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A little bit of Kerala in my heart

Matthew Schneeberger has been living in India for the last 10 months. And he's fallen in love with the country. Now, he introduces his family to the same magic.

A cockroach scuttled atop the polyurethane cover, sliding in and out of crevices along the back of the seat. Gitanjali, my girlfriend, dry heaved and covered her mouth, eyes watering.

"I despise cockroaches," she moaned.

Two minutes into our 28 hour train ride from Mumbai to Kochi (formerly Cochin, Kerala) and wed already encountered three of the little devils.

"Not the most auspicious of omens," I thought to myself.

"Paata," said Harijit, a nine-year-old Malayali boy sitting opposite us. His chubby index finger pointed at our seat, tracing the wretched insect's every move. "Paata means cockroach in our language," said his father Thampi. And so, I learned my first bit of Malayalam.

Thampi and his wife Sushma chatted easily on the lower bunk, while Harijit and his seven-year-old sister Malavika wrestled on the upper one. The family of four seemed unaffected at the apparent infestation of our third class AC cabin.

It turns out, they had larger concerns: they didn't have tickets. What's worse, Thampi, who works with the merchant navy, had been commissioned from Mumbai to Kochi, after only six months in the big city. All the family's worldly possessions were scattered throughout the various compartments of the train, totalling seven large suitcases, according to Thampi.

But Indians are accommodating people. Very accommodating.

Airfare for Rs 599 and less!

The following would never happen in America: Everyone made room for the family. One Mangalorean girl, aged 12, took the sleepy Malavika up to bed with her, and slept with the small girl cradled in her arms, though they had met only an hour earlier.

And though they came without tickets, the family did not come without food: I alone totalled 10 Unni Appams, two regular Appams and a healthy portion of delicious egg curry.

Indians are also easily accommodated. In the area between the carriages, one man slept inside a cupboard, next to a non-functioning, perpetually running sink, the water of which dripped into an overflowing, stinking garbage can. Sopping refuse lined the floor and formed into a neat little pile underneath the man's makeshift bed. Two bathrooms, separated by a narrow aisle, sat nearby in squalor.

Text and photographs: Matthew Schneeberger

Also read: Spellbound in God's Own Country
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