Everyone we met who had been to the state of Kerala, which stretches along the west coast of southern India, told us that it is completely different from northern India. With the exception of towns like Rishikesh that sit at the base of the Himalayas at India's crown, the northern Indian states are mostly arid. Even very urban areas in Jaipur, Agra, and Delhi seem washed in old-timey sepia from centuries of irremovable rock dust that covers roads, buildings, cows, and your feet. Perhaps this muted topography provoked color-craving northern Indians to create the extremely vibrant textiles that saturate Indian fashion, and to never miss the opportunity to splash color on weddings and trucks alike. By contrast, Kerala's landscape is bright green, blanketed in lush pockets of jungle, hilly tea plantations, and lillied lagoons. We finally met up with my parents in the humid seaside city of Cochin, our first stop in Kerala. I was so excited to experience India with my dad. After being constantly questioned by Indians confused by my face, I could stand beside my parents and make visual sense, the three of us a continuum of white to brown. Finally, my dad could negotiate the non-tourist prices for us in Hindi or Gujarati, while I stood silently beside him, looking the part. Finally, we we were commencing honeymooning with both of our parents....a scenario that had never once occurred to my younger self when I imagined my future honeymoon....
Our week in Kerala was densely packed with sightseeing in several cities, courtesy of Caper Travel. Following are some of the highlights that stand out brightest in my memory....coincidentally some of the most unplanned moments of the trip.
Ancient History and New Art in Cochin
An ancient port city, Cochin contains relics of a diverse collection of settlers, including a Jewish synagogue that currently serves the remaining six Jewish Indians in Cochin, and architectural remnants of 16th century Portuguese colonists such as St. Francis Church, which famously entombed explorer Vasco de Gama before his remains were taken back to Portugal. Fishing net contraptions that resemble giant, leggy insects, their design borrowed from Chinese traders, hover above boats and docks all along the tree-lined coastline. The five of us, excited to finally be together, strolled along the harbour with our guide for the day, taking in the sites. My dad was so excited about the piles of fresh coconuts being hawked from every street corner that he immediately purchased three of them, and the coconut juice tasted like happiness.
My favorite discovery in Cochin was its street art scene. During a stretch of unscheduled afternoon, as our driver steered our minibus toward the center of Fort Cochin (the historical city center), I looked out of my window and saw a cement wall covered with interesting murals. Since we didn't have definite plans for the next few hours, I persuaded everyone to get out and walk along the street that had caught my eye. The tall concrete wall bordering several blocks of sidewalk reminded me of the remaining stretches of the Berlin wall, covered in murals conveying wordless social and political commentary. As we strolled along, a glimpse of interesting sculpture drew us through a gap in the wall, which led into a small park that had been taken over by local artists. The installations that filled the small space were interactive: a small hiking trail bordered with sculptures hanging from low-hanging tree branches; a collection of mud-brick terraces that could be climbed or sat upon; a larger-than-life clay yogi doing a headstand. A plaque nailed to a wooden studio filled with sculptors' tools told us that the park was a repurposed abandoned lot, and that all of the art pieces had been created from materials found in the lot. This juxtaposition of progressive street art and colonial antiques within an otherwise traditional Indian city made me fall a little bit in love this balmy old port.
A Very Kerala Christmas, or “You're Not at Home, You're in Munnar!”
Even before we slid into the 16th century pews at St. Francis Church (where I left my camera and realized too late for it to still be there....the great tragedy of our Kerala trip....), I had heard that India's Christian minority is concentrated in the south. Spending the first half of December in primarily Hindu northern India, we were surprised to suddenly see Christmas decorations all over town in Cochin. A giant gingerbread house and a tinseled faux evergreen Christmas tree greeted us in our hotel lobby, and we would see nativity scenes set up in public places throughout Kerala over the next week. As part of our tour package, we'd signed up to attend a Christmas Eve gala dinner at our hotel in Munnar, a town situated high among the rolling hills that host Kerala's tea plantations. On the evening of Christmas Eve, the front lawn of our Munnar hotel was transformed by a stage strung with neon lights, a DJ booth blasting Bollywood music at the same ear-splitting decibels we'd experienced during the Prity Guesthouse wedding festivities, and a festive buffet that featured melons carved into bird shapes and a blackened, beribboned turkey holding some kind of cocktail in its still-attached talons. Hoping that the blaring music was only a prelude to the dinner, Simon and I invited our parents to our room, where we exchanged small gifts we'd found for each other in the Indian markets, sharing a bottle of wine we'd bought in town. It didn't feel entirely different from Christmas Eve at home, and I wished my brothers could have been there with us.
Stepping out of our room and onto the neon pulsing hotel lawn, we were met by what my mom called the “creepy Santas”: two Indian hotel staff members wearing full Santa costumes that were made creepy by accompanying rosy-cheeked caucasian-hued plastic Santa masks. We were ushered to a table facing the stage, where a woman about my age wearing a bright sari stood ready to introduce the evening's entertainment program....a shiny-suited modern dance troupe, and a series of games that required members of the audience to come to the stage area and juggle balloons. I assume most of the audience, like my family, was less than thrilled about sitting through the festive, but decidedly not-Christmasy show before being allowed access to our Christmas dinner, and there were a few awkward moments when no one would volunteer for the balloon game. Our persistently cheerful host, a perma-smile on her face, would fill these awkward moments by shouting, “C'mon, folks! You're not at home, you're in Munnar!”....a piece of sage travel wisdom that Simon and I still like to repeat to each other. I felt sorry for our host, who was clearly making the best of a silly program that someone had misguidedly designed and propped her in front of. Eventually, we were allowed to eat, and the food was good, despite the disturbingly lurid turkey and milling creepy santas. The ongoing dance performances were also pretty entertaining, in a throw-back late '90s boy band kind of way. It was the kind of holiday event that became far more amusing when paired with wine, which is sometimes the case at home as well. I was thankful to be able to spend this unusual Christmas with family, and again wished my brothers could have been there....they would have loved the scary turkey.
My Coconut was Alive
We spent our last few days in Kerala in a beautiful resort in Kumarakom, which featured a sunset boat ride through a pretty lagoon blanketed in vines and lavender flowers that bordered the back of the property. Kumarakom is laced with lakes, canals, and lagoons locally referred to as the backwaters. Arundati Roy's The God of Small Things, a gorgeously written, heartbreaking novel about the Indian caste system, is set along the backwaters near Kumarakom. The backwaters fuel the small villages lining the banks of these waters, providing a constant slow current for transportation via dugout canoes, a steady source of irrigation for the surrounding rice paddies, and an additional source of income from tourists like us, who chose to spend half a day floating on these peaceful waters. Most tourists opt to rent a houseboat or canopied motorboat to explore the backwaters, but we had been advised by a fellow traveler who we'd met a few weeks earlier to rent a punting boat instead. Chi, a fellow San Franciscan we met at a restaurant in Rishikesh, had explained that the noise and pollution of the motorized boats was unpleasant and harmful to the environment, and an oar-powered punting boat would afford us a more peaceful experience. As with all aspects of this portion of our India trip, we ran Chi's advice by Sunil at Caper Travel, who, after strongly arguing in favor of the pricier motorized houseboat option, finally called ahead and reserved a punting boat tour for us – four hours on the backwaters including a stop for lunch.
When our driver pulled up to a canal bank in Kumarakom on the morning of our backwaters tour, we were greeted by a single oarsman manning a rustic 20-foot dugout canoe crossed by three backless plank benches. I realized that the picture of a “punting boat” that I'd conjured in my head – a larger, probably canopied, multi-oarsman affair – was completely fictitious. My mother had also imagined a more luxe vehicle for our four-hour excursion, and, as we gingerly situated ourselves in the teetery canoe, she expressed her disbelief: “This can't be our actual boat....This is the boat that's taking us to the bigger boat, right?” There were several attractive houseboats and colorfully canopied longboats docked nearby, and we gazed at them hopefully as our oarsman started toward them with long strokes of his paddle, but rather than ferry us to their docks, he steered right past them and into the quiet expanse of lillied lagoon ahead. This was, in fact, our actual boat. Simon and I sat on the middle bench, with Sachiyo perched on the bench in front of us, and my parents behind us. As the bright cushion-seated boats behind us grew smaller and smaller in the distance, the different travel preferences of our two mothers could clearly be heard. In front of us, we could hear my mother urging my father to “tell him [our oarsman] to turn the boat around....I don't want to sit in this tiny boat for four hours,” while behind us, Sachiyo exclaimed in delight as our canoe silently glided through perfumed lily fields and past long-necked cormorants perched upon hovering tree branches. Simon and I remained a neutral buffer, having learned by this point in our travels to anticipate something good (which usually overshadows temporary discomfort in memory's eye) in unexpected experiences.
We glided through thatched-roof villages punctuated by long stretches of rice paddies and waved to families watching us curiously from the banks. Other canoes manned or womaned by locals passed us occasionally, and our oarsman called out the species of birds we passed. Eventually, we asked about our planned lunch stop. We had not seen any restaurants (or any commercial businesses at all) along the banks of the backwaters, and wondered how and where we would eat. Our oarsman replied with confusion. There had been a miscommunication, and there were zero establishments along the entire route where we could purchase food. Some of us resigned ourselves to being hungry for the remaining two hours on the water, and others of us angrily protested. Our resourceful oarsman quickly came up with a solution: we could get coconuts! As he steered our boat slowly toward the bank and the endless rows of green rice paddies beyond, we scanned the riverside for the coconut vendor. In Kerala, we'd become fond of roadside piles of coconuts accompanied by men ready to slice them open in front of us as we handed them our rupees. Two hours into our punting boat ride through the Kumarakom backwaters, we saw fields of lily pads on the water, and rice paddies stretching beyond.
As we pulled up to the muddy bank, a rice farmer wearing a loincloth and wielding a pick-axe greeted us, and helped steady the boat as we disembarked. After some hasty negotiations with our oarsman, it was settled that we would pay roughly $0.50 per coconut. We stood somewhat bewildered in the reeds while the farmer's wiry frame scaled the skinny trunk of a nearby palm tree and hacked down five coconuts – one for each of us. Then he skimmed back down the trunk and proceeded to hack open the fruits: first carving a small hole in each of the thick green shells for us to drink all of the juice from our coconuts; then chopping away the outer shell to expose the smaller brown nuts with white meat inside.
I am no stranger to coconuts and coconut water, but my first sip from my seconds-ago-harvested coconut was a shock. It tasted alive, thrumming like carbonation over my tongue as if electrically charged. I had experienced some travel-related stomach issues over the past few days, and felt particularly lethargic that morning. Draining my still-alive coconut, I felt stronger with each sip, my energy inflating exactly like Popeye and his spinach. Within minutes, I became alive and alert again as I literally sucked the life out of my coconut. I will probably never again receive the gift of a supercoconut from an axe-wielding rice farmer on the banks of the Kumarakom backwaters, but that one coconut has forever altered my understanding of "fresh". What initially felt like the umpteenth strike against Caper Travel suddenly felt like a gift.
A few days later, we said to goodbye to Sachiyo at the Cochin airport, and continued on to the state of Gujarat with my parents for a week with extended family. To those whose jaws dropped in disbelief when Simon and I shared our plans to travel through India with both of our parents, I can say that we actually enjoyed one another. A trip to India trip was an intense start to a relationship between new in-laws, and like a family, we tolerated each other with varying degrees of grace when differences surfaced. It felt like we were one family - the most multi-ethnic-looking family southern India had ever seen! I am thankful for my family.