The arid farmland around Nammakal is punctuated with rock outcroppings and hills typical of the Eastern Ghats. This series of unconnected low ranges, they merge with the Western Ghats not far south of here. The Western Ghats stretch from the southern tip of India north to Maharashtra State parallel to the Arabian Sea. This is one of the world's biodiversity hotspots and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We would be in the thick of it in a few days.
The winding rural roads connecting villages are narrow and surprisingly well surfaced. Life is pretty slow out here. A few people sit at the local chai stall to trade gossip and watch life pass. Otherwise, there does not appear to be anyone. When a pair of foreigners riding motorcycles stop, the entire community slowly emerges to stare. The ritual involves a lot of smiling, saying “hello” and shaking hands endlessly. A few brave souls screw up the courage to try out their English and ask the usual questions: where are you from? where are you going?
Staring at the Aliens
Tamil Nadu, India
They cannot resist staring at Astried's blonde hair and tattoos. We are aliens descended on their village.
We cross a branch of the Cauvery River and approach Karur. Stopping on the outskirts to check the map, we decide that riding through the centre of this small town is best, plus it would offer a chance for chai. A man on a motorcycle riding in the opposite direction slowed to look at us and turned around, following closely as we wound through the streets. Stopping at a chai stall, he approached and started asking questions. After the first barrage, he pulled out a notebook and started to write. I asked him why he is taking notes.
“I am a journalist for the Hindu-Tamil Times, Sir. My name is Nur,” he said. “I have never seen a foreigner in this town and I want to write a story in the newspaper about you. Do you have some time? I just called my photographer.”
We allowed as we had time and Nur continued his questions while we waited for the photographer to arrive. The chai man saw his opportunity to play to the foreigners and performed a classic chai service, pouring from as high as he could reach to as low as he could hold the pot. A sizable crowd of students and others gathered around asking all kinds of questions. The photographer arrived, snapped a few shots and took off. Nur promised he would phone to tell me publication details and left.
The Perfect Pour
Karur, Tamil Nadu, India
Mr. Salavan introduced himself in perfect English. He was in town on business and acted as translator for the questions the crowd could not form in English. Soon enough the street was teeming with observers. We had become somewhat accustomed to a small crowd gathering to stare at us but this was taking on a larger proportion. Traffic was soon blocked and horns honked incessantly. Occasionally, the crowd parted long enough for a few cars to creep past.
Finishing a second chai, we bade farewell to Mr. Salavan and the throng of onlookers and climbed aboard the KTMs. Impressive squeals of “oooh” and “aaaah”, shouts of “bye” from our new fans and frantic waving followed as Astried lead out. A handful of kids ran along beside us for a few blocks. We felt like celebrities.
Nearing the edge of town, we stopped to ask a couple of auto mechanics directions. Each of the three men happily pointed in the same direction while asking for a “selfie”. It is a universal term in India and everyone has a cell phone. This would become a common request throughout the trip, one that got on Astried's nerves occasionally. I never failed to smile and play the game, much to the amusement of the person asking.
Two dudes pulled up in a car and rolled down the window. A cloud of marijuana smoke oozed out with a “Hi Bro”. Vinith had studied in Germany and seemed to think everyone was “Bro”. He showed me a bag of weed and told me they were driving around smoking. They asked where we were going and promised to find us there later on to have some fun.
More winding country roads eventually led to the small town of Aravakurichi. We drove up and down the only two streets several times looking for a lodge with no luck. Finally, a man walked us to the Muttu Lodge. The owner's daughter said it was empty as there were no weddings happening that week, so we had our choice of rooms.
Walking about town in search of food proved unsuccessful. Only the sweets shops were open. A friendly man in a phone shop (they are always open) asked if he could help us. When I told him we were looking for a place to eat dinner, he said “Get on your motorcycle and go up to the highway.” Clearly, we were not unnoticed when we drove about earlier.
Around 9pm, my phone rang. Nur was on the other end, telling me to check page 5 of the newspaper tomorrow morning. We chuckled and dozed off. A few hours later, there was a pounding on the door. I cracked it to see Vinith.
“Hi Bro,” he smiled, “let's have some fun.”
“Sorry Vinith,” I replied, “I'm sleeping.”
“No worries, Bro, maybe next time,” he smiled, weaving away down the hall. I guess it is pretty easy to find the only two foreigners in town.
The rooster was up a few minutes before me and well ahead of everybody else. The daily rhythm is different in southern India. People get going a little later and nobody is in any hurry to do much of anything. I walked over to the news stand and stared at the wide selection, locating the Hindu-Tamil Times, I flipped it open to page 5 and found myself and Astried smiling back.
15 Minutes of Fame
Karur, Tamil Nadu, India
The shopkeeper couldn't understand why a foreigner, who clearly did not speak the language, was browsing in his shop and selecting a newspaper. When I showed him page 5, he got it. Smiling and wagging his head in the Indian circular nod, he seemed to suggest “You are famous, you are in the newspaper.” I walked back and showed the lodge owner's daughter and the others who had gathered round. They read it and smiled, appearing suitably impressed by our fame.
I called Nur to tell him we had a copy of the paper and thanked him for giving us our Warhol moment - 15 minutes of fame.