1000 Words | 1. Coorgi Girl

1000 words. A picture is worth a thousand words "they" say.
Whoever they are, I think what they meant was is that behind every picture, there is a story, and that at least is true. For almost a decade I have been traveling the world taking photos with a camera or a phone. You may have seen some of the images, but there is so much more to tell of the places I have been, the things I have seen and people I have met. What I want to do is select images and tell their story with my thousand-ish words about why the image is memorable to me. What is the story? Will it be true? Sometimes there is greater truth in fiction so we shall see what the image reveals…

We were living in India, in Bangalore. A mostly lovely city whose streets are filled with buses, trucks, and minivans, "autos" (the buzzing 3-wheeled vehicles known elsewhere as auto rickshaws or tuk-tuks), two-wheelers (motorcycles), and yes - the cows, goats, and occasional donkey carts that make the city both lively and overwhelming. The streets, every square inch of them, are filled with all of this; an undulating slow-motion, dance drama of chaos that drains the senses. A lovely city. But sometimes, it is necessary, you have to get away.

So, we planned a long weekend in Coorg. An area west of Bangalore, it is filled with coffee plantations, rich red soil and deep shades of green as far as the eye can see. It is a place one goes to to breathe, to relax and to enjoy the gracious offerings of the environment. While there, we decided to take a walk in the local area. We began by passing through the coffee plantation among the blooming bushes. (Have you ever smelled coffee flowers? The scent is beyond description. It reaches into your soul and caresses you in places you are shy to reveal. Even today, as I am sipping on an espresso, I long for that scent!) After this we continued on and came to a village. As fairly new expats from the “modern” world, village life was fascinating to us. It represented a romanticized view of India, an India that was still quaint to us. Perhaps it was a naive view, but my experience has been that the villages of India are filled with incredibly gracious and friendly people. This village was no exception and even today when I am asked what I thought of living in India, I always say that I loved it because of the lovely, warm-hearted nature of the people.

Anyway, back to the village - most of the homes were laid out along one lane, I believe there was a small river behind the houses to the west and fields behind the houses to the east. We walked to the end of this narrow dirt road and saw a school, and when the children spotted us through the barred windows (no glass being necessary), their attention was quickly diverted and distracted by these foreigners in their midst. They called to us and waved hello. We returned the greeting but didn’t stop for long, not wanting to disturb them. Since this was near the end of the village, we turned around and started walking the reverse direction, returning the way we had come.

We were most of the way through the village, almost at the other end, when I heard this voice calling to us. If we had been speaking to each other I probably wouldn’t have heard it, but I turned my head, and there was this young girl. She seemed curious about us, as she moved slowly out from between two buildings, taking a few steps towards us. She shared the barest glimpse of a smile before turning her head and glancing over her shoulder. When she turned back towards us the smile was gone and instead there was… something else. A gaze that flickered from amusement to fear to intensity. I raised my camera and asked the question with my eyes, can I take your picture? She nodded ascent and looked directly at me while I snapped a few images. Her gaze bored into mine without hesitation or reserve.  Then she turned and was gone.

We called goodbye to her already vanished back and continued on towards our lodging. Later, I was excited to review the images, hoping in my gut that I had managed to capture her powerful gaze. (Seeing it with your eye and capturing it with your camera are not always one and the same.) Well, there is something about anticipation that sometimes makes destiny want to mess with you. So, as I was reviewing the images I caught a brief glimpse of the image and then POOF, it was gone. I shut the camera on and off, but it was no use, the card was corrupted. The image of her gaze, so powerful, so fleeting, was gone.

But I didn't give up hope. I held on to that card for years, trying different image retrieval programs, and eventually, some years later, it worked. I was able to get the images off the card and I saw her eyes staring back at me.

But what about the girl. What is her story? I often wonder about her. Her gaze is so strong, there is resolve but also perhaps a touch of fear hiding behind it. Village life is hard, and can be particularly so for young girls. And actually, this is true everywhere in the world. Let’s face it, young girls are often preyed upon no matter where they are. It's possible that this may have been the case for her. Why wasn’t she in school? The other children we saw there appeared to be clean, well kept, and happy. She was a bit different. Not dirty, but a bit grubby, as if the earth were painting her with remnants of itself as a means of armor. Her hair was slightly disheveled, but that gaze. It gave me hope because it looked to me like she had strength, she was a survivor. To myself, I called her my little lion. I felt she would survive and would preserve her inner kernel of truth. She would take that truth and strength out into the world. She would make a life for herself that was free and build a future that allowed her to be happy. This is what I hoped for her.

I don’t know where this girl is today. She is likely reaching adulthood soon. But, I pray that the strength that was gazing back at me is still intact and that she is happy wherever she may be. And I will always be grateful for that little whisper that called to me. My little lion, thank you. You have taught me more than you know and I wish you well.