Suitcase and World: The young monks of St. Alfonsa.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The young monks of St. Alfonsa.

Last night I had set the alarm to go off at 7:30a but as it turned out, that was completely unnecessary because there was another sort of *alarm* that woke me up much earlier :-(

Yesterday, Smitha and Regi gave me a tour of their house. On the upper level is a large terrance that overlooks part of their back and side yards. Regi pointed out that just behind their yard was a Catholic church. Well, promptly at 5:30a this morning, there was some sort of a service taking place at the church and it was broadcast over loud speakers. Why do religious institutions feel the need to blast out over the neighborhood and wake everyone up and ungodly hours?

The kids were also awake so by 6a, the house was abuzz with activity. I made it downstairs shortly after 7a; I could smell food being cooked. In an Indian household, that means curried or spicy something or other for breakfast :-)

But, before we sat down to eat, the kids took me on a tour of the garden around their house.  They showed me the chicken coop, their *bad* dog who was chained up because he bites, the baby coconuts and all the various plants in their grandparents vegetable patch.  They were excellent tour guides and I thoroughly enjoyed spending a few minutes of time bonding with them.  They are a very cute pair!

Today's breakfast delight was home made appam served with an onion, egg and tomato curry. Appam is Rohan's favorite so he was the first at the table. The little boy grabbed four appam! Mom ladled over a couple scoops of gravy and he went to town! Neha was not quite as enthusiastic but you could see enjoyed the food as well. It's heartwarming to see these two kids, born in the US, appreciating the food of their homeland.

One by one the chairs around the table filled up and the chatter centered around the table.

I was still stuffed from last night's dinner so I only took one appam but the curry looked so good that I had to have a couple of ladles myself.

The driver was scheduled to arrive at 8am but by 7:30, he was already waiting for the gang to go.

We had a long day ahead of us today. All I knew was that I would be tagging along with Smitha, Regi and the kids as they go to visit Regi's 16 year old nephew who has been living in a monastery for the past two years studying to be a priest. Smitha had told me the boy's name but it was not common Indian name to me so I completely forgot it a few minutes after she told me what it was. Oh well. I had absolutely no idea where we're going except that it was a four hour drive to get there and that we absolutely had to leave by 8a as there were strict visiting hours, understandably so.

Surprisingly, even with two eight year olds in tow, we pulled out of the driveway pretty much at 8am! Down the road we went, passed the Keralan countryside dotted with coconut palms and rubber estates. The landscape brought back memories of Malaysia though I don't think there are quite as many coconut palms.

We passed through one small town after another - they all start to look the same after a while and none can be described as cute or quaint. There's a lot of squalor in India and it's magnified in the smaller towns where piles of trash are heaped up everywhere.

It was still too early for many of the shops to be opened but the restaurants and street vendors were courting whatever patrons came along. It's too bad that neither Smitha nor Regi are in to eating from the roadside vendors as I would have tried something. Smitha commented that the last time they ate from the roadside, everyone but her got sick so probably just as well that we didn't stop for a bite. I have to remind myself that adventurous eating is not worth getting sick for so I have to restrict myself to eating in places that at least look relatively least to me. After all this traveling in developing countries though, my standards for *cleanliness* have gone down somewhat and with few exception, I have luckily escaped major illness from food. Even so, I think my friends and family would be utterly horrified at the sight of some of the places that I have eaten in. Case in point, this roadside eatery just outside of Djenne, Mali (insert URL here).

In a few of the towns, the weekend market was already going strong. Mangos and jackfruit are in season and loads are for sale everywhere. Clusters of bananas, large and small, red and yellow, hung from hooks dangling from wherever a hook could be planted.

Kerela is all about seafood and I learned that here, it is the women who are the fishmongers. That's because in the early morning hours, they head down to the boat dock to meet their husbands who are returning from their fishing trips. The women hand over breakfast to their husbands in exchange for the fish that they take to the market for sale.

Everyone was wide awake so the car was filled with a lot of chatter and laughter. The kids are remarkably well behaved so there was no shouting or screaming or complaining about this, that or the other.

We soon left the lowlands behind and started ascending through the hills. At one point, we happened upon a waterfall and the driver pulled over so we could get out and take photos. Turns out Regi is getting hooked on photography - he has a Nikon dSLR as well so I had a feeling we would be making many a stop on this trip to take pictures. No complaints from me!

The sign said we were at the Cheeyapara Waterfalls.  We weren't sure what the *plastic prone area* message meant.

The waterfalls were pretty but the area around them was littered with trash. Unfortunately, this is what it's like in India. There is no concept of the trash least not the public trash can.

We all took turns getting our photos taken.  Here's Smitha, Regi and the kids.  What a great looking family!

Opposite the road, a macaque monkey sat on a low stone wall. Smitha and the kids approached it and quickly posed for a photo. After watching the monkey for a few minutes, we realized he was injured. He was missing a big patch of skin behind his right elbow and Smitha's guess was that he was probably attempting to steal food from the roadside vendors who have set up their stalls next to the waterfalls and one of the vendors probably attacked the monkey with a knife or a machete. Poor thing, I'm sure it was in pain.

We crossed the road so I could have my photo taken. My favorite one of me is the one taken with the kids. They make me look young :-)

Unfortunately, we stood on ground that someone had just vomited over so (ewww!!) we needed to clean off the bottom of our shoes before getting back into the car.

Regi took the kids down to the water's edge. Rohan was fine but Neha's shoes needed cleaning so Regi picked her up and had her dip the soles of her sandals into the water. I just found a good sized patch of grass to scrape the sole of my right sandal over. Left shoe was fine.

The driver had parked the car just ahead of the stalls so we had to walk past the on our way back to the car. There were the usual kitschy souvenir sellers but the ones that caught my attention where the vendors selling pickles. The colorful vegetables were nicely vacuum packed in thick plastic containers. I thought it a bit odd that they would be selling this sort of stuff roadside but they must sell otherwise, the vendors would quit offering them.

We all clamored back inside the car and off we went. The mountain roads were windy and the scenery had changed. We had left the coconut palms behind for more tropical tree landscape.

Our next stop was in the small town of Adimali. Smitha had wanted to bring something to Regi's nephew and the advice that she had been given was to get him things that he could eat over a period of time. She interpreted that as snacks so the driver spotted a bakery and pulled over.

Inside, Smitha went about choosing a variety of snacks. There are 34 boys at the monastery so she wanted to make sure she got enough so it could be shared amongst them. To make sure there was something sweet, Smitha bought some jelabi. She ended up buying the entire tray that was under the counter - just about 30 or so pieces.  My kind of aunt :-)

She also picked up a couple of items for us to all snack on. My kind of woman. Loves everything and anything fried :-)

Regi sooned joined us and his soft side picked up two Kinder toys (get proper name) for his two kids. This is a father who absolutely adores his kids and the adoration is mutual. Throughout our trip, the two kids took their turns sitting on his lap, in the front seat. You can tell they love their dad!

Back in the car, we continued our journey towards the monastery. Along the way, we passed the road sign pointing to Munnar which I learned was a hill station during British colonial times. Then as is now, it is filled with tea plantations. As a child, Smitha visited Munnar on countless occasions and on the spur of the moment, she and Regi decided it would be a good place to stop for a visit today. I was all for it!

We had barely left town when Smitha broke into a bag of potato chips that she had bought - Indian style kettle chips is how she described them. Sure enough, they were hand cut chips that were lightly spiced. Very tasty and in no time, sharing with everyone in the car, the bag was empty.

In a country where there are few road signs, you can imagine how difficult it is to find a monastery in the remote hills of Kerala. The driver had to stop a few times to ask for directions. Although I don't speak the language, it seemed like everyone was pointing him in the right direction because we never had to do a U-turn except for the one time that we took the wrong fork in the road.

Miraculously, we arrived at the monastery about half hour before the start of visiting hours. A long driveway, amidst a forest of eucalyptus trees, led up to the building. We had entered the grounds of the The St. Alfonsa Ashram; a monastery of the Capuchin order.

If I had had any expectations about what a Capuchin monastery would look like in India,this was definitely not it. When I got out of the car, I found myself standing in front of a very plain, unremarkable looking building. Our car was parked on what was the volleyball court. The monastery grounds overlooked the hillsides; the view was pretty. I can see why the monks chose this spot. To one side of the monastery was a small garden planted with roses and other flowers.

Though we had arrived early, we were welcomed by one of the fathers to come inside and sit in the waiting room. In the center of the small room was a round table with enough chairs for each of us as well as the father. Pretty much the entire conversation was in Malayalam so I sat back quietly and took in the experience.

Before long, Regi's nephew appeared; a tall, strapping, fresh faced young boy. As soon as he walked into the room, Smitha headed back to the car to get the snacks that she had bought. I followed her to help out. We quickly returned with bags in hand and she handed them over to him. He awkwardly, though I'm sure very graciously, accepted the gifts from her.

He turned out to be very soft spoken as well. Again, the conversation was all in Malayalam and my impression was that both Regi and Smitha were struggling to come up with things to talk to the boy about. It's not easy talking with a teenager to begin with and I'm sure it was made even more difficult by the fact that the young boy's day to day life now centers around religious Christian study. The interaction between uncle, aunt and nephew all seemed a bit strained.

Two of the other fathers soon entered in the room. Being in a Capuchin monastery, I was expecting to see monks dressed in the long chocolate brown robes that are a trademark of the monks but instead, they were dressed in everyday, street clothes. If not for the fact that I was standing inside a monastery, I wouldn't have known that they were monks!

As with all visits, there come's an unspoken time when it's time to go. When that time came, I followed everyone out the front door. Back outside, we took another walk around the grounds. Earlier I had noticed chickens running around. Curious where their coop was, I walked to the side of the monastery where there was a small barnyard where a small flock of chickens, a pair of ducks and a cow called home.

The two kids had discovered a couple of ant hills and were occupying themselves by trying to cover up the entrance to hill with rocks. Kids. The things they do to amuse themselves :-)

Just as I was expecting to get back into the car, we were being waved to go back inside the monastery. Apparently, we had been invited to join in lunch with the monks. What an unexpected treat and honor!

We entered the monastery which had the layout of a typical Christian monastery. Two floors of rooms surrounding a square shaped courtyard. On the far side from the entry way, where we were standing, was the communal dining hall.

As we stepped inside the dining hall, to our left were two long tables; the young monks were already seated. We were seated, along with the father, at the head table. Our driver also joined us.

The meal began with one of the monks saying grace. The food was Keralan fare....very simply prepared. There was red rice accompanied by cabbage cooked with grated coconut, a dried green curry mango that was addictively delicious, fried sardines and what had become another addiction for me - the stir fried sardine roe. We had also each been given a simple omelette to go with the meal. I have to admit, I really enjoyed the meal - easily going back for seconds (delectable mango curry and the super tasty cabbage) and thirds or maybe even forths (new obsession, the roe). As with my previous trips to India, I have pretty much gone vegetarian on this trip as veg food is just so tasty here - I can't resist. So, the only thing I didn't eat were the fried sardines. Who needs fish when you have delicious roe? Seriously.

Dessert was fried strips of jackfruit (aka chips) and small bananas. Jackfruit is one of my favorite fruits and so you can imagine what I indulged in. Strips of jackfruit fried in flavorful coconut oil. Can it get any better than that? I think not. I could have easily eaten the entire plateful of jackfruit chips all by myself and if I could have bought a bag, I would have bought two! I'm forever greedy which is the root cause as to why I will never be thin :-(

When the lunch hour was over, the father rang the bell and we all stood up for a short closing prayer. The monks then started clearing away the plates. We did our own small bit at our table.

As we stood around chatting, someone caught my attention. A small group of the young monks had gathered outside the dining hall and apparently, they had some questions for me. They were curious about me. So cute :)

First question was how did I like Kerala. I answered that I was really enjoying my visit to their home state. Next question was how did I like the weather in Kerala. I told them it was very hot. As I replied to their questions, I looked at their adolescent faces. So young. Hard to believe that at their tender age, they already knew what they wanted to do when they grew up and were already willingly devoting their lives to it. I had yet to really find my identity at their age.

I asked if they wold pose with me for a photo and of course, they obliged. Me and the monks!

As we stood in walkway outside the dining hall, Smitha and I asked the monks about their quarters. The fathers have their individual rooms on the lower level and the monks all sleep in the dormitories on the upper level. One of the monks offered to take us on a tour and Smitha and I were just about to take him up on his offer when we all got distracted by other happenings around us. Monks were scurrying back and forth down the corridor and post lunch clean up was still going on in the dining hall.

It wasn't long before the boys all congregated around Regi and the conversation switched from English to Malayalam and the level of conversation and laughter went up several notches. Everyone was having a good time. It was a very nice way to cap off a wonderful meal.

Soon, the monks would have to return to their studies and that would be our time to leave. As we headed back to the entryway, the monks all accompanied us. They stood around the front door as we continued walking to the car in the company of one of the fathers.

We waved and shouted goodbye to the monks and thanked the father for their kindness and generosity.

Down the road we went.  Next stop.  Munnar!