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India, part II

(In case you haven’t read Part I, here is the link.)

Cochin, Kerala.

We arrived at night. The airport was spacious and uncrowded. I got the sense that most travelers came here for vacation, not for business. It’s much warmer than Delhi, a fine tropical 75 degrees, and immediately we felt a major difference from the northern bustle. Kerala is one of the poorest states in India, though it has one of the highest literacy rates in the country, and one of the lowest birth rates. Situated along the southwestern tip of the sub-continent, the state has a long coastline on the Arabian Sea and extends into the mainland to the southwestern slopes of the Ghat mountains. On the other side of the Ghats is Tamil Nadu, a much larger state, which goes to the Indian Ocean and the very tip of India, near Sri Lanka. You’ll recognize Tamil from Tamil Tigers, which are one of the factions fighting a civil war in Sri Lanka.

Kerala is the original East Indies. This is the place Columbus wanted to find a faster, western sea route to. This is where Vasco de Gama eventually set up shop after rounding Africa. Spices, especially pepper, which Kerala is famous for, was a lucrative trade, as we learned in middle school history classes. Pepper made rancid meat otherwise more palatable, and tea, which is grown at elevation, was a more interesting way to drink hot water, adding a little perk to life. Previously, these commodities were traded to Europeans over land and the Mediterranean by Persian and Arab middlemen. Cutting them out by finding a sea route would make fortunes.

The Indians of southern India seemed to me a bit darker and shorter, with rounder faces, as a result of their Dravidian ancestry, different from the Aryan, northern Indians. (see CIA FactBook history at the end of this post.) A smiling driver met us, showed us to an Ambassador car, which are ubiquitous in India, and drove us several hours on a two-lane highway to the Marari Beach resort in Alappuzha, just south of the Keralan backwaters of Vembanad Lake, where we’d later visit. Thank God it was nighttime, so we couldn’t see the oncoming traffic as our driver passed slower trucks, tuktuks, and cars.

I’ve driven the Interstates a lot in the USA. I did not see anything comparable in India, throughout the south, or around Delhi. The roads in India were generally two lanes, full of potholes, and jammed with cars. Some facts to put this in context: India’s land mass is a little bit bigger than one third of the USA and with a population of 1.148 billion, has about four times as many people. According to CIA World FactBook, GDP per capita in India is $2,600 compared to $46,000 in the United States. Just think about that for a second and let it sink in. What have you spent $2,600 on this year? Have you bought a new Apple laptop recently? One day we passed by a cow market. These animals were so scrawny, about the only thing they’d be good for back home would be making beef stock, but of course, these cows were not to be eaten—they were tractors.

Skinny Cows

A top-end cow costs $300, about the price of a new I-phone. Passing beggars on the streets in Delhi, I had to remind myself that I was passing people. The emaciated man who was missing both feet and holding his hands up to me for a few rupees (50 INR to the US dollar—1 rupee = 2 cents) didn’t even compute in my brain as being a human being. It was a disgusting feeling that I became desensitized to by the time I left Delhi. But you’ve heard stories like this before, so I won’t dwell on it. Suffice it to say, repeatedly, and especially while I was enjoying luxury experiences, the thought I meditated on the most was: I am so lucky/blessed. Followed by: Now what do I do with that?

MarabiBeach

Marabi Beach


The Marari Beach resort is on the water, nestled between coconut trees and thatch roofed villas, and specializes in ayurvedic massage treatment. In Thailand, massage focuses on pressure points and activating deep tissue circulation, which can often be painful during treatment, but very worthwhile afterwards. Ayurvedic massage is focused on pure relaxation. Pain is absolutely not a part of the treatment. In other words: straight pampering. On Monday the 17th of November, I had my spiritual experience in India by reaching nirvana five times. Kurt Cobain, what?
Hindufied

Hindufied


We began the day with yoga at sunrise, followed by a swim in the ocean. After a nice breakfast and reading the Hindu Times, we took a walk around town and along the beach to see the fishing boats. (In South Carolina, one of my favorite ways to start the day is getting up before high tide, taking a walk on Litchfield Beach, doing some sun salutations down past the houses where there’s a bit more privacy, and biking home.) We skipped lunch and instead had our first ayurvedic massage of the trip. I have had massages a few times in my life, notably foot massages in Thailand where they use a wooden stick to dig at your pressure points, a Chinese bone doctor who realigned my back in Hong Kong, and a full body rub-down in Provincetown the day after Ward and I biked from Boston to Truro this past summer. Each of those occasions was one-on-one. In the spirit of pampering, our ayurvedic treatment consisted of not one, but two masseurs. (Ayurvedic is always same sex.) Omesh, my lead masseur, previously studied kalarippayat, an Indian martial art, for eight years, which seemed to be semi-standard before starting to study ayurvedic massage, which he has done for two years. Omesh is my age. He’s been studying massage about as long as I’ve been seriously studying fiction. He worked with a younger apprentice during my treatment, which lasted almost two hours from start to finish.
But first, we met with a “doctor”. The ayurvedic approach to medicine is totally different than our western treat-the-symptoms practice and concerned mostly with realigning energy and cleansing toxins from the body by stimulating circulation. The principal components of treatment in ayurvedic medicine are of course, massage, and the application of hot oils and herb compresses. “Doctors” are able to perform some minor surgeries as well, we learned. My impression is that while western medicine is widely available at the clinic level in India, these older, almost shamanistic and certainly holistic approaches, are still commonly used by many Indians, though at non-tourist prices. Our “doctor” seemed to be little more than boss and salesman, in charge of suggesting the best treatments and making sure we were happy with them, which we were.

I was taken to a private, open-air room. The temperature was very pleasant. In the room was a stool, a steam box, and a long table. I was asked to take off my clothes. One expects this. What I did not expect was to have a loin cloth tied around my waist. But, once a philosopher, twice a pervert. (For the record, Ward and I had a second treatment on another day at another “clinic” and by then the loincloth part was second nature.) First I was asked to sit on the stool. Omesh rubbed warm oil into my hair and scalp (anointed me?), working down from my head to the back and shoulders, and chest. Rather than working on one place for an extended period of time, he tended to use swooping movements to stimulate blood flow. My understanding is that this helps expel toxins. Whatever. It felt good. Next, I lay on the table and both Omesh and his apprentice worked in tandem on my entire body from head to toe. After this, I was helped into the steambox, which has a hole for your head to stick out of, allowing you to breath room temperature air while your oil-covered body sweats out the toxins released during treatment. Finally, the apprentice took me to an outdoor shower where he helped me wash the oil off with a kind of grassy clay compound. Having a helper took a little getting used to. Here’s a complete stranger, washing my back, and holding my towel for me. But as I say, once a philosopher… I told Omesh afterwards, while he put a red dot on my forehead, and sandal wood dust in my hair (that smell we Westerners often incorrectly associate with Indian body odor, I realized), “this is what it must feel like to be a king.” And of course, that’s the whole point.
Later that evening, Ward and I had the pleasant surprise of being the only two people to sign up for the cooking demonstration, which was great, because we had the chef, Ajeet, all to ourselves. Ajeet obliged our many questions and showed us how to make a shrimp curry. Later, we would see a spice plantation and put all the spice ingredients into context.

MiseEnPlace

MiseEnPlace

After an excellent cooking lesson and a very good meal complete with ice-cold Kingfisher beer, I went down to the beach to take a swim. Swimming in the ocean at night is both terrifying and wonderful. The night was clear and the stars were bright, as there was very little light pollution. The rustle of the coconut palms was lost in the wash of the sea. As I waded out into the water, past the breaking waves, I noticed something moving all around me. Thinking I was either about to be eaten by some strange Indian shark, or perhaps just a little too tipsy, my heart jumped. But then I realized that the strange glowing all around me was phosphorescent plankton!! This was the total achievement of heaven for me. If I weren’t married, I could have died just then and been totally okay with it. For about fifteen minutes I floated on my back, somewhere between the glowing animals around me and the stars above. Heaven.

On Tuesday, we headed into the mountains, to the Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary to stay at Spice Village. Highlights of this leg included watching giant bats commute every sunset from their roosts in the bamboo groves nearby to go hunting; touring the hotel’s organic farm, paper making, and composting operation; another cooking demonstration; a tour of a spice plantation; and a trek through the wildlife sanctuary.

Seeing the many spice plants growing in their natural environment was really cool. A very pretty Indian woman took us on a walk down a path that was planted with different spices for the purpose of show-and-tell. Cardamom is the Queen of spice in Kerala, and pepper is the king. Did you know that pepper grows on a vine? (I always thought it was a shrub.) Or that vanilla bean grows on a tree? Seeing all these spices, including cocoa and coffee in their green state, was informative and helped me better understand the ingredients, some of which I use every day.

At the hotel, I took a tour of the organic farm they use to supply the hotel restaurant while Ward had a massage.

OrganicGarden

OrganicGarden

I was particularly impressed with the organic composting operation they use, which seemed very advanced to me. Big concrete boxes, maybe three or four feet cubed, are filled with layers of plant matter, cow dung, and non-meat food garbage from the restaurant. When the cube is filled, a screen is placed on top to keep rodents out and the bugs in. The biomass sits for two months, during which time it becomes a haven for earth worms. The resulting compost is transferred to an active use station which is used in the garden. Some of the sophisticated yet simple solutions used in the operation are an electric bug zapper and a four inch moat around the premises that prevents ants from getting inside. Surprisingly, it did not smell bad at all. I took copious notes for my dream farm.

Compost

Compost

Our trek through the wildlife sanctuary did not result in any sightings of leopards or elephants, but it was a nice walk through a south Indian forest and we saw many birds and deer. We also encountered a number of leeches. Thinking that we were safe in the dry season, at first we did not wear the recommended leech socks which tie off below the knee. I was not wearing any socks at all, as they were in the laundry. Opps.

LeechSocks

LeechSocks

A leech is a fascinating little critter. They live in water, or moist environments, and they look like a little tube with a funnel mouth at the end. When they attach to you, either through walking through damp grass, or water, they inch along, as an inch-worm does, until they find a nice spot to dig it. When they do, it is not felt immediately, as they secrete a de-coagulating chemical that seems to also include a kind of pain killer. As they suck your blood, they swell in size. When I finally realized that I had some parasites hanging on, I removed my shoes to find a bloody mess. I guess we should have listened to the locals and worn the leech socks from the beginning. Duh.

WardLeeched

WardLeeched

On to the backwaters. We spent two nights on a house boat, which looks a bit like a giant wicker fish trap from the outside. I much prefer this style to fiberglass.

Houseboat2

Houseboat2

Most folks spend only one night, but Ward had arranged for two nights, as we’d see more this way.

Backwaters

Backwaters

One of the highlights was stopping to talk to a rice paddy farmer. Rice paddy is a large part of the scenery. The man I spoke to worked with eighty other people to farm 6,000 hectares of paddy. Each hectare yields about 6,500 kilos or rice, he told us. I haven’t fact-checked this, and I may have heard him wrong through our captain who translated for me, but when I think about the massive expanses of rice paddy all around us, and the fact that rice is a staple food for most of the world, it made sense. What’s mind-blowing, however, is how labor intensive the process is.

Paddy2

Paddy2

During the planting season, a planter is stooped over from dawn till dusk. Could I hack that for a single week? I don’t think so. Yet I often throw out left-over rice without a second thought, despite how many man hours went into bringing it from seed to my rice-cooker.

Paddy

Paddy

During this time I caught up on some reading and managed to do a fair bit of writing, which was nice.

Corona

Corona

From the backwaters, we transferred to Fort Cochin, where we had flown into from Delhi. Ward had arranged for another splendid hotel, this time at the Brunton Boatyard, which once upon a time, had been a major ship building site for the British.

Brunton

Brunton

We enjoyed walking around the city, which is on an interior peninsula with river along the east and north and the Arabian Sea to the west. One day, we had our driver take us to the mainland to have another massage.

MassageTable

MassageTable

Afterwards, we took the local ferry back. Again, we were two white faces in a crowd of brown. Fort Cochin, or Kochi, is a very safe, accessible, and friendly city. We ate well, bought fun souvenirs, and managed to get to most places by walking. I ended up having to buy a cheap duffel bag from a two-man sewing operation in town, to tote all my goodies back home. Perhaps the highest endorsement I can give Kerala is that despite having seen and done a lot, I did not want to leave. Much of this had to do with the good company of Ward, but unlike many trips, when I left, I felt sad to be going.

Kochi

Kochi

However, my journey home was another adventure in itself.

Bangkok airport was about to be closed due to political protests; I made it through with only hours to spare. Furthermore, when I bought my plane ticket from Kochi to Delhi, I did not know that there were two separate Indira Ghandi International Airports. For future India-bound tourists: DEL stands for domestic AND international, and they ARE NOT THE SAME PLACE. Luckily, I sat next to a nice Indian couple on my flight to Delhi who explained the set-up to me. Key information: get a pre-paid taxi fare from a desk in the baggage claim area to avoid haggling. This guy who I sat next to on the plane was so nice; he gave me 400 rupee so that I wouldn’t have to wait in line for the ATM after getting my bags. As it was, I just barely made my connection, and on to Bangkok in the nick of time. This would not have been possible without the kindness of a stranger. All unpleasant encounters with Indian solicitors was made up for by this moment, as previously when Laura and I were lost in Vietnam and a kind lady returning from the market gave us a lift back to civilization.

My first trip to India was memorable to say the least. What still lingers in my imagination is the horrible poverty on the streets, the ancient monuments to royalty, and the excellent food. Oh, and one more thing…wherever we went, people wanted to know where we were from. “USA,” we said. And for the first time in my adult life, I didn’t feel like a shmuck for saying so. I wrote a letter to President-Elect Barack Obama about this after seeing the results come in at an Irish pub in Chiang Mai. When I was a kid, living overseas, it was cool to be American. We were loved. Lately, not so much. But when Ward and I told people that we were happy about Obama (as both of us voted for him) we were met with smiles and an immediate sense of warmth. This has no bearing whatsoever on our domestic policy, but for reasons I can not find the words for now, but will try to in the future, this seems to be a very important shift. And I feel that I have a bit of a grasp on this, as I’ve lived overseas for a lot of my life. Maybe the main idea is this: America is hugely important to the rest of the world, in a way no other country is. The economic crisis that we’re experiencing at home is absolutely having ripple effects around the globe. Given a free one way ticket and citizenship, most of the planet, I believe, would immediately immigrate to the US. We should recognize this, and appreciate the fact that by virtue of living in the US, or holding a US passport, we are luckier than most, and we shouldn’t waste that.

I didn’t travel through Mumbai, but the day I returned, the news started to break about the terrorist attacks there and separately, the possibility of PAD protesters moving to BKK airport. Turns out the friend I made on the airplane from Cochin to Delhi knew someone who was killed in Mumbai.

This crazy world of ours.

From CIA World FactBook:
Aryan tribes from the northwest infiltrated onto the Indian subcontinent about 1500 B.C.; their merger with the earlier Dravidian inhabitants created the classical Indian culture. The Maurya Empire of the 4th and 3rd centuries B.C. – which reached its zenith under ASHOKA – united much of South Asia. The Golden Age ushered in by the Gupta dynasty (4th to 6th centuries A.D.) saw a flowering of Indian science, art, and culture. Arab incursions starting in the 8th century and Turkic in the 12th were followed by those of European traders, beginning in the late 15th century. By the 19th century, Britain had assumed political control of virtually all Indian lands. Indian armed forces in the British army played a vital role in both World Wars. Nonviolent resistance to British colonialism led by Mohandas GANDHI and Jawaharlal NEHRU brought independence in 1947. The subcontinent was divided into the secular state of India and the smaller Muslim state of Pakistan. A third war between the two countries in 1971 resulted in East Pakistan becoming the separate nation of Bangladesh. India’s nuclear weapons testing in 1998 caused Pakistan to conduct its own tests that same year. The dispute between the countries over the state of Kashmir is ongoing, but discussions and confidence-building measures have led to decreased tensions since 2002. Despite impressive gains in economic investment and output, India faces pressing problems such as significant overpopulation, environmental degradation, extensive poverty, and ethnic and religious strife.

One Comment

  1. Morgan wrote:

    An elderly gentleman accosted us in Mumbai, just south of Victoria CST. After asking us where we were from, he introduced himself. He claimed an emeritus professorship at the University of Mumbai and to have at least three doctorates related to economics and finance, as well as several masters degrees. Suffice it to say, I was interested.

    After introductions, in the offhandedly confrontational manner of most Indians, he immediately inquired, “Where will you be in three weeks, on November 5th?” Our brains, immersed in the tumult of Mumbai, required a minute to deduce why, in particular, he would ask about this day.

    “I will ask who you are voting for, but may I suggest Obama, Obama, Obama! The Democrats have always been the friends of the Indians, and the Republicans our enemies.”

    His tendency to repeat singular word, no doubt an artifact from his teaching days, was hilarious and rather endearing. Obliged by his honesty and directness, we revealed that we would likely be voting for Obama and would be back in the states come election day. This greatly relieved him and he invited us for a beer in the nearby neighborhood of Fort. We declined, but his elation at hearing that we were voting for Obama was palpable. Whether or not his views on the Republican and Democratic foreign policy towards India are correct is debatable.

    I don’t know if this has been people’s universal expirience, but my friends currently abroad (including yourself, Roman) have all remarked that the outlook towards them has improved among the native population of their adopted country. Whether it be my friend Addis Ababa, or Jim or in Spain, or any of my expatriate acquaintances scattered around the world, they all have reported back that the world is excited for Obama, and by extension Americans in general.

    Monday, December 8, 2008 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

One Trackback/Pingback

  1. Roman Sturgis − Krabi Part II on Saturday, January 31, 2009 at 3:11 am

    […] causing them to glow blue-green. Readers of this blog may remember a similar experience I had night swimming in Kerala, India. I never get tired of the stuff. It’s like playing with underwater sparklers that never go out. I […]

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