I’m writing my last Curried Alaskan post in the Frankfurt Airport on layover from India to the United States.
How to describe the emotions, the effort and the stress of getting our family moved out of our rental house in just a couple days? I’m too drained right now for clever words. We scheduled our last trip right at the end of our year in India, with only a couple days back home in Pune for final packing.
An ex-pat friend of mine in marveled at our year-long stay. “I would never do it for anything less than three years,” she said. “It’s just too difficult for foreigners to get established here.”
In some ways, our last trip to Kerala was the perfect way to end our Fulbright year in India. Unlike other trips that involved pilgrimages to temples, holy places and famous historical sites, our trip to Kerala was for pure relaxation and enjoyment.
Kerala is a thin strip of lush green land along the southwest coast of India that features beaches, rivers, lakes and backwaters. It doesn’t have the severe water shortages that plague the rest of the nation. It proudly goes by the slogan “God’s Own Country.”
It has a reputation as one of the best governed states in India, boasting the highest literacy rate in the country. Government officials and police here are less corrupt, and it clearly has less trash, pollution and sanitation problems compared to the rest of India as far as we could tell.
As in all other regions, the language is unique and there are differences in clothing, customs and traditions. Women’s traditional saris here are a lighter weave of cotton, and the south Indian men wear mundus, or pieces of cloth wrapped around their waists sort of like a towel in their own version of the lungi.
Our trip included a mix of historical sites, hill stations, spice and tea plantations, a houseboat tour on the relaxing backwaters as well as a couple splurges at beautiful properties both on the backwaters and at a beach.
We enjoyed the first refreshing rain since last year’s monsoon, and even saw a waterfall. We watched several crashing and booming thunderstorms that lit up the sky like a flashing disco. Kerala itself has a history with many different cultural influences. Once ruled by the Portuguese and later by the Dutch, Christian churches dot the landscape.
Our holiday started by traveling from Pune to Ernakalum via the Indian Railway, a 24-hour trip one way. This was such a relaxing and pleasant way to see a good chunk of India. We had a three-tiered, air-conditioned compartment that slept six, so it was our family plus one other person. We brought food such as peanut butter sandwiches, apples, chips and cookies, since a news story about unhygienic food preparation on the trains made us wary. We were warned about stinky bathrooms, but I didn’t find them to be all that bad (remember, I’ve lived with Alaska outhouses my entire life). Brian saw a small mouse on the train, but so long as it’s not a rat or snake, I’m fine.
We spent two days in steamy Cochin, where we visited the Paradesi Synagogue in a section of Cochin known as Jew Town. It was built in 1568 and features a number of beautiful old items, including gold crowns received as gifts, numerous Belgian glass chandeliers and an ornate pulpit made of brass. Unfortunately, visitors aren’t allowed to take pictures inside. The synagogue’s floor is covered in hundreds of hand-painted Chinese porcelain tiles from the 18th century, which made it look truly stunning. We also went to St. Francis Church in Cochi, much less ornate but older, as it was built in 1503. It’s known as the oldest European church in India, and the famous explorer Vasco De Gama is buried there.
We went to a nicely laid-out Dutch museum and the Kerala Folklore Museum that features an interesting collection of tribal artifacts. We also took in a nighttime show of Kathakali, a unique dance that’s more a mastery of make-up artistry and exaggerated facial expressions than dance the way most of us think of it.
From Cochin we traveled at breakneck, lurching speed thanks to our Malayalam speaking driver Murali, up into the hills where we spent two days in Munnar, known best for its tea and spice plantations. This area is acre after acre of lush green tea plants, cardamom plants, pepper plants and other spices covering rolling hills and steep cliffs in a carpet of green.
Unfortunately, I became very sick in Munnar and spent much of the time in bed. Luckily the rest of the family was fine, so they took a fun Jeep “safari” (a term loosely used to describe any off-road experience) to a mountainside tea plantation. They watched women harvest tea leaves for 200 rupees a day ($4 US dollars) and bundle up their day’s work on top of their heads. They saw the entire tea-producing process, from harvesting to drying to crushing and packaging.
Our hotel, Sienna Village, was a family friendly sort of place, and the weather refreshingly cool for India this time of year. Even though I was sick, it was a good place to be and a wonderful break from the 100-degree frying pan of Pune. We rented two condo type units that had three levels, with a little loft sitting area and balcony on one level, the living room on the next level, then bedroom and bathroom on the bottom level. One night, the hotel staff prepared a barbecue out on the lawn, which was tasty and charming. Like a lot of the places we’ve visited, we were the only white westerners there, which meant more cheek pinching for Rachel and exclamations of “baby!” She doesn’t like this, but it gives me free license to tweak cheeks of cute chubby Indian babies in return.
From Munnar, we went to Thekkady for two days, also inland. Here, we stayed in two “tree houses” at a place called Carmelia Haven. We weren’t far from civilization but it felt like it, and the songs of all the various birds and chirping crickets made us feel like we were in the middle of a jungle. One creepy crawly creature aside (a centipede that my hero Brian took outside), it was a pleasant stay despite the mushrooms that sprouted up in the kids’ bathroom.
Kerala is famous for its ongoing practice of ayurveda, which is popular throughout India but Kerala is the spot. Carmelia Haven offered traditional ayurvedic massages, and we all got one except Robin.
From Thekkady we were supposed to visit Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary, known for its elephants and tigers. Somehow, through a misunderstanding with our driver, we ended up at a place that gave elephant rides instead. It wasn’t what we expected but we went along with it, which we’ve found is often the best thing to do in India. Besides, elephant rides are always fun.
Due to our tight itinerary, we didn’t have time after that to squeeze in an actual visit to the wildlife sanctuary, where we hoped to get a glimpse of elephants in their natural habitat. This is my only regret of the trip. We should have shifted our schedule around to accommodate the actual sanctuary.
Carmelia Haven offered a complimentary afternoon tour that included a tour of a cardamom plant, a Jeep safari, trekking, a boat ride on a lake at the cardamom plantation and a barbecue. We assumed guests would have to pick and choose among those offerings, as we couldn’t possibly do all those activities in one single afternoon.
Wrong! This is India, where anything is possible. The tour of the cardamom plantation included a very nice man pointing to the bins where they toast the cardamom and another place where they grind up the aromatic spice. The tour took about five minutes. “Now, the Jeep safari,” he said, hustling us out the door.
The Jeep safari consisted of the guide and a driver blasting up a rocky, crazy trail that eventually opened up onto the top of a hill. I had a moment where I truly panicked, after the Jeep barreled up and over the hill at a high rate of speed. I was sure he’d careen over a cliff and plunge us to our deaths. “Stop! Stop!” I shouted, and when he didn’t, I used the Hindi word for stop or enough—“Bus! Bus!”
The driver and guide thought this was hilarious (Hindi is not spoken much in Kerala). They spent the rest of the time giggling and laughing about either that or my panic, I’m not sure which. I’ve become used to being the object of laughter, pointing or whatever, so paid no heed and did the next thing on our fast paced itinerary—the “trek,” which really involved walking about 300 yards up a hill to a Christian shrine. This spot was right on the border with Tamil Nadu, the next state over, and was a beautiful location. Calling what we did a “trek,” however, is an extreme exaggeration.
After that, the guide and driver quickly herded us back onto the Jeep, where we jostled and bumped back down the hill and to a man-made lake, right next to a dam. By this time I was not surprised when I saw two Indian men sitting in a small rowboat waiting for us. “Your boat ride,” the guide said, gesturing for us to get in.
Only in India! The 1,500-acre lake itself was a bit low, and didn’t seem all that inviting, but we rowed around it for about a half hour anyway before they pulled up to shore and announced, “and now, the barbecue…come come!”
On top of a small building by the dam, our hotel hosts had indeed prepared a spicy Indian barbecue. The chef from the hotel cooked the meal while we were out touring, Jeep-ing, trekking and boating! He even wore a white chef’s hat.
Done with our late lunch, we loaded back onto the bus and, through more twisting, turning on the windy Kerala roads, we were back at our hotel by 7 p.m.! Gotta hand it to them, we did everything on the list, as advertised.
After two nights in Thekkady, we headed back out to the shores of Vembanad Lake, the gateway to Kerala’s famous backwaters. Here we splurged at a five-star place called Coconut Lagoon, right on the water’s edge. In fact, we had to take a small ferry from a landing to even get to the resort, which normally would be far out of our budget.
The end of April/beginning of May in Kerala is the off season, because no Indian in their right mind would visit these places when it’s the height of the hot season! But this meant hotel fares were discounted, so we got used to the sweat running down our backs and the sides of our faces and enjoyed the natural, peaceful beauty of Kerala.
Coconut Lagoon featured lake-side bungalows with rich wood, brass and iron fixtures inside. The quaint bathrooms had ceilings that opened up to the sky. Even the houseboat was clean and attractive (there were some small cockroaches but I don’t consider that a big deal—it’s hard to keep things like that out of a boat in India). Like Coconut Lagoon, there was no TV on the houseboat, but it wasn’t needed, as just watching the scenery roll by was entertainment enough.
The resort itself had a great pool, which the kids also loved, as well as a couple of nice restaurants featuring Keralan cuisine of seafood, coconut and fresh fruits and vegetables. On our overnight houseboat trip, the boys jumped into the backwaters and swam until the sun went down, while the cook prepared us a dinner of crabs and prawns that we had bought alongside the lake earlier that day.
I felt a bit like a voyeur on the backwaters, peering into the everyday lives of local people as they did their laundry, dishes, bathed and fished in the narrow canals. But it was too fascinating to look away, and many of the locals waved at us.
After the backwaters, we headed for Marari Beach, along the Malabar Coast overlooking the Lakshadweep Sea. The beach itself was too hot for my liking, and had too many scuttling crabs to make it inviting for building sand castles or body surfing. The surf itself brought in fishing debris with each wave, including bits of rope and plastic. Perhaps it’s the way the tides were during the time we visited.
The pool at Marari Beach was nice, the grounds spacious, our bungalows perfectly appointed, and the food delicious (especially the breakfast buffet). Again, there was no TV but we all read books, lazed, swam in the pool and just enjoyed life. I took yoga classes at both Marari Beach and Coconut Lagoon, but it was far too hot to do much else physically.
Besides, I’ve become really good at doing absolutely nothing.
Update: I’m now finishing this post in Bethany Beach, Maryland, USA, at the O’Donoghue family beach place about a three hour’s drive from Bethesda. We’re on the East Coast until May 21, when we fly to Seattle to visit my sister, aunt and other family members. We’ll take some side trips up to New York and Boston, to check out potential colleges for Rory. On May 24 we fly to Juneau to visit my folks and other sister, and finally get into Fairbanks June 1. I return to my job as public affairs director for the University of Alaska System on June 3rd. My days of doing nothing are quickly coming to an end.
We’ve had reverse culture shock so far. First of all, what strikes me most is everything is so clean, well-built and well-organized, including the traffic. There’s hardly any trash and no crowds. Crossing the street is simple. Cars politely wait for pedestrians. I accidentally cut in line at a 7-11 because the real line was standing so far back from the woman at the cash register, I couldn’t tell there was even a line. In India, you get used to scooting up as close as possible, or you might not get served. The idea of personal space doesn’t exist and lines are often optional.
The other thing I never really noticed before is that Americans are so diverse, as a people. The Great American Melting Pot and all that. The Customs guy was Hispanic, judging by his looks and name tag, but spoke perfect English. “Welcome home, guys,” he said smiling and casual. So…American!
Alaska’s a rough-around-the-edges kind of place compared to the civilized Lower 48. I’m sure we’ll have yet even more culture shock once we reach the Last Frontier. But coming back to the U.S. is like putting on an old comfortable pair of shoes that are already perfectly broken in. It feels so right. On the other hand, we continue to marvel at everything we see, as if noticing it for the first time. “Just look at this nice road!” and “look how there’s no trash!” and “smell that fresh air!”
It’s been a wonderful experience in India, filled with authentic yoga, delicious tea, and plenty of time to read, write and just be. Everything we did in India was one of those “once in a lifetime” experiences, such as visiting the Ganges River in the ancient and holy city of Varanasi, the magnificent Taj Mahal, the Thar Desert on camels–I could go on and on. And I do when anyone asks, so be forewarned!
But sometimes the heat and jostling crowds were just too much. Sometimes, the simplest of tasks took hours to accomplish. Sometimes I felt trapped and resented the patriarchal attitude that still dominates India.
It’s been a wild, eye-opening ride. Sometimes I was ready for it to end and other times, it went too fast. We made good friends, and saying good-bye to so many people was hard. Our departure was bittersweet. I cried.
I’ll miss mint coriander chutney and roti, and autorickshaw rides to the local movie theater, where we watched Bollywood flicks in Hindi with no subtitles. I’ll miss the goofy looking buffalo as well as herds of goats and sheep, not to mention the meandering, ever-present cow. The animals are all part of routine traffic on crowded streets where nobody follows the rules and somehow it all still works….eventually.
Indians, as a whole, are patient. They adjust, they make room for one more. You never leave an Indian’s home hungry. Our Indian friends are among the most caring and considerate people I’ve ever met. Will we ever see them again? Will we ever come back? Will they visit us? How will this year shape our lives and world view in the months and years ahead? When we get disgusted with U.S. politics or petty office bickering, will we long to run away for a year someplace foreign and exotic again?
And the biggest, burning question, on my mind anyway — will I ever wear my saris in Alaska?
Maybe not. But I’m glad I have them as a reminder of an incredible year in an incredible country. Goodbye, Mother India. My heart is more open, my mind broadened and my spirit enriched because of time spent within your borders.