A Billion People in a Coconut Shell
South India: Kerala & Karnataka
NOV. 2007 • TEXT & PHOTOS BY AUSTIN R. PICK
Returning from 20 days in the Himalayas, and thoroughly exhausted after our trail's end trek to see a crowning sunrise over the great range we'd traversed, Shauna and I slid easily into the familiar pulse of Pokhara, flush with comforts and the buzz of the burgeoning tourist season, welcoming but a little over-bright, tawdry even, our eyes more accustomed to the aura of illusive peaks hovering in their own light, to the turn and tumble of varicolored stone... Mountains, however, will be mountains, and though these were higher than most, we'd seen quite enough of them by the time our pulverized feet found flat pave again.
Despite needing rest and recuperation, we had hoped that our last week in the country would allow us to visit Lumbini, the birthplace of Buddha, in Nepal's southern reaches along the border with India. This lowland region, known as the Terai, is often fraught with political and ethnic conflict, however, and a scheduled upcoming election, coupled with continued fuel shortages and agitated extremists, was serving to intensify an already volatile climate.
Thick with chaotic rallies, unannounced labor strikes and road blocks lit with heaps of burning tires, the Terai seemed a poor place for pilgrimage, especially to a Buddhist sacred site. One couple we'd met had been forced to take a six-hour taxi along mad mountain highways when bus strikes prevented them from otherwise leaving Lumbini. And after three weeks in the Himalayas, we weren't really even in the mood for movement. Anyhow our decision to go or not was made for us when I was quite suddenly struck with serious food poisoning.
Two nights after arriving in Pokhara, I woke up vomiting, alternately expelling from both ends with alarming regularity, my body-clock set to some hyper-precise purge. Unable to take anything orally, we went in search of a hospital, and luckily landed in a private clinic well prepared to take care of travelers—and their emergency insurance plans. Rather like a hotel, the hospital is run by an acutely business-minded Indian doctor who himself suffered from food poisoning when visiting Nepal years ago. Meditation, he assured us, is the best medicine. Still, I stayed at the clinic, wired to an IV and thankful for a TV and Shauna's company, for two days.
Hardly a fitting end to two months of relative good health in Nepal, but there you have it. We're not sure what made me ill, but there's a certain inevitability involved, as something like 70% of travelers to the subcontinent get stomach-sick, and it could have been worse, is the thing. Hopeful that I'd paid my dues, as it were, we had no choice but to leave visiting Lumbini for another lifetime. And so, after a few last fling days in surprisingly sunny Kathmandu, we flew, at last, to India.
From the heady highlands touching Tibet, which shone above the clouds as our plane gained altitude, we flew south to within a few degrees, as the latitude reads, of the equator. Kerala, India's southern-most state, immediately welcomed us outside Cochin's quaint airport with breathy enfolding humidity, the relaxed wind-rattled laughter of ubiquitous palm trees, and a fleet of old ever-white Hindustan Ambassador taxis, sure signs of promising Indian tropicalismo.
The first thing that impressed us about Kerala was the exceptional quality —relative to Nepal, mind you— of the roads. The second thing, as we slid over the many bridges binding the islands of Cochin city, was the water: whether leaking in from the Arabian Sea or spilling down from mountains far inland, wetness defines Kerala, which is something of a waterworld. Veined with more than 900km of canals connecting swampy groves, yawning bays and endless hidden inlets, much of Kerala's long coast comprises an enormous labyrinthine backwater, India's equivalent of the Bayou.
Life here is accordingly rhythmed, and can afford to be. Beginning in 1957, Kerala brought to power the first freely elected communist government in the world, which has effectively governed the state according to democratic-socialist principles ever since. Nuanced communist parties abound, and people are apt to complain about local politics, but Kerala has some of the best education, health and social services in the country, and the highest literacy rate anywhere in the developing world. Kerala, as we continue to learn in our travels throughout India, is a world apart. The contrast with ground-down Nepal —where communism's few strengths have been lost to reactionary violence— was striking, and, admittedly, delightful.
We settled down for a few days of fresh fish in the old colonial trading port of Fort Cochin, fringed with cantilevered Chinese fishing nets and characterized by buildings variously echoing Portuguese, Dutch and British heritage, including a great diversity of churches, mosques and synagogues, all existing together harmoniously and often curiously adapted to the Indian mind. Many churches, for instance, feature garish and heroic representations of Christian figures —usually St. George, Joseph or Mary— in the same brightly colored comic-book style of Hindu gods and goddesses. Jesus, being rather meek and mild, isn't usually the flagship savior.
While in Cochin we met a few new friends heading our way, and traveled together to Dhamma Ketana, the newly established vipassana meditation center a few hours south in rural Kerala. Settled amongst coconut groves on a sort of seasonally cultivated paddy-field, the old farmland was home to more wildlife than I had seen during all our miles in the Himalayas — numerous water-birds, kingfishers, geckos, lizards, fruit bats and a family of mongoose were among the raucous inhabitants of the otherwise fairly tranquil little center.
The area was a little noisier than is ideal for meditation, which is true everywhere in India, it seems. In fact the whole neighborhood was alive with spiritual practice, and the great platter of the paddy-field served us sounds of Christian, Muslim, Hindu and Bollywood worship while we sat silently, despite the afternoon tropical heat, and the mosquitoes, for another 10-day course.
This vipassana course was also our first real introduction to South Indian food, which can be neatly described in one word: coconut. Nearly everything we were served for 10 days contained some manifestation of that versatile food, which grows in such great abundance in Kerala that it is impossible to eat them all. Keralans make a good effort, though, and their brilliant cuisine encouraged us to do the same.
Most of the food eaten during the course, we learned later, was growing all around us, an edible forest: bananas, tapioca, papaya, and vegetables abound, as do spices such as pepper, cinnamon, and cilantro. Not to mention coconuts. Hungry for more, especially with Shauna's predilection for food obsession, we began an enthusiastic exploration of South India's kitchens when our journey resumed.
After the course we traveled with fellow meditators to the consummate tourist beach town of Varkala, perched high on rock cliffs above sea and sand, savoring the sweet ocean breeze and floating thru a few days of fine food and good company along moonlit verandas, at night the lights of distant fishing boats forming sparse constellations in the sea void, echoing the wider expanse of the ever-sheltering sky...
Soon, however, the allure of quieter waters began to call us in a watery drawl, and at Kollam we boarded a backwater ferry with our South-African friends Marc and Jo-Ann, whom we'd been cruising with since the vipassana course, and found ourselves among several other travelers headed north by way of Amritapuri, a particularly Keralan ashram.
We slid for hours, churning slowly thru expansive canals adrift with fishermen manning dark, slender canoes amidst thickets of thin-fingered Chinese nets, the green tropical walls on either side parting occasionally for a school, church or other glimpse of life there under the palms.
We stopped for a South Indian thali lunch presented on banana leaves, and as the canals narrowed, serving as streets for small villages and thoroughfare for now-empty rice barges, the great languid arms of the Keralan tropics seemed to reach around us, enfolding and cradling us there in the relaxed rhythm of the waterways, complimenting the calm we'd begun to sense throughout our days in Kerala, and suggesting that Mother India, beloved of her people but only begrudgingly admired by most visitors, might be a caretaker for us too, after all.
So it was that we arrived at Amritapuri, ashram of Amma, the Hugging Mother, revered around the world as a living incarnation of divine love. And we were flabbergasted: the ashram, grown up in Amma's little backwater village, is now the irregular home for some two-thousand devotees, and the complex is dominated by a huge devotional hall and several high-rise accomodation blocks, the largest of which towers sixteen stories above the tallest palm. Guests are welcome, and we were given a room on the top floor, where a strange sight greeted us out the window: an enormous hive of tropical bees, big as a bed pillow, was hanging there under the eves. Curiously, during our time at Amritapuri, the ashram itself began to resemble something of a hive.
Amma is famous for her unique darshan, or blessing, which consists of a motherly and loving hug, given to anyone regardless of caste or country. Unfortunately she was away on tour in Europe and America, so we weren't able to have a hug, and only experienced the rather uninspired space of the ashram in her absence.
Amma's only real teaching for followers is to practice seva, giving selfless service to others, and her organization has done truly incredible work in India and around the world at disaster-ridden sites such as New Orleans, building homes, schools, and tirelessly working toward the alleviation of poverty and disease. The community at the ashram revolves, however, around Amma herself, and we quickly grew tired of everything-Amma and a few too many mothership moments, when the tirades of the faithful turned entirely too cosmic. Nice place, though, the ashram. We left the next day.From Amritapuri, the canals carried us further north to Alleppey, a hub for backwater commerce and tourism made famous by a diverse fleet of houseboats built on converted rice barges. Feeling the rupee-lust of the subcontinent for the first time since we'd left Nepal, we struggled to find a fair price for one, and eventually went to the docks, bags packed, and bargained for a boat not already booked and ready to depart immediately. The beautiful craft we found became our home for the next 22 hours, in what remains the most singularly pleasant experience of our entire journey thus far, backwaters par excellence.
Built primarily of bamboo and coconut woods, our one-bedroom houseboat was manned by a crew of three kind and unintrusive men, all with fine Christian names: captain Thomas, cook Joseph and George, the galleyman. For an endless afternoon we cruised thru canals among a scattering of other houseboats, smoothly plodding water-beetles in a gypsy drift through channels edging the great rice-fields of South India, all regulated by a unique pump system similar to that used in Japan.
After a restful dreamy night under the last rains of Kerala's cool-season monsoon, we left the backwaters at last and returned to Fort Cochin. Only then, as we began to make plans to leave Kerala after nearly a month in the state, did we feel the frustrated bewilderment that, worse than stomach-sickness, is inevitable when trying to travel thru such an enormous, crowded, diverse and maddeningly idiosyncratic country. Like any mother, India is often inscrutable. Unable to obtain tickets in time for our intended train, we were forced to take two local buses for the day-long spine-destroying ride to Cannur, in Kerala's far north.
On the way, however, we met an American couple traveling around the world for a year with their precocious 11-year-old son, some of the few Americans we've met during all our travels. (Most of the Americans we've so far met were all long-term residents at Amma's ashram). We stopped in Cannur on our journey north in hopes of seeing the ancient trance-inducing ritual of theyyam, thought to pre-date Hinduism but now incorporating many Hindu elements.
We were in luck. A local hotel-owner directed us to a small theyyam performance being held to bless the house of a newly-wed couple, and also secured permission for us to visit. We found our way out into the thick winding countryside with a few travelers we'd met before, and were graciously welcomed at this small family gathering.
The theyyam performance, somewhat similar to the the Brazilian Candomblé ritual, unfolded to a driving music of drums and snake-charming flute, not unlike the afro-jazz of Pharoah Sanders and Miles Davis, intense and ever-building. But despite the elaborate costuming of the trance inductee, we travelers soon became the focus of the evening, entertaining young and old alike with our English and enthusiasm about food and culture. And with that as our final night, we left Kerala, crossing northward into Karnataka state.
Each state in India is like a different country, with distinct language, ethicity, dress and customs, yet our first impression of Karnataka was the utterly atrocious quality of the road from Cannur as it passed thru a national park, a roller-coaster of heavily eroded rock and uneven plates of broken concrete slanting into ravines of dried mud. Leaving that behind, Karnataka unfolded before us as a beautiful and abundantly fertile rolling farmland with a climate suitable for growing everything from coffee, sugarcane and bananas to maize, millet, and wheat.
Thru lovely countryside, buses passed bullock carts along the provincial highway leading to Mysore, city of sandalwood and spices, a bustling industrious trade center presided over by the pastel minarets of mosques, and proudly holding at its nucleus the Indo-Saracenic gem of Mysore's Maharaja's Palace, the gorgeously adorned stuff of fairytales. We enjoyed a few days of exploration before traveling in true style on an overnight train up to the ruins at Hampi, ancient seat of the Vijayanagar empire, which ruled most of Southern India in the middle ages.
Poised among the strategic folds of a boulder-strewn landscape and built from the same granite, these extensive ruins, now a World Heritage site, provided us and our new Swedish friends a fantastic playground for exploration and conversation. While the town of Hampi itself is a bit of a tourist trap, the outlying remnants of old temples and fortifications were enchanting, full of fantastic atmospheres suggesting evaporated histories.
Satisfied with our stay, we were ready to press on after a few days there, and hoped to travel north and arrive in Maharastra state in time to serve an upcoming meditation course, but found ourselves confronted, once again, with an unavailability of trains. It seems to be our luck that the more we grow to dread traveling by bus, the more we find ourselves with no other choice. And so it was that we departed on what would become our most harrowing journey yet...
Such was the month of November, sliding into December.
I hope this finds you all most well, and enjoying happy and healthy holidays!
Yours with Love, A