Friday, May 20

Arabian Paradise

This entry is dedicated to my exboyfriend Jeremy, who stole a piece of my heart when he wooed me by singing a song from Disney's Aladdin. I wish you were here for some Arabian nights.

Finished with our volunteer segment, Jen and I decided to put some distance between us and the desert. Our journey to the south went surprisingly smooth, despite some unexpected events. Firstly, we flew between two international airports the morning after Osama was killed nearby and dropped into the Arabian Sea. Secondly, there was a pilots strike in India. Lastly, the airline we flew with stopped providing service to our destination. Somehow we didn't even notice the extra security or the strike. Our only hurdle was when we arrived in Mumbai we were surprised we had no flight to connect us to the South. The over qualified attendant at the counter solved our problem with first class seats through another airline and a valet to escort us there. Free of extra charge, we indulged in unlimited leg room, tiramasu, and a stack of Indian newspapers on Osama (and all the other terrorists Pakistan MUST be harboring). 

We're now sampling the tropics of Kerala and it couldn't be more different from the desert of Rajasthan. There is a caribbean feel to the single story shops strung with fruit that only gently press against the streets. The men are dressed in lungis, fabric tied around the waste, and they often walk about topless, giving the impression thy just came off the beach. Everyone is a shade darker and the women sport black umbrellas in an attempt to reverse this process. 

We begun in the beach town of Varkala, which is unbelievably tropical and has forced us into its ambling pace. A red clay road, winding through the palm tree jungle, brought us to the bamboo bungalows that make up the Ayurvedic retreat where we stayed. Past the hammocks strung between coconut heavy trees, is a sharp cliff separating us from the azure waves of the Arabian sea. I could gush about the soft sand, strong waves, warm weather and more, but if you're reading this you're probably at your computer screen powerless in mobilizing yourself to any beach in India. What I will share with you instead, is the Indian charm that shined through the tourist production of Varkala.

The main beach has two parking lots, unofficially one for Indians and one for Westerners. Both have the same explosion of tourists, but the Westerners are dressed to leave no tan lines in bikinis and nut-huggers, while the Indians are dressed for a family portrait in their Sunday best. In fact, once they've done the clown car trick and unloaded their fifteen closest cousins and aunts from a rickshaw-for-two, many of them start with a family photograph contrasting their matching saris against the backdrop of the ocean.

The fun begins when they remain in full Indian dress for their first interaction with the ocean. They dip their toes in and race the waves back like toddlers, until eventually they are lured or dragged out past their knees. They scream and delight in the waves that crash against them, but the lifeguards and me are relieved when they don't venture further. Saris and waves are not ideal for learning to swim.

It's summer vacation across India now so the beach hosted many families, but also children, presumably from summer camps, under the guidance of catholic nuns. These children made aware to me the contrast between Rajasthan and Kerala. Keralans speak Malayan instead of Hindi and their communist state has created 100% literacy, so they also have remarkable English skills. And, here Hinduism is closer to being a minor religion that the dominant. Plus, the women dress in shades that aren't as offensively bright as the north, but compensate with painting their homes toxic colors. In place of the usual litter mountains, stray dogs, and pushy peddlers there are bananas. Anyone who has lived with me knows I eat a lot of bananas, but I am no where near as creative as the banana connoisseurs of Kerala. They make banana chips, fried bananas, deep fried bananas and banana currie from bananas that vary in colour and size, growing in scenic plantations and in the lush tangle of jungle.

It was deep in the jungle one night that I ate the most delicious dinner. It was prepared and served by one woman, Mama. By flashlight, Jen and I were led by three experienced travelers along a long winding unmarked path under the jungle canopy. We stopped at a picnic table laid out with banana leaves for plates, and literally over 12 dishes just for the five us. Many hours later when we were more full than I thought possible, we fed our leaves and left overs to the cow and painfully dragged our heavy bodies home.

After some fantastic beaching (and digesting), we peeled ourselves off our sandy towels to see the land from the sea. We dropped some big money (4500rs) for a night on the jungle back waters of Koolam. Our private house boat was fashioned in the style of a traditional rice barge. Sewn together with coconut rope and thread, it surprised us with luxury including a personal chef and driver.

The boat roamed along towards the thick of the backwaters until it became too narrow. Here we jumped ship to a canoe. Our delightful gondolier style driver sang as he paddled us through a couple backwater villages and highlighted the many sights such as the fish farms, women making coconut oil, and men traditionally sewing together future houseboats. Returning to our houseboat at magic hour we devoured chai and fried bananas before jumping into the surprisingly hot water for a sunset swim. The magic didn't end as dinner was followed by fabulous star gazing where fireflies and shooting stars mimicked each other. In the distance an energetic religious festival played haunting music that soaked the atmosphere in jungle mystery.

Back on shore in Kollam, we literally stumbled into the most intriguing market. Turning at the red bananas we followed a man carrying two handfuls of upside down chickens. Stopping at the chicken stall briefly, we past through to rows of fish stalls, then taking a winding corner we were voraciously coaxed into to an open air meat factory. A man whipping flesh off of a fresh cow insisted on shaking our hands. After that we skipped over the goats for the more pleasant hodge podge of nuts and spices. Exiting through a tunnel, the final odor was pineapple as hundreds were neatly stacked a meter high along the wall of the exiting tunnel.

From there we bussed up to Kumily, a cool hill station, to bike through tea plantations and take a guided hike through the tiger and elephant infested jungle park of Periyar. On the return journey we twirled and shook down the 6 hour winding road through the most captivating geography. As the jungle twisted with spice and tea fields, the lush vegetation made tunnels over the road with frequent breaks so we could see the dramatic mountains and contrasting river valleys. We eventually arrived in colonial Fort Chochi where we stayed long enough to sneak into a gated Dutch cemetery, visit an Indian Jew town, and detour to the largest temple festival of India, the Thrissur elephant procession.

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