Part Three: One Pen

15 Apr 2014

Upon reading about and seeing the backwaters, which here resembled a canal, Clive felt a bit anxious to inspect the boat. This time, his fear of dysentary set in with a vengeance, and he would not feel any relief until seeing for himself that the boat was both clean and fully buoyant.

While the couple boarded, three curious young boys, who had been idly leaning against a large pink stone wall across the canal, took notice and began walking toward a grassy area near shore. Their sudden and unison movement startled Clive, as if they’d all emerged from the pink wall from one of the perhaps hundreds of torn and faded movie bills and advertisements pasted there.

The boat turned out to be much nicer than anyone had expected: a teak-paneled cabin lined along either side with a cushioned bench; a private bathroom (western style toilet); a roof-top deck (situated directly over the cabin area) for optimal viewing, and several other places to lie about on the boat’s bow and above the engine room.

Clive, in anticipation of a crowded atmosphere, packed all of their belonings underneath one of the benches. He and Maria sat inside the boat for a number of minutes, uneasily wondering if they had fallen victim to some confdence game. No one else had arrived: no one to drive the boat, and no other passengers. However, their fears were soon allayed as a young Japanese couple found their way through the docks and boarded the boat. They seemed as bright and optimistic as any of the young Eastern tourists Clive and Maria often saw at the Smithsonian museums. Best of all, their English proved sufficient to swap stories of finding this particular passage to Quilon. Like Clive and Maria, they followed no organized tour or strict itinerary.

In fact none of the others who boarded in the next few minutes seemed to be on any sort of schedule. Seeing this quality in others—of wandering, of being taken where ever one happens to be taken—finally put Clive more at ease. Six people joined Clive, Maria, and the Japanese couple: first, an apparently Indian couple boarded and took seats quietly next to the Japanese. Upon their speaking, all recognized perfect British accents. Next, an Australian couple, without luggage, climbed directly onto the rooftop deck. And finally, the driver (captain would be too strong a word in this case) and his first mate clumsily boarded, glanced at everyone’s boat coupons, and announced that departure would be in ten minutes.

In the meantime, the three boys on the opposite bank began shyly waving for the passengers’ attention. They all appeared comfortable and were nicely groomed: all wore long cotton pants and button-down short sleeve shirts. All bare-foot. At this point, no one took much notice of their waving.

A long, wide, and shallow public boat slowly motored past them down the canal’s center. It overflowed with passengers who, for whatever reason, sat still and expressionless in the boat’s belly like a group of lost souls.

When it passed, the boldest of the three boys cupped his hands to his mouth and shouted the words “one pen” to Clive.

The others in the cabin looked out at the boys and then at Clive.

“I think he said one pen,” Clive said.

“I read about this in a book somewhere,” Maria said. “I think they want pennies.”

“Well, that I have,” Clive said, producing a handful of American coins. “They should like these enough.” At that, he climbed out from the cabin, stood on a small deck behind the engine room, and motioned to the boys that he was about to throw a coin.

The boys all positioned themselves—tensed and utterly ready to follow the coin’s path—at which Clive launched an American quarter in a great arc across the water. It landed far past them, almost to the pink wall.

Clive poked his head into the boat’s cabin and said, “Americans have this habit of throwing change across rivers.” The others looked him, a bit puzzled. “Yeah . . . it goes way back-all the way to George Washington.” He returned to his seat and glanced over at the kids, who took turns inspecting the coin. They seemed satiated for a bit, but the bold one shouted again.

“One PEN, one PEN.” He shouted the word pen as loud and fast as humanly possible. The others joined in: “Pen! One pen!”

“Maybe they actually want an ink pen?” Clive suggested. He motioned for them to wait one minute, and began digging in his luggage. When he located a felt-tip marker, he leaned out of his window, held the pen up, and shouted “Pen?”

At this, the three boys’ faces lit up like nothing else. Their eyes widened, and at once, they jumped up and down, shouting “Pen! Pen! One Pen!”

Clive flung the pen out the window, barely making it across the river, and upon retrieving it, the three boys waved excitedly and quickly made off with it.

As the boat’s engine started and the boat began pulling away, a younger boy emerged from behind a gate near the pink wall. He stood beneath a gigantic palm tree with his shoulders drooped and cast a crestfallen glance at the departing boat. He’d obviously missed his chance.

[Ed note: Well, this is an old draft. Somwehre, I have the fuller version, which continue the story -- includng how the boat driver (a full-grown man) approached me and asked for a pen. It was so surreal... but I found a pen for him & he was the happiest person in the world -- even let me drive the boat.]

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