Monday, May 2, 2011

Final hours in India

It's been real.

Really hot.
Really delicious.
Really crowded.
Really colorful.
Really messy.
Really overgrown.
Really tranquil.
Really friendly.
Really detailed.
Really lush.
Really loud.
Really disjointed.
Really patient.
Really determined.
Really gentle.
Really inefficient.
Really hopeful.
And really, really mind-expanding.

And Bangalore is a city, as the sign below reads, that is constantly in-progress, in-process, as-yet-unfinished. I can't imagine what it will look like five years from now, if what I see today is a landscape that didn't exist a decade ago. I can only assume its denizens will come and go, go and come, all the while trying to manage and work with their small piece of this place.

I don't want to leave. I just want to be sitting around Deepak and Rashmi's table, with their family, eating amazing soups and lentils and breads. I want to go to ice cream at Polar Bear again and again, having the kulfi flavor, my favorite. I want to eat idlis and vadas and chapatis with sambar, coconut chutney, and a tiny metal cup of masala chai. I want to ride in a tuk-tuk through terrible traffic, barely making it through alive. I want to actually see Whitefield, where the techies live, and see their palatial workplace campuses. I want to see another Bollywood movie, eat another McDonald's McVeggie lentil burger at the same mall, and maybe even get yet another souvenir. I want to remember every amazing face that rushed past mine in the Bangalorean fray, in airport lines, and on the streets. I want to take more pictures of street signs, of produce markets, and of textiles. I want to explore the inexplicable Hindu temples that major and minor intersections are build around, since you can't mess with sacred spaces. I want to hear the speakers at the gorgeous mosque on Mysore Road, calling Muslims to prayer.

I'll leave you with the last event of our Kerala trip, when Andrew and I went two hills over ("a walk," our hotel proprietor assured me. a "trek" was more like it. I need to hit the gym HARD when I get home!) At the top of this hill you are rewarded with a 360-degree view of the Western Ghats, the fertile tea and coffee plantations in the rolling valleys, and the sharply contrasting yet compatible shrines that both Hindus and Christians climb to worship. The paths that diverge lead one group of worshippers to a series of crosses leading to the summit, the other leading the others to a cluster of mini temples.

Despite the fact that I felt about to pass out, I was sweating ridiculously, and I could feel the dismal failure of my month-long carbohydrate diet working to my ultimate disadvantage, I took in the view. I wanted to remember it, and saw it as the culmination of a long-ago goal, to visit this country that I'd spent hours dreaming about, dancing like I was part of, reading its authors voraciously, and preparing mere approximations of its foods.

 As I turned to leave, my eye caught a piece of cloth, a woman's scarf, waving in the breeze. It seemed to sum up my mixed feeling about having to descend and return, first back to Bangalore from Kerala, from Bangalore to London, and, finally, London to Seattle. The scarf, once white but aged by the wind and dust, glimmered with a sparkly edge. While it bade me goodbye, it also signaled that it just might be there for a while. Even if I should stand on that very spot again someday.


I have only seen a sliver of this place, a speck of its wonders. But I remain fascinated, entranced, and leave feeling greedy. I want more. This has been the trip of a lifetime, but I hope I have many more lifetimes in me. 

Ayurveda in the Cardamom Hills

As if the Backwaters weren't enough of a treat, we also spent five days in the Cardamom Hills near Thekaddy, at Paradisa Plantation Retreat, a labor of love cut into the side of a hill with a panoramic view of the Western Ghats and the beginnings of Tamil Nadu state. All the buildings were made from old house that were going to be torn down, and the doors, windows, fixtures, and columns and rooftops found a new home here. The attention to detail and the respect for the fine craftsmanship of the past was hard to miss. It was like going back in time. The views themselves were timeless.

We stayed in Cardamom Cottage, which sleeps four, but since we were three we had plenty of room to lounge, read, play charades, and generally try to identify insect life (an army of tiny red ants took two full days to carry a dead spider across the veranda! the crickets were, like, two inches long! a giant brown beetle-ish thing ended up in my, well, never mind, but it was HUGE) and oncoming storm clouds.

We ate like kings. Literally, we were served, then served again, then again. I have gained weight, not lost it in this country. Carbs, dairy, sugar, coconut, wow, it's been sensational. Here we grew accustomed to having freshly squeezed pineapple, watermelon, mango (it's Alphanso season!!! yippee!!), lime juice, or papaya shakes, then at twilight a bottle of Indian white wine on the porch. Mornings we switched that out for masala chai while the mist cleared with the early sun. We gorged ourselves on coconut-based curries with fish and chicken, thoran (dry cocunut curry with green beans, okra, or carrot), mango pickle, and breakfasts of appam (rice-flour pancakes), coconut milk, and honey. Did I mention the peanut butter? I was fresh, with little salt and a hit of red chili powder. As Emeril would say, "Bam!!"

The three of us had our first Ayurvedic massages. Full-body, even Janet. After I consoled (and cajoled) Janet into feeling comfortable with the idea (it was a highly-rated medical facility, we met with a doctor first, who felt my forehead and proclaimed, "You think too much!"), saying that this was a modest culture and that she'd be covered up like the model was in the brochures at the hotel, a half an hour later I was sitting on a plastic stool in a room with nothing on but this shower cap gizmo that I was supposed to wear like a diaper. I had hot oil poured over my head, and the ensuing scalp massage almost had me on the floor in slippery swoon. Then, the FULL body massage began on the table, and I mean FULL. I was lubed up in medicinal oil (perhaps tailored to my propensity for hyper-mentality), then afterward told to sit in a shower stall on the plastic stool while the woman handed me a glob of what looked like muddy green sand and said, "Wash." She washed me, too, with this stuff that smelled a little like hay and mugwort, with bits of granular things in it, and then poured hot water over me from a MASSIVE bucket until I was smooth as a baby's tush. Then she washed my hair. By the time it was over, I was reduced to a childlike, maybe even infantile, state, and did whatever she told me. Goo-goo.

 See? It's really a hospital. Very green. Serene. Unearthly silent.

Andrew wonders what he's gotten himself into.
Little does he know....

The massage annex. Say your prayers!

 Now I glow. And unless there were hidden cameras in the room that later surface on YouTube, we're both women and no one else is the wiser. Fingers crossed!

There's always room for one more elephant!

Rani, age 27

In the hills above coastal Kerala, there is yet another string of nature reserves. Some boast that they are filled with over 40 Bengal tigers (!), while in reality tiger sightings are extremely rare. Most have the garden-variety of spotted deer, birds, and, the now-ubiquitous Asian elephant.

Arjun, age 50

So instead of being herded into another all-terrain vehicle once we got out of the Backwaters, we instead decided to head to a place where we could actually ride the palatial-sized pachyderms. And so we did.

We rode Arjun, the 50-year-old elephant, through a small palm forest and through a village. Yes, we were a curiosity. Yes, we got to wave at locals, a la HRH Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge. And no, we weren't dressed half as well.

When Arjun dropped us off, we were then introduced to Rani, a 27-year-old female elephant, who obliged us by letting us scrub her down.

In return, she helped Janet get clean. As only elephants can.

Their skin is as tough as you'd imagine, which I could see at close range, and the tusks, well, they're just incredible close-up.

We got to feed Rani after her bath, and Janet's, which was kind of amazing. Not to mention intimidating. Her gullet went on forever!

Head to big round feet, we have loved all the elephants we came into contact with on this trip. They are awesome, in every sense of the word. They have such small, almost human-sized eyes, and somehow they are able to connect to us. We didn't see maltreatment here, at this elephant ranch, and the animals had shade and food and company aplenty. They have a long history of being work animals, dragging and carrying loads, so hopefully we didn't give Arjun any sciatica. But seeing them in the wild is heart-stopping, and we're glad we had a chance to do that on two separate occasions.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Backwaters 3

When you say Backwaters, most people think: ketu vallam. Right? Am I right?

Those are the large, water creatures (literal translation: "boat with knots") common to this part of the world, the ark-like rice barges that used to transport goods up and down the canal system. They are now primarily used to transport tourists up and down the canal system into the large Lake Vembanad.

Made of jackwood and featuring a thatched palm covering, these barges now accommodate overnight guests, with their own captain, cook, and mates, all ready to make your Backwaters experience complete. Many visitors choose to spend overnights on these vessels, but since we were at the Farm, we arranged for a full-day boat trip. Each boat is unique, crafted to house four, six, and what seemed like 20 passengers. They chug along, some louder than others, filling the network of waterways leading from the lake to the smaller canals.

We got our houseboat experience, complete with a multi-plate lunch and a breezy, shaded upper deck and deck chairs, and spent a glorious day aboard the Royal Star (photo above).

Come along for the ride!

Blissed out on board

Leading us to the lake

Sweet life on deck!

Lake Vembanad

The slow barge to Alleppey on Lake V.

Yoga break

Lunch is served...

 ....and how!

Boats of all sizes

Prime advertising spot

Life on the canals