Fifty Hours of Fun (20060128-30)

One of the hardest things to do while travelling in India is the travelling. Taking a train from one city to another, involves going to the station, finding out where the "Computerized Reservation Counter" is, and then sacrificing your day to Parkhyor Bhoudi, the god of killing time. When we got the train station in Ernakulam, we found the CRC to be in a different building across the street. Upon entering, we played the old divide-and-conquer routine: one of us got in line, the other picked up and filled out the paperwork. Lines in India move so slowly, though, and have so little to do with the general concepts of queuing or respecting your neighbors that trying to save time this way is ridiculously futile. So once we cut out the shoving, the waiting, the waiting, and the waiting, we're left with a very short conversation. When I got to the window, I asked the Reservation Specialist (or whatever his job is) for two tickets for tomorrow in three-tier air-con to Mumbai. After a few minutes of tapping at the keyboard, I got an answer: "No." The next day? "No." The day after? "No." Just out of curiousity, when is the next train to Mumbai available with two seats in either three-tier or two-tier A/C? "Wednesday," the man said. Six days on. It amounted to a polite version of, "Fuck off, you're screwed." My Financial and Menu Adviser and I discussed things quickly, and we changed our trip to cut out Mumbai, Aurangabad and a small hill station outside of Bombay. Instead, we bought three-tier A/C tickets to Delhi - several thousand kilometers for around US$35. Going to Delhi from Ernakulam Junction takes 48 hours, and it took us just over 50, not bad for an Indian train. This kind of long-distance trip is a good way to see a lot of the countryside, very, very quickly. There's a lot of repetition, field, fence, cow, field, fence, cow, dried pond, field, fence, cow, dried river bed. And on it went. One remarkable thing about all the fences was that they change, depending on the building materials available. In the south, it was mostly wood strung together with hope and thin twine. The further north we went, the physically harder the materials became. Stone piles were replaced with stone towers replaced with granite slabs knifed into the ground. You can buy dinner from the train staff, but having done it three days in a row, with the same slop served breakfast, lunch and dinner, I wouldn't recommend it. And some of the people you meet are just freaking weird. One guy, clearly capable of talking the balls off an elephant, cornered the FMA and let loose a 30-minute barrage on how one month's Western salary could score you three or four months in India. While being true, the guy was obviously in need of some social skills lessons. Not all the people we met were due for some electroshock therapy. One guy, a Canadian-Indian named Lenny, was incredibly friendly. He goes back to India once a year to visit his family and keep his kids connected with their roots, but despite having been born here, he made sure we knew that once a year to the hills of Kerala and the northern cities was enough for him. I imagine that's enough for anybody.

Munchies for the Masses (20060128)

The food the FMA and I've eaten in Fort Cochin has been the overall best we've had so far, and each night has delivered something special. Our first night here we decided to splurge a bit and we ate at the swank joint known as the Old Courtyard. We were among the first customers of the evening, and so we got to see the staff burning a huge amount of sandalwood in a wok, and then fanning the smoke around the courtyard. The effect was nearly instantaneous, and we didn't see another mosquito the whole night. Sadly, I don't think I'll ever see the sandalwood mosquito disappearing act again. The meal cost nearly Rs. 1000, around US$25 - way too much for poor budget travellers like ourselves. But while we were being serenaded by the live tabla players, we managed to inhale an amazing fish. Called Meen Varathathu (or Porichathu, my notes are a bit unclear) it consists of a whole fish, marinated in spices and sauces, and then steamed in a banana leaf. I get hungry just thinking about it. We knew that up north in Rajasthan, our next stop, there wasn't much in the way of fish. So the following night, we hunted down a cheaper fish alternative. The fishing nets on the northwest side of Fort Cochin have a certain percentage of their catch turned over to the ice chests immediately behind them on the beach. You can buy these fresh-caught fish by the kilo, and so the Financial and Menu Adviser went to work and selected a not-so-small shark for just over Rs. 140 (US$3.50). Less than a meter away from the fishmongers are a handful of outdoor grills, who'll prepare your fish for you grilled, steamed or fried - by the kilo, of course. So another Rs. 60 plus a bit for rice and bottled drinking water and we have a melt-in-your-mouth grilled shark with garlic and lemon. All told, Rs. 250 for dinner for two beats Rs. 1000, even if that banana leaf steaming was a damn fine trick. But it got better. Walking east from the fishmongers and grillstands in the evening, we saw a crowd of Indian men around a lone stall. They were eating. We joined them. For the grand total of Rs. 74 (less than US$2) we both got: a piece of fried fish, fish masala, beef masala, chenna masala, a log of cooked or somehow processed rice that I've forgotten the name of, and for dessert: a fried whole banana (no skin, you weirdos) stuffed with shredded coconut and rice. Seventy-four rupees. Not only was the price right, but we got a strange side benefit. You'll recall that the stand was frequented by Indian men. Not just any men, but they all happened to be the local rickshaw-wallahs, the drivers. After our first meal there, we found that the number of rickshaw-wallahs that tried to tout us during the day dropped in half. It didn't get better than that. It couldn't. So we went back the next night, too. You just can't beat seventy-four rupees for two.

Kathakali and Kalari Pattayu (20060126)

While Cochin's Jewish community is slowly if stubbornly slipping into history, the traditional Keralan arts are thriving. Kalari pattayu is the native martial art to the Malabar Coast, consisting of both empty-handed and weaponed techniques. As with any martial art, the demonstration I saw had less to do with the style itself and was more about the abilities of the various practitioners. The best of the three men involved in the demo showed the same kind of focus, intensity, and level of ability that I'd seen in demos of Chinese or Japanese systems. Clearly the leader of the group, he was as comfortable in empty-handed drills - that were very similar to the conditioning drills I do in the Okinawan style I study - as he was using the weapons of his system. He was most proficient with a sword and shield, which was used in repeated lunging and leaping attacks. Some of the other weapons demoed included a metal flail that wraps around the waist when at rest. In motion, though, it's a sharpened steel cat-o'nine-tails whip, not something you'd want to stand in front of. The demo ended with a pre-arranged two-man fight, both fighters armed with steel sheilds and swords. The flash and bang of the metal was great, but the choreography was equally as interesting. The men's knees sank subtly to receive the blows, and uncoiled without missing a beat for a leaping counter-attack. The more famous Kathakali featured a different kind of conflict. Kathakali is a play, with actors using elaborate face gestures, extensive make-up, outlandish costumes and two musicians to take the place of words in tales from the Ramayana and Mahabharata. The Financial and Menu Adviser and I saw a performance that showed Shiva and his wife, Parvati, trick Arjuna to punish him for his arrogance. As impressive as it was to watch the actors undergo 90 minutes of prepatory make-up before the performance, and to have facial gestures as subtle as an upward twitch of the lip explained beforehand, something was still lost. The actor playing Shiva-disguised-as-a-hunter spent much of his time whooping. No other actor made a sound, and we were even told at the beginning of the play that the actors make no noise. The costumes were equally bizarre and could've used some explanation, too. The hunting outfits for Shiva-disguised and Arjuna were large hoop-skirt things that no self-respecting hunter would be able to hunt in, unless their prey were also wearing ballroom gowns. Still, culture is culture, and not just something for the yogurt. Two nights out in a row for cultural edification at the grand cost of 125 rupees a night is never money wasted. Sometimes, though, it is money confused.

Keralan Culture in Fort Cochin (20060125)

Every time I think I've developed a strong resistance to orientationitis - that common disease of confusion that strikes when I put in practical use one of my guidebooks' maps for the first time - another bout whacks me upside the head. And so another embarrassing attempt to locate a poorly-marked street hiding my hotel serving as a crappy intro to another Indian city went down. I think this time the Financial and Menu Adviser and I logged four or six kilometers with our packs before finding the damn place. Thankfully, Kochi has turned into a rather pleasant experience. Kochi is made up of several chunks of land separated by a wide bay, the two most important parts being mainland Ernakulam and peninsular Fort Cochin. Cochin sees far less vehicular and pedestrian traffic than the mainland, even though it's still well-served by rickshaws and their overeager drivers. The area's cultural heritage is the most diverse that I've seen on the subcontinent so far. European architecture, Chinese fishing nets and traditional Keralan martial arts and drama sit comfortably next to each other and to the more modern conceits of Indian life. Most interestingly, there's a microscopic Jewish community here. Jews have been in Kerala since not long after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 A.D. The Pardesi Synagogue, built in the mid-16th century, still serves a dwindling community of four families, fourteen or so people. The floor of the temple's sanctuary is decorated with more than 1100 hand-painted tiles from China. Their differences range from great to minor. Sometimes, an entirely different scene is depicted, others merely have specifics like boat sails or tree branches or clouds altered in tiny ways - a few different leaves here, a new ripple in the sails there. I was just as interested in the Jewish cemetery nearby. A small bribe to the caretaker and he let the Financial and Menu Adviser and I into a field of dry grass, tombstones and mausoleums. Almost all the graves were above ground, which might be a local tradition, or might have been because the ground was too hard to dig into. Some of the markers were fresh, too, with a couple of them listing the date of death in 2002. Many were so old that the words had worn down to less than pockmarks on the granite. Several plots combined both old and new, as entirely families were buried together going back, what, a dozen generations? Around the corner from the cemetery and up the lane from the synagogue, I found a small shop selling embroidery. All things happen here in small shops, you rarely learn anything interesting from a large emporium or mall. So the goods in the shop advertized as being "Made by Sarah" or Sarai - I can't remember. If the name wasn't a giveaway, the yarmulke and challah covers cinched it. I went in. The woman inside was old, and looked older than my own grandmother. She walked as she talked, in hesitant, halting steps that required assistance, although I tried not to finish her sentences for her. Most of her friends, Jews, had moved to Israel, and her business did not see the tourist action that the curio and antiques sellers across the way did. The slow death of the Jewish community here would stand in stark relief against the rest of what I saw in Fort Cochin.

Cruising the backwaters (20060123)

My Financial and Menu Adviser and I couldn't afford the luxurious houseboat cruise in Kollam, but we managed to eke out one more boatride. The ferry from Kollam to Alappuzha zips through the 75 km or so between the two towns in eight hours. Eight hours. But it was still worth it. Travelling in the south has so far consisted of crowded trains or crowded buses. The train from Kanyakumari to Kollam was so Thanksgiving turkeyesque in its stuffing that the FMA lost and then recovered one of her sandals when trying to exit. I had to tuck my elbows over my head and barrel through the obscene surge of sheeple trying to cram themselves in our 2nd-class car. And then somebody actually yelled at me for being rude. (I couldn't tell what the heck their words meant, but the tone was clear enough.) So despite the lack of speed going from Kollam to Allepey, the FMA and I were more than grateful enough for the chance to load our packs into the hold of the ferry and spend a day sitting on our asses, surrounded by other backpackers drinking piss-weak Kingfisher beer. Both manners of conveyance were a bit surreal. Most of the reality doses we had that day found us in the form of Keralan backwater life we couldn't experience from the narrow canals off of Monroe Island. Once we left the dock, the larger watercraft of Kerala practically jumped at us like eager-to-be-dinner fishes. Massive Chinese fishing nets, working on a system of weighted pulleys and levers from a spideresque structure, dangled over the water like an ancient wooden claw. Canoes, siblings of the one we sat in yesterday, moved through the deeper water effortlessly, driven by wind-filled hessian sacks sewn into sails. It all looked more Asian than Indian. Dark-skinned men who looked like boys dove below the rippling water, the darkest blue and the cleanest I've seen in India, and came up with handfuls of mussels. Wider canoes were used as taxis to ferry loads of women in brightly-colored saris across the more narrow inlets. As the sun turned red and began its desent below the rice paddies, I noticed hundereds of ducks in several flocks running into the water and struggling back out, a sea of sentient quacking, rippling feathers. Our destination of Allepey, the nom-de-Brittania and still-used nickname for Alappuzha, was quite useless and typical of southern Indian city life - crowds, noise, trash and touts with the more than occasional jewelry shop thrown in for variety - but the slow ferry made getting there a welcome break and restorative.

Backwater Bounty (20060122)

Though it may come as a shock to long-time readers, I can't say I'm impressed with the Indian cities I've seen so far. In general, they're noisy, dirty with pollution and trash dropped everywhere, and filled with unfriendly touts who love nothing more than to separate your rupees from your wallet by any means necessary. Kollam, my first stop in Kerala, was no different. But then, the whole point of coming here is to check out the lush green foliage of the backwaters. Without question, the Rs. 300 (US$8) that the 2 1/2 to 3 hour backwater tour cost me was the best money I've spent in India. Had I more cash, I would've gotten a houseboat for 24 hours, which includes backwater day tours and your own private chef and slave - I mean, servant. But it also includes a tenfold price mark-up, which gives me something to look forward to doing next time I'm here. After 45-minute ride in a taxi, included in the tour cost, we walked through a heavily wooded area of Monroe Island to a small canoe-sized boat. Besides the tour guide and the boatman, who steered our boat with a long Venicesque pole, there were four of us. My Financial and Menu Adviser and myself, and two strangers. One was an Israeli man whose wife stayed home for her university exams - I can't imagine that she's not furiously jealous of him. The fourth was an 18-year-old Dutch girl, blonde haired and blue-eyed. She seemed intelligent, but then, she also started her trip in Kashmir. Book smarts she might have, but she was also either incredibly brave or shockingly dense. Probably both. She didn't say where she got the cash for a four-month stint in India, but I did ask her what Kashmir was like. It was safe, she said. Really, I replied. Oh yes, she said, there were soldiers everywhere. I didn't want to crush her idealistic point-of-view, that lots of soldiers generally indicates a lack of safeness. Did you have any problems, I asked. Oh no, she replied. The soldiers always check your passport, but then they let you go. The people, apparently, were very friendly, which was what I was told about the majority of Indians I'd meet. Anyway, both guide and boatman were on a first-name basis with the villagers we encountered, because, it turned out, we were going through their village. It was quite exciting to be shown somebody's neighborhood, especially when all the minutiae were explained. Everything from the biggest palm tree to the smallest shrub had a social or economic purpose. The coconut is the Da Vinci of fruits. Multi-talented beyond belief, the people living in these backwaters drank coconut milk and ate coconut flesh, of course. But after eating and drinking this Renaissance fruit, the husks kept on giving. Dried for 90 days, the bush outer shell was woven in coir, coconut rope, used locally and exported around the nation. Cashew nuts also followed in the footsteps of the coconut. They provided food, of course, but their oil was also used for water-sealing the wood of the canoe. The waterways were used for transportation, but also provided fish, mussels and even in January we saw some people cooling off with a mid-day swim. Each stop showed us something new about the village. The guide turned over a nondescript leaf at one point to reveal vibrantly green peppercorns. Less than a meter away a strange fernesque thing had a greenish pineapple sticking out of its middle. The plant turned out to be the pineapple stork - y'know, where pineapples come from. The family goat, got in on this act, too, producing milk and cheese and doing its part to clean up garbage - by eating it. Our guide's family had two goats, named Atchoo and Itchoo. When he told us this, I said "Gezundheit!" He didn't get it. So unlike in America, where very few farmers make better-than-average livings, working the land in Kerala seemed to be far more profitable. The pathways and waterways of this unnamed village were far cleaner than anything else I'd seen previously. Education is a priority in Kerala, too: the state has the highest Indian literacy rate, more than 90 percent. The lack of noise was almost as intense as the normal Indian ruckus itself. Water silently lapped at the boat, brightly colored kingfishers could be seen but not heard. It was surprising, but even the fish swam silently. Now, Westerners have been idolizing more agrarian ways of living since at least the French painters of the late 19th century, and even earlier with Walden's Thoreau. I wouldn't call the Keralan backwaters a panacea for what ails modern life - no fiber-optic or wireless broadband Internet access, for one thing - but it's sure a fantastic place to visit.

The Landlocked Keralan Palace (20060120)

There is a small part of the state of Tamil Nadu that is not Tamil Nadu. Upon first hearing this, I remembered an old short story I once read where an aging baseball player, desperate to maintain the only career he's ever known, has an arm transplant. The arm, of course, belonged to an executed murderer who was much younger and stronger, and so the arm begins to control the pitcher's actions. Despite being around a decade old and the current "ripped-from-the-headlines" feel, I couldn't help but think of this tiny plot of land, owned by the neighboring state of Kerala and big enough only for a smallish palace, as somehow subtley taking over the government of Tamil Nadu and bending it to the Keralan way of life. No longer will T.N.'s citizens run in fear from mutton and fish, but rush to the seas and to the farms to collect their booty. "Down with dhal" and "Coconut is cool" will be painted on all the walls, covering up the Communist Party's painted sickles and hammers, and the people will eat mightily, if a bit confused as to why they're losing their vegetarian ways. And then, as it always happens, I woke up. The train into Kanyakumari, formerly Cape Comorin, arrived at seven in the morning - quite a surprise since it left an hour late. We saw it pull in to Madurai at 1:30 a.m. and then saw it sit stop less than 100 meters from the platform. Headlight on, it stayed moored in the darkness for an hour. No explanation was given, and I think that my Financial and Menu Adviser and I were the only ones hoping for one. This seems to be standard operating procedure. Kanyakumari is a small town, with winding alleys on the slope near the water and the claim to fame of being the only place on Earth where three oceans meet. The Indian Ocean, the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea converge here, supposedly making for great sunsets, moonrises and sunrises. Sometimes, though we didn't see it, the sunset and moonrise are simultaneous - a celestial changing of the guard. Other than that, Kanyakumari is a fairly useless place. It's not particularly beautiful, there aren't any humbling views and a striking dearth of cultural events and significance. So after an early morning shower, we hopped a bus to the Padmanabhapuram Palace - our aforementioned landlocked friend. This Panda Palace, as the FMA and I call it, is a beautiful teak-and-granite construct with strong Chinese influences. Everything here is opulent, from the special polish used on the wood and stone floors to the intricate rosewood carvings to finely detailed colored mica window panes. The importance of China to Kerala at the time the palace was built isn't subtle, either. From the scalloped roof to the ceiling carvings, and even the giant Chinese jars given as a gift to the emperor who built it, it's apparent even from just this little taste that Kerala was anything but a cultural backwater. And as if to demonstrate its value, the Keralan government, which maintains the palace, has specialized guides in each of the rooms to explain the significance of the joint. For being our first semi-guided tour, the lectures were impressive. It was also nice to see the guides make a good-faith effort to answer our questions, even if their English wasn't really up to the task. Despite being a bit of a shlep to get there, more than an hour each way, it was well worth the hike. If only more teak palaces were kept up like the Panda Palace, we'd have a world with more wood, but far less wooden.

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