Best Read of 2016: Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

coatesThe best book I read in 2016, by a mile, is Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between The World and Me. It is moving, eloquent, and deeply disturbing. Coates wrote this as a letter to his 15-year-old son, describing his own childhood on the rough streets of West Baltimore, his education at Howard University (a place he loves so much he calls it “the Mecca” throughout the book), his early struggles as a writer, and then the success he finds in New York and at The Atlantic.

The book is basically a love offering to his son but it is also a very sober reflection on and an exposure of the history of racism and Americans’ perceptions of race and how it tragically affects him, his family, and his friends. Coates is an amazing writer. He’s transcendent. His style is straight-forward, simple and clear and yet it’s poetic and sometimes so beautiful I often had to stop and catch my breath I was so moved by his words. He’s honest about his fear and anger.

Several scenes in the book I found particularly memorable and moving [mild spoiler alert]: his terrifying moment of getting pulled over by a suburban-D.C. police officer for basically driving-while-black; the shock and rage after the shooting of Prince Jones; and the humbling lessons he learned years later interviewing Prince Jones’s mother.

I do much of my reading on public transportation and there were many times I stopped reading, glanced around at the faces of my fellow bus and train passengers, looked out the window at the south and west sides of Chicago, and felt like never before the question: why do we do this each other? Coates is not a problem solver. He doesn’t see easy solutions or pin his hopes on false symbols. He is not Dr. King or Malcolm X or anyone else I’ve read. But he has a gift for seeing clearly and putting into the most compelling of words what has happened in human history.

I happened to be reading this book in the last days of the presidential campaign, on election day, and during its immediate aftermath. In some ways it made the shock of the election even stronger. But in another way it didn’t – the post-election rhetoric really confirmed everything Coates is saying.

I’m grateful to my oldest son for introducing me to this author. Last winter he suggested to me that I read Coates’s now famous article in The Atlantic, “The Case for Reparations.” Wisely and tactfully, anticipating my resistance, he said something like, “You don’t have to agree with his case at the end. Just read it.” I would say the same about this book.

A Closer Look at La Catrina

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My coworker Alfredo stands with a few of the many Catrinas he created this year for a Day of the Dead exhibit earlier this month.

Alfredo is a coworker of mine who appears to be an unassuming maintenance man but also happens to be an extraordinarily talented artist.

In early November he put together an exhibit of Catrina figures that he had created. La Catrina is the elegantly-dressed skeleton-figure that we associate with Mexican Day of the Dead artwork. She is basically a made-up skeleton combined with the frilly dress and accessories of 18th-century colonial aristocracy. She is a legendary figure in Mexican culture.

As the Spanish version of Catherine, “Catrina” somehow became a derisive shorthand term for the upper-class ladies of colonial Mexico. The name was applied to this figure of death to poke fun at the emptiness of wealth and all its expressions. La Catrina reflects the realization that death is the great equalizer; she’s the ultimate you-can’t-take-it-with-you statement.

On November 4 my coworker Alfredo  put his Catrina creations on display and invited the community to visit. He kindly agreed to let me take photos, which I present here.


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8 November 2016: A Tale of Two Days

ashlandOn Tuesday morning I was walking the last block to my office and reflecting on how it was both election day and the anniversary of Dorothy Day’s birth – and trying to find some connection between the two – when I saw this guy lying in the middle of Ashland Avenue, a major four-lane, north-south street that traverses the entire length of the west side of Chicago.

I recognized the guy immediately and realized that he wasn’t an accident victim – he was there on purpose. I may have audibly groaned.

My first gut reaction, I’m ashamed to say, was to walk away. A driver had stopped to help him. I’m sure someone else has called the police. They don’t need me.

But I shut off my brain and dragged my feet out into the middle of the street. I had seen this guy before doing this same thing. I was later reminded that his name is Antwan. He lies down in the street and asks for money. He says he won’t leave until someone gives it to him. That morning he was asking for “$20 so I can go to Joliet.” He repeated the request over and over and over.

The driver and I asked Antwan to get up, he was going to get hurt or killed. He repeated his request for money. I told him I wasn’t going to give him money but I could suggest some places where he could get other kinds of help. He refused to budge. Meanwhile cars and vans and semis were speeding around us, furious at the traffic tie-up during morning rush hour.

Antwan is a young man, not even thirty. He has the face of a child. His eyes have a look of fear and innocence and confusion. Finally I told him I was calling 911 because his safety and the safety of others were at risk. I grimaced, remembering Dorothy Day’s birthday and realizing that the last thing she would have done was call the authorities to “fix” this “problem.”

But the police did arrive and I finally did walk away. Fortunately, the officer was patient and kind and helpful. He convinced Antwan to get up and offered him a ride somewhere to get help. Antwan refused and walked away.

Remembering My Grandparents on Their Wedding Anniversary

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My paternal grandparents on 12 October 1927, the day they married.

Eighty-nine years ago today – also a Wednesday, at 8:00 am – Olivia Anna Kaiser married John Joseph Schwister in St. Peter’s church in Beaver Dam, Wisconsin.

She was 25-years-old, from a close-knit German family, and worked in the shoe factory just north of downtown. He was 33, from a farm near Black Creek, a veteran of WWI in France, and beginning in February 1925 the proprietor of a small grocery store with his brother Bill on Vermont Street in Beaver Dam.

According to family lore, Olivia and John caught one another’s eye when she would happen to pass by the Vermont Street store on her way to and from work – even though the store was several blocks off the most direct route she would have taken!

After they married they moved into a house built by her father, a carpenter, across the street from where she grew up and there they remained surrounded by extended family up and down the block (most of them living in houses also built by her father) for the next 25 years. They raised four wonderful children, including my dad.

In 1952 they took over a store in Lodi, Wisconsin and Olivia ended 50 years of living on the same block to set up a home in a new town. There they finished raising their children and eventually welcomed nine grandchildren, with the ninth being born a few years after John died.

They both passed away in their mid-70s, seven years apart. Here they are on October 12, 1927, looking like the picture of “Roaring 20’s” youth and optimism. Their love and generosity were a blessing for which I’ll always be grateful.

Busse Woods: A Natural Oasis in Chicago’s Northwest Suburbs

Between an enormous airport and shopping center – O’Hare International and Woodfield Mall, respectively – sits an equally enormous oasis of green and blue in Chicago’s northwest suburbs.

Ned Brown Preserve, known as Busse Woods or Busse Lake to locals, is a several-thousand acre forest preserve with woods, meadows, lakes, streams, even a herd of elk. Several types of water craft are available for rental as are picnic shelters for large groups.

Although hundreds of people visit the preserve on even a slow day and the place is surrounded by the airport, mall, and several major expressways, it is so large that it does offer the feeling of getting away from it all.

I visited the lake with my kayak one evening this week and was surprised again at how much wildlife can be seen. The preserve is worth a visit – but expect a crowd if you go at peak times on weekend afternoons.

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Ned Brown Preserve includes several thousand acres of land, a 486-acre lake, and an abundance of wetlands.

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An egret wades the weedy shallows in search of fish.

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A lightning-fast thrust of the bill and a fish is caught.

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One of the largest frogs I’ve ever seen in the wild watched me warily.

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A Great Blue Heron pauses from fishing while I pass…

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… then decides to get away from me and my kayak.

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Boats, canoes, and kayaks are available for rent – if you can get past the egret.

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In the evening the egrets head to the trees for a night’s roost.

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A beaver resented the proximity of my kayak…

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… gave the water a whack with the tail…

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… and dove to safety.

A June Fortnight in India (Part 3 of 3): Tamil Nadu

In Part 1 of this story of my two-week trip to India last month, my wife, youngest son, and I visited my wife’s home city of Pune, celebrating her parents’ 50th wedding anniversary. In Part 2 we traveled to Kerala, my mother-in-law’s home state. In this third and final post, we finish our week in the south of India.

From Kerala we drove east to Tamil Nadu, my father-in-law’s home state. As I mentioned in the previous post, going from one state in India to another – in this case, from Kerala to Tamil Nadu – means encountering a new language, history, and culture. Traveling through the southern third of Tamil Nadu we saw simpler, more remote homes and villages than in Kerala and more obvious signs of poverty. But appearances can be deceiving – Tamil culture is rich and ancient. For centuries Tamils have contributed to philosophy, science, mathematics, religion, literature, poetry, and the arts. Recently a Tamil chess grandmaster was world champion for six years. And Tamil is one of the oldest living languages in the world.

Although we were on a quest to visit the places of my father-in-law’s youth, we did play tourist for a bit in Tamil Nadu as we detoured south to Kanyakumari, the southernmost point of India. I had often looked at this spot on the map – such a distinct location at the very end of the subcontinent – and wondered what it would be like to actually stand there. My family in India kindly indulged this whim and we spent an evening, night, and morning there.

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The southernmost point in India has an edge-of the-world quality that makes you realize you’ve reached the end of a continent.

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At sunrise we could see dozens of these small fishing boats as tiny specks bobbing in the waves far off shore.

In traditional Indian thought a confluence of waters (called a sangam) is a place with great spiritual power. The sangam of the River Ganges is the primary location for this but other places also share in its purifying power. The point at Kanyakumari is considered the sangam of three major seas: the Bay of Bengal, the Indian Ocean, and the Arabian Sea. I’m not sure if it was the power of the sangam or my obsession with maps and geography, but standing there did have an effect on me. With water on three sides, unceasing winds, waves crashing on enormous rocks, pilgrims and tourists milling about everywhere – it’s completely captivating!

We arrived in the evening and shared the sunset with hundreds of other people on the beach. We got up early the next morning and saw the sunrise with an equal number of tourists/pilgrims looking across the waters to the east. After breakfast we ferried out to one of the little islands off the point and visited the monument to the guru Vivekananda. There are other temples and sites to see in Kanyakumari but we wanted to get back to our original plan so we headed north.

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In the evening at Kanyakumari, visitors gather on the beach for the sunset…

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… and in the morning for the sunrise at almost the same spot.

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Just off the eastern point at Kanyakumari are a memorial to Hindu monk and teacher Vivekananda (left) and an enormous statue of the Tamil poet-philosopher Thiruvalluvar. Ferries take visitors to both locations, which are less than a kilometer off shore.

Driving north from Kanyakumari the landscape turned flat, brown, and dry with low mountains (or high hills) almost always on the horizon. This area is known for historic Hindu temples shaped like very steep vertical hills rising out of the plains.

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It never rained while we were in Tamil Nadu, but the promise of precipitation always lingered above the mountains to the west.

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This scene is very typical of southern Tamil Nadu and made me think the shape of the abruptly steep hills was inspiration for the design of the temples in this region – or maybe I read that somewhere. 🙂

Just as in Kerala we were on the path of my mother-in-law’s early years, in Tamil Nadu we were seeing the places where my wife’s father grew up and went to school. Within the family, my father-in-law is first and foremost a wonderful husband, father, uncle, grandfather, and generous friend. But to the rest of the world he is a well-known cardiologist, professor, researcher, writer, hospital founder, hospital inspector, retired army colonel, and more. He has seen and done enough that he could write a full and fascinating book. One of most remarkable elements of his life story is that it started out in a tiny village in a remote part of Tamil Nadu state. It seems like a cliche but it truly was through sheer hard work and determination that he overcame the limitations of place, got a good education, and became so successful in a profession that benefits others.

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The railroad stop is one of the greener places at my father-in-law’s village. Even the dog is too hot and sleepy to care that we’re there.

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This gentleman was herding goats in the extreme heat, sun, and thorns on the edge of the village. He was very honored by the request to have his picture taken and proudly primped and posed to prepare for it.

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My son stands with his grandfather in front of the school that his great-grandparents founded and operated in Tamil Nadu. One of the neighbors who helps with the school stands in the background.

My wife’s paternal grandparents were something like missionaries, starting and running a school for children in the village of Vadamalapuram, a humble stop on the railroad in southern Tamil Nadu (about two hours north of where we had been on India’s southern tip). The school was for younger children and provided only a basic education so my father-in-law was sent by his parents to a bigger school in the nearby town of Sankarankovil.

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Children from the village attend the school founded by my wife’s grandparents.

He has told us stories for years about having to walk five miles each way from his village to the school and back every day. I have to confess, part of me somewhat doubted the “five miles each way” and half assumed it was the typical exaggeration of older people trying to impress upon the younger generations the hardships of their day (“We walked through hurricanes and blizzards everyday, uphill both ways”). But that day I saw for myself that the route from his home to his school was truly five miles each way. We re-traced his path on foot for about 100 yards and realized this young boy had been walking through an extremely dry, harsh landscape filled with ankle-high thorn bushes and under the hottest sun I had ever experienced. And this was for grade school!

Here we saw what had been my father-in-law’s childhood home but now is almost in ruins with no one to live there and take care of it. Next door is the little one-room school his parents founded and ran, still operating with a teacher, some helpers, and about 15 adorable young children. With no desks or chairs, the students sit on simple woven mats on the floor. Their crayon drawings and other artwork are hung with pride on lines around the room. My son gave out chocolates we had brought for the occasion. As I took pictures the children ate quietly, very innocently staring at me – I’m sure I looked very alien to them!

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With no desks or chairs, children are very accustomed to working and learning on mats on the floor.

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Under the cool shade of a tree next to the school, a friend in the village prepares a mid-afternoon snack for us.

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My wife’s parents visit the final resting place of her grandparents – a beautiful monument the family placed over their graves.

My wife has shared many stories of how the place once looked under her grandparents’ care: rustic and simple, with green orchards and gardens producing an abundance of fruits and vegetables. Since then extended droughts and the absence of immediate family living on the premises have caused the general decay. The family is now considering ways to develop the property so that the school can provide more services to more children.

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My father-in-law’s family donated the land for this clean, modern, government-run clinic, which was built on the edge of the village and serves hundreds of people a week. We happened to be there during the hottest part of the afternoon when it shuts down for a siesta.

In the small dusty town of Sankarankovil (five miles away, indeed!), we paid a visit to my father-in-law’s elementary school. Not surprisingly, the teachers and staff there were happy to see us and very proud of this alumnus (my father-in-law) who got his start in their school and has done so well in life.

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The entrance to what had been my father-in-law’s elementary school in Sankarankovil.

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As a sign of respect, traditional Indians remove their shoes or sandals before entering a home, church, or even a classroom, in the case of this school. It is a very unique experience to walk into a church barefoot.

We met with the principal of the school, which is now an all-girls government school, and she shared with my family (in Tamil) how things had grown and changed through the years. In the school office other staff and administrators came and went and we were offered the slightly sweet milky hot tea in little paper cups that we had been served everywhere else and that somehow tastes perfect in spite of the intense heat. Then they led us to a large hall for a school assembly – an assembly in which we were the stars of the show!

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As the honored guest, my father-in-law gave the first speech at an assembly in his former elementary school.

The hall was packed with dozens of middle school girls all wearing the same burgundy uniform with white sash and all with the same hair style: long black hair braided in a loop on each side of the face. Though the heat was oven-like it did nothing to dampen the enthusiasm and expectation of these students. They were buzzing, waiting for something wonderful to happen. A television news man was there reporting on the events, handing us a microphone with the TV station’s Tamil logo on it. (“Famous alum returns to town. Brings foreigners with him. Film at eleven!”)

After introducing us, several people gave speeches, honored us with shawls placed around our shoulders, and basically treated us like royalty. Eventually we all had to give speeches and when my turn came I stepped forward and the previously polite, under-control students spontaneously burst into laughter! We were not exactly in a tourist hotspot so I don’t think the locals here see many westerners. In spite of being laughed at, there was something so surreal and amusing about the entire experience that I didn’t feel even a bit nervous. I delivered an impromptu speech about coming from a land of ice and snow and they all need to study hard and anyone of them could become successful like my father-in-law. Since I was the only person not speaking in Tamil, part of me just figured it didn’t matter what I said as long as I smiled while saying it.

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The school’s principal honored each of us individually by placing a shawl around our shoulders while the students applauded enthusiastically.

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A glimpse of the captive audience that greeted us in Sankarankovil.

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After the assembly, the students, in swarms, brought us sheets of white paper and pens to collect our autographs. Surreal but great fun!

At the age of 15 my father-in-law began the next chapter of his life and went off to a boarding school, the Jesuit-run St. Xavier’s College in Palayamkottai, an hour and a half south of his home. The day of our visit to St. Xavier’s we had the great pleasure of reuniting with Fr. Jamels, a beloved friend and diocesan priest who lives only a few miles away. Fr. Jamels studied in Chicago for many years and also has been a long-time friend of my wife and her family from his days studying at the seminary in Pune. Our son in particular was very happy to see the priest who had baptized him and who had spent so much time with our family when he was a toddler.

Fr. Jamels and friends from Chicago started a wonderful organization in Tamil Nadu called LIFT that supports young students who have limited resources but show great promise in completing their education, entering good careers, and supporting their families. The youth of LIFT treated my family to an evening presentation of songs, dances, and speeches. (I missed this, unfortunately, as it was the one day in the trip that the food situation finally gave me stomach problems and I went to bed at 6:00 in the evening.)

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Girls in the LIFT program presented a lovely performance of music, dance, and culture for our family. This took place in the entrance to their building, which happens to make for an excellent stage.

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My father-in-law attended this college for three years from ages 15 to 17 in the mid-1950s.

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A tour of St. Xavier’s college gave us an opportunity to spend time with our long-time friend Fr. Jamels.

Fr. Jamels has friends at St. Xavier’s so he gave us a tour of campus. The college continues to thrive today and was full of students and staff in the first week of classes after a break. As we walked the dry, hot grounds, my father-in-law reminisced, shared stories of climbing the fence at night to go see “English movies” in town, and warmly remembered the Jesuit in charge of discipline who kept a wary but paternal eye on him.

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Fr. Jamels gave us an informative tour of St. Xavier’s campus. Here he is explaining the syncretism in the architecture of the college’s main chapel, combining traditional Hindu, Muslim, and Christian elements.

As we toured the campus we stopped and talked with several professors, who all happened to know Fr. Jamels and who enjoyed sharing news and updates on the college with the family. This was the one stop on our itinerary where we did not have school officials waiting to welcome us. By good fortune, though, we ran into three Jesuits who just happened to be the college’s top three administrators. As they walked out of a building they recognized Fr. Jamels and stopped to talk with us, pleased to meet a respected alumnus of their school.

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A grandson makes for an excellent tech consultant for a grandfather with a new phone.

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Fr. Arul, another friend who had studied in Chicago, joined us at St. Xavier’s as well.

The final stop in this tour was the medical college in Tamil Nadu’s third largest city, hot and historic Madurai. This is where my father-in-law studied medicine, became a doctor, and practiced for the first time. He would go on to bigger and better things (army officer/doctor, specialist in cardiology, professor, founder of hospitals) but we could see in his face and hear in his voice that it meant a lot for him to come back to where his medical vocation truly began.

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A proud alumnus stands in front of the residence hall where he lived as a med student almost 60 years before.

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Greetings at what had once been a primary entrance to Madurai Medical College.

For this visit, again, we were received like VIP’s and top administrators met with my father-in-law and talked with him about his medical career, his time at the college, and how the institution has changed since his day. As we sat in the office waiting for various people to come and greet us we were served the inevitable piping hot milky tea in the little paper cups. Once again it was the perfect luxurious touch in spite of the 90-degree temperatures.

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Seeing photos of medical college administrators from the 1950s sparked stories of the men and women who influenced my father-in-law. And yes, India has been ahead of most of the world for decades in benefitting from women as doctors and college administrators (not to mention prime ministers).

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Walking through one of the residence halls at Madurai Medical College.

One of my first impressions at every stop on this tour of my father-in-law’s schools was the relatively humble conditions at each place. This was true even at St. Xavier’s and Madurai Medical College. As we toured the residence halls at Madurai, my father-in-law noted that many of the external things were the same since his day. Both then and now students had simple living quarters. The same primitive “common loo” that my father-in-law recognized from years past was still in use.  These medical students were not isolated in luxury conditions but shared everything communally in a way so typical of the larger culture.

For two weeks in India, I found myself growing in love and appreciation for my wife and her family. I now understand better how family is her highest priority. I can see more clearly why she values simple, meaningful things and experiences. And how though she is extremely tech-savvy, rarely watches TV but will lose herself for hours in conversation, reading, making music, taking road trips, or just sitting and watching a rainstorm. This is how she was raised and this is how they do things in the places where she is from. My admiration for my mother-in-law and father-in-law also deepened as I witnessed the love of their families and saw the challenges they overcame to be the generous, respected people that they are today. I am grateful to them for their immense love and generosity and to my brother-in-law and his wife and their children who lovingly shared their time and themselves with us on this trip.

Today, a month after our journey, we ran into a good friend of ours at the library who is traveling to her native Kerala tomorrow morning with her family. When I asked where in Kerala they were staying she said, “Trivandrum” – and I knew where that was! Yes, she did give me the English colonial name for the place assuming I wouldn’t recognize the more authentic name of Thiruvananthapuram but that’s okay. I’ve now been through Trivandrum, I’ve stopped and had lunch there; I have a visual of at least a part of the place. And that’s true about many people and places that my wife and her family and our Indian friends have been talking about for years. We missed most of the tourist must-sees but hopefully we have many more trips ahead of us to catch up on those. I’m looking forward to it.

 

Part 1 of this story was about time in Pune and Maharashtra and Part 2 covered a brief trip to Kerala.

 

A June Fortnight in India (Part 2): Kerala

In Part 1 of this story of my two-week trip to India last month, my wife, youngest son, and I visited my wife’s home city of Pune, celebrating her parents’ 50th wedding anniversary. After a week there, we traveled south to see her parents’ home states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu.

After the anniversary celebrations in Pune we flew to Kochi for our week in the south of India beginning with a too-short two-night stay in the verdant hills of the state of Kerala. In learning about India, it took me a few years to grasp the reality that neighboring states in that country could have such distinct cultures, histories, languages, and personalities. But traveling to Kerala – and later Tamil Nadu – certainly helped bring that point home.

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With abundant water, warmth, and palm trees, Kerala has an unmistakable tropical feel.

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With its long coastline, Kerala is known for seafood and it was there I had this fried fish and fish curry that were part of the most delectable non-homemade meal of the trip. Superb!

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Several of my Malayali friends and family make the tastiest tea so I was not surprised when I found the slightly sweet, frothy tea in Kerala to be exquisite.

The primary language of Kerala is Malayalam and a person who speaks it is a Malayali. I’ve often heard other Indians poke fun of Malayalis – and Malayalis make fun of themselves, for that matter – for certain stereotypical qualities that may include (or so I’ve gathered) a kind of exaggerated self-awareness and a strong pride in their history, religion, homes, appearance, etc. I’m not sure if this is mockery or envy. To be honest, they are not the worst qualities in the world and they actually describe almost anyone, anywhere who takes pride in themselves and their people. Kerala did strike me as a very clean place and the people there definitely were proud enough of appearances to keep lovely homes, churches, villages, and cities – a wonderful place for tourists to visit.

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My second morning in Kerala, I took this photo from a high bridge outside Punalur, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, and I could simultaneously hear singing from prayer at a Hindu temple in one direction and chanting from a Muslim mosque in another.

In the west we hear much about religious conflict in India and, tragically, it is a part of their history. But on the ground, in daily life, Indians tend to live with a great tolerance of religious differences and historically have mixed and combined practices across traditions. In Kerala, where they trace their Christian roots back to the first century and the missionary visit of Thomas the Apostle, the Christian presence is very proudly visible, more so than elsewhere in the country. After landing in Kochi and driving north it seemed every kilometer or so that we spotted a large, spectacular, white church on a hill or among the trees. Small shrines to Mary or to other saints are positioned at busy intersections, often right next to a Hindu shrine or down the street from a mosque.

On that first day in Kerala we visited our friend, Fr. Matthew, who directs a remarkable Catholic retreat center in Muringoor, a half-hour north of Kochi. This center is massive, like a city itself, hosting weekly retreats in seven different languages, providing jobs and housing for low-income people, and caring for older adults, AIDS patients, persons with mental disabilities, and much more. They have hundreds of acres of land to support this undertaking, including a farm with 200 head of dairy cows! (As a Wisconsinite, a native of America’s Dairyland, I naturally insisted on a complete tour of the facilities.)

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In the Malayalam section of the center, there’s no question that Christ is at the heart of all that is done here.

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The grounds of the retreat center are so extensive they are divided into language groups for the participants and staff.

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I asked a shirtless gentleman who was splitting coconuts if I could take his picture. He was so pleased he put on his shirt and proudly posed with me next to the metal wedge that he uses to split 1,000 coconuts a day!

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The supervisor of the farm was very proud to show us around his operation that includes 200 dairy cows.

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An outdoor Way of the Cross is a small part of the massive retreat center at Muringoor.

On day two we headed for my mother-in-law’s ancestral town, Koothrappally. This is a picturesque village presided over by a lovely white church – St. Mary’s – on a hill at one end and the family’s historic home at the other. Everyone in this town seemed to be related to my wife’s mom. We visited relatives currently living in the family’s house, walked down “Main Street,” and stopped by St. Mary’s where my mother-in-law worshiped and went to school as a child. We even visited the church cemetery where almost every name brought back memories and strong family connections.

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We climbed the front stairs at St. Mary’s church in Koothrapally, Kerala.

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This is a newer house, but my wife’s grandmother’s home occupied this location for decades in their ancestral town of Koothrapally.

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My mother-in-law caught up on family news in the home that stands on the site of her grandmother’s former home.

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We walked down Koothrapally’s main street and, as was the case everywhere in India, the locals unabashedly stared at the foreigner from America.

Later that day we drove farther south in Kerala to Punalur, the small city that my wife’s grandmother moved to when she got married. Here we stayed with an aunt and uncle whom I already knew (their daughter – my wife’s cousin – lives in Chicago) and spent time with many other aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends. Punalur is where my wife spent school holidays as a child. Though she is very young(!), my wife recalls a much more rustic experience at her grandmother’s house back in the day. She has warm memories of living without running water or electricity and spending long full days and evenings with her mom’s eleven siblings, their spouses and children, and many other relatives. The time was spent exploring outdoors, cooking over a wood fire, eating, praying, reading, and everyone entertaining themselves and one another with stories and songs.

My mother-in-law was born the eldest of twelve children and she and her siblings remain very close to this day. Somehow they all seem to have the same loving, affectionate, positive personalities that my mother-in-law is blessed with. Seeing almost all of them together and experiencing this all at one time made for an amazing and memorable 24 hours in Punalur! Some family members drove for hours to see us. Some didn’t arrive until 10:00 at night. No one cared, of course, as the entire focus was on seeing loved ones and catching up on one anothers’ lives.

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The morning sun on the home of my wife’s aunt and uncle – with a rubber tree plantation on three sides and a tapioca field on the other.

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Close up of a rubber tree with the receptacle that collects the latex used to make rubber.

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A canal outside of Punalur, Kerala.

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As a child my wife visited her grandmother’s place every school holiday and was the apple of her aunts’ eyes. They still dote on her with gifts of plantains and homemade jewelry.

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One of the highlights of Kerala was my wife’s cousin’s young son who had energy to burn and personality to match – even at the crack of dawn!

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This elegant railroad bridge over the Kallada River in Punalur holds a sad but special place in the memory of my mother-in-law’s family. Her youngest brother died here at the age of 16, attempting to save the life of another person drowning in the flooded river.

Most people who visit Kerala go to the famous backwaters and the houseboats and other tourist destinations – things we will have to save for next time. We used this trip to visit family and see the places that are so special to my wife and her mom. We did get a taste of the beauty of this state though with its endless green hills and breathtaking vistas. I look forward to going back some day as more of a tourist.

In Part 3 we travel to Tamil Nadu, my father-in-law’s home state.