Chennai Good-bye; Hello India-glam

Our final farewells were underway as the volunteers began to peel off, catching flights home or furthering their explorations to other points of interest in India. E-mail addresses were exchanged, Google Groups were set up to exchange pictures, and rehearsals began for two shows that we would put on for the children at Assisi and SEAM. Kimberley decided that a concert reflecting the international flavour of the volunteers would be fitting. Our performances included three of the children’s favourite nursery rhymes – 3 Little Monkeys (abridged from the standard 5 due to time constraints), the ever popular When you’re Happy and You Know It, and, following lengthy debate as to it’s proper nomenclature, Itsy-Bitsy Spider won out over Eency-Weency Spider. They were followed by songs from each country of the volunteers. Yours truly and spouse led off with Alouette; we followed with Roma, the most dynamic, kind, mischievous and fun-loving 83 year old Australian you will ever meet, performing Waltzing Matilda. Next up was Nicole Lee, who sand a Korean counting song that the rest of us provided back up for. Candice Frost, our very own version of Joan Rivers, led us in a dance rendition of Mayim, Mayim, an Israeli folk song offered up as a paeon to rain. Three hours later, the Lord obliged and it has been raining intermittently ever since. We are trying to re-assemble the group to perform the sequel Dry ’em, Dry ’em, but so far, no luck. Final act was a line dance that most of us managed to follow along quite well behind Kimberly. The children joined in. A presentation to the volunteers of thank you cards ensued and individual farewells that had a few of us shedding mayim mayim from our einayim.

My other good bye was to Parmat and the construction gang down by the school yard. My final day’s work involved setting up the scaffolding, which consisted of rickety wooden poles lashed together with twine that had been soaking in a bucket to render them tighter as they dried. My job was to scoop earth out of a hole 6 inches in diameter that had been created by loosening it up with a pointy metal object akin to a five foot long chisel. Fortunately the soil was soft, red clay, akin to PEI. I immersed my hand all the way to my shoulder bringing up handfuls of dirt until a depth of nearly three feet was reached. All told, the work undertaken for three weeks by myself, Candice, Kathy and Matt represented about 2 or 3 hours of work using western equipment. In a country where it pays to take longer by eschewing time and labour saving devices, there remains a threshold to cross before modernity can be achieved. The other side of the coin is that enhanced methods will lead to labour loss and the middle class work force and market is still in its developmental stage.

The following morning, Lori and I were up at 5 to catch Huey Long’s favourite airline – Kingfisher- to Cochin, the capital of Kerala, the only province or national state in the world that has freely elected a communist government. The reds have been in power more or less continuously, since 1957. Cochin is situated on the Malabar Coast and has a 2,000 year history of visitors including, Syrians, Jews, Portugese, French, Dutch and British interested in spices, silk and really great surfing. It is a municipal version of St. Lawrence Boulevard; each settling group leaving another striate atop the previous visitor’s. Our luxury car along with Saiju, our personal driver, who would be conducting our tour throughout the region, was waiting for us at the airport. We drove for about an hour positively astounded by the dozens of new construction projects underway. A new highway, complete with flyovers, a plethora of high rise condo projects and a super sized mall anchored by a Marriott hotel that was being developed by a Mid-eastern magnate known as Lulu. No name could better describe the scope and immensity of a mall advertized as south India’s largest. We arrived at our hotel, The Taj Malabar, which overlooked the confluence of backwaters and rivers leading to the Arabian Sea, visible just beyond the famous Chinese fishing nets, the signature image of Cochin

In addition to the driver, we had also engaged a private tour guide to help us wend our way through the side streets, front streets and backstreets of town. The obligatory oldest church in the south (Why does every town have the oldest church in the south?), a temple housing portraits of the Maharajas, all of whom bore a striking resemblance to Yul Brenner in his most famous role, and a tour through Jew Town. I kid you not.

The community has dwindled dramatically since Israel’s independence but in its heyday, the Jews of Cochin numbered 2,500 and trace their arrival to the Roman’s sacking of Jerusalem with another set of re-enforcements arriving at the end of the 15th century courtesy of those inquisitive Spaniards. The current Jewish population, depending on who you ask, is either 10 or 39. As deep as Tay-Sachs is in our genetic structure, even deeper is the need for self-divisiveness. In Cochin, as is the case in every other Jewish community on the planet, no matter where, no matter how large or small, there are those who won’t talk to the others, each claiming to be the holier of the two. Ten Jews live in Jew Town, 39 live in the new section of town adjacent to the islands called Ernakulam, which I think is Malay for Hampstead. Seeing eight hundred year old buildings with Stars of David built into the structure gives shivers. We also managed to peer into a Jewish cemetery housing graves manyhundreds of years old

Visiting a synagogue that still has Friday night and Saturday services despite the inability to put together a minyan adds an exclamation point to the notion of Am Yisroel Chai.

Dinner was preceded by an hour long dance recital by the local Kathakali troupe, a centuries old art form requiring full control of every facial and hand muscle.

The make-up and costumes are extraordinary and the stories, symbolic re-enactments of myths and legend from ancient Indian scriptures, are probably really great if you a) know the legend, and b) are familiar with what each of the eye and hand movements actually mean. Lori and I found them a tad tedious, but for culture we will suffer. A historic restaurant, appropriately named History, provided us with a delicious dinner and, full of food, much philosophic musings of our guide Sabu, hours of travel and major touring, we were driven back to the hotel where we fell asleep in the most comfortable bed and surroundings we have encountered in 3 weeks.

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