Kickin' back in Kerala

Trip Start Oct 13, 2004
Trip End Nov 16, 2004

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Where I stayed
Kumarakon Lake resort

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Wednesday, November 3, 2004

:: A breath of fresh air ::

Surrounded by dense greenery and narrow backwaters near the Arabian Sea, the state of Kerala is a welcomed respite from the frenetic, smogged-filled metropolis of Hyderabad. At last, I'm back in nature's lap.

On Monday, Nov 1, the central southeastern state of Andhra Pradesh celebrates its birthday (locals have lost count of its candles as it dates back to the late 16th century) thereby creating yet another holiday and day off for me. During the first week in November, I'll be working in Bangalore (south of Hyderabad in the state of Karnataka), which also honors this day (as any good neighbor would) thus prompting my three-day journey into southern India's unique geography.

Some of you may be thinking that this "work" trip of mine is just a mere guise for seeking personal travel and I couldn't agree with you more. If you long for holidays, disregard the commute and consider working in India as it honors hundreds of festivals, which pales in comparison to the standard US 10-day corporate allowance. I just missed, Onam, the big rice harvest festival (its gathered twice a year) in Kerala. A famous canoe race marks this celebration where very long snake boats, crewed by 150 rowers each, race down narrow inlets to the sea.

:: Cochin's cultural collage ::

I arrived early Saturday afternoon in Kerala's main airport, Cochin, a prime tourist seaport. Honestly, it's a minor miracle that I made it here at all due to an extremely tight 25-minute connection. Thanks to my little buddies (aka crutches), my wheelchair driver dropped me off on the tarmac next to the plane's roaring engines (and I thought the air quality was bad in Hyderabad; the air at the airport was an environmental disaster!) Flights run sporadically in India unlike the US. If you happen to miss a flight in the States, you'll likely fly standby on another flight that same day. In India, flights leave, at most, twice a day but more likely three times a week. Type A planners do well in India.

Cochin (means new or safe harbor) was founded in 1341 and served as the chief harbor on the Malabar Coast. Royals made Cochin their new home in 1405 and the city expanded rapidly attracting Christians and Jews from the Middle East who arrived in the 11th century as part of King Solomon's trading fleet. Its main attraction includes: spice markets, Chinese fishing nets, a synagogue (only three Jewish families remain in the city today), India's first European church, Dutch homes and village greens straight from England. Britain's influence but the street scene is anything but prim and proper.

:: Journey to Kumarakom ::

Seeking adventure, solitude, beauty and missing my Marin backyard, I decided my Keralan journey would end at the heart of the backwaters, Kumarakom. I hired a driver to take me to this tiny village, which is an island on Vernbanad Lake, two-hours south of Cochin. This turned out to be an excellent location despite being ripped off by the driver who spoke broken English and had a sever bout of short-tem memory loss when the agreed upon payment was rendered. Still, I considered being driven for two-hours door-to-door for under $20 a good deal. At least he got me to Kumarakon Lake Resort, a small cozy, cottage retreat nestled on the edge of a bird sanctuary.

Soon I found myself surrounded by beautiful dwellings entangled in lush waterways, which held true to Kerala's rich character and ancient history. Cottages are surrounded by inlets and designed in the traditional Keralan-style architecture. Its interior is supported by superbly crafted woodcarvings and remnants of old palaces eloquently fill the space between land and water. This quaint abode is self-contained within a lush tropical garden providing privacy for my open-air bathroom and shower. I always made sure to close the toilet lid just in case a little critter called it home. In essence, this little slice of heaven is a 5-star tropical campsite on the water.

:: An ayurvedic awakening::

Kumarakom Lake Resort is known for its yoga, meditation and ayurvedic center. Upon checking in I promptly scheduled an ayurvedic massage. I awaited my pampering by the pool--its blue waters lapping to the edge of the lake. Ayurvedic, a Sanskirt word meaning "knowledge for prolonging life", is a 5,000 year-old holistic medicine system that is widely practiced in India. San Francisco offers ayurvedic treatments but I had never experienced one before. Ayurvedic theory holds that disease is a symptom of imbalance; it's the imbalance that needs to be treated not the disease. An ayurvedic doctor treats not only to the patient's physical complaint but also considers family history, daily habits, and emotional traits. I didn't have the time for the full assessment, which lasts for days, but I got the basic healing touch of massage. It was very unique and unlike any massage I've had before. It started off with a lighting of incense and a silent prayer moment followed by a warm medicinal oils poured on my head and worked down to my toes. This indulgence felt wonderful and its aroma intensely gratifying but hours later its calming effects soon vanished into a panicking nightmare. Apparently, the special ancient healing oils have a dye in them that produced paprika color streaks in my blonde hair. That, combined with all the chlorine I've been in swimming in every day since I got to India, my hair looks like a jar of paint water after a day of water coloring. I do feel a bit of reassurance that Indian standards of beauty differ greatly from the intense vanity scene of San Francisco. Yoga and meditation served me well the next day.

:: Breathtaking backwater beauty ::

Not one to sit idle relaxing poolside all day, I set out to explore villages and immerse myself in the local culture on a boat ride through the backwaters. The meandering labyrinth of waterways lined by luscious vegetation, coconut trees and village people is a sight to behold. These waterways preserve rural Keralan lifestyles, which are completely hidden from the road. This was a definite a highlight of the weekend. However, I wasn't prepared what I was about to experience. I was alone on the boat, a traditional kettu vellm, whose exposed sides invite all kinds of stares from village onlookers. I felt like Queen Elizabeth touring her new found land. Locals, with fixated faces, set their sights on the white girl in the boat; a white girl with a blushing red face, no less! After the first hour, I got use to it and always returned the glares with a smile some of which were mirrored back from dark faces revealing bright yellow teeth. But, not always. Tourism didn't start here until 1995 so it's not all that new or old to them, which is why I felt like I invaded their turf. Despite the few resorts here and there, the town remains untouched.

Known as the Venice of the East, these waters swell to massive proportions during the monsoon season in June-July making the rudimentary bus system obsolete. Boats are an absolute necessity. Even in this rural wonder-- hundreds of miles away from the city commerce-- I cannot escape diesel fumes. A fragile ecosystem threatens this tropical rarity. Kerala's population density is 2-to-4 times greater than any other coastal area in southwest India. This puts pressure on the land and hence a greater need for fertilizer, which eventually works its way back into the water creating a build up of attractive chartreuse African moss. Land reclamation is the biggest threat by far. In a little over a century, the backwater region has been reduced by two-thirds.

That evening, back in my cottage, I witnessed the most fantastic thunderstorm I'd ever seen. November is the beginning of the high season so this storm was a bit unexpected. Its booms were probably felt for miles; its lightning flashes so bright and repetitious you'd think it was the Fourth of July. I was booked to sleep on a houseboat the next night but didn't want to die from electrocution in India so I stayed in my cottage another night. I was happy I did since another cloud opened up that night as well. The rain cooled the 80-degree night air and lured me to sleep as it danced a lullaby on the tile roof.

:: The Gods of Kottayam ::

The next day I ventured out of the resort to explore the neighboring village of Kottayam. This was a welcome departure from the motley crew of retired Germans ready to party who invaded the premises the night before. I was the only American. The French made their stake the day prior taking over the north section of the resort to shoot models wearing the latest in casual topical ware.

The Kottayam region is located in the heart of spice, tea and rubber industries. Large houses owned by rubber factory owners (they yield a rupee ($.45) per pound of rubber) fill the village square. Two eight-century churches, Cheriapalli (means "small church") and Valliapalli (means "big church") occupy the village, which has a long history of Christianity. The small church was open and I was given a tour by its groundskeeper. The altar dome is covered by frescos from a Portuguese artist. Its vegetable dyes (probably the ayurvedic one used on my hair) remains vivid after 450 years.

Arundhati's Roy's prize-winning novel, "The God of Small Things", is set in this area known as Kuttanad. Her house remains unoccupied but under a watchful eye. She now calls New Delhi home.

Ettumanur is another close village that is famous for its 16th-century Mahadeva temple. This is the site of the earliest and most celebrated Keralan murals of Shiva, a Hindu God who is most difficult to please. The artwork in the temple is not open to foreigners (much less women) but I was able can see the courtyard murals and took photos after paying a small fee. Its exterior walls hold a thousand or more oil lamps that are lit during a ten-day festival in February. Elephants are brought into the courtyard and are painted in honor of Shiva. Here again, I felt like a freak and most unwelcome. I remembered to remove my shoes but was a woman dressed in shorts, which I was told was inoffensive and feared I was doing something dreadfully disrespectful. It amused me that there were so many unfriendly faces amongst all this religion!

:: Bangalore bound ::

Back at the resort, I enjoyed a final Keralan feast and watched a traditional dance called, Kathakali, which is performed only by women. The costume adorn by the dancer is elaborate and her makeup exquisite, which takes hours to prepare. Handmade piped instruments accompany the dancer and sounded like the flock of birds I heard on the canals earlier that day. I wasn't ready to leave this tranquil setting and had to prepare myself for a new bustling city scene. I am hopeful that Bangalore, known as the "Garden City", will be a smooth segue from Kerala's pristine backwaters.
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ryall on

Magic in Kerala
Hello from Canada!

I am heading to India to work next month and was inspired by your blog on Kerala. Very well written- you conveyed your experiences so well that it was as if I was there! Thank you. Enjoy your travels! Ryall

saajan kerala on

Wearing shorts in temples is considered disrespectful..check this link..
Also 'kathakali' is not something only performed by women.Its mostly performed only by men(but there are no rules like that).Even the women characters are performed by men.For more info see .

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