A Day in God's Own Country
Trip Start May 01, 2010
23Trip End Jul 15, 2010
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Kerala is God's Own Country, or so goes the tourist slogan. But, if B.C. is The Best Place on Earth, it makes me wonder, where does God actually live? You would think that he would live in His Own Country, but if He lived there, He wouldn't be living in The Best Place on Earth, and certainly God would want to live in The Best Place on Earth. But, on the other hand, God would also certainly live in His Own Country, n'est ce pas?
You'll have to excuse my mind from wandering, but it had room to roam over the last few days. We were staying at Green Palms Homestay in the Keralan backwaters, or the Venice of the East, as it has been called, a series of islands and rice farms linked by canals, some natural and some man-made. People get around by boat. No kidding.
It's the kind of place where days blend together. The kind of place where you read an entire book in one day because you have little else to do. However, amidst our rather sedentary existence, we did manage to get in a few good chops. One day in particular stands out.
We started out by waking up early to go on a guided walking tour of this particular area of the backwaters. Our guide was Binu, a shameless flirt who, within 5 minutes of the tour, had already made Genevieve a necklace out of some plant and put it around her neck, saying that now, "in my culture, we are married." Great. Speaking of marriage, he did go on to say that he hoped to have his marriage arranged this year, and that love marriages were "impractical."
The tour proceeded, and Binu pointed out some interesting things: pepper trees (like the ones we saw on the spice plantation tour), cashew nut trees, and the local government office where residents could go and buy their staples like rice and sugar. Binu explained that there were two types of cards: APL (Above Poverty Line) and BPL (Below Poverty Line). Those with the BPL card were permitted to buy goods at a discounted rate.
Then we saw a tree fashioned with a crude ladder of old coconut shells and rope. Toddy, our guide explained. You see, Toddy is an alcoholic beverage made from the sap of palm trees, and this tree was "tapped," à la maple syrup, to produce it. The ladder was used to climb up the tree, where a bucket was put underneath a hole where the sap comes out. The sap is collected and left to ferment. The longer you leave it, the stronger the beverage. Eventually, it becomes vinegar and can be used for cooking.
Popular with the residents, we had our Toddy experience the night before when we cycled past the dingiest bar I have ever seen to sample the goods. We were the stars of the show, two whiteys (Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, we've been telling ourselves) surrounded by a bunch of local dudes. We got a small plastic bucket full, which was dutifully poured into glasses by the bar man. The drink, if you can imagine, is kind of like getting a glass full of puddle water and mixing in some runny pancake mix that has been sitting on the windowsill overnight. Add a dollop of salt for flavour, and you are ready to go.
Genevieve made the mistake of smelling the beverage before trying some. I, hearkening back to my days of mystery beverages from Taiwan, made no such error
Our tour continued, and eventually we ended up at a traditional house, where we were served breakfast: steamed rice cake (a little dry), a green lentil dish (pretty good) and a duck egg with ground black pepper on top (surprisingly good). Throughout our stay in the backwaters, we were fed in the traditional way: we would by served by a woman of the house, who would hover around us watching us eat and filling our plates as soon as they were getting even a little bit empty. The woman would make sure that we were satisfied, and not take food for herself until we were done. It was a little bit strange at first, but after a few days I kind of got used to it. In fact, I'm hoping that Maxine (my wonderful mother-in-law who I will be staying with in Victoria upon my return to Canada) can adopt this manner of food-serving when I get back in order to combat the vicious effects of reverse culture shock. Thanks in advance Maxine for your understanding in this matter
As we washed our breakfast down with some chai, Binu engaged us with questions about life in Canada: How much money did we make? How much did houses cost? And, most importantly (it seemed to him), why on earth did people move out of their parents' house before they got married? We tried to answer as best we could.
We walked a bit more and took a public boat back to the guest house. We bit adieu to Binu, and settled down to wait for lunch, served in the manner described above. I felt like I was getting fattened up for the slaughter, but the food was good (and included in the price of our stay), so there was no complaining.
After lunch, we lounged around and waited for Thomas, our host at Green Palms, to take us on a bicycle tour. He procured three bikes, and we proceeded to load them in a canoe to cross the canal. I have never put a bicycle in a canoe before, much less three bicycles in a canoe. But it didn't seem to faze Thomas, the canoe driver, or the half-dozen or so other people who clambered into the boat after us. I remembered that this is Asia, after all, and there's always room for one more.
We crossed the canal and rode a bit up the road to the other side where there was more water ways and farms. Of course, it started raining soon after we started. And this was no Vancouver drizzle; indeed, it was a pre-monsoon downpour. But it was nice. We are so used to rain being cold, it's actually refreshing to get wet here. It cools you off, even if as soon as the rain stops you get blasted with warm air like your life was the inside of the dryer.
As the rain abated we arrived at a local Hindu temple, which we were not allowed to enter and instead had to look at from outside the walls. Some temples seem to let foreigners go in, others don't. I understand not being able to take pictures of sacred things. No problem. I get not being allowed in on certain ceremonies. Sure. Want me to wash my feet and not wear shorts? Done. But not being allowed in to a temple at all, even to just look and learn? I'm not sure I see the wisdom in that sort of thing.
But I digress. We got back on our bikes, and rode back to the main street, where Thomas asked us if we wanted anything. Some beer perhaps? Sure, we said, as beer is kind of hard to find in this State. Kerala is run by Communists, and they seem to have a pretty tight grip on alcohol sales here
We rode a bit farther up the road to the liquor store, a non-descript grey cement building with railings made to organize the line and bars all over the front counter. You would have an easier time breaking into a bank than breaking into a liquor store here, it seems. We got in line (Gen in front and me behind to block any would-be budgers) and bought a few (unchilled) Kingfishers. There was not a woman in sight. The whole thing was surreal.
However, the purchase went down, and we got back on our bikes, rode to the canal, loaded them back into the canoe, and crossed back home. If the canoe is on the other side of the canal, you get the driver's attention by yelling "Whoop! Whoop!" like your fantasy football quarterback has just thrown a touchdown bomb. Good times.
When we got home, dinner was almost ready, so we washed up. By this time, Xin, a young guy from China, had joined us at Green Palms. After dinner, Xin, Thomas, Genevieve and myself found ourselves in the middle of a very interesting conversation. Thomas was talking about the relationship between China and India, even going so far to say that, in his opinion, China was a bigger threat to India than Pakistan, as China has not even officially recognized a couple of Indian provinces in the north, claiming that parts of the provinces should in fact belong to China.
We spoke of democracy, which Xin thought was "kind of messy," and Thomas rather agreed. He said that, yes, India was the world's largest democracy, but is it really the best system of government? He spoke of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a conservative Hindu nationalist party that has recently come to the fore-front of India politics. His opinion was that the BJP played on fears of the illiterate masses to gain votes, and that they are a very dangerous force in India. Sure, he said, it's democracy, but is it good?
We also spoke of the far reaching effects of globalism. Thomas recounted the changes that has happened in his community since he was young. He never heard the expression "time is money" until only a few years ago. More and more Indians are leaving their families to work abroad in the Gulf States or in Europe or North America. He used to eat fresh water prawns every week, but, with tourists willing to pay 10 times what the locals would, he is now lucky to eat them once a year.
I related that, living in Canada, it is very difficult to not buy things that were made in China, despite knowing the adverse conditions in which such goods were probably made. Xin was happy to learn that, thanks to expensive costs and strong trade unions, Kerala had, for the most part, stopped multi-national companies from moving in and setting up shop, knowing the destruction that they have often wrought with their factories in China. Thomas and Xin both agreed that the Communists in their respective homes were in name only, as in Kerala the Communists were elected (and what Communist was ever democratically elected?), while in China they are open for business.
And so it went. But, with the heat and the food, we could only go on for so long. We decided to call it a night. And so ended another day in God's Own Country, or was it the Best Place on Earth? I can't seem to remember...