Playing Tourist


We stack into a mid size sedan and set off from our quiet residential neighborhood in the heart of the city. As the cab comes to a halt at the first traffic light, I look out the window, taking in my city with new eyes. The billboards stare down at me hawking things I have no use for. Men and women on two wheelers have kerchiefs and scarfs wound tight around their nose and mouth to keep the smoke and grit out. I watch families in autos and cars alongside ours. Our eyes meet for a moment before we each look away, the strength of the connection disconcerting.

The car jerks forward and I look ahead. It is fairly early in the morning for someone on vacation. The city roads are filled with school going children and parents leaving for work. The faces are bright, scrubbed clean and anointed with vibhuti. Hair is mostly plaited and tied up. We are stuck in front of the office complex housing mostly IT companies. The composition of the crowd is markedly different. I see more women here. We inch our way to the toll road and then glide at an even pace the rest of the way. Patches of the ocean peek from amidst shocks of green. Coconut trees line the coast most of the way. Amusement parks, drive in restaurants, dhaabas, mark the way. Satellite towns appear and disappear characterized by a clutch of shops, eateries and grocers.

Getting off the cab at our destination, I feel every inch the tourist. We are garlanded with shell necklaces and offered a chilled lime drink. I down it quickly and check in when the man at the reception calls out to me. Clutching the key card to our room, we take a golf cart to our room. It is a pretty chalet with views of the garden and the beach from the balcony. We put the suitcases away and explore the room. It is decently sized with ample towels and rocking chairs on the balcony. The kids are barefoot, running up and down the access stairs. The bed looks inviting for a nap. I shake off the malaise and herd our group out for lunch. Walking out the resort in search of affordable food, we find a local chain to our delight. Walking along the edge of the quaint semi rural roads dotted with goat poop and ambling calves, we reach our destination.

The fans whirr half heartedly overhead. The seaside air is heavy and salty. The food arrives and we tuck in. We are mostly the only customers in an otherwise wide open restaurant. The waiters are over attentive and food adequate. We leave an hour later and hail an auto to explore the town. Saathi sits by the driver and the rest of us pack ourselves in the back. We rumble over narrow roads and I am awed by the History around us. Everywhere we look are huge monolithic stone carvings. The roads are lined with artisans working with stone etching faces and intricate designs on unyielding black stone. We reach the first of our attractions and pay non resident charges and enter. The sun is overhead, blazing down. The kids look like blotches of pink as they hop from rock to rock. Laddu follows her sisters, cautious as she steps over uneven surfaces.

I follow them clicking pictures. Some of them are of the monuments themselves but most are a record of my children growing up, experiencing India like they have not before. As they sit on a bull’s neck or pose alongside carved monkeys, they see it for what it is. Artifacts that provide enjoyment. I trace my fingers over the rock worn by centuries of salty air, tsunamis and negligence. I am awed by the imprint of time. I wonder about life in the centuries past. I read inscriptions and boards by each structure.

We move on covering five more places before we head back to the resort clutching a rock paperweight, some keepsakes and a memory card full of pictures. Amidst all the sights, one particular moment sears itself into my brain. A couple of men leaning on a wire mesh fence looking out to the sea watching a couple cavort and play in the ocean. There was something disturbing about the hunger in their eyes. I try to push the memory away but it swirls refusing to dissolve.

Washing up and helping ourselves to a spread of snacks and coffee at the lobby we explore the resort. The trees are native boasting huge cream flowers. The lawns are manicured and dotted with fallen flowers. The roar of the ocean is a constant hum against which life plays out. Families play in the pool. I see men and women on hammocks. Some, eyes closed enjoying the moment. Some are reading. Some others are gaily laughing. I feel a lightness that pushes other things out. Leaving the kids to play with giant chess pieces, I walk with my Amma to the huge deck overlooking the beach. We linger. I make my way to a hammock and haul myself in. For a few minutes life is perfect.

The pool is refreshing. I step tentatively into the water. It feels chill. I walk down and sit on the floor, the water lapping at my chest. Laddu is on my lap. We splash and laugh. My shoulders relax in a way it hasn’t in weeks now. I realize I have checked two things off my bucket list. The joy bubbles over into the rest of the evening.

I am up at 5:00 AM, the alarm trilling under my pillow. I want to hit snooze and go back to sleep but I push myself, gently rolling Laddu over to Saathi. They cuddle and sleep peacefully. I stand in the darkness, the love I feel overwhelm me. Half hour later, I slip out of the room standing at the door to experience birdsong like I have never before. I record a bit of it and knock on my mom’s door. She lets herself out and we walk along lamp lit stone pathways to the beach. There is not a soul around. We reach the huge deck and stare into an impassive cloudy sky that envelops the horizon. It is raining heavily into the sea.

“We cannot see the sunrise.” Amma is pragmatic. “Let’s go back,” she says. I shake my head, bull headed about staying back. “I am sure we will see a peek of orange somewhere,” I walk over and sit on one of the many rattan chairs that line the beach overlook. The drizzle from a few minutes ago turns into a soft, steady rain. Despair clutches my heart. I feel the weight of disappointment press into me as we troop toward a thatched umbrella and sit there. The clouds remain dark as ever as light drives the darkness out without a sign of the sun. The rain stops and we walk back.

The disappointment seems to epitomize most of my vacation. I remind myself of the things that are right. I did wake to see the sunrise but what I got instead was birdsong, an empty beach, the  unearthly peace that comes from hearing waves crash onto rocks. Reminding myself to count my blessings, I walk back to my room.

Breakfast is sumptuous and we tuck in. Fortified we walk back to the entrance and hail another auto. This time we head to the beach. A piece of untouched, unspoiled paradise. The sand is clean, the water sparkling in the morning sun. The kids squeal and I squeal with them. We run, jump and play. We chase waves and write on the sand. We feel the sand in between our toes and on our hands. We lick away the salt from our lips. We return an hour later, tanned, happy.

Two hours later, we check out and head back home. The drive home is seamless, the landscapes whizzing past in a blur of green and concrete. The honks seem muted, the aggression mild on the roads. As we pull up to our apartment, we tumble out in a jumble of kids and adults. Tired, happy and willing to be home for a while.

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