Thursday, October 30, 2008

India on one bag... Part 2

So, where was I...

Oh yeah... [NAME REMOVED] and I were at the New Delhi airport at 4 a.m. We boarded our flight on what I believe was a converted crop duster on Air India and flew to Bangalore. After a short layover and a brief conversation with a nun in the airport (true!) we took yet another conversion plane (I believe this one was formally used to transport livestock) to Kerala.

Kerala... is a small state on the southwestern coast of India. Its motto... God's Own Country. A little bold... but we'll see. We arrived in Kochi and walked straight out the door... the best part of only carrying one bag. Kochi is the largest city in the state, and we were greeting by a rep from the travel agency. He introduced us to Benny... our driver and defacto tour guide. With only about two minutes of greeting, we were told that our first destination was the town of Thekkady... four hours away.

Benny was rail thin, and wore an all white tunic that was made from the same material as the seat coverings that lined every inch of the little white TATA car. The car was drenched in an aroma of jasmine from the fresh flower lei that was dangling from the rear view mirror. We headed out of Kochi and started into the hill country of southern India. The hills seemed to slowly creep into the scenery after passing little town after little town. The men were all dressed in simple shirts with a wrap-around skirt on. Since the weather was warm, they all folded their skirts up and in, like a Daisy Duke halter top.

One of the biggest shocks to our system came from the smell and the colors. The air is thick with the smell of flowers, trees, and rain. There is almost no manufacturing in Kerala... most of the state is dedicated to agriculture, mostly tea, fruits, and spices. Those spices permeate the air wherever you go. And the deep green of the forests was spellbinding. Coming from a country where any green you see is rare, and clear blue skies only happen once in a blue moon when the dust is blown to sea... seeing lush green trees under an azure sky was breathtaking.

After a few hours of driving, we stopped for lunch at a little open air restaurant that overlooked a crystal clear river. It reminded me of the Comal in Texas, but much wider and forceful. Women lined the banks washing clothes as men played with naked children in the rapids. It was a very peaceful and serene setting... such a contrast with the urban warfare that Delhi and Agra provided. We left and Benny soon was driving on roads that winded around the edges of the massive hills. More than once I could look out my window and stare straight down several hundred feet at homes that were perched on cliff sides. My ears popped several times as the elevation increased hour after hour. After a few more hours in the car, we arrived at our destination... Thekkady and Lake Periyar.

Thekkady... we pulled into our hotel for the night, called Spice Village. The staff was very warm and friendly, and we were given jasmine leis... fresh jasmine flowers are my new favorite smell. We walked through the resort, in between tall trees and meandering through the thatched roof huts that were to be our room. Our little hut was very nice, with all handmade furniture and itty-bitty beds. We got comfortable and sat outside enjoying a drink. The air was much cooler than earlier in the day. There was an abundance of different plants surrounding our huts, each labeled with a name showing which plant bore which spice. Spice... you were always told about the spice routes and their importance thru history... but when you come to a place that was founded, fought, and survived thru nothing but seeds and stems... it really puts some things in perspective. Later, we went to a cooking demonstration of some simple Kerala dishes (fish masala and something even more delicious) and had the first of amazing buffet dinners! God the food!! The best Indian food I ever had in the states was absolute dogshit compared to the food I ate here. Not even close. I ate many a multicolored dish that had no discernible ingredients, and came back for seconds. Later, we went off to the bar for a beer. The bar was the original home of the nature conservator for the British East India Company. Its walls were lined with pictures of the first elephants spotted, tiger hunts, and of the elite British society that came to rule India.

The next morning we went off with Benny to Lake Periyar and the national tiger preserve. Yes... a tiger preserve. We drove thru a simple gate with signs that cautioned against opening your car windows and not to stop for elephants. Stopping at the lake, monkeys greeted our car looking for scraps of food. And not the cute Curious George kind... but the mean looking gnarled kind with red asses. We boarded a small boat with some Indian and Arabian families, and took an hour-and-a-half ride around the lake. The lake itself was a beautiful mottled green that was perfectly glassy. We saw wild boars, gnus, and a weird type of deer with curled horns drinking from the lake's surface. Unfortunately, we didn't see any wild tigers or elephants... there was plenty of water still in the hills, so they were staying home. But the ride was beautiful and serene, anyway. Later, we went on a tour of a working spice plantation. We walked thru a dense forest, and every few feet our guide would stop and explain spice after spice. Pepper, cardamon, tumeric, vanilla, etc. It was all very pretty and informative, but a little boring... then we saw the elephants.

They had four elephants under an alcove lazily eating hay and fruit. Two men were cooking a meal right next to them in a little lean-to, most likely their handlers. We paid a few dollars, climbed up a very rickety stepladder, and jumped on the back of a very large Indian elephant. The elephant slowly walked thru the spice plantation with a small man with a long white beard walking behind shouting commands. Squeezing thru impossibly narrow trees, the elephant lumbered on for about half an hour... occasionally pulling huge limbs of sugar cane and bamboo to each along the way. Once we were off, I bought a bowl of fruit to feed the beast, and he used his truck to steal a pineapple straight out of my hand.

On our way back to the hotel, we noticed that the car was starting to smell a little... funky. Almost immediately we realized that Benny was sleeping in the car at night. Not sure what to do (no please, Benny, come shower in our room...) before we left, we made sure to grab some extras jasmine leis from the front counter to mute some of the stench. After an incredible lunch, we set off for our next port of call... the backwaters.

The backwaters... before we got there, I was trying to figure out on our map just how far we were driving. According to the map, we were only about 150km from our destination... yet we drove for four-and-a-half hours. The roads winded around and around and around... sometimes they were just gravel and only wide enough for one car at a time. It turns out that the roads were made by elephants! India just came behind them and paved their walking paths! On the way, [NAME REMOVED] and I started the longest card game of War every undertaken. We couldn't even finish in the car, and took our cards to finish later.

We went from the spiced hills down to the backwater area near the coast. The backwaters are a maze of over 400 rivers, streams, and inlets that come together from the mountains. They are used for transportation, irrigation, and food. Benny parked the car near a bridge, and instructed us to board a longboat for the trip to our resort... since our resort was only accessible by water.
Side note: around this time, I noticed a zigzag rash along my right wrist. I thought it was a strange sunburn or maybe some sort of irritation I picked up from the elephant... and didn't think much of it... more to come later.

We took the longboat for ten minutes along a narrow waterway, passing huge houseboats called kettuvallum, made from reeds with thatched roofs, small stain glass windows along the sides with intricately carved wooded prows. Women were slamming clothing against the rocks to get them clean, and men in dugout canoes were using poles to skim the surface for fish. Our boat pulled up to a water gate where a guard let us enter the resort... Coconut Lagoon.

Coconut Lagoon was something you never forget. A small white wall separated the resort from the sunken river. The entire resort was bisected with small canals and bridges. We got off the boat and walked directly from the boat into the open hotel lobby. Immediately we were greeted by the staff, and they sliced open some coconuts for us to drink from while we checked in... nice touch. To get to our room, we crossed several small curved bridges, ducking under very low roofs and overhangs. The name of the area actually means "land of short people." It is because the locals were always knee deep in rice paddys, and they looked very short. It also meant that I cracked my skull open more than once while ducking into doorways.

Anyhow, our rooms was another small hut that overlooked the waterway. To the right, the waterway opened up into a large, shallow lake that was covered with water lilies. The best part of the villa was the bathroom... it was outside. That was a little strange, but very cool... you open the bathroom door, and there is only a little roof over the toilets, while everything else was in the open air. They had orchids growing out of coconuts hanging from the branches of trees, and an area dedicated for the local fish. The resort, and Kerala, is known for its massage treatments. In fact, the entire area is famous for its ayruvetic massage... a series of treatments, each one treating a specific ailment... from pimples to cancer. As [NAME REMOVED] was signing up for her two hour treatment for the next day, she was anxious to get me into my first massage. Now, I've had massages before, but they were always for physical therapy, not relaxation. So, she signed me up for one that was to cleanse the mind and spirit... so off I went.

The massage... oh boy. I walked into the massage center, isolated behind the resort overlooking a rice paddy. I was instructed to only whisper, and to follow Rajee, a tiny speck of a man about four feet tall. He took me into a back room, and asked that I take off my clothes. So I undressed down to my undies, and he looked at me and said, "all clothes." Damn... I'm not a huge fan of getting naked in front of other men... much less complete strangers. But there I was, completely naked... but not for long. Rajee then spun me around and tied a tiny string around my waist, which was to hold up the loincloth that covered my junk. And when I say covered... I really mean strangled my junk.

I sat on a tiny stool while Rajee gave me a twenty minute head massage; constantly rubbing his fingers over my scalp in swirls and patterns. So far, this was pretty nice. Next up, he laid me down on a table, face-up, with my head resting under some sort of scaffold. Soon, another little man came in carrying a large bucket on his head... filled with coconut oil. The restorative that I was getting is a procedure where they pour warm oil on your forehead to cleanse the mind. Slowly the room was filled with the smell of coconut oil warming on the heater behind me... I could hear the pops from the oil like frying bacon. They then filled a gourd over my head that was dangling from a rope, closed my eyes, and let the oil pour.

At first, I freaked out. That oil was hot... really hot. The sensation of hot oil being poured on my head and dripping off of me was strange. Rajee slowly moved the gourd from side to side. It became quite relaxing and nice. You could hear the insects outside, smell the oil and incense, and I drifted off for a while. But after about an hour, I was ready to finish... but they kept reheating the oil again and again. I kept thinking "they can't be heating more oil... it has to end sometime." When it was over, I very easily slipped off the table, and they held my hands into the outdoor shower. There, the oil was washed off my body... by Rajee. After I was soaped and rinsed, Rajee had me put my clothes back on, and then he gave me a red stripe on my forehead for luck, and some spice on my scalp to head with my breathing. I'll be honest... this was a really weird experience... but I really loved it. I tried to elope with Rajee, but he spurned me.

After breakfast, I read a book outside and walked around the resort for a few hours, before my next massage treatment. This time... it was a full-on two man job. Non-stop, oiled up, naked on a mat. Rajee and friend had their hands working up and down my body with a style that could only have come from watching synchronized swimmers. Two hours of unending man-on-man flesh rubbing. I was expecting them to start ripping their clothes off and to have the cheesy 70s soundtrack to start. Near the end, they started cracking every bone in my body. When they started cracking my toes, I lost it. I started laughing uncontrollably, trying but failing to keep my voice below a whisper. Thankfully, the treatment was over, or I thought it was. While still oiled up, I was put into a tiny steam bath and allowed to baste for about thirty minutes. When they pulled me out, the combo of steam and oil made me almost a frictionless human being. I was afraid if I slipped, no force on Earth was going to be able to stop my momentum. Finally, once again, Rajee washed and dried me down. And once again, I loved it!

And for the record... I am a heterosexual.

On our itinerary we had a one-line note that read, "lunch at backwater farmhouse." Not knowing what was going on, we were about to have lunch at the resort when they called and said that Benny was waiting to take us to lunch. We got in the boat and met Benny at the dock. He drove us for about ten minutes until the road actually ended against another waterway. He honked the horn, and about 500 meters across the water a man got out of a house, climbed into a dugout, and used his pole to push the boat across the water to meet us. We boarded, and without a word, he pushed us across the lily covered lake back to the farmhouse. We were met by a very nice woman who explained that we were on a private island farm that was owned by her family. She showed us their coconut and banana trees along with all their homegrown spices. After the tour, we were introduced to her grandmother, who was going to cook our lunch for us in their home. They have rooms on the island where people come and stay, and let the family cook and clean... called homestays. So while we waited for lunch, we browsed thru the photo albums that were on the coffee table, surrounded by photographs of children and dead relatives. In the photo albums were articles about the island and the family. But most surprisingly, their were large articles about the grandmother! According to Gourmet, Food & Wine, Conde Nast Traveler, and National Geographic Traveler, the grandmother was one of the most celebrated chefs in all of India! She is reknowned for her southern Indian cuisine... and she cooking for us in her own kitchen! Needless to say... it was some of the best food I have ever tasted. She even sat down with us and ate while answering the phone and making dessert. Incredible. We said our goodbyes, and went back to the resort so [NAME REMOVED] could get another massage. I took a nap in a hammock, and was awoken by a phone call from the front desk. "Sir, your sunset cruise is ready."

I rushed to the lobby and was guided to the large two-story boat. I met with [NAME REMOVED] and climbed on top along with an Indian family and a British couple living in Dubai. We pulled away from the resort and drifted into the lake. A man sat on the floor of the boat and began playing Indian folk songs on a carved flute. The sun began to change colors as we photographed snakebirds catching fish and flying off to their nests. Giant vampire bats were circling overhead and heading into the trees to feast on the insects. As the sun started to set, the boat cut the engines, and with solitary sound of the flute, we watched the red sun slowly sink under water. A beautiful ending to a beautiful day.

After dinner, it was big fruity drinks at the bar and some games of chess to finish of the day. Our bartender told us to get our drinks in, since there would be no alcohol for the next two days. The first of every month, no alcohol is allowed to be sold. On top of that, the next day was Gandhi Day, the national holiday celebrating the birth of Gandhi. So we made the most of our booze, and spent our last night on the water's edge.

Early the next morning,we climbed aboard the boat and met Benny at the bridge for yet another four hour car ride... this time heading straight up to the mountains and the famous tea plantations of Munnar.

Side note: one bagging is excellent! I had just enough clothes to last me until the backwaters. I paid about five dollars to have all my clothes cleaned by the hotel, and got them back before we left. With the additions of some small trinkets and gifts, everything (except for the rug) fit into the one bag. When it was time to get ready, simply everything went into the bag and we were off... very nice. My little daypack holding my water and cameras was working perfectly. Also, no Delhi Belly! The constant hand washing and checking of the food and water was paying off in spades by way of not shitting myself.

Remember that rash on my wrist? The first night, the rash started to slightly blister like poison ivy, but without any scratching or itching. The next morning, my wrist was covered with one, large, pus-filled blister. Although it never hurt, it looked like I had spilled acid over my arm... my skin seemed to be rotting off the bone. The pictures online don't even come close to how bad it looked. I kept having to give the pustules a squeeze to drain the fluid. Not the most pleasant thing. I'm pretty sure I must have brushed up against a plant while on the elephant and it did not like me one bit.

My wrists are starting to kill me from all the typing. I'll finish up my final two stops in India later today after flag football in Part 3.



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