Saturday, April 24, 2010

Where in the World is Kerala?

I was just going to post, when I received an email from my mother-in-law about her recent visit with us in India. Her words are so descriptive, that I thought others might also enjoy reading it:

Where in the world is Kerala? It is India's southern most state and stretches along the West coast on the Arabian Sea. Our early morning flight on Spice Jet airlines via Mumbai (Bombay) was diverted further north due to the unexpected closing of Mumbai's International Airport for a "dignitary." By the time we refueled and headed back to Mumbai, we still managed to make our connecting flight to Cochin in Kerala.

From the air, Kerala looked like a blue turquoise and jade green jewel, thanks to its 44 rivers and 28 major lakes.

We landed about 5 pm, where our driver was waiting to take us to Kumarakom. It was early evening on Good Friday. The largely Christian population was walking, busing and motorbiking to the many neighborhood temples, shrines and churches that were around every corner. The VERY narrow, bumpy, mostly paved roads were lined with coconut palms, food, drink and trinket stalls, free range cows, goats and chickens, and a few larger red-tile roofed homes. It had a Mediterranean look. Sicily even spotted a bull with painted blue horns. Beyond this, the driver told us, are farms with coconut palm trees, cashew and banana trees, and groves of herbs.

The procession of women in beautiful saris, candle carrying alter boys, and pockets of drummers was a stunning site. The air was sweet with incense. This scene went on for miles, village after village. Where were all these people coming from? Cochin's population is about 1,000,000. Their homes, farms, houseboats and fishing boats are camouflaged in the distinct, quaint areas that wind through the "backwaters" that empty into the Arabian Sea.

It was dusk and the sunset sky deepened the colors of the rusty-pink roadside. A few hair raising encounters from meeting the big red buses on these narrow winding roads kept us on our toes. By this time it was dark. No street lights here except for an occasional light bulb lighting an "open late" food and drink stall. Walkers and bikers were still filling the roads and only a few had flashlights. Our driver turned right off the main road and drove up to a small, dimly lit dock. It did have a small sign that I didn't notice until our return on Monday in the daylight---"For Coconut Lagoon Visitors Only".

The final leg of our weekend destination was another thrilling adventure none of us expected. It began as soon as the driver let us out and drove away. A man (boat driver) with a flashlight came from the boat and assisted the four of us. We stepped up on the boat deck then down three deep steps into the lighted wooden boat where we got comfortable. It was beautifully varnished with white cotton covered seats lining both sides. We left the empty dock. The sputtering motor did not drown out our excitement as we navigated the serene beauty that we all felt and couldn't wait to experience in the daylight.

What a contrast with our arrival to the dock at Coconut Lagoon---a red and yellow hibiscus lined lagoon, with a well-lit dock, back-dropped with coconut palms, and staff in white saris with gold edging, to greet and seat us. We were handed cool, aromatic washcloths to freshen our face and hands and served a refreshing drink of coconut water from the large green/yellow coconuts. By the time we made the short lagoon lined walk to our bungalow, we were feeling the clean, simple, quiet charm and uniqueness of the place.

Our dinner was a Keralan buffet in the covered outdoor restaurant. Spices, scents and aromas filled the humid air. The surprises for the day didn't end yet. Back at the bungalow, I opened the heavy wooded door to the bathroom and showered in the outdoor, stone-lined, "room," that even came with a small friendly green lizard laying on the rocks. We feel asleep to the sound of crickets, frogs and swishing palms, and, oh yeah, air conditioning fans.

Saturday was equally exciting, but relaxing. Alan and Sicily went to the seaside pool for a morning swim. After Natalie and I checked out the "shop" for gifts and goodies, she directed me to the Ayurvedic Center. It did not take much encouragement for me to sign up for the one hour and 45 minute full body, hot oil massage and steam bath. Natalie left me and she went to take drum lessons! I don't remember much of anything after that! Later, Sicily told me all about the pool and the Butterfly Garden that she visited with Daddy.

Our "backwater" boat tour was from 3-6 pm. The four of us climbed aboard the very large "kettuvallum." In the past they were used as rice haulers, now converted to houseboats for touring and even as homes for some residents. They have other boats called chundus...very long boats shaped like the large hood of a snake, which may have up to 100 rowers. One of the two boatmen asked if we wanted tea. We made quick stop at a small dock in a village. He reboarded and quite a while later, served us spicy tea in small cups with hot, peppery french fries!

Later that evening, Sicily and I had a night time pool swim, and then we all attended an exhilarating outdoor performance of a 2000 year old tribal dance and drummer. His brightly painted green face and colorful costume was indescribable. After a room service dinner and movie back at the bungalow, Sicily and I went to sleep. Alan and Natalie had a night out at Coconut Lagoon.

After Sunday Brunch, we explored the lagoon on foot. A few small bulls and cows were tethered here and there to palm trees eating the lush green grass and also keeping it neatly trimmed. Large white heron-like birds floated in and out sight. We found a very long rope swing hanging high from a coconut tree. Sicily had fun sitting in the seat, holding on tight and having the swing of a lifetime.

The varnished wooden boat was waiting to take us back to Cochin. We returned to the small dock, this time in the sunny daylight. I can see why Kerala is called "Gods Own Country" and Cochin is the "Queen of the Arabian Sea." After a month long visit, you might be able to soak in the festivals, five century old temples, forests, waterfalls, beaches, and shop in the best antique and art shops in Kerala. I would go back anytime...

Our last night was spent in a beautiful hotel in Cochin. Sicily was happy to visit and feed the many live chicks and bunnies corralled in a large fence in the hotel lobby for Easter. Our return flight to Mumbai was uneventful this time, so we took advantage of our five hour layover. We taxied to a huge mall where Sicily had fun playing in a large climbing playground. At a restaurant called Nandos, we ate grilled corn on the cob, grilled chicken, and peri-peri fries. Peri-peri is some type of pepper. Refueled, we were ready to head back home to Kolkata.


Alex said...

What a fascinating place. Such wonderful photos, too!

Natalie Buda Smith said...

Thanks! It is a magical place.

Daniela Swider said...

Love the description, now I am even more impatient to visit and perhaps live in India. Thank you so much for sharing, Natalie!

Jill said...

Wow - that looks great. Kerala is one of the only places I didn't get to... and wished I did!

Anonymous said...

Gorgeous, gorgeous pictures! Your time in India sounds like it has been wonderful.