Culture in Kochi

Trip Start Jan 16, 2012
Trip End Jul 11, 2012

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Where I stayed
Privilege Homestay

Flag of India  , Kerala,
Monday, February 27, 2012

"Madam?" It was Nagesh, our homestay host, about three steps below the threshold of our third floor aerie. I scrambled to find something to cover me; after footing it around town in the mid-30-degree heat, the first thing we did on coming back to the room was to take off all our clothes and stand under the fan. Nagesh always made the trek up the stairs just as I had all my clothes off.

“Tea, madam?” A short while later, he was back with a tray of two glasses of steaming black tea, no sugar, the way we've come to like it since learning from the vehement guide at the Munnar Tea Museum that drinking tea with milk and sugar is incorrect (INCORRECT, he emphasized for the benefit of the Indians for whom chai means loads of sugar and milk).

The house was three-stories in a neighbourhood of narrow streets and lanes. Each time we returned there by rickshaw we had to educate the driver about its location, which made us feel like locals. And by sitting in Nagesh and Shamala’s living room on the ground floor, I could ask the questions that had accumulated: Why do they make those patterns in front of their houses? (In a Hindu home, after the daily bath and cleaning the entranceway, the koalam designs are made for the hope of prosperity). What is that powder? (Sometimes it’s rice powder, but more often it’s special koalam powder.) What do you call the trousers and tunic that a lot of women wear instead of a sari? (It’s called a churidar set, and the fashion started about six or seven years ago. It’s more convenient to wear than a sari, but most women still wear a long matching scarf over one shoulder or over both shoulders and draped in front.) Who are the Hindu gods in my photos? (Oh. Hmm. Well, this is . . . Anjinir, who returned Sita, Rama’s wife . . . this is Hanuman, the same as Anjinir . . . this is Vishnu . . . this other one is also Vishnu.) There are so many Hindu gods and characters from the mythology, it was hard to even begin to get a handle on these, but in their family shrine in the second floor living room, Nagesh showed me Ganesh, the elephant god, and Lakshmi, goddess of wealth. Opposite this shrine was a photo of a departed family member, probably his father, encircled by flashing lights. Early on Monday morning I went down to the ground floor living room where the Wi-Fi signal was strongest, so that I could face-time with my niece; Nagesh and Shamala joined in the video conference, wishing her a happy birthday. Just after we’d waved goodbye, their daughter, a student in the final year of her electronic engineering degree at Mahatma Gandhi University, came into the room to light incense and pray at the shrine before she left to travel the 45 km back to the women’s varsity hostel where she lives during the week.

Soon after that, at 8 a.m., I was on my back on the wooden stage of the Kerala Kathakali Centre. It was time for the morning ragas, one hour of sitar and tabla music, and the six or seven of us gathered in the peaceful theatre were invited to sit or lie down as we pleased to meditate to the music. The contrast to the theatre two nights before was extreme: we’d been packed in there with a full house of tourists to see a sampling of kathakali dance, a traditional Keralan royal art form that had been revived in the 1930s. The dancers had spent almost two hours making themselves up with all-natural paints, and a mask specialist had glued stylized paper beards on their faces. In the scene that we saw, Prince Bhima fights Baka, a “violent, murderous forest-dwelling demon.” Prince Bhima wins by killing Baka, but only after a lot of threats, insults, and significant eye-rolling, mouth mashing, and hand gestures, as well as twirling around in magnificent skirts in time to the drums and sung narration. His last words to the beast included, “I’ll rip out your heart!” The mayhem of the fight was all cleared away in time for the morning ragas, and I spent a blissful hour lying on the dimmed stage, transported by the strains of the sitar and rhythm of the tablas. Dan and I returned that evening for a fantastic concert of Indian flute and two types of drums (mridangam and ganjeera). The drummer’s hand that we could see moved so fast it was a blur, and the flute was ethereal. I could spend a week just sampling everything on offer at the Kerala Kathakali Centre, where they also offer daily hatha yoga, Keralan martial arts displays, and different Indian classical music and dance every night.

Another highlight of our Kochi stop was meeting up with my brother and sister-in-law’s friends, who packed up everything in Vancouver and moved their family (two children, 8 & 10) to India to travel and work on a business here. They are having such fun living here and travelling in the region, and it was a great chance to learn a few tips from the expat point of view. You meet people like this who are fully enjoying their unconventional life, and you are inspired to make of your life what you want. As we all agreed, “life is not a dress rehearsal.”
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