Thursday, October 11, 2012

India 16: Kerala, "God's Own Country," Part ii

Kerala, “God’s Own Country,” Part II

Sunday morning Babu is to deliver me to the bus going south to Alleppey but I’m late.  Sunday morning in India means waking up to learn the fate of Notre Dame football the previous day—in this case previous night when they played Miami at Soldier’s Field, Chicago.  I crank up the computer and find out that Notre Dame won 41-3! (Soldier’s Field is a special place for our family because my parents met there after my dad quarterbacked Notre Dame against Navy in l928.) I’ve got to read everything I can find before getting on the road.

We’re further delayed because I stop frequently to photograph the walls of Ft. Cochin tiny old buildings.  Because it’s the tropics and because Kerala uses lots of color, these surfaces bleed tints and tones and call out to be photographed. I’m planning a slide show in my mind to be called “Walls and Stalls,” alternating walls with the little cubbyholes where people make and sell things.  Here is one example:

And here is another.

And the spice lady


And a man making gold jewelry.


We are delayed again because of a procession from one Catholic church to another—a distance of five blocks--in honor of Mary.  Everyone seems quite serious, including the angels, and I wanted to call out, “Jesus loves you!” to brighten things up but decided that might be a bit rude coming from a foreigner. 


Finally I’m on the hour and a half long bus ride, standing, swaying, sitting on my suitcase and, finally, being recognized as an old guy who deserves a seat of his own.  When I arrive at Palmy Lake Resort (picked out of the Lonely Planet guide), I’m too late to go out on the water--or rather am offered a 6:30 a.m. water trip the next morning and a massage this afternoon.  Good idea. Soon I’m riding on the back of a motorbike to Krishna Ayurvedic Massage where a young man takes off my clothes and dresses me in a skimpy loin cloth.

 Oiled and Kneaded

Ayurvedic massage appears to mean that a copious amount of warm oil is lavished on your body and then pressed deep into your flesh using hundreds of long, strong strokes.  I’m on a hard wooden table, no cushy pillows and head rest, and this is not one oil but a combination of 15 specially brewed after centuries of development. 

As each part of my body is kneaded and stroked it occurs to me that I wouldn’t be here without modern surgery, let alone active at 76.  The oil lubricates the scars left by hundreds of sutures for pre-cancer and skin cancers; seeps into three rotator cuff surgery scars; into scars from a hernia operation, an emergency operation for a blocked bowel, for back surgery and for a fistulectomy.  I’ve had three-quarters of a century of medical maintenance.  I like to think I’ve given myself good health but the truth is I’ve been blessed with everything I ever needed medically, without much concern for cost, all my life.  

The session ends when the remaining oil is poured over my forehead and I’m left to marinate for 10 minutes.  There’s a shower but for the next few days I feel like I’m a fine leather bag, not a splotchy piece of rawhide.

Beach Time

After an hour lolling in a hammock, I take my hostess’s advice and head to the beach five miles away for dinner.  At 7 p.m. the wide expanse down to the Arabian Sea is packed with more than a thousand people after what must have been another family day on the sand.  Children have phosphorescent toys and pushcart vendors are boiling onion, cauliflower, bananas, chicken and shell fish in oil to serve in little paper boats.  I have resisted street food since I got here, but what harm could there be in a few vegetables and bananas?

They’re crunchy but I’m still hungry and now I’ve got a choice: a very nice open-air restaurant and bar or the Indian Coffee House.  I’ve got to choose the later because with it comes a story.

The Indian Coffee House was a famous place in Kerala’s capital in l940 and particularly remembered for its lavishly costumed waiters.  However World War II began, its owners, the Coffee Board, decided to shut down.  That’s when the local Communist leader helped the employees take it over. They still own it today and continue to wear peacock-style headdresses or turbans and white tunics.

The food is cheap but not so great—I’m told the electricity failed so there is no lemon tea—but nearly every seat taken so I ask a fair-skinned couple if I can join them.  It turns out they’re retired teachers from just outside Bern, Switzerland, who adopted three children from Bihar, the youngest five weeks old at the time, over 30 years ago.  Now those children have kids of their own and the parents are on holiday in a part of India they’ve never seen.

I wander back onto the beach, down to the water and then north. Something is flickering on a screen up ahead.  I ask someone what’s going on and am told simply, “Gandhiji.”  The Robert Attenborough/Ben Kingsley movie is being shown for anyone who happens along. 

We keep coming around to the same places in this blog, don't we?

So I watch until the end and realize I must amend my post for Gandhi’s 144th birthday because his fast until death did end Hindu-Muslim violence.  We see Nehru telling Gandhi that temples and mosques all over India have renounced violence and promised to protect one another.

In the film Gandhi, still weak, is preparing to go to Pakistan to “Tell Muslims exactly what I have told Hindus, which is that our real demons lie within.”  Then, accompanied by Vanessa Redgrave and photographed by Candice Bergen, he walks out to his death.  It’s time to call it a night.

Morning on the Backwater


Kerala faces the sea but its most famous landscape is inland.  Owing to an uplands with plentiful rainfall and several small rivers, water meanders through a series  of natural and artificial waterways for 900 kilometers, some tiny canals, some quite wide.  Tourist traffic on The Backwaters has exploded, with innumerable canoes and small craft and 500 houseboats.  Houseboats operate by day but many offer one or multiple overnight stays, which can be quite expensive.

 I’m up at 6:30 Monday morning and immediately out on the water in a thin canoe with a single boatman.  The paddle of choice on the backwaters is also very thin, no more than six inches wide at the bottom so it makes virtually no noise.

The water world is hushed as we slide away from land.  A light mist remains from the night.  Boats made of rattan come into view, lying silently at anchor.  The only stir comes from two women diving for shellfish who call out as we pass.  We cover a wide expanse and enter a channel which is interspersed with dwellings along the sides connected by a narrow path.


We glide past people brushing their teeth, washing pots and pans, bathing.  As the morning opens, a few children come out for a swim before school.  Women gather.  We pass a weather-beaten sign that says “Beauty Salon.”

The banks are wide enough only for a dwelling and a small field or a cow.  Beyond are rice fields.  There are no roads.  Several times during the morning the water is parted by ferries, working vessel filled with serious people, headed off to work or errands in town. 


Here and there you can see children prepping for school which does not start until 10 a.m.  I have exhausted my camera’s battery by the time the sun comes out and the uniformed boys and girls climb into the water version of school buses or march along the paths single file.  I cannot capture what surely would have been the best shots.   

The backwater economy is based on people like me looking in on those who live here, as if they were in a living museum.  They don’t seem to mind and my boatman calls many by name and kids are busy being kids.  But the fellow paying by the hour isn’t quite sure what to say as he passes a few feet from kitchens and bathtubs.


Saying nothing is a very good idea.  Those first moments on the water were as touching and breathless as any I can remember.  It’s a tourist place and yet, here it is, haunting and reverential, another realm and so much the better for the early hour.

Returning three hours later in time to make a 2 p.m. plane I finally notice that a high-rise can be seen from here, and the power lines.  A faint smell of motor oil hangs at water level.  Calling a place “a paradise” is the surest way to insure it won’t remain one for long. 

Beautiful as the backwaters are, the title we might best remember for Kerala is the one it shares with Norway and Australia:  highest level of human development in the world, based on education, life expectency  and economic wellbeing.   That is indeed a thing of beauty.  








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