The Simple Act of a Smile

I step out of the hostel’s black iron gate, the latch just within my short wing-span, and I imagine a joust beginning with a high pitched screech, “On Guard!” as I make my way cautiously. Dodging is an art form. The street may be empty when I step onto it, but within seconds two busses careening from either direction will come screaming towards me and I’m left in a ditch or a puddle. I’m an amateur. James Cameron in “An Indian Summer” describes a pro, “The solitary cyclist wobbling dreamily on the crown of the road 400 yards ahead, aroused by the horn, will falter and swerve for half a minute, undecided until the last second whether to weave wildly to the left or the right.” I remain baffled and impressed by anyone who can reach a state of “wobbling dreamily” on the roads of Mavelikara, but they do and they are the pros.

On my walk to the college I pass a neighbor’s house and wave wildly to an adorable little girl who seems to perpetually be waiting at her door for that moment, at least I like to think so. I cross the junction; the three intersecting roads are a danger zone to navigate. To the left is a bookstore, run by Vinasharam Sir, an ex-teacher of Hindi at the college. He speaks beautiful English but uses our few moments chatting to teach me Malayalam words. As I walk, gaggles of children clump together and giggle until someone says, “Hello Miss!” My response elicits shrieks of laughter and mini-tickle fests as they grope for each other’s hands. At first it was overwhelming, now it is fun. When else will I be able to so easily make people smile (even if it is at my expense)?

One afternoon I strolled past a temple on the way to the post office, pausing to listen to the women pray, and was approached by a woman who offered an explanation and walked with me for a bit. Our conversation was brief and conducted in choppy Malayalam, “What is your name?” I pronounced incorrectly. When I asked where she lives I very well may have asked how many monkeys live in Malaysia, but she understood and pointed, possibly to Malaysia. Further along I passed a small shack; puppies following their mother, a fire in the front area burning trash, two quasi-naked children chatting in Kidspeak (universal language) until they saw me and pointed in surprise. An ancient woman dressed in white smiled in response to my greeting, her only two teeth jutting out of her mouth precariously. She grabbed my arm and, gesturing emphatically, she explained the physics of flying and why the sky is blue, at least that is what I imagined. I simply pointed at the sky and said, “mazha” (rain) and she patted my arm with seeming pity. “Nadakunu” (walking) I said and she shrugged her shoulders as if to ask why. I returned the shrug, hoping to convey “why not?” and continued on my way with a smile and a “naani” (thank you). She laughed.

In the distance I heard evidence of a temple within reach. Drums and melody emanated from a speaker system, though from a distance it sounded like a lively band. I walked on and eventually passed a woman with a broom standing outside a house. She stared and I smiled, asking “Pali evide?” (Where’s the church?) She pointed, walked me to a path and waved goodbye. Another “naani” and a big smile. I followed the weaving path, surrounded on one side by smoking piles of burning trash and on the other a field of rubber trees being tapped. I never found the temple. My time ran out and I returned to the hostel before my curfew of 6:00PM, when the iron-gate with its barely reachable latch is locked.

Without these walks, I would never have discovered the small alleys that lead to beautiful rice-paddied country side. The village I call home quickly becomes flat and expansive; green palm trees and cinnamon soil glow in the heat and fade into deep orange with the suns disappearance. Dusk is glorious here. More importantly than missing a sun-drenched vista, I would have missed the conversations.

Father Chandler, the chaplain of the John Felice Rome Center where I worked the past two years said, probably while sharing with us a limoncello on the balcony, that life is made up of many meaningful conversations. At the end of the day it is not the work itself that was most important, it was the human interaction and the sense of community gained by sharing time with those around you; challenging each other and asking questions. “Look at us,” Peter says to the crippled beggar in Acts 3:4, a reminder to me of what I have in the past forgotten to do. It was easy for me to fall into a routine in Italy: study, work, eat, play, all the while forgetting to stop to talk to the man who fed the stray cats a can of tuna every day and the women who sang as they cleaned the building early every morning. I have been here only for a month and realized quickly that during my walks I return home content only if I have met new neighbors or recognized a smiling face. They acknowledged my presence and my humanity in that simple act of a smile. A powerful message and another “universal language.”

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