29 April-7 May
Quickly after returning from Chennai, I left Bangalore again when my friend Holly came to visit me in India. Holly went to Cornell as well, but we first met on our way to our study abroad program in Paris when we were juniors in college. After our semester ended, we travelled together in Europe. Here we were, many, many years later, travelling together again. But this time we were on a different continent…the Subcontinent.
I had been planning to visit Kerala, the long, thin state on the south west coast of India for a while. Kerala is one of those places that everyone raves about. The unique food, the educated, diverse population, the lush landscape, the fragrant spice forests, the romantic waterways, the surreal tea plantations, and the rich culture had all been calling to me. The timing worked out that Holly and I could go together and that was just perfect. It was especially good for her because it gave her a better sense of the diversity of India. After coming from the desert land of the Rajputs and the Mughal empires of the north, she got to see the greenery of the land of the Malayalis-- “God’s Own Country.”
We took an overnight train from Bangalore to Cochin (also known as Kochi), a port city in Kerala. We stayed in Fort Cochin, a quaint area in a quaint city on the Arabian Sea. After checking into our hotel, we went for lunch and to see some of the sites.
On the way, of course, we had to stop to buy some spices- a specialty of Kerala. The spice trade created an enormous amount of foreign contact, which has added to the rich diversity of the region. There was trade with the Roman Empire, the Arabs, and the Chinese (not to mention the Jews (see below)). And then came Vasco da Gama and the Portuguese who later were expelled by the Dutch, and then of course, the British.
After learning how to make fish masala, we stopped at some of the antique shops lined up one after another in the area. They had some absolutely beautiful things. I really was wishing that I had a house to furnish (about my 100th time of thinking that while living in India), or at least could buy something for my parents (antique-lovers themselves). Oh well, next time. This time I had to settle on a carved wooden bowl.
Next we went to the Mattancherry Palace (aka the Dutch Palace). There are amazing murals inside depicting stories from the Ramayana as well as Hindu gods in famous mythical situations. Unfortunately, no photos allowed.
We then went through one of the main historical areas of Cochin, Jew Town. I know, I know, it sounds derogatory, doesn’t it? But I assure you, that is the real name of the area that has been home to Jews for thousands of years. According to the tradition of the Cochin Jews, the original settlers came to India in the first century soon after the second Temple was destroyed. However, there is much debate about when and from where the Jews came. In any case, they were in Kerala for a long time and had a long history and tradition. (Funny sidenote—I read through a brochure called “Kerala and her Jews.” It talks about the cruelty of the Portuguese and then how the Jews strongly supported the Dutch at their arrival in 1661. --Guess I am not the first Jew to like the Dutch. hahaha). Today there are almost no Jews left. The small community that had existed has become pretty much extinct, mostly due to their emmigration to Israel. But, there is still the Pardesi synagogue, built in 1558. It has Belgian glass chandeliers and hand painted 18th century Chinese porcelain tiles, each different. The Ark contains scrolls that are topped with gold crowns given to the community by the maharajas of Travancore and Cochin. There is apparently a 4th century copperplate inscription from the Raja of Cochin, but I didn’t see it. By the way, while we were there we randomly met an Australian puppeteer (hmm, not like you meet one of those everyday) and, not only that, but he knew a Fulbrighter named Anna who had stayed at my apt in January. Haha.
Our evening program included going to see a Kathakali performance. Kathakali is a “uniquely Keralan form of ritualized theatre.” It is traditionally performed in all night performances in temples, but as a tourist you can see a significantly truncated version in different theatres in Kochin and other parts of Kerala. They perform stories from Hindu epics and the like by not only moving their bodies, but also by using particular facial and eye expressions. The percussionists are also phenomal. I don’t know how they don’t pass out after hours of pounding rythmically and frenetically in the heat. You can go early and get to see the performers put on their elaborate makeup and then be further transformed by their ornate costumes. If you have ever seen a photo of a man with green face make up, highlighted eyes (where the whites of the eyes are pink) and white and black jutting additions to his face, this is a Kathakali performer. Here is one:
Before the show, we walked around the beach where the famous Chinese fishing nets are operated daily by at least four men each. These nets were supposedly brought to this coast by traders from Kublai Khan’s court. They let me help them pull in the catch! After the performance, we got to partake in the delicacies of the sea and ate fresh fish. Yum.
On the 30th, we got to experience something incredibly unique-the festival of Thrissur Pooram. I had sort of planned my trip around this festival because my guidebook listed it as one of the top 40 things to do in India. After eating a delicious western breakfast at this art café called Kashi Art Café (mentioning it for anyone who might be going to Cochin ever), we shared a taxi with a British couple also going to the festival in Thrissur (about 2 hours from Cochin). They were great company and we spent the day observing the amazing rituals with them.
I am not sure of the origins of this festival or what the particulars represent, but it is pretty amazing and filled with intense energy and passionate participants.
We sort of wandered the streets trying to figure out what we were supposed to do when we saw a huge line waiting outside of a temple. We didn’t want to wait and had been directed to go to a different area by some people, but I wanted to find out what was going on. So, I went up to a police officer who said I could go straight threw into the temple. This was one of the many situations where being a foreigner gives you ridiculous benefits. On the one hand, I always feel guilty about these overly generous advantages, but on the other—who the hell wants to wait in line for two hours!? Haha. I guess you can imagine that I took the officer up on this benefit. We went into the temple where we found a row of heavily decorated elephants with 3 men atop each and a large area of drummers and horn players surrounded by a huge crowd of men surrounding them dancing frantically to the rhythm. It was madness and the photos just don’t capture the intensity.
These activities were just the precursor to the main event of the day when the line of elephants come into the main area of the city and are faced (about a kilometer away) by a parallel row of elephants and men in a sort of battle of music and flash. Each of these rows is a representative from two major temples in the city. In between these two “fighting lines” are thousands upon thousands of energized men, dancing and screaming along with the percussionists and horn players. The music slowly, slowly builds until the horns blare and the men on the backs of the elephants stand and hold up three objects symbolizing royalty-silver handled whisks of yak hair, peacock feather fans and silk umbrellas. It seems that there is a competition between the two lines of 15 elephants—the object is to see who can open up their umbrellas with the most adroit speed and, and I think more importantly, which side has the more elaborate, interesting umbrellas. This goes on for hours until the umbrellas become more and more ornate, first being only one level, then two, three, four and even encompass a larger display of swamis and god images. Though you still can’t imagine the vibe, the photos may help give an idea of what it was like.
As I keep saying, it was pretty intense (did I also mention that they conduct this festival during the hottest time of the year—proving their madness). Because of this, I was warned to not go. However, it wound up that once again the foreigners got some unfair priviledges that helped to make the day one of enjoyable, organized chaos, instead of out-of-control horror. There was a roped off area for those not from India—the whities as Mitali, Lizzy and I like to call them (us). And here is a photo to prove it (and which made me laugh out loud).
The days events are capped off by displays of fireworks, but we felt it was time to head out.
The next day we enjoyed one of the quintessential Kerala activities—a long-boatride through the beautiful backwaters. The backwaters are lakes, canals and rivers that are right inside the strip of land that is along the ocean (I don’t really know the exact definition of what they are). The lush greenery and the sparkle on the water are dazzling. Getting a glimpse into this semi-island type life where people farm on small strips of canaled land, make use of every single part of the coconut (for eating, oil, to make alcohol called toddy, to make rope, to use as fuel for heating and drying clam shells that become lime, and the list goes on), and use long, traditional boats for transport was amazing. It is really peaceful and pleasant. One can clearly see why this is the most popular thing to do in Kerala.
That evening we celebrated my pre-birthday with a dinner at Brunton Boathouse, one of the nicest hotels in Fort Cochin. We got as dressed up as we could and went for a lovely meal. The concierge was quick to point out to us that Heather Graham had stayed there too. So many times I have seen or eaten or just entered these fancy hotels and I think about how nice it would be to stay there. Well, at least I got to eat there and they gave us complimentary ginger wine, which was delicious. Holly really loved it so I gave her mine. Then she wound up treating me for my birthday. So sweet!
The next day we left Cochin really early to go to Munnar, a hill station in the heart of tea plantation country. The reason we left so early was because on the way we wanted to stop at this elephant reserve where they bathe the baby elephants down the way in the river every morning. Hooray! It was so great! Here you can see me with the “little” ones.
On the way to Munnar from the elephant camp we stopped to see some beautiful waterfalls. One was called Varala Falls, and I am not sure of the name of the other. You could see the terrain changing as we were climbing up, up and winding around, around the mountains and through the mist. It became magical and otherworldly-the mist encircling the mountaintops, leaving enough green peeping through so you could see the surreal swirls of the rows upon rows of tea plants.
Munnar is known for its tea plantations. When we got there we went for a tour of a tea factory. It was pretty interesting, especially because it was really small and we could get right next to the machines and see what was happening. And then something surprising happened, we tried to give the tour guide a tip, and…he wouldn’t take it!!!! Unheard of in India! Haha.
We then went to get advice from a local named Joseph Iype who prides himself on being mentioned in many guidebooks for his free advice. His wife said we could come and walk through the plantations by their house and that is just what we did in the afternoon.
If you have never seen what tea plantations look like, you are in for a treat. There are probably lots of bad things you could say about them—how they were controlled by the British and now by big companies (mostly Tata—a huge Indian conglomerate that few people know outside of India, but basically owns the subcontinent. Tetley tea is Tata tea.), how they are worked mostly by poor Tamilian women in the rain for just rupees a day, how they probably ruined the natural landscape or something like that—but you still can’t help but get lost in their mesmerizing patterns. I took about a million photos, but will just share a few from a walk that Holly and I took on a plantation. I could have stayed there for more and more hours, but it was getting late. It is hard to tell how amazing it looked, but maybe you can get a feel.
The next day was…MY BIRTHDAY!!!!! (haha, I know many of you know how I was always obsessed with my birthday—I am not really so much anymore). Unfortunately, it was raining. It didn’t matter much because we got on our way early to head to our next stop, Thekkady, to go to the Periyar Nature Reserve (famous for elephants). The drive south of Munnar was just as beautiful as the drive east toward it, but very windy. We were very grateful that we hired our own car and driver, as I can get car sick.
We got there, got a hotel—decided to splurge a bit and get a nice place because it was my birthday (btw, splurging was a place that was $20/night (for the both of us)). I was proud of myself because I bargained well. Hehe. The place looked like a Scandinavian lodge on the inside. Here I am
We got to town too late to really do outdoorsy things, so instead we did some souvenir shopping for Holly. We went into a Kashmiri shop (of course) and befriended the guys there (as usual). When I told them it was my birthday they insisted that we have lunch with them the next day-their aunt would make delicious Kashmiri food for us. So, the next day we took them up on their offer, and boy were we glad that we did!! It was probably one of the best meals I have had during my whole time in India-delicious! Here is a photo of us at their house (which was about 50 feet from the store).
Back to my birthday-after shopping we went to get Ayurvedic massages. For those who don’t know, ayurveda is a traditional school (if that is the right word) of Indian medicine that originated in Kerala. There are other similar versions from other areas too. Anyway, it uses plants, spices, foods, etc. to derive medicines in different forms and amounts for each person according to his or her problem. Lizzy, my roommate, is studying about ayurveda here so I have learned a little bit about it from her. One of the treatments (and what many Westerners partake in) common in ayurveda are massages. It is a little different from the tradition massage you would get in a spa in the west. I have heard that the traditional ayurvedic massages don’t use as much digging into muscles that we would think of and instead focus on the application of oils. I don’t know much about it, but it was really nice. What a treat for my birthday! And they threw in a steam bath for free (b/c I asked and used the birthday as an excuse for getting something extra-haha). After the massage, the woman then gave me a bucket bath with warm water. I loved it! I felt like a kid again, like when I would have been in the bathtub and you get water dumped over you to get the shampoo out of your hair. What fun!
After our massages we went back to the hotel to get ready to go to dinner. We went to the Taj as a treat (but it wasn’t that great really) and during dinner realized that we had also been together 10 years before for my 21st birthday in Paris!!!!!! What are the odds? There are only about 2 people I still know who were with me on my 21st birthday in France. Who could believe that one of them would then again be with me on a third continent?!?!?! Pretty amazing.
The next day we woke up early to go on a boat tour of the nature reserve. It had been raining and so we were informed that a lot of the big animals wouldn’t be out by the lake for water. They could get it elsewhere deeper in the forest. Of course, this was incredibly disappointing, since I wanted to see elephants. But what can you do? It was still pretty nice and we did get to see lots of animals (nothing overwhelmingly cool though, except right in the beginning we saw some turtles—yay!).
We couldn’t go trekking in the forest because there was a Hindu festival, so we had no other opportunity for being outdoors and seeing wildlife. Boo! Instead, we bought t-shirts with elephants on them. Haha. Then went to the delectable Kashmiri lunch (and learned how to make delicious Kashmiri tea with cinnamon and saffron); then to buy copius amounts of spices (including cardamom—I can make a mean masala chai! (well, I guess it is more like cardamom chai)); then stopped at a spice plantation to see what vanilla beans, coffee, mint, cardamom, betel nut, cocoa, and a million other spices actually look like; and then got on our way for a 6 hour drive to Varkala, the beach!
Varkala came highly recommended as a less touritsty beach with dramatic cliffs leading down to the sand. Yes, all of this is true, except the biggest drama we encountered was not the view of the cliffs, but the violent storms thrashing rain and wind upon us during our stay. There was debate about whether this was the monsoon coming early or was just a big storm, but either way, the result was the same. Rain, wind, dark clouds, and more rain.
It was actually beautiful and quite awe inspiring to see such a storm at the beach. I was glad to have the experience because most of the time you are only at the beach with the sunshine. There is something so enormous and natural about the ocean and about a storm at the beach, something that makes you feel so insignificant in that wonderful kind of way. For this, I was grateful to be there. To be on the coast, inside my hotel room staring at the waves crashing thunderously down again and again, or to be at one of the bungalow restaurants, underneath bamboo leaf thatched rooves, feeling the wind rush across my skin and hearing the crash of the ocean, was really very overwhelming and calming at the same time.
That being said—how many days can this really be interesting??? Not many, I assure you. We mostly hung out at this one joint, Kerala Coffee House, where a bunch of tourists were doing likewise. Met some people, listened to some music and such. We felt like regulars after only a few hours.
We did make use of our time in Varkala by taking a yoga class—very nice—and a cooking class!! I had been meaning to for a while. We went to the house of a chef named Joseph. His friend, Siva, was there too because he also wanted to learn some recipes. It wound up being a really fun and funny afternoon/evening. Not only did I learn to make fish curry, but also I got to hear funny stories about these two Indian guys and their European girlfriends. Siva was even reading, “Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus.” Haha.
So then, we headed back to Bangalore, where Holly got to go out and shopping for one day before she had to head back to the US.