Friday, November 13, 2009

An Uneven Number of Elephants

Apropos of nothing, an uneven number of elephants is considered to be lucky when it comes to Indian processions. This has nothing to do with anything but makes a great-sounding title so I’m going to wrestle it in somehow.

The seven of us who remain of our original group (there we go…) are now in the State of Kerala, in the far south of India; a hop, skip and jump from Delhi. (A hop, in this case, consisting of a 3 AM wakeup call, a 2 hour flight to Bangalore, changing planes for another 1 ½ hour flight to Kochin and then a 2 ½ hour drive to the backwaters area. The skip and jump part remain constant for both equations) We’ll be spending the next 3 days on a houseboat traveling through the rivers and backwaters.

This south-western tip of India is completely different from where we just left. This is a lush, green world with a 99% literacy rate, relatively clean streets, a healthy, well-fed populace and nothing (or no-one) burning constantly to gum up your lungs.

We’ve arrived in time for their second monsoon season of the year. A kinder and gentler monsoon than the big honker that ends in September, this one just tends to dump sheets of water in the afternoons and evenings. (Unless I’m in the area, in which case you can expect specials on the weather channel showing bewildered survivors picking through their meager belongings and wondering which god’s dog they might have inadvertently run over.)

There’s a lot to say about Kerala so I’ll be breaking it up for your convenience.

The Omnivores Solution

Nothing is sacred in Kerala.

This has nothing to do with mores and everything to do with the culture. While much of the rest of India is overrun by sacred (read "abandoned") cows, semi-feral pigs and randy little monkeys (Plus one small, nightmarish village ruled by a gigantic sentient land squid), this area is largely Christian which means one thing.

Everything is fair game come dinner time. Beef and pork are what's for dinner as well as anything else that walks, flies, swims or flops about.

Having christians around pretty much obviates the need for animal control officers. Bothered by pesky livestock? Just speak His Holy Name aloud and by the time the coals have ashed over and are glowing nicely, Mr. Bull will find himself brushed off, smothered in a nice honey glaze and escorted on to the next plane of existence by the local parish Rotary Club.

Being sacred won’t save you in Kerala. If you see a cow here it belongs to someone and is lovingly cared for, washed daily, massaged and getting free medical treatment from the local government, as do the people. Most livestock is specially bred and tagged (Lots of those nice, Jersey cows with the big, soft eyes that just stare a hole into the depths of… Where was I?) and has a place to call home. There’s nothing more heartwarming than watching the family cow racing down the driveway, mooing excitedly, to welcome daddy home from the office.

At any rate, there are no cows, pigs or the like wandering about here. Here, they live out their lives as nature and god intended…

Standing around for a year or two and then being eaten.

Jason and the Coconauts

On our way from Kochin (aka- Cochin, Cochi, Kochi or Milwaukee Phil) to the spot near the Arabian Sea where we would board our 3 boat fleet, we learned a lot about the area.

We’re in coconut central here. Everywhere you look there are coconut palms. Lining the city streets, receding into the distance in great forests or driving past you in cabs; you’ll find the ubiquitous coconut. Fortunately, in addition, there is plenty of pineapple and incredibly cheap rum which makes for the constant supply of Pina Colada needed to cope with daily life among the coconuts.

In addition to being their main export product, coconut intrudes into every aspect of life here in Twilight-Zone fashion. It becomes quickly apparent that the coconut thing has gotten completely out of hand. Coconut is in every dish, as exemplified by the sliced coconut in coconut sauce I just had with lunch. In addition to cooking with it, they use it to create mats, rope, houses, animal food, electric generators, radio sets (The Professor from Gilligan’s Island is revered here for his work in developing new uses for the coconut, much as George Washington Carver was in the field of peanuts.) People can’t give them away. Friendly locals come up to us on the street, say “Hello”, ask where we were from and then press coconuts into our arms and hurry off with haunted looks in their eyes. They’re left on neighbors porches, fired by trebuchet upon other villages, dressed up in fake noses and glasses and placed on buses but, still, they’re unable to make a dent in the supply. These things are like zucchini.

Deadly zucchini…

You see, the big problem with coconuts comes when you factor in gravity. Everywhere around us can be heard the staccato “thump” of coconuts impacting the ground. If you’re standing in the wrong place…

You see the lovely Keralan women always carrying open umbrellas when they’re out walking. Ostensibly, these are to protect them from the sun but, when you get close, you notice the metal reinforcement. The government provides helmets for the men but they‘re too cool (i.e. stupid) to use them. The dead and injured are lined up along the street, waiting for the overworked ambulances. Social service agencies are also stressed trying to address the increasing number of coconut-related amnesia cases turning up. There’s nothing more heart-breaking than the look in a cow’s eyes when she realizes her owner doesn’t recognize her.

This tasty and versatile menace has also taken its toll on the local wildlife. As the Christians have accounted for the regional cow and pig population, monkeys have borne the brunt of the coconut assault. Few are left in the wild and are seldom seen anymore other than the occasional lone male moving cautiously through the jungle, gibbering pathetically to itself and spinning around every few steps to look about. He’ll never hear the coconut that has his number.

Tonight, after our boats tied up for the evening and we sat sipping tea and listening to the sounds of the night, the regular thump of the falling coconuts was suddenly broken by a comical “bonk” and a brief simian scream.

After that, all was silence except for the “scritch-scritch” sound of a nearby Christian firing up his hibatchi.

Parade Time in Sunny Chambakkulam!

Dawn breaks in the tiny Keralan riverside town of Chambakkulam as it does nearly every day. The toddy tappers are about their work of siphoning off coconut palm sap to make the local hooch. Shops are opening up; children in their neat school uniforms are walking along the waterways headed for early classes.

But there‘s a subtle change in the village; a certain excitement in the air, almost a carnival atmosphere, for this no ordinary day. The children linger along the embankment, laughing and chatting animatedly. First class can wait today! It’s time for the Walking-Around-of-the-Tourists!

Almost on cue, a houseboat pulls up to the bank and seven Americans totter onto land, blinking myopically in the carbon-arc light of the morning sun. They immediately begin snapping pictures of everything; children, trees, the river and each other. The children jump up and down with delight at the appearance of the tourists. Dressed in their nearly colorless beige tropical wear from Travelsmith, they pose an exotic contrast to the colorful, light clothing of the locals. Swaddled in layers of special microfiber guaranteed to wick moisture away, shod in sturdy walking shoes and carrying plenty of water, the tourists immediately begin to sweat buckets from beneath their expedition hats.

Trailing behind, giggling and punching each other, the children tag along to watch the fun as the tourists fall in behind their guide for one more “Learning and Discovery” death march. The mothers and shopkeepers exchange knowing smiles. Everyone’s in on the fun!


Our guide leads the way along the water, pointing out the sights as he goes. By this point, we’ve already established our dysfunctional dynamic; a clumsy, Balkan folk dance sort of thing in which he’s not really sure what we’re interested in seeing and we are trying desperately, in good, western-liberal fashion, to express interest and appreciation in all facets of the local culture. As we’re in the aptly named Backwaters, there’s not a lot to point at other than the natural beauty and the delightful people but that point passed days ago. Now the cultural interchange has devolved into the following:

“Now on the right you see cashew tree. You know cashew tree? Tree that has cashews? Cashew tree.” he intones, followed by a chorus of appreciative “ahs” and the clicking of cameras. This will be repeated at least twenty times on the walk till we will be able to identify a cashew tree at the drop of a hat. This should prove useful some day, I’m sure, however my attention is increasingly focused on the skyrocketing heat. In an area with temps in the high 90’s and humidity levels around 112%, meaning it’s actually drier to be underwater, the sun is grilling me with an intensity I don’t actually remember encountering in a long, relatively sweaty life. It’s not 9:30 yet; I’m standing in the shade and yet I’ve already sweat so much that my pants are looser.

“Here on the left is store”, he continues, pointing at what is unmistakably a store, readily identifiable by the general “store-ishness” of the place, the advertising posters and the man behind the counter selling things to people. “You know store? The people come here and buy things from the store? Store.” he concludes, succinctly. We try to avoid each other’s glances and continue to snap the obligatory pictures, planning how we will present them, when we get home, to Kathy and Bob (or whichever unfortunates are dragooned into reliving our adventures with us) “We saw these in a small shop in a tiny Keralan town” we’ll tell them as Bob smiles frozenly and eyes the room for possible exits, “The native people use them to clean their homes with. They’re called brooms,” we’ll say, nodding sagely.

This is the point where I realize I’m beginning to lose it. Sweat’s running off me so fast that alarmed mothers have begun to pull their children away in fear. Noting that the group has gotten ahead of me, I sluice the sweat from my half blinded eyes and pick up the pace.

“…pepper plants and green beans”, I arrive in time to learn. “And back there is cashew tree. You know cashew tree?” I can hear one desultory camera click response and peel away from the herd once more. As consciousness toys with me, I look around for Staci. I want to tell her to go on without me and save herself but she seems to already be about 60 feet ahead, under a sheltering tree. I notice that even Staci, who doesn’t generally perspire (I only remember two prior incidents; one involving climbing a mountain in Belize during the rainy season when she complained of “feeling a bit sticky.”) is sweating so hard she’s actually out of breath.

Moving determinedly through the tour group, I’m able to drop back into the guide's patter, now tinged a bit with desperation as he’s run out of things to show. “… mud puddle, you know? Er… mud.” Then, suddenly, as a life line is thrown to him, he cries brightly, “And, on the right, two-wheel bicycle! You see bicycle?”

I try desperately to reach Staci, thinking that if I can only get to her, I could possibly push her out of the way and take her spot in the shade. At that point, however, the high point of our walkabout looms up ahead of us like some great, looming thing.

(In Kerala, even statues carry sunbrellas)

“Here is old, 17th century Portuguese Church.” we learn. “You know old church? The Portuguese build it? In the 17th century?” he adds helpfully. “Church. We can go in. Please remove shoes and watch your head”

Bv this time I’m pretty much beyond the pale and am staggering about the church grounds blindly. Broad-brimmed hat and sunglasses forgotten, I’m not even snapping pictures anymore, though there are a number of arches begging to have the usual shot’s framed by them. “Sky up, ground down,” I chant to myself through cracked lips, trying to maintain my tenuous hold on consciousness. I notice that I’ve stopped sweating and vague medical alerts start flashing in my dim awareness. I don’t have time to consider them, however, as this is the point where a number of my dead loved ones turn up and start the obligatory exhortations for me to “go towards the light”. This is a pointless exercise, though, as every direction leads to the light (and more heat!)

Kicking off my shoes, I pad through the airless recesses of the old church, exchanging sympathetic shrugs with the crucified figure on the altarpiece as I look for cool shade, a breeze or some overlooked holy water. Staci’s in a pew, trying desperately to maintain. I notice that the spirits of my grandparents have now joined the tour group and are nodding with polite interest as the guide drones on. Uncle Dom is dispatched to herd them back as my father and Uncle Ray continue to drift after me shaking their heads ruefully.

Trailed by my incorporeal posse, I’m now standing in the doorway of a classroom at the church-run school, listening to the kids recite for us. I sway over to the next classroom door and am greeted by another 20 curious faces peering up. “Hello“, they chorus at me. “Ah-ha-ha-ha!”, I inform them, with a ghastly grin, as I spin back towards the Church.

At this point, I notice that even my dead relatives are sweating profusely. They’ve given up on me as a bad job and, groping around unsuccessfully in the glare for whatever passageway leads back to their ethereal plane of existence, are looking worried. My Grandmother tries to catch my attention but I turn and toddler-run towards the river. They’re on their own. We have 3 cats and our house is crowded enough..

Rejoining my travel companions, I notice that we’ve all attained a bright, cherry red color and steam is whistling cheerfully from our carapaces, signaling doneness. I’m longing for some nice SPF 40 lemon butter when we suddenly arrive back at the boat and safety; our 45 minute adventure over.

While waiting for water bottles to arrive, I try to tell Staci that I’m not leaving the boat again till the sun dies but my tongue, as well as part of one leg and miscellaneous debris from the walk, is stuck to the roof of my mouth. Looking at each other silently, our eyes say it all as they drift to the single chair in front of the single fan and then back to each other.,,

The children smile brightly and the watching villagers place their bets…

1 comment:

Bob said...

Nice post, but I wouldn't bank on your getting hired by the India Bureau of Tourism anytime some. I find it odd that you would go halfway around to world to experience some ungodly hell-hole when Gary, Indiana is conveniently located right across the border. Cathy and I are really looking forward to seeing the photos, videos and medical receipts from your trip, but unfortunately we're busy that night.