Delightful Indian Encounters (2/2) – North Kerala
I tell my guide, Rajeesh, to show me no temples, no palaces and no museums; I am only after village sites, family homes, plantations, backwaters and nature.
“Ah, you want to see real Kerala lifestyle”, Rajeesh smiles, “very good!
“Yes”, I say, happy that he’s understanding.
Before lunch, we have seen two temples, one palace and nothing else.
Actually, the temples are not uninteresting, because they are busy with local worshippers and Keralites obviously extremely devout even by Indian standards. In one temple in Maipady, we have to take off not only shoes, but also socks. In the Anantapura lake temple, men have to take off their shirt too.
I get sacred water in my hand, a red tikka dot on my forehead and am asked to pray.
“How can I pray”, I plead? “I am not a Hindu!”
“Why, you can pray for success anyway!”
There is no lunch occasion, but we stop at a kiosk for a cold drink. In friendly words I try to remind my (Hindu) guide that I was after village life and wouldn’t necessarily need another two temples for the afternoon shift. He starts to think. “Ok, let’s go”, he says. Rajeesh throws his buttermilk pack into the landscape and kickstarts his rustic Yamaha RX.
In a village area, we walk into a private fruit garden. I see pepper, pineapple and bananas. New for me are areca nuts – betel nuts, used for “paan” that’s chewed and then spat out all over Northern India.
“The arecanuts mainly grow in Kerala”, informs Rajeesh. “But paan is consumed mostly in the north. In Kerala, we don’t eat it. Paah, I don’t like paan.” (Indeed, Kolkata and Darjeeling in the north had been paan-spitting dirt holes.)
Two cute, polite and shy school girls join us. Their parents own the fruit garden, but the girls at least have no objections with our breach of peace. They even give us a tour of the rest of the garden, where we meet their father digging up an irrigation canal.
One of the girls says sweetly in Malayalam: “Please come to our house. We would like to serve you yoghurt.”
We are greeted by a shy, but friendly and again very refined and polite mother. We will even get a small lunch.
The guide explains: “They are Brahmins. So they don’t eat non-veg.”
“Hu? Oh.” Interesting double negation.
We stay on the wooden bench in front of the family house. The food arrives on freshly washed banana leaves: Rice, two kinds of curries, pickles, plus lassi in stainless steel cups. The guide happily eats away with his hands and upon special request, I get a spoon. We converse mainly with the school girls, while the mother stays in the background. After washing hands and exchanging postal addresses, we walk back to the motorcycle.
“Why did you enter that compound”, I ask the guide, “did you know the people?”
“No, I just walked inside somewhere.”
Just when Rajeesh kickstarts his rustic Yamaha RX, the girls come running again and hand us fruit from their garden.
In the bustling district small town of Kasaragod, between dozens of semi-chic saree and burkha shops, I spot the local movie hall. They only show Malayalam and Tamil movies. There is Malayalam and Tamil script only, not one word in English or at least local language in Roman script. There is no Hindi movie of Bollywood origin and no western movie either. It is a very hot noon and I’d love to spend a few hours in the theatre. Several posters seem to announce movies without violence. I photograph them and discuss the pictures with lurking male youth.
“Yes, that’s a family movie”, says one about the first picture. “No violence. About farming and land problems.”
Just fine. I click forward to the other poster I snapped. “How about that one?”
“Why, that’s the same movie you asked me before. Farming and land problems.”
I even don’t know how to buy a ticket here. I am taught to line up at a dark, narrow entry for “gents”. I had believed this was the uninviting access to a restrooms grotto I certainly wouldn’t use. But here, the ticket booths are separate for ladies and men. We stand in an extremely narrow, dark, seriously claustrophic concrete passage that forces us to wait one after the other. (Later I see that Kerala’s government-run liquor stores use the same narrow, dark, seriously claustrophobic concrete passages.)
At the counter, I produce the movie picture from my camera again, get a ticket for 35 rupies (0,76 USD) and climb an open-air stair-case to the fourth floor.
The movie hall itself has half-broken chairs, some stuck forever in their most reclined position. The air-con is louder than the low-quality movie sound. Around 150 people came for the 1.30 p.m. show, ladies and gents are not separated here. When feisty Kerala superstar Mohanlal enters the screen, they shout and applaud. They also shout and applaud amusedly when air-con and sound break down thrice during the 160 minutes screening (the picture remains visible).
The movie, “Evidam Swargamanu”, is nice. As a trademark of Kerala movies, it has a lot of nice landscape and realistic outdoor shoots, with Mohanlal as a farmer walking and ploughing in the mud and rain, visiting run-down district offices and sipping tea at dilapidated stalls that might operate just opposite the movie house. Very different from glossy Bolly- or Hollywood stuff. I don’t understand a word and haven’t read a summary, still it is possible to roughly follow the plot, and the cinematography delights.
I had planned to leave during the half-time break, but I stay until the end. And I get rewarded: Mohanlal not only wins his land case against the real estate goon – he also marries his lawyeress!
At the end of a hot day full of pothole research, my very convenient, fully automatic Honda Activa motorcycle takes me to the lovely Valiyaparamba Backwaters. I don’t fancy driving 50 km back to the resort, so I hire a cargo tuktuk to transport motorcycle and me back to luxury. The driver demands 500 rupees (10,9 USD).
Four people are needed to heave the Honda onto the cargo bed. Half the village watches. “What’s wrong with your bike”, they ask. Nobody can believe that I’m simply too lazy to self-drive.
A kilometer ahead of my resort I make the driver stop and unload: people in the resort should not get the idea that I return with a broken motorcycle. Now we need four people again, to unload.
The driver barks something to the young man across the road. The young guy rushes by and barks something himself at other young men, who quickly rush by and help to unload the motorcycle. That was quick, no-fuss help and I fish for my wallet to hand out tea money. When I have found the wallet, the young men have already disappeared.
Adi Kadalai, Kannur, North-Kerala
I walk down yet another stunning beach – another *four miles* of empty stunning beach. I am almost sure: When I’ve reached that rocky headland in the distance and crossed it, there will be another stunning beach, empty.
The beaches of as yet rather untouristy North-Kerala, south of Kasarogod and south of Kannur, are easily as beautiful as on Koh Chang or Koh Lanta in Thailand. They are backed by handy, shady palm tree groves with the occasional, spread-out fishing village tucked under the coconut trees. The sand is a pleasure to walk on, the water well-temperatured.
I reach the rocky headland and cross it. There is another four miles of empty stunning beach. And there is a fisherman squatting in the usual position: face to the ocean, backside to the village, shitting at low tide.
You don’t see it often, but you see it. God’s own country. Once from the cliff top position of Sea Shell Beach resort, we could watch a nude fisherman 15 meters below, looking for the best place to – yes.
At the Sea Shell Beach resort, I opt for a room that still has to be cleaned. So for some time I simply sit around and enjoy the fantastic view through palm tree tops onto the sea. Finally I can check into my room. As I open my suitcase, the manager knocks and approaches me: “Sir, we still have the registration procedure.”
In bureaucratic and security-aware India, the guest registration may take 20 minutes. But the hotel manager only started with the formalities *after* the room was fully cleaned and *after* I had been sitting around for half an hour. The registration takes 20 minutes.
Or is defecating outdoors also a caste thing? My great travel companion, V.S. Naipaul, writes in his eye-opening “A Million Mutinies Now”: “The very idea of a latrine was a non-Brahmin idea: to enter such a polluted place was itself pollution… Good Brahmins, traditional Brahmins, used open-air sites, a fresh one each time.”
The guest house manager says he will take me to town to a rental motorcycle shop at 9 a.m. He has already arranged a fully automatic Honda Activa for me. It is a remote, untouristic area and to get things arranged, you rely on helpful hotel staff.
At 9 a.m. I wait outside for the manager. I know full well that he is always 30 or 50 minutes late, still I am unable *not* to stick to the 9 a.m. agreement. At 9.30 the manager strolls along and smiles: “We go?”
As we walk to his car, other tourists need arrangements.
“I’ll be back in ten minutes”, says the manager, “please wait”. It’s fully clear that the manager will be away with me for 40, if not 60 minutes.
In the car, the manager asks: “What time is it, is it past nine?”
“It is 9.35 now.”
We arrive at the motorcycle shop. He knows since yesterday that I want to rent a Honda Activa; he has called the motorcycle shop three times on his hand-held mobile while driving his family van around blind, walled village corners. At the shop, there is no motorcycle at all. The hotel manager and the shop owner start making phone calls.
The hotel manager ends his call and says: “Your Honda Activa will be here in ten minutes.”
The sun is already hot. “In ten minutes”, I ask discontentedly?
“Ok, in five minutes!”
“In five minutes?”
“Ok, in *two* minutes!”
The motorcycle arrives after ten minutes. Fuel gauge, indicator and horn don’t work. The kick-starter works only after special prayers.
I sit on the veranda of my primitive cliffside cottage. Through a shady palm tree top cover, I watch Lakshadweep sea polishing the small sand beach below. One meter far from me a dark brown snake appears on the veranda, at least 70 centimeter long. The snake moves slowly in my direction, flagging its tongue. I am barefoot of course.
I never heard about dangerous animals here and all the locals in this rural area obviously walk around with no worries. Still I never saw such a big snake from so close. I hold the black, open laptop to the ground and slowly move it towards the creature. Scared of that large 13 inches mouth, the snake disappears in the bushes.
As the Honda Activa rented yesterday was so bad, I had preferred to relax on my palm tree covered veranda. Come to think of it, my cottage door had been open for some hours, but not in my view; so I might have lambent inmates by now.
At the reception, I find the owner, a busy local entrepreneur. He claims to know this kind of snake and there would be no danger. Still he offers me to move to a less exposed bungalow, close to paved parking. But I just like the jungle outpost character of my place (except for the snake). So the owner orders the cook to prepare a thick garlic sauce. The owner himself sprinkles the off-white sauce around my veranda with his right hand.
“This sure drives snakes away”, the owner boasts.
It works on humans too: Even 30 minutes after the garlic administering, a strong stench wafts around my veranda. A good reason to finally board the bad Honda Activa for pothole research.
When I return in the evening, they wrap strong steel mosquito net around my veranda to keep snakes out for good. Actually, I had asked them to put a mosquito net in front of my windows so that I could sleep with a breeze; as usual, they had happily agreed, but not taken action. I should claim that a snake entered through windows; maybe then they’d install mosquito screens on the windows.
As is custom on the Malabar coast, the guesthouse owner drives three of his guests to one of those amazing, almost scary Theyyam rituals at the local Hindu temple. I sit on the front passenger seat. Without real reason, the guest house owner, a 54 year old Muslim entrepreneur, tells me with a witty smile:
“I married a girl from a poor family. Thus, she will easily adjust to the new life in my family. She will not demand the unreasonable.”
“Won’t she demand support for her family”, I suspect?
“This won’t happen”, he smiles knowingly. “Her family is happy already to place her within my family.”
On the way back from the procession, the affable guest house owner asks us if we would like an ice-cream. Two of his three passengers protest, as they are still full from the dinner. The owner stops anyway on the roadside and lets the kiosk wallah hand *five* “Cornetop” ice cream cones through the window (we are still a total of four in the car). To be polite, everybody starts to work on the papery “Cornetop” ice cream. Then everybody holds the greasy ice cream paper in his hand until we reach the guest house. The owner himself enjoys his “Cornetop” while driving around blind, walled village corners and throws the greasy ice cream paper into the landscape.
For my next destination, in the Wayanad hill district, I need a taxi at 11 o’clock. So I ask the manager to order a taxi for 10 o’clock. He rattles into his phone in Malayalam, but I understand “9.30 sharp” in English.
“So you booked the car for 9.30”, I ask?
“Yes. Then the car will arrive around 9.45 and around 10 you can actually leave. In India, you have to do it like that, sir.”
“You are very clever.”
Next morning, the car arrives at 9.20.
Tholpithera, Wayanad, North-Kerala
In the midrange resort Green Wayanad, I don’t know how to make my shower produce hot water. The shower head – fixed at a height of roughly 1,40 meters – produces only cold water.
I had expected hot water. When I had called the resort I had asked for “hot water” and they had answered “of course”.
I ask Stalin, the handyman, but he can’t explain it in good English.
After dinner, no less than three Indian men visit my stilted bungalow in the bamboo grove: “Check hot water, sir.”
Result: “Hot water is there, sir.”
They teach me: The shower itself is not meant to have hot shower. Only the knee-level tap for the bucket has hot water. I hadn’t even tried that tap. So to have a “hot shower”, you have to fill the bucket, then pour hot water over you with the scoop.
Also now I have distinct dirt footprints in the bathroom.
Otherwise, Green Wayanad resort really cares. Before confirming, they mention that in my bungalow I will hear clacking sounds from the surrounding bamboo grove; what’s more, moths might gather around the veranda lamp.
“Some Bangaloru people complained about bamboo sounds and moths, so now we warn our customers in advance.
In seven weeks in India, I meet not only Rajeesh and Sandeep, Priya and Priyanka, but also quite a few people named Stalin or Lenin. There is this all-purpose guy working at Green Wayanad resort and more often than not, the receptionist would say: “Ok, Stalin will take care of that.” Sounds scary, but Stalin’s a nice guy.
The restaurant at Green Wayanad has a delightfully clean, polished stone floor – a place where you automatically take your shoes off, especially in India. On my first days, there are only few guests. Like the staff, they take off their shoes in the restaurant.
For the weekend, the restaurant fills up with people from a caste called “Bangaloru people” by North-Keralites: strange tribals, talking English to their kids, wearing jeans and t-shirt, even the ladies and – wearing sneakers on the clean polished stone floor. The floor now has lots of ugly dirt marks. Only the sole unassimilated western customer is seen barefoot.
Stalin arranged it, so Gonsalvo came to the resort to rent me his motorcycle. Gonsalvo suggests to be my motorcycle chauffeur as well for a small fee. He is friendly, positive and Anglophone, plus the maps and signs for Wayanad are bad, so I quickly agree.
When we start I notice a tag on his motorcycle key: “Praise the lord”.
Driving towards Pookod Lake, Gonsalvo asks: “As a European, you must be Christian, sir?”
“Yes”, I lie.
We are best friends now.
Walking around tiny Pookod lake, braving long processions of uniformed private school students and noisy day trippers from Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, Gonsalvo, a 32 year old Roman-Catholic, tells me:
“I married a girl from a poor family. Thus, she will easily adjust to the new life in my family. She will not demand the unreasonable.”
I heard and read many times that Indian ladies hear no other word as often as “adjust”.
Gonsalvo found his wife through a “broker” hired by his parents and met around 15 ladies personally. Some women didn’t like his simple family home, admits Gonsalvo, and opted out. Other ladies he didn’t like: “I had my friends interview their neighbours and they heard that some girls have low connections.”
The broker got around 20.000 rupees (435 USD), says Gonsalvo. He of course had ordered a roman-catholic lady, but if desired, the broker offers Muslims and Hindus of various castes, too.
Gonsalvo’s wife used to live 100 kilometers far from his house, on the beautiful Malabar coast. There was one family meeting at her place and another meeting at Gonsalvo’s family home. That second meeting included a short private talk between Gonsalvo and the female candidate.
Gonsalvo told his marriage candidate: “I think we could marry.”
She said: “Ok, no problem.”
The engagement was soon after.
After the wedding party in Gonsalvo’s home, they went back to her parent’s home for two days. They went back to Gonsalvo’s parents and then for another three days back to her parents: “She needed those home visits to adjust.”
After that, they went on a ten days honeymoon: by public bus to South-Indian hill stations like Ooty, Coonoor and Kodaikanal.
At Gonsalvo’s home, his parents welcome me very friendly and with a milk-sugar-concoction they call “coffee”. Seven people stay in this simple house: Gonsalvo and wife, Gonsalvo’s brother and wife and daughter, and the parents. The elder brother, wife and daughter will move out later this year.
I have pleaded several times that I don’t need food, as I am really full after a good breakfast at Green Wayanad. Several times. Suddenly, Gonsalvo, brother and me find ourselves at the lunch table. Food appears. Even a spoon. The ladies disappear.
Eight minutes later, everybody has emptied his plate (or at least mimicked eating). Now I’d need a bit of relax time, but we get up immediately, leaving the used dishes for someone else to remove and clean.
Out on the veranda, Gonsalvo points to chairs: “Relax?”
“Oh, very nice.”
I sit down, Gonsalvo jumps into the garden and comes back with a nano cucumber: “You have this vegetable in your country?”
“Let’s go, I’m sure you want to see the areca nut harvesting!”
We walk around Gonsalvo’s rural, lush green home area. Betel nut, coffee, pineapple, tea, pepper, cows, goat, buffalo, coconut, all grows there in abundance, under this infinitesimal northern Keralan ceiling of palm leaves and blue washed sky.
God’s own country.
One neighbor steps out of his coffee bushes onto the dirt road. He re-arranges his sarong, welcomes me with a generous hand shake and somehow we three men discuss that bizarre western habit called “dye-wauce” in Indian English.
“Why is it necessary”, both ask me? “It makes no sense.”
The neighbor’s wife steps out of the coffee bushes, too. But as is custom throughout rural India, the lady remains two meters in the background, her greeting a mere smile.
I explain: “Sometimes husband and wife don’t fit together. There is fighting. I mean, I guess, sorry, but Indian couples must have arguments too?”
“Oh yes”, says the neighbor. His wife nods affirmatively from two meters away.
“But”, says the neighbor, folding his sarong up into a half-long, more airy arrangement, “that fight will be settled by dinner time.”
His wife nods affirmatively.
Says the neighbor: “We *never* quarrel until after dinner. Never.”
His wife nods affirmatively.
God's own country?
As we drive around small town and villages, Gonsalvo introduces me to all his friends and relatives. He has many friends and relatives.
He even makes me talk to all people who call him on his mobile. He gets many calls. Talk is cheap. He’d say, “here’s my cousin brother, just arrived in Khalicut after a three days train ride from Delhi. Please talk to him.”
On an all-male beer-and-mashed-tapioca-party with Gonsalvo and five of his closest friends and relatives, I hear interesting things:
“Except for Thoddy (a coconut-based drink), we don’t have home-made alcoholic drinks. Police wouldn’t allow it.”
“Yes, we have wild pigs and large birds in the forests. Yes, we’d like to hunt them. But it’s against the law.”
“These days, most of our rice comes from other Indian states. In Kerala, many people have built houses on their previous rice fields.”
“Getting the permit to build a house is cheap, easy and straightforward. There is no corruption or uncertainty.”
This sounds most different from my previous weeks in Darjeeling, Sikkim and Kolkata up north.
As a ringtone on his mobile, Gonsalvo has a lovely song in Malayalam, the Dravidian language of Kerala sounding almost like Tamil. I ask him to help me buy this song and more elegantly orientalic Malayalam music.
Gonsalvo takes me to the local internet access centre. For ten rupees (0,22 USD), they copy 150 songs, 1 GB of music, onto my USB stick. Back on my laptop I see that several song titles contain words like “Jesus Christ”. Hearing the songs, I don’t understand Malayalam, but words like “Halleluyah” and “Jerusalem” stick out. The music is not attractive and I don’t hear anything that sounds as delightful as Gonsalvo’s ringtone tune.
They also copy various Malayalam movies for me. I had asked in shops before, but the shops had only VCDs, not the higher-quality DVDs, and without English subtitles. Now the internet shop wallah says his copies would be in DVD quality and include subtitles. When I return, I get seven handwritten DVDs, each containing two to four movies. The movies are in MP4 format, 640×272 pixels, and without subtitles.
“Some movies have no subtitles”, says the manager. “But, well… you can… look”, he smiles. One DVD is charged at 35 rupees (0,76 USD).
Most internet access shops and hotel computers throughout India use Windows XP with Internet Explorer 6 only. That browser is very inconvenient – no tabs, no search field. Not a big problem though: I have the portable, easy to use Firefox browser on my USB stick. It knows my passwords and preferred web sites.
But then, some internet cafés do a forced virus scan of my USB stick which takes ten minutes (not charged), while I want to browse only nine minutes. Other internet services have PCs without a USB port.
In Tholpithera, Wayanad, Kerala, the local internet shack has USB ports, but they don’t work: “We disabled them, because people download too much.” Fortunately, Green Wayanad resort in Tholpithera lets me use their reception PC. It has only Internet Explorer 6, but through the functioning USB connection I can open my portable Firefox browser.
Starting my private, personalized Firefox browser for the first time on that hotel PC, it appears with a drastically changed interface: The address bar is gone, as is the button bar. There is a new bar though – for searches through ask.com. Whatever I want to open now, on my once-personalised Firefox browser on my private USB stick, has to go through ask.com.
When asked about his marital status, the young, dynamic, Muslim manager of Oriental Hills resort, Muthanga, smiles nonchalantly: “Currently, I am currently seeking proposals.”
What a nice position: seeking proposals. Anvar does so with the help of a “broker”, in his words. He says that the marriage broker will finally – after a successful match – earn roughly 10.000 rupees (217 USD). I understand it like that: The broker will get ten per cent of the gold that the girl’s family gives to Anvar. The gold is given in coins worth 8.000 to 10.000 rupees each. They will likely give eight to ten coins.
Anvar smiles and admits: Yes, it is a nice position as an Indian male, “seeking proposals”.
“How about you”, says Anvar, rummaging through his name card collection, “I will connect you with my broker. He has a very good selection.”
Kochi (Cochin), Kerala
As I wait for the Vypeen ferry, an Indian Crow’s droppings land not only on my hand, but also on my dear travel companion, V.S. Naipaul. After Kolkata a month ago (see part 1), it’s only the second mishap of this kind in my life.
The group daytrip to the backwaters (550 rupees, 12 USD) consists mainly of waiting. At lunchtime we sit around half an hour in a boat to bring us to the lunch hut on another piece of land. When we arrive at the lunch hut, after the half-hour wait, the reason for the delay is clear: Another group had to finish their meal first. The captain brings them back to the mainland immediately. When our group has finished their lunch, the captain returns und ushers us onto his boat. Only then he himself sits down in the lunch hut for his own lunch – 25 bored tourists on the boat watch him hand-shovelling rice, sambar and pickles for 20 minutes. The ensuing 2.5-hour boat trip is on a river so large that you can’t see anything. It is very slow also, obviously to finally somehow achieve the promised seven hours duration. Tourists sleep, chat or read novels.
I snap the obligatory Chinese fishing nets near the seaside promenade. A hawker in rags approaches me. He carries a small, ragged box.
“Sir! You want – ”
“Sir! You want SD memory card for your camera?”
Very, very nice indeed – and really invigorating for those of us who enjoy travel off the beaten track.