Backwaters

Day 749 – 19 March 2017

A short train from Varkala pushed us back further north into the backwaters of Kerala. Alleppey sits on the coast with a wide flat beach, but the true draw is the network of canals that link rural life to the sea. I gingerly carried my pack on an aching shoulder and shuffled along the dusty road as my pink flip flops turned a dingy brown. Jill and Mel lagged behind.

We had prearranged a hostel that appeared to be deserted when we arrived. It was the cleanest and most modern hostel we had stayed at in India so far, but oddly, there were no patrons, nor staff. The open air restaurant in the front at least provided some shade. The menu of banana, mango, pineapple, and pomegranate lassis was just taunting us as we waited for someone to appear. Finally, a short, gregarious gentleman bounded down the stairs and without taking our names, led us around to a dorm room in the back. For the first time since Mumbai, we were finally sleeping in a traditional hostel, meaning that we each had our own bed. No other bags littered the floor and the shoe rack outside was empty, save for our three pairs of dirty sandals. It was obvious we were the only people staying here.

I was ravenous so I stowed my bag and went back out to order one of those lassis. I ordered pomegranate, being the first time I had seen one on a menu. The man bobbled his head, “Sorry, we don’t have pomegranate today.” Of course. I wasn’t surprised. Not just in India, but lots of places have optimistic menus that can’t be accommodated.

“That’s ok,” I said. “I’ll take mango then.” Again, he bobbled his head. “Banana?”

“No, ma’am. So sorry”

I chuckled, knowing the answer, but I tried anyway, “Pineapple?”

“Not today. Maybe tomorrow.” No wonder this place was so clean.

Jill and Mel planned to go for a walk toward the beach and seeing as I was still hungry, I opted to join them. Today was Mel’s last day in India before she was due to fly home to New York. They were both making a big to-do out of it and, in fairness, I could definitely be accused of caring too little. I did like Mel and she was kind of an innocent bystander in the tension between Jill and I, but I had said so many goodbyes over the previous two years. It was draining and way too easy to sort of get used to it. A common flaw in way too many nomads like me, we are notoriously self-insulated from the inevitable separation, a heart not easily penetrated by such things as emotional goodbyes.

We ambled toward the beach, a wide stretch of eroded sand full of food stalls and gangly teenagers. As the only three westerners on the beach, we drew our fair share of attention. Women, men, children, and babies, unabashedly staring with wide eyes and slack jaws. I was still quite hungry as I trailed behind Jill and Mel. The smell of spit-fire corn was particularly enticing, yet we kept walking. It was sweltering outside and after walking a good distance down the beach, I decided to turn around. I couldn’t ignore the aroma of that sweet-smelling sustenance any longer.

Before I could make my way back toward the blackened corn, I ducked inside of a restaurant to buy a bottle of water. The restaurant was completely empty save for four staff members who jumped to attention the minute I opened the door. The bottle of water was ice cold, a luxury that is not easy to describe. As I flipped through my wallet to hand over ten rupees (15 cents) for the 2 liter bottle, one of the servers turned on the big commercial fan directly in front of me. And with that, I immediately pulled out a chair, sat down and asked for a menu. Ice water AND a fan? I completely forgot about the corn. Since I was the only patron, the service was bordering on obsessive. “Do you need anything, ma’am?” “Is everything all right for you, ma’am?” It was almost like service in America, overbearing, attentive, and a little bit desperate. At one point, they even moved two more fans in my direction that created somewhat of a tornado immediately over my table. I had to pinch my napkin between my thighs or it would have been whipping in a circle over my head. Through the open door, I saw Jill and Mel approaching on the sidewalk. Looking back, I’m ashamed to admit that I put my head down in my Kindle and hoped they wouldn’t see me as they passed.

Jill and Mel went to dinner that night to celebrate her last night in India. I didn’t not go because I was trying to be a jerk. I just wasn’t hungry after my late afternoon meal. Of course, this was not the right decision because it wasn’t about the meal – it was about saying farewell. However, it seemed whatever good will I could capture at that point would be fleeting so I selfishly chose to revel in the silence of a room to myself for a few hours. When the girls came back, I was just laying down for bed at our usual bedtime of 8pm. I tried to say the appropriate number of goodbyes, but we all knew the ship had sailed. I was an asshole.

Mel’s alarm buzzed early in the morning. Jill and I dragged ourselves out of bed once again to send her off in the morning dawn. Almost immediately after Mel stepped into an Uber and whizzed away, a vacuum of sour feelings filled the air. Jill and I went back to our room, only speaking when necessary. We were polite to each other, but it was obvious our buffer had gone.

We gathered ourselves to be ready for our day on the backwater canals. This was the whole reason to be here. Tourists usually rent a houseboat and spend a couple of days touring up and down the rural communities, but we had opted to take the more budget-friendly man-powered canoes. With Mel gone, I really wanted to make more of an effort with Jill. We had two more nights left with each other and there was no reason to ruin it by a bad attitude. Throughout the morning, we slowly warmed up to each other and it truly felt like we might actually end on good terms.

An auto rickshaw dropped us in a huge mass of other foreigners that were being herded around as if we were cattle. Jill and I were assigned to a “group leader” with a few other people while we were then sent off with other groups toward one of several large ferries. There was no explanation as to what we were doing, but we all followed our leaders obediently while he kept checking to make sure we were still there and yelling something if we started to stray. The ferries didn’t resemble canoes in any way so it was difficult to be sure we were even in the right place as we faithfully handed over some rupees to pay for our tickets. The ferry was definitely over capacity, lilting starboard, as we cruised through several wide rivers; occasionally one of the “wranglers” would get off, bark incomprehensible orders at his bewildered “cattle,” and they would disappear as the rest of us cruised on. Jill and I kept watchful eyes on our guy to see when it was our turn to disembark as if we would somehow miss the commotion. The river seemed to be a superhighway of ferries and houseboats, chartered by Europeans with aspirations of seeing authentic India from the comfort of a deck chair. Eventually, in perpetually organized chaos, our guy somehow located all 12 of us that were scattered throughout the boat, gesturing to follow him at the next port.

Three lounging boatmen were waiting for us. They had slender muscular arms that looked like they had been born rowing. Our boatman wore a paisley button-down shirt with the traditional South Indian masculine sarong, presumably to let the hot humid air circulate freely down there. He didn’t speak any English and communicated with us by pointing, grunting, and the occasional smile. The canoe was painted green with a yellow awning that would protect us fair folk from the sun’s rays. Four photo-snapping tourists were loaded into each.

Within moments of setting off, we had meandered into more narrow canals. Naked children splashed in the water. Women squatted while scrubbing their laundry. Cows stared. Other canoes cruised by carrying barrels of petrol or fish destined for market. Sometimes a motor-powered canoe would interrupt the placid channel and the melody of the oars pushing through the water. A gentle breeze from our slow pace was just enough to keep the mosquitoes at bay and to keep the sweat in a state of suspension. It was perfection.

Our cruise lasted about two hours, followed by lunch hosted at the home of a local family. Their teenage daughter, speaking perfect English, entertained us with well-timed humor and gentle mocking of those red-faced and sunburnt. She was assertive and seemed to relish the audience. She planned to become a doctor and move to America. Her mother quietly moved around the table serving us thali on banana leaf place settings, never speaking a word.

Our tour ended back at the main ferry terminal and Jill and I decided to walk back toward town. It was only a couple of miles and there’s no better way to get a taste for a place after all. I was in a good mood and seemed she was as well. I was due to fly to Delhi in two days and Jill would be on her way to Nepal so we talked about future plans and how much both of us had loved the south, omitting any reference to our animosity.

Later that evening at the hostel, I had heard from our friend, Donal, that he was arriving in Alleppey that day. Donal found our sad lonely hostel and immediately decided to stay across the street at a place with a much more vibrant atmosphere. But meanwhile, he came to hang out in our dorm room and catch up. We hadn’t seem him in two weeks so he told us about how he had stayed in Hampi long enough to celebrate Holi, the Hindu spring festival commonly referred to as the Color Festival, and I told him about how much we had loved Varkala. Meanwhile, Jill had lain down in her bed and closed her eyes without even greeting him. He tried to ask me what was wrong, but I could only shrug.

On the Cliff

Day 746 – 16 March, 2017

Varkala is a sleepy little touristic beach town towards the far southwestern edge of India. It’s uniqueness lies in the remarkable cliffside views overlooking the Laccadive Sea and the Indian Ocean beyond. I had randomly picked one of several almost identical guest houses where I could rent a private room, bathroom, and porch for 450 rupees/night ($6.50/night). Jill and Mel shared a similar room next door. This time there didn’t appear to be any animosity about the separation; nevertheless, I was silently stewing about my shoulder injury from earlier that morning and needed some privacy to decompress and assess the damage.

Recalling nine months earlier and my week long stay at an Ayurvedic resort in Sri Lanka (and the fact that Ayurvedic medicine is promoted in India like Cialis is in the United States), there was no question that I would make a visit to an Ayurvedic doctor to see if anything could be done to ease my pain.

The doctor was young, perhaps in his mid 20s. When I arrived, he was handing over a brown paper bag stuffed with orange-tinted vials and small plastic baggies with brown-colored powders and dried leafy herbs to a middle-aged woman. She listened intently while he softly spoke to her in Malayalam, explaining the use for each of the potions. When his attention turned to me with kind almond-shaped eyes, he effortlessly switched to English and offered me some tea and a place to sit in his office before he even knew why I was visiting. The office was a two-room cottage, one half of which was a cluttered sitting area, the walls shelved with medical journals and a pharmacy of sorts. The other half was the privacy room for women if there was any need to get undressed. A teenage barefoot girl sat on the edge of a massage table swinging her feet and proclaimed to be the doctor’s sister.

He methodically checked the mobility of my shoulder until I winced in pain. He nodded as if this validated what he already suspected. He said something to his sister so that she disappeared behind the privacy curtain. And then he told me I needed to get a massage (doctor’s orders!) and that I should return in a few hours when he would have some medicine prepared for me. His sister peeked from behind the curtain where she had lit some lavender incense and said she was ready for the massage.

I paid about $5USD for the medicine. There was a bottle of brownish green oily liquid. It smelled slightly floral, but also a little like pumpkin seed oil. I was to rub it on the shoulder area 2-3 times a day. The other medicine was a bag of capsules that tasted herbal. I was warned to take these with food or it may cause an upset stomach. Mostly, I was cautioned against lifting anything heavy for a couple of weeks. I nodded understanding even as I counted how many times I would be taking buses, trains, or planes (presumably with backpack in tow) over that same period of time.

I met up with Jill and Mel for dinner on the edge of the cliff. They had spent the day frolicking in the surf and shopping in the kitschy storefronts on the cliff. After having spent some hours apart, it was fun to catch up and I was feeling relieved that we seemed to be getting along so much better. A rarity to find a restaurant that served alcohol, we ordered two for one Kingfishers served in palm tree souvenir mugs. As the sun dropped behind the horizon and the sky changed from marigold to amber to dusty pink, you could just see a whole pod of dolphins ducking and diving in the calm sea.

I love places like this, where the pace of life is so conducive to marathon coffee breaks and sitting for hours while time stands still. The three of us had breakfast together the next morning, but I remained long after Jill and Mel had gone on to other things. The oil I was applying to my shoulder was meant to stay out of the sun and I began to contemplate other things I could do out of the sun…maybe now was the right time to get another tattoo?

A few hours later, I was admiring the newest addition to the collage on my body. It was half way completed and random tourists would occasionally peek their heads into the shop to gawk and praise the work of the tattoo artist. Not willing to leave much to chance, I had carefully selected a stencil online that the artist could copy. Suddenly, as if it was the first time I realized India doesn’t (usually) operate on a barter system, I looked in my wallet and realized I was embarrassingly shy of our agreed upon fee. I spent the second half of the appointment, trying to figure out how I was going to pay this guy and what I could leave as collateral while I made a trip to an ATM.

When he was finished, I sheepishly smiled and gushed about how satisfied I was. He, too, seemed very pleased. I pulled out my passport and reluctantly admitted that I had forgotten to bring enough cash. I said he could keep my passport until I returned with enough money to pay him. He gently pushed it away and said no. He insisted it was ok that I could return with the money whenever I had it, that leaving my passport was unnecessary. The trust that is constantly demonstrated in developing countries always surprises those of us from capitalist nations, but it is infinitely refreshing and at least for me, a principle that mandates you prove the blind faith is deserved.

I immediately rushed off to an ATM, determined to return to the tattoo shop before the artist would have time to doubt me. I walked back and forth from one end of the cliff to the other, not seeing a single cash machine in sight. I returned to my guest house to ask the proprietor if he could give me directions. Sympathetically, he shook his head and said the closest ATM was in town. It would be too far to walk and the prospect of finding an auto rickshaw on the quiet dirt paths of the residential area was nil. Seeing my despair, the owner of the guest house checked his watch and said if we hurried, he would just have time to drive me himself. In a flash, he grabbed his keys, jumped on his motorbike, and patted the back. I threw my leg over behind him and once again I was treated to the kindness of strangers while he drove me to not one, not two, but three ATMs to find one that wasn’t broken or devoid of cash.

I missed dinner that night with Jill and Mel due to all of the running around, but we only had loose plans anyway so I really didn’t see the harm. As we prepared to leave Varkala for Alleppey, it seemed again that I was getting the cold shoulder. Meanwhile, I silently counted…two nights in Alleppey, two nights in Kochi, and then I’m free again. Just keep the peace until I’m free.

Hill Country

Day 741 – 11 March, 2017

After a short(ish) bus trip from Mysore to Bangalore, Mel and I booked a double bed on an AC sleeper bus while Jill booked a single on a non AC bus. Both were scheduled to depart in the evening and arrive around the same time in the hill country of Munnar. In spite of the winding and bumpy mountain roads, I slept relatively well. Morning condensation beaded on the windows but I could still make out the rolling green hills of the Kerala tea plantations. Cows, dogs, and pedestrians shuffled through the dust clouds thrown up by buses and auto rickshaws.

Mel and I were dropped off by a fruit stand on the southern edge of the small town around 7am. We had not booked a place to stay yet, but we dropped our bags at a tea house where we could order breakfast and a hot drink while we waited for Jill. The tea house didn’t have its own toilet so I went for a walk to find a place that did. The Green View Inn was two doors down on a side street. They offered me the use of an outhouse with a western toilet that barely fit the room. I had to prop the door open to have room for my feet. Besides, the lightbulb was burned out so I needed the natural light anyway. The front desk clerk possessed that wide smile and infectious good humor so typical of Kerala. I noticed they were displaying a flyer for trekking adventures so to kill time, I inquired about the cost and options as I was pretty sure that both Mel and Jill were game for a trek. The gentleman was so kind and helpful that I also asked if they might have any rooms available. He bobbled his head, “Well, yes, yes, of course we do. Would you like to see the room?”

The building was narrow but had 4 floors. Rooms were on the second and third level and a covered roof patio, free library, and meditation area were on the fourth level. The man showed me a few different rooms that cost 750 rupees/night (just shy of $12USD). I was convinced. It seemed that I should wait and check with the other two if this would be ok, but I was comfortable paying the full price myself if they didn’t want to split it. I decided that if they didn’t want to stay here, that was fine and I would just go it alone.

I retrieved Mel from the tea house and she was agreeable to the room and location. Meanwhile, a few hours had passed and we were still waiting to hear from Jill. We had each messaged her a few times, posting her on our whereabouts and plans to no avail. We could only assume that she was still en route. By the time we finally connected with Jill, we had already moved in and Mel was elbow deep in removing the box braids and extensions from her hair. Jill had been dropped on the north end of town and feeling kind of bad for not consulting her about the room first, I began walking toward the main hub of town to meet her.

I had a renewed sense for us to start fresh. She thanked me for meeting her. I was optimistic for the next couple of weeks together. I excitedly told her what I had learned about trekking and I gushed about this cute cheap guesthouse I had discovered, but I wanted to be clear that she did not have to stay there if she didn’t like it. She did not object, but opted to sleep on the hard tile floor, the reasoning for which never really became clear.

We had dinner at an oft-recommended restaurant with a delectable traditional thali. A banana leaf was draped straight on the table in front of each of us while the server spooned heaping mounds of curried eggplant, turmeric-infused okra, and a rainbow of chutneys and pickles before topping us off with fiery sambhar (lentil stew), a generous helping of steamed white rice and papadum (crispy fried lentil bread) balanced on top. There’s no point in ordering thali if you aren’t hungry. Refills are endless as long as you keep eating. We had grown adept at scooping up mounds of rice and a pinch of veggies with our greedy fists and clumsily slurping the food through our lips with only minimal mess. We laughed every time the attendant came to refill our plates and only knew to point to which accompaniments we wanted to see more of. An obviously upper class family of Indians at the table next to us, who were probably only in Munnar on a vacation of their own, ate their thali with proper utensils and looked down their noses at the sticky curry-covered gluttonous white girls nearby. Regardless, it felt good that we seemed like friends again.

The next day we rose bright and early to join a trekking group straight from Green View Inn through the tea plantations and the early morning mist snaking its way through the hill station. Our group was about 8 people, but I was feeling introspective so early before dawn and I chose to wander along alone (which I suppose only an introvert understands). Compared to the bustling city streets of the cities, the atmosphere was so quiet; only the chirping of birds and the gurgling of a shallow creek filled the silence.

Mel said she had never been hiking before so Jill and I encouraged her along to the top of our route, where our guide unpacked cheese sandwiches, pineapple, omelette, and baby bananas for us to share for breakfast. From a metal thermos, he poured steaming cups of chai. It was idyllic and hard to imagine the cacophony of city noises from so far out here.

We continued further into the valley, through tea plantations and family farms. Lazy cows and weathered dogs alike swatted flies with their tails and watched us with apathy. It was surreal to feel so isolated in rural life in such a populous country. Finally completing our trek at a sister guesthouse to Green View Inn just in time for lunch, our hosts served us steaming lentils and curried vegetables with rice while we rested our tired, dusty limbs after the day’s hike. Jill, Mel and I were in good spirits. The fresh air had really done some good.

Back in town, we separated for awhile so I could do some writing while they did some shopping in the winding markets of herbs, essential oils, tea, and home-made chocolates. Later on, we met back at the same restaurant as the previous night for more thali, where eventually the discussion turned to what our plans would be after leaving Munnar. We knew we wanted to go to both Alleppey and Varkala, but disagreed on which one first. Mel would have to leave for her flight home before we had visited both so ultimately, the decision was up to her. I briefly considered doing the opposite of what they decided so that I could be on my own again, but it would have been a blatant jab and besides, we were getting along fine as far as I could tell. Reluctantly, I agreed to take a sputtering municipal bus with sunken collapsing seats overnight to Trivandrum where we would transfer to a local train to continue one more hour to Varkala.

The next day, our last in Munnar, we woke up to a light rain. We had been thinking of hiring an auto rickshaw to take us to some viewpoints and maybe a waterfall or two, but abruptly Jill changed her mind and didn’t want to go. Mel seemed noncommittal and I was just tired of constant activities so we each went our separate ways. I spent most of the day on the covered terrace lost in my own thoughts, save for the bit of time when I indulged in a variety of chocolates at the market. When we all met at the bus station in the afternoon, I gathered all the resolve I could muster to endure another uncomfortable night on a bus. Jill seemed annoyed with me again for some reason, but I just couldn’t be bothered to care why anymore. There wasn’t a place to stow our backpacks underneath the bus so we carried them onboard and hefted them overhead to a bin over our seats. The bus wasn’t full, although we stopped several times in the night to load or unload passengers, arriving in Trivandrum just at dawn.

The three of us were the last to disembark and just as I tried to wrangle my pack from the overhead bin where it had become wedged between two pegs in the night, I felt my shoulder pop. Likely, my rotator cuff didn’t agree with the tight angle in which I was wrestling with a heavy backpack. And just like that, after two years of carrying around this beast, every unit of gravity became my arch nemesis. I winced with pain during every step as we hustled across the street to catch the next train to Varkala. My companions knew no sympathy.