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The road to Machulipatnam

Late in 2007 I met up with an English guy living in Italy. Paul Finch had proposed to Livio Rodighiero, the owner of an Italian manufacturer of potable water systems whom I knew, the installation of a small system in a school his group was sponsoring in India. Livio asked me, if ever I planned to go to India, to see what was there on the ground so he could put together a unit for them. I said “sure”, thinking it would be a good thing to do and a great thing to see if ever I got there. Well I was in India and it turned out that I wasn’t very far away from them – in fact the Indian arm of Paul’s support group was based in Hyderabad and the school was in a village near Machulipatnam, some six hours away by car. I called them and they arranged to pick me up one morning. So a few mornings later four guys in a station wagon turned up to take me to the village. XX and YY are brothers and leaders of the support group; Ashok was their architect/builder and ZZ the driver. Their support group turned out to be a religious community, Pilgrim Brethren no less. XX and YY are the sons of a local tax inspector who converted to Christianity back in the 1930s or 1940s. That must not have been an easy step in the India of the time – I suspect it still isn’t. Anyway, their father died while the boys were relatively young; their mother encouraged their faith, so after several years in conventional life XX decided to dedicate himself to communicating his faith to others through work by helping needy communities and by teaching others to promote the Pilgrim version of the Christian faith. His faith was reinforced after surviving a stroke that would have felled another man. YY, the elder brother, once retired, came to help XX. In fact, as I discovered later, it’s almost a family business – even nephews are involved. I’m not religious and, frankly, I suffer from the standard West European ailment of feeling acutely embarrassed when finding myself confronted by people who wear their religion on their sleeves. Still, these guys are going all out to rebuild a school that was wiped out by a massive flooding of the Krishna River a couple of years ago. And that meant helping children get ahead in life. So while we bantered about miters, mystics and myths, I kept my judgment firmly focused on the actual good they are doing. The drive took us along a four lane highway for the most part, through relatively flat countryside for the first half of the journey. So many trucks, like the roads in Italy. Here they are mostly loaded with construction materials bound for Hyderabad – cement, bricks, metal re-bar and timber. I always find it thrilling when I see a people on the move like this, beginning to realize the potential that is in all of us. A breakfast stop in a roadside café – and a respite from the air conditioning that’s keeping the car kissing cousin to a freezer and my throat raw. Mango juice (my eternal favorite), black coffee (“yes, please, black, thank you, yes, I know that means without milk), some of those rice and chickpea flour patties, and a stiff crepe wrapped around some vegetable curry. Actually quite good! Further on, as we passed the villages and strips jammed against the side of the road, to provide way stations and eating houses for the passers-by, it reminded me of the trip I took from Nairobi to Mombasa. The same red earth, the same white stucco temples, chapels and mosques, streaked dark by the same heat and humidity. The exuberant advertizements in English and the same hole-in-the-wall stores. We stopped once to buy some “toddies”, which here turn out to be the lychee-like fruit of a variety of palm tree, the one I know as the Imperial palms from the Emperor’s Botanical Garden in Rio de Janeiro. YY cracked them open for me (an operation a little like cracking open eggs and not letting anything spill out). We slurped the soft pellets of liquid flesh right down. XX told me that the juice from these fruits is fermented and made into a palm wine. The original toddy. Another connection! I adore learning about connections. YY laughed as the youths selling them quoted the prices – double what they normally pay. It’s thanks to me again. See a white guy and the price goes up. Ganesh lamented the same whenever he took me shopping for supplies too … After about four hours we reached a large city wrapped around steep hills. This is AAA, where the Krishna River is dammed and used to generate hydroelectric power. The river is very wide here, and shallow, except for a channel running close to the city’s old center that probably was its original course. Above the city, high up on the hills, are strings of monasteries, temples and other sacred venues, all brightly painted. I would have loved to stop the car, get out and explore, but of course the village was our goal. Lots of colored streamers and posters decked the streets, advertizing one politico or another. Here apparently the son of an actor famous for portraying a god in the movies is making his move. The actor made a subsequent career as a politician trading on his godly face; his son is doing likewise with his. Politics is very dynastic here. We pass a temple complex on the right hand side, white plastered stupas rising steeply into the sky. Standing amongst them, an enormous white plaster statue of Hanuman, the monkey god. And my favorite, coz I’m born in the Year of the Monkey. He’s the guy who can do anything he wants to do, so long as he wants to do it. That’s me. On we go. The scenery becomes quite flat as we approach the Bay of Bengal. The countryside is now filled with rice paddies. Just like in the Po Valley, a flat river basin is used to irrigate and grow a staple crop. Here they get to raise two crops a year though. I can smell the soft warmth of the Bay ahead of me, but before we get to Machulipatnam we turn right off the main road, go through a village, and drive along ridge separating the paddy fields. We are in the village of the Ratcatchers.

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