10 November 10:25 Camucia-Cortona Stazione
Friday morning and I'm waiting for the regionale train into Rome, gazing up at Cortona on the hilltop above the station. In the brightness of the almost-winter morning, its medieval edges look like they were etched in crystal. I sit on top of my suitcase and watch my breath drift across the tracks and into the sun, grateful that I can move my entire world wherever I wander. Noticing the gratitude. Noticing happiness.
11 November 15:30 Somewhere above Eastern Turkey
I’m flying from Brussels to Mumbai in Brussels Airlines business class. For free, I should add—I’m very good at hacking air miles. I’ve been fed foie gras and lobster, I’m lying in my fully flat sleep number bed with the "mood lighting" on, trying out the massage feature. I've gotten into my smart red canvas toiletry bag and had a stab at the designer lemon verbena hand cream and coordinating lip balm. I’ve made some remarkable progress on the bottomless champagne.
Four hours after ascending out of Belgium at half past ten o' clock in the morning, we're drifting into the dusk, and I am in a very sumptuous version of my favourite reality—defying distance. Outsmarting time zones and geographical boundaries. No man's land. Streaking through space and yet peacefully suspended in high-altitude limbo. In-betweenness. I should be in full-on, unspoilt zen mode. But my mind is racing to figure out more compelling ways to describe what Opendoor—one of my company's customers—is doing for the real estate market.
I make a mental note to ask my director—who is called Nick, and whom I am pretty well convinced knows just about everything practical that there is to know—for advice about how to turn off my work-brain, so that I am actually recharging my batteries during downtime. I am sure that Nick has a bag of tricks for that hiding up his remarkably competent sleeve. Although I don't imagine he uses them very often.
11 November 23:50 Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport, Mumbai
You can smell India the moment you land. Through the walls of the pressurized cabin. Through the boundaries of your consciousness. Through the nose of your soul. Dust. Spice. Jasmine. Chai. The woodsmoke from thousands of acres of slums. The heft of the humidity. The sweat of 22 million bodies. The musk of 150 million years of monsoons.
12 November 1:45 Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport, Mumbai
My (domestic) flight from Mumbai to Kochin is inexplicably leaving from the international terminal. The Marlboros are in the "Chinese tobacco" section. To get online in Air India's first class lounge at Mumbai International Airport, you must first capture the attention of the wifi wallah, who comes running with a ten-mile-long list of twenty-mile-long serial numbers and corresponding passcodes, which he uses to execute a Byzantine procedure involving both your laptop and his mobile phone, which looks a lot like it just got beamed into the room from a wormhole that leads to the 1990s. Roughly one in every five of these serial number/passcode combinations appears to be operative.
There are women for sale in the classified section of the newspaper. Right next to the poultry.
12 November 7:45 Cochin International Airport, Kochi
My (domestic) flight from Mumbai lands at the international terminal in Kochin, because of course it does. The only shop in sight is the duty free store. They will not sell me water because I am not an international passenger.
I wander outside and discover entirely new dimensions to the sentiment of sticking out like a (very) sore thumb. It's comparable to Kathmandu—they are tiny and deeply (beautifully) bronze of hue with hair like midnight, all very traditionally dressed, whereas I am so extravagantly blond and pearl-coloured and shaped like someone who belongs in a Rubens painting—only they are not as discreet as the Nepalese about their curiosity. But there is no trace of ill will in their staring, and we smile at each other in something like mutual mystification.
Navas the driver is nowhere to be found. My Indian mobile won't activate for another thirty minutes, and the number I've been given is not in a format I can dial from my US phone. I have no idea which or how many digits to drop. I try several different combinations unsuccessfully before someone who knows a bit of English takes pity on me and offers to call Navas from their phone instead. Navas is waiting at the domestic terminal. Naturally.
12 November 9:30 En route to Munnar
Navas and I bounce off into the vortex of traffic. It's very much like a game of dodgeball. Dodge[cow]. Dodge[monkey]. Dodge[moped]. Dodge[oncoming bus]. Dodge[small child]. But Navas is good at it. He is also every bit as predisposed to cackling as I am and even though we can't communicate with very much fluency in words, we know the Language of Laugh, and we crack each other up all the way to Munnar.
About halfway there, Navas stops for a smoke break and everyone within eyeshot is flabbergasted when I join him. Women in these parts don't smoke, they don't drink, and they sure as hell don't write. But I plop down on a chicken crate amidst the spindly legged grandpas in man-skirts and light up anyway, scribbling furiously in my journal to try and capture a fraction of this stupefaction.
E(rl)udi, or eḻuttukāran is the name for me in Malayalam. Writer. I don't know how to explain the sound that comes between the E and the U—it's not one we have in English, but (rl) comes the closest. The L isn't actually after the R-sound, though. It's inside of it.
After I smoke with the man club, we stop for breakfast. A dosa is a paper thin pancake made out of fermented rice batter and Navas has to teach me how to eat it. This entails mashing the pancake into various combinations of coconut chutney, lentil broth, and chili paste with your hands and then shoveling it into your mouth by the fingerful. All of this must be accomplished with the right hand, because the left one is strictly for washing one's private parts.
(Let me explain. There is no toilet paper in the loo—instead, there is a hose. You are meant to grab the hose with the right hand and spray your nethers after you relieve yourself while you wipe yourself off with the left hand. I have never actually accomplished this method of wiping. I carry camping TP. The point is, you don't put your left hand in your mouth, so you have to manage this unfamiliar feat of dining with your hands on a one-handed basis. I learn from watching Navas that you can very briefly and very gingerly use one or two fingers of the left hand to help yourself tear off a piece of the dosa from time to time, but you have to do it pretty inconspicuously and very quickly—it's kind of like the ten second rule.)
Navas has to keep coaching me through the dosa-mashing. Both of us are still cackling madly. I keep showing him how messy my hand is. He reassures me by nodding with enthusiastic encouragement and showing me his own messy hand. Everyone in the breakfast shack is now remarkably invested in my progress. They are all profoundly delighted by my delight that playing with your food is quite the done thing.
12 November 13:00 Munnar
The road gets more and more gnarly the more altitude we gain. The day is getting hotter. I can't seem to ingest enough water. Navas senses my carsickness, probably from my marked decrease in cackling. He turns on the air conditioning and shows me how to lay my seat back. I arrive starting to recover from the queasiness and only mildly surprised that I'm still alive.
The hotel is perched on the edge of a cliff and I'm greeted with fantastical views and fresh lychee juice. Before long, I'm alone on my balcony, grinning and shaking my head at myself. Who cares what I was thinking when I planned this shit from the cosy naivete of my flat-sit in Islington. The view is fierce.
After six continents, thirty countries, and nine years of heavy international exploration, I've developed a sort of sixth sense for discerning how careful I need to be with what I put in or onto my body. I can literally smell the water and gauge the level of necessary precaution. I'm always right. Italy = OK to drink the tap water if you're down for a few days of mild digestive calibration. Belgium = safer than London even. Istanbul = alright to brush your teeth with the tap water, but don't swallow it. Let me tell you, India's water smells like a whole new level of prudence. Like, "you better wash your face with bottled water" kind of careful. And I'll probably get sick anyway.
But damn, the view is fierce.