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.
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…
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!
“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.