An Armenian in Kerala

Our next destination was Kannur, a town on the coast of Kerala. Gerard had discovered it in a blog on the internet and pulled it up on Google maps and could see a very long white beach…so we thought we’d give it a try. When we called ahead to make a reservation, the man spoke unusually good English – with an accent, but not typically Indian. He had a room with kitchen facilities and a washing machine. Strange, we didn’t really want that – the price was more than we normally pay but cheaper than anywhere else available in town. So we took it and he offered to meet us at the train station because our train was arriving after dark.

Waiting for us was a European close to our age. We should have guessed! He introduced himself as Sarkis, a Swede – but even then we couldn’t put the pieces together of who this man was…Sarkis didn’t sound Swedish. Anyway, we got ourselves to his house, to find that we were the only ones staying in a large sprawling complex of two buildings and five bedrooms. He offered us the pick of bedrooms, showed us the kitchen and gave us the keys, saying he’d return in the morning to negotiate the price.

It was pitch black and we couldn’t see the ocean, but from the roar of the surf it had to be close by. Tomorrow we would decide what we’d do next. The morning light revealed that we were right next to a long empty beach on a road with very few residences, not a hotel or guest house in sight. Sarkis arrived and after hearing we had been mediating, launched into a long conversation about spirituality and mysticism. It was hard to get Gerard and Sarkis to stop talking long enough to get down to the business of whether we were going to stay and if so, for how long. Another issue was how far off were the shops and restaurants because there were none in sight. He explained they were only a fifteen minute walk. We didn’t relish the idea of going back into town and trying to find other accommodation. Certainly none would have the beach frontage of this. So after some negotiation we agreed on a price for five days. “How do you find me?” he asked. “Are you a friend of Tulla’s?” (Tulla from Sweden had just left). ”No, we found you on the internet.” “But I’m not on the internet.” “Oh yes, you are,” Gerard said. He does not advertise, but we found him in a blog. (He’s clearly not terribly concerned about renting, and only does to friends – and friends of friends).

Gerard and Sarkis continue to talk. Over the next few days, the picture of who this man is slowly emerges. First and foremost, he has a strong pull towards the spiritual side of life and is anxious to share what he’s figured out. Gerard and he have a great time expounding. (And Gerard was worried that he would have no one to talk to in this empty house!) He lives with his Indian wife back in town, but comes over here twice a day (at least while we’re here). As the conversation broadens, there’s much more to this man than being a Swede implied. He’s actually Armenian, and his family fled in 1917 during the Turkish massacre to a remote mountainous region bordering Iran, Turkey and the Soviet Union. No one was quite sure what country it was. In the early 50s, his parents emigrated to the US and sent Sarkis to school in Calcutta (through the Greek Orthodox Church). After nine years he was restless and ran away. He ended up in Iraq unable to speak the language but got a job through a US company out of Kuwait. That was short lived – he met a group of Swedes en route to Afghanistan who needed a driver. Once he fulfilled his obligation, they would give him contacts to help him migrate to Sweden. When he finally got to Sweden with no papers, questioned by the authorities he was told his contacts were known drug traffickers. Nevertheless they granted him entry. After working for Volvo for a short time, he was stationed in the middle-east and stayed for 26 years working in all the major capitals there.

Sarkis met his India wife in, of all places, Yemen! Gerard was green with envy – a place he’s always wanted to go but it’s too dangerous. In his mid 40s Sarkis had triple bypass surgery and took early retirement. Now he spends the winters in India and summers in Sweden. (Swedes get good government paid pensions.) We still haven’t quite figured out why he built such a large complex down here when he had a house in town. If it was a commercial venture he doesn’t seem terribly motivated to rent the place. He says, his wife didn’t like the effect of the salt air… (Sarkis talks with a levity quite familiar to those of us who know Berge!) Oddly enough he’s exactly the same age as Gerard bar one week!

While all this unfurled, I have spent time on the beach – but feel somewhat weird being alone and surrounded by so much empty sand and sea. The water is warm and clear, without the undertow so many places on the west coast have. So far we feel that in Kerala the people are more friendly and the countryside less contaminated. When we walk down the lane to the restaurant, it’s clear the locals are not accustomed to seeing westerners and yet they are eager to say hello. Even though the population is supposed to be greater, it doesn’t feel it at all. Hotter than we expected, Sarkis says it’s one of the hottest spring in years. The weather is odd, even here!

Although the beach is empty for most of the day, at around 4 pm things begin to happen. A group of Indian boys, and old Englishman Jacob and slightly younger woman Lucy- (also English), drive up in a van and sit on the edge of the beach for the “English Lesson”. They come every day. Jacob has his story: he fought in World War II in Burma and instead of returning to England after the war, worked in Nigeria and then the middle east where he met may Keralitees. So when he reached retirement age he decided to retire in Kerala. Then there’s the man who comes to fly a kite, and the Indian headmaster who meets Sarkis on the stone wall outside the house to converse daily on spiritual matters. Today, the theme of their conversation is an article in the Hindu Times: Selfless Service as a route to Self Realization. The locals also turn out to walk on the beach and enjoy the spectacular sunsets, and young men play football at the edge of the water.

Two days into the stay the idyllic atmosphere changes. Having never had anything stolen during our previous four trips to India, this time I am a victim of stealing…not once but twice! Here in Kannur, during the night someone gets over the locked fence and takes my swimsuit off the line…and I later discover my shoes also gone. I still haven’t come to terms with losing my clothes in Trichy, and now the point is being driven further home.

I had so wanted this trip to be perfect. I’d planned and packed perfectly and wanted – and expected – everything to turn out the same. I was angry – an anger that undoubtedly came from a resistance to accept what is; frustrated over not controlling my environment. I knew I should let go, but I missed my possessions too much. I wanted to know why this happened to me, and what could we have done to prevent it, rather than focusing on how I was handling the unwanted/unexpected…or, why not me?

Everything that had previously seemed light and happy was now dark and threatening. I sort out solace in the sea and went swimming in my clothes like the Indians. But even the ocean was hostile, the waves menacing. For the first time, I saw young boys on the beach leering at me; in the lanes the men were hostile.

Finally the next morning – after a long night – my mood shifted. With difficulty I reached the realization that through adversity I have a better chance of learning something about myself than if I had a perfect trip. Why do I need to control? Insecurity…when those things I’m depending on for security fail me I become reactionary, a victim. I realized that the contents of my suitcase were a security blanket. Does a real traveler need this? I’d packed my belongings to protect myself from the uncertainties of traveling. But do I really need to always know where I’m going? It’s time to move on…

Then Gerard lost his new sunglasses – also stolen. My own angst was subjugated in sympathy for him. I could now play a more familiar role. It is easier for me to help him deal with his loss than with the feelings of my own. The last couple of days have been spent looking for lost belongings and then shopping unsuccessfully to replace them. It has been exhausting. But then something sweet happened in the third optical store – with still nothing suitable for Gerard we asked the shopkeeper for directions to get back to the restaurant we used for dinner. He can’t help us, so he says instead, “I will take you there!” And he leads us behind the shop to where his car is. After spending half an hour in his store and not buying anything, he is happy to drive us to our next destination. And later in the restaurant, they bid us a fond farewell when we say we’re leaving the next morning.

Our host, Sakis, was very disturbed by what had happened. He was upset that his house had been broken into; the first time in the whole 15 years he’d owned it. Oh…wait; we’re not the center of the universe? The situation was upsetting to others too. The night watchman of courser also felt responsible for us and spent a long time searching the lane behind the guesthouse. Even the two resident cats wailed more than usual. The next morning Sakis brought Gerard a pair of sunglasses he no longer needed to replace Gerard’s lost ones and insisted on paying for the rickshaw to the train station. He’s a very caring person.


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