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99 tips for a better world: just say okay (20 of 99)

Tip 20 Kids of Cochin

On my first day in India, my aim for the day was to get my bearings. I wanted to figure out Cochin, the historic trading port in Kerala, which was my first stop. I would study road names and monuments and landmarks that would help me find my way home. I also wanted to log information about how people in the street behaved and how the traffic worked. My first day would involve observation. I would dip my toe in, so to speak, before diving in.

I walked around town, diligently observing. I waved off auto rickshaw drivers. I stayed out of the museums and shops. After returning to my homestay in the afternoon, desperately ready for a nap, I reflected on how observing is useful but awfully boring. After my day of reconnaissance I would dive in first thing tomorrow: ‘I will just say okay to whatever comes my way’.

The next day I headed out without a plan, but a planner quickly presented himself. An auto rickshaw driver pulled up beside me. Reflexively, I waved him away politely and he drove away. A minute later he came by again, imploring me to get involved in one of the more peculiar touting methods I’ve come across:

‘There is a new gallery opening today, and if you come with me and browse there for two minutes, I get a t-shirt.’

I’d been pre-warned about this. While auto rickshaw drivers get a commission on your purchases, there is also an incentive just to get you in the door. One tourist delivered to a shop for two minutes of browsing will, at the very least, earn a small petrol voucher.

‘I’ll take you there for free,’ he persuaded. The gallery was in the direction I wanted to head anyway, so I agreed to the deal.

Once I was on board, he sold me the benefits of driving me around for a few hours. ‘I can take you to all of the sights!’ He presented me with a list of the places we could go. ‘Chinese fishing nets, Ginger Palace, Synagogue…’

I remembered the deal I’d made with myself to ‘just say okay’. I also remembered that I didn’t have a map and had no idea where any of these places were. So I took him up on his offer.

‘My name is Sibin. Pleased to meet you!’

It was working out pretty well at first. I saw some churches and Chinese fishing nets, and had the benefit of being chaperoned by Sibin, which meant touts left me alone. Then we stopped at another shop. ‘Can you please browse here for two minutes?’

It’s hard to argue that you can’t browse for two minutes when you have all the time in the world. So I browsed in a shop full of expensive Indian curiosities.

We continued to see sights, but after a couple of hours my energy was flagging. We visited temples and palaces and museums. Sibin took me to an organic spice shop. ‘Sarah you don’t need to buy anything here. They will let you take photos of their spices.’ Because I am human I love taking photos of those big sacks of spices, so I jumped at the chance.

Once I was in there, two beguiling young women began to sell spices to me. They were really good salespeople and the spices smelled amazing. I wasn’t confident about calculating the exchange rate yet, so when I came out of there with a big bag of spices and much less money in my wallet, I started to wonder whether ‘just saying okay’ was a good idea. Who goes out for the day without a map or a working knowledge of the currency?

I decided it was time to retreat for a while. It was also pretty late and I hadn’t eaten lunch. I asked Sibin if we could head back to my homestay. ‘But we haven’t seen everything on the list. What about the Synagogue? It’s not open until 3pm so you can’t go home now.’

I insisted. It was time to go.

On the way home, we pulled up in front of a shop. I was getting really tired of this. ‘Just two minutes, Sarah. JUST TWO MINUTES.’ In the shop I found some cute wall hangings that were reasonably priced after some light haggling.

Now it was definitely time to go home. Who knows what I was capable of? What if I spent all of my money for the whole month on cute wall hangings and spices?

I had spent all the money in my wallet, so when we got back to the homestay I had to run upstairs to get enough cash to pay Sibin.

When I came downstairs with the money, Sibin said, “Okay, Sarah, lets go. The Synagogue will be open soon.’

I stood there between my cool and calm homestay and Sibin’s auto rickshaw. I took a moment to think about it, and even though I wanted to take a nap, I just said okay.

‘Sibin, I need to eat some lunch. Can we stop somewhere?’

‘What do you feel like eating?’

‘I’d like to try a fish curry.’

Sibin thought about it for a moment and said, ‘Do you like spicy?’

‘Sure.’

‘Okay…let’s go to my place.’

I met Sibin’s daughters, Sreya and Sredha, and his wife, who fed us fish curry. I also met Sibin’s grandmother, who was grieving the recent death of her husband. The kids in the neighbourhood took turns catching a glimpse of me through the door of Sibin’s house and then running away. They pushed forward Kevin who, Sibin informed me, spoke excellent English. ‘Hi Kevin!’ I said.

‘I am fine,’ he mumbled shyly.

‘How old are you Kevin?’

‘I am fine.’

Another young boy delivered us some cool water from the kiosk. Sibin informed me that this boy’s father had recently died in a building collapse. Sibin’s eyes welled up.

Sibin’s youngest daughter, an impossibly cute two year old stood face to face with me and just stared. She didn’t move. When Sibin and I started eating, he distracted her by offering her some fish. Then, proving that two year olds are two year olds wherever you find them, she demanded more fish from her dad by biting down hard on his forearm.

After we’d finished lunch and rested for a while, Sibin hopped up and said, ‘Okay, let’s go Sarah. Time to see the Synagogue.’

‘Okay, Sibin, let’s go.’

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