We had been driving for quite some time, our trip dotted with several detours, by the time we arrived at the final checkpoint. As we came to a stop, there were hundreds of people lining the road, the result of the clearly demarcated “point of no further progress”, which necessitated them leaving their vehicles if they wished to investigate further.
I had expected to find some sort of barrier to prevent further vehicular transport, as Joseph had earlier remarked there would come a place where security would be heavy.
As we approached the checkpoint, even from my seat in the back of the SUV, I could see there was only a small security station with an uniformed officer. He was flanked by an elderly gentleman who sat in a small folding chair holding a thin rope across the road. In retrospect, it would be an inaccurate characterization to call it a rope; instead, it was more like a cord.
Certainly, if we had needed, we could have carried through the checkpoint unabated, likely causing only a slight rope burn to the old man’s hands as it was torn from his grasp. I doubt there would even be a thread on the bumper.
If we had decided to forgo the minor annoyance of stopping at this point, the security officer would have needed to make a quick decision: either climb into his vehicle and begin pursuit, which probably would have caused hundreds more to climb back into their vehicles in an attempt to evade the blistering sun and proceed past the check point; or stood guard, calling for back-up, and awaiting our return at some point, knowing the road ahead only went from here to the sea.
Instead, the portly gentleman we had picked up at the last stop jumped out of the back of the SUV, where he had been napping since we departed Rameswaram. He had joined us at the medical clinic for our trip to the sea for this exact moment.
I had not caught his name when he was introduced, even though I had been asked to palpate the abdominal hernia protruding from his large belly when we met some earlier. Later, I would come to discover he was to return from Rameswaram to Madurai with us that evening in order for him to undergo a surgical repair the following day.
Joseph, who also had joined us at the medical clinic and was in charge of the Rameswaram Trust, remarked that this man had some connections with the police and would have some words with the security officer standing post at the check point.
He returned a few moments later, climbed into the back of the SUV again, and the elderly man dropped the cord separating us from the continuation of our journey. We slowly rolled through the security checkpoint to the amazement, perturbation, and perhaps disgust of those we passed by.
The road from here to the sea had been finished months ago, Joseph informed me, but it had yet to be christened by the government, an act set for the following week, which necessitated the security checkpoint. There had previously been only sand covering the narrow strip of land separating the Bay of Bengal from the Indian Ocean until that time.
It had been laid down as a means for tourists to safely proceed to a point where they might find what remained along its path: the remnants of a town destroyed by a cyclone over 50 years earlier. Joseph grimly told me how the cyclone had ravaged the area, resulting in more deaths than he cared to recall. Many people had tried to escape by train or finding cover in the church or school.
When I looked closely, I could see a few railroad ties left visible as we continued along the road; I didn’t need Joseph to describe the scene that must have occurred that day. I could imagine the terror.
The opposite side of the road was pock-marked with destruction. It was barely evident that a congregation had ever met in the structure I was told had been the cathedral. Now sand-blasted and with no signs of life, it was clear no one would have survived.
We proceeded to the end of the road, where a golden monument stood high into the air. The stanchion holding it was clearly vandalized with etchings of remarks and names. Either the elderly gentleman who held the cord was not on watch 24/7 or the two kilometer distance had not deterred scoundrels from walking to this point.
As we had made our way from the checkpoint to the monument, the stark contrast between the two receding coast lines was ever more apparent.
The Indian Ocean raged on the south coast, where we had passed the remains of the cathedral. But only 100 meters away, the bay calmly pulsated. I imagined the cyclone washing over the small community some 50 years ago, leaving nothing in its wake but memories, and then violating the bay, distorting its history to this day.
Despite these cruel series of events, our varied group did manage to get a few pictures for posterity’s sake. We snapped photos together in order to commemorate our trip and new-found friendships. The driver even proudly commented he would place the Polaroid photo I gave him on his refrigerator. I sheepishly thanked him for safely guiding us to this point.
Our departure from Madurai five hours earlier included the three-hour journey to Rameswaram with the Rose Marie and Davenandran, who led the telemedicine project I had come to observe and the technician to assure its functional capacity, respectively.
Joseph had been alerted to my impending arrival by Rose Marie and joined our troupe at the telemedicine clinic. A man no older than myself, he was easily the least-accented Indian I had met to this point. I asked if he had studied away from home when he mentioned he was in charge of the Rameswaram Trust.
Expecting that he must have studied in a native English-speaking country, or perhaps had lived there for quite some time before returning to his home town, he reported having only studied at a Seminary more inland than Rameswaram for a short time.
On our trip to the sea, he guided our troupe to a small fishing village where we stopped to check-in with a family he had known for quite some time. They were incredibly comfortable with me as a complete stranger and quickly offered food and drinks. I had not seen another Caucasian person in three days, so my presence was probably tempered by Joseph and Rose Marie. After some time catching up, none of which I could understand, we proceeded on.
On our path back, Joseph guided us to another home, where he introduced me to a woman who cared for the HIV+ fisherman whose numbers were creeping up in their community. She apparently did her best to also educate the townspeople of the treatment and safety of these men, all of whom had been outcast after their diagnosis was made. Joseph informed me this often fell on deaf ears.
By the time I returned to Madurai late that evening, I was exhausted but also fulfilled in the days events. It had been an unexpected event to be transported so far from the familiarity of Madurai, which I had known only for two days.
There had been little expectation on my part for what would occur on the way from Madurai to Rameswaram; even less so, the events of what transpired on our trip back to Madurai, most of which I have actually not documented here.
But the day fit with the nature of my overall journey so far, one which has been full of surprises, catching up with old friends, and making new ones. All the way from here to the sea.