mile or so on, in the middle of nowhere, we stopped for a coconut break. A little old man had parked his antique bicycle under a tree, fully laden with green and yellowy-brown. He was perched on the bank, as the whole road was raised above endless paddies on both sides. He had a huge knife that curved forward and after about three half-arsed swipes he had managed to cut the ends off and make a perfect hole in the top of a green coconut. He procured a straw from nowhere and garnished it, presenting it to me with a sun-weathered grin. I took a slow and cautious sip, it was watery and slightly sweet and very fresh tasting. Suresh, bored with my fannying around, snatched the coconut off me, threw the straw and emptied everything into his open mouth. He wiped his face on his sleeve, grinned and jabbered to the old man, who dug out another coconut from the bunch but this one looked old and yellow. A couple more casual waves of the machete and I was slurping beverage number two. This one was very sweet and distinctly coconutty, like Malibu. There was a lot less juice in this one and I was about to throw it on the pile in the ditch when the old man jabbered and gestured to have it back. He tossed it up out of his hand, caught it on the blade of the knife and did the same to the other side, cutting it perfectly in half. He then hacked off a bit of shell for me to use as a scoop. The flesh was milky and wobbly and really soft and had little bits in but I ate it anyway. It was delicious. Suresh smiled and said "taste the difference, yes? Sweet and good and healthy and will make healing in your stomach. Like your medicine but is our natural medicine, always best!"

The orphanage was down a dusty track, off the main road. It was bumpy and dusty and Suresh didn’t slow down, requiring me to ride the bumps like a cantering horse whilst holding on as tightly as I could. Banana plants grew right up to the edge, creating a tropical canopy that tunneled us deeper into the forest. The trees opened up into a clearing, with several buildings surrounding a large and dusty courtyard. On the journey Suresh had explained that it was a home for children who had lost their parents in one way or another; by death, drugs or simply because their families were too poor to support them. We got off the bike and were met by a big smiley woman in an orange sari who greeted us with her hands together and a little head wiggle. We were led into a big warehouse with open windows and about 100 kids sat down in rows on the floor, girls on one side and boys on the other, with a large gap in the middle. My forehead was dabbed with red paint by a smiley young woman. There was some sort of talent contest going on, and everything stopped when I walked in. The kids stared open-mouthed at the arrival of my pasty skin colour. Suresh and I sat with some other adults, facing the children. The others turned out to be a group who travel to different orphanages and give the kids a sort of activity day; with music, sport, dancing and competitions. They were very happy to have me join in, and introduced themselves with a variety of names that I would never be able to remember. A little girl who was about 9 or 10 years old was standing up the front singing a folk song, a capella, and every child returned to watching her intently. However, most of the children broke concentration regularly to take a peek to see if I was still as white as I was a few moments ago.

After a few more children had sung and danced, all without music, an old man rose from the floor to the side of the kids. He walked painfully slowly over to the front of the group. He must have been at least eighty, and wobbled like his rickety old legs would give way any second. He walked bent over a knobbly cane, was wearing a white vest and khaki shorts and had glasses on that were thicker than binocular lenses. He stooped backwards without looking behind him, lowering himself slowly, and there was a mad rush as about five people individually scrambled to put a chair underneath him. He plonked himself down, blissfully unaware how close he came to crushing his creaky back onto the smooth concrete floor. Suresh leaned over and whispered that the old man was a retired freedom fighter, an 86 year old veteran from a tiny village somewhere in the district. He was too old for his family to afford to care for him, so they packed him off to the only place that would have him - Sri Venkateswara Orphanage. The old man sat and sang a miserable song, warbling and wavering his voice in a way that I couldn't decide if it was deliberate or not. Suresh told me it was a song about freedom, of course. As he sat on the little red plastic chair and sang about the cause that he'd fought for, I was hit hard by the way that he had been cast out to spend out the rest of his days with a group of kids in the middle of the jungle. Just pushed aside and neglected. Of course I couldn’t know all of the reasons behind his being there, but even the most mental and obnoxious veterans at home are treated with at least some respect and understanding (there's one such fruit loop who wanders the streets in Faversham) but a harmless old man who helped make his country independent was abandoned, forgotten and, I was told, never visited. It was heartbreaking.

The kids were lined up around the perimeter of the building, girls on one side, and boys on the other. Each was given a metal plate and a cup, and several women walked around the group dishing out various things such as rice, water, dhal, potato, and an egg each. The children sat on the dusty floor, eating with their hands. I sat and watched, and was invited over to a table with the rest of the adults. They insisted on giving me a generous amount of what the kids were munching, presented in neat little piles neat on a banana leaf. I ate with trepidation, not quite trusting whether it would make me ill or not. After lunch we played volleyball and some other games outside, and a group of about 15 Americans rocked up in a coach to visit. They were all relatively old, and the majority were typical yank pensioners - they spoke to me slowly and condescendingly, and only wanted to talk about themselves and the places that they had been, and how vast America is and how silly little Europeans such as myself will never comprehend how big it really is. One old boy spotted me while I was talking to quite a nice smiley yank named Sally. He came over, interrupted my conversation with Smiley Sally from Seattle and peered into my sunglasses and said painfully "Hey there son, do you speak English?" to which I quickly replied, with some distaste, that I was in fact English. He introduced himself as Bruce and then went banging on about how he's from Utah and he owns a machine factory and how I should go and see the Taj Mahal and how wonderful it was and how I wont understand because I haven’t actually been there yet, and how it's such a good thing that I've left little old England to see something new, because he's been all over the world himself. I found him patronising and self-centered, so I wrapped the conversation up. I gave him a knuckle-crunching handshake, deliberately called him Bert, and then strode off to go have a kickabout with the children.

Back inside, after the yanks had moved on to piss off some other people, the team started giving out prizes for the winners of the talent competition. When the first person was called up, he was given a pen and a certificate. I was manhandled out of my chair and made to pose for a photograph with him. People cheered and I was held in place to present the prizes to the remaining ten kids. A photo with a westerner must be a bit of a novelty in this neck of the woods, I guessed. After we had finished, all the kids got up and started running around. Someone put on a CD of Tamil music and everyone started dancing. I politely declined to get involved, standing at the side and observing the mayhem. Dozens of kids came up to me, one by one and asked my name. They introduced themselves and tried their best to ask me some textbook basic questions such as my age, brothers and sisters, hobbies etc. and all smiled as I gave them a warm handshake. A few girls came over in a little giggling group and asked to touch my hair. They all squealed as they ran their hands through it and patted my head, and one said that it was "beautiful, soft and nice" before they ran off. Two or three of the boys kept coming back for a chat, smiling shyly, including one that was so small he barely came up to my knee. I sat him on my lap, shook him about and then dangled him upside down whilst he laughed hysterically. I plonked him down and he must have been quite dizzy because he ran off straight into the wall. The music and dancing and introductions went on for about half an hour (Suresh was in the thick of it), but eventually the excitement petered out and some of the kids started settling down or wandering off. By this time I was itching for a smoke, so I got a couple of the team on board and sneaked off down the track into the jungle. The guys had neglected to tell me that they didn’t actually have any cigarettes of their own, so I did the honours and shared round. Only one out of about five of them managed to finish the whole thing, and the others were complaining that the Camel were "too strong, not nice, not smooth, too much, can't have it all". I ridiculed them a bit as we sneaked back to the complex, as they all held their paunches and frowned from nicotine overload.

The day was coming to an end, and the kids had been rounded up and sat down for what was to be a thank you and goodbye. The sun had just dipped below the tall trees and everything was starting to be consumed in a deep golden haze, and we got inside just as the mosquitoes were assembling for their nightly offensive. We were all up at the front and I was asked if I wanted to say a few words. I stood up and, eager not to make a repeat performance of The Church Incident, I spoke loudly and slowly whilst Suresh interpreted into Tamil. I basically said that I’m shy when it comes to this sort of thing but they had all made me feel so welcome that I was perfectly comfortable in front of them all. I said that although they have so little, they were the most genuine, happy and loving children I had ever met, and that being there was a pleasure. I went on to say that I would be proud to support them in any way I could and that I would love to come again to spend some more time with them and help them with anything they need. I sat down, red faced, and Suresh finished his jabbering (I could only trust that he had translated accurately) and I was given a huge cheer from everyone, stood back up and given a wreath-thing to put around my neck. It was gold coloured and quite ornate looking and I posed for another smiley photo, quite overwhelmed by everything. I could feel a bit of a squeeze in my chest and I sensed that I could be on the verge of nearly possibly maybe starting to almost well up a little bit slightly, so I blinked hard and shook it off and was given an embrace by everyone within reach. As I walked outside, found my shoes and got on the back of the bike, all the kids poured out after me - all waving, smiling and cheering. We set off down the bumpy track and I sat up, straightened my aviators and looked forward to the scenic journey back, with my hands hanging freely in the slipstream.
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