Saturday, March 7, 2015

India Travel Journal Part 4: The Backwaters of Kerala

If you missed the other posts in this series, you can check them out here; Part 1; Part 2; Part 3.

When I was asked to go to India, I was so excited. I knew it would be a short trip and I knew I'd work hard while there, but I also knew I'd add a couple days to the beginning and end of the trip so that I could be a tourist for a bit. Hardly enough to see much of India, but more than enough to know I want to see more! I love travelling because I love to learn and immersion learning is the best. I love history, I find religion fascinating (albeit disturbing at times), and I love architecture. I bought a Lonely Planet guide (the massive print one and the kindle version), listened to podcasts, and even searched Roku for TV shows about India in the weeks leading up to my trip. I called friends who had been and I read blog posts and tourism websites as I rushed to change my name on my passport and get my visa issued in time. I wanted to make the most of my time and chose to fly into Mumbai and out of Delhi because I found good flights and because that forced 2 cities onto my itinerary.

As the agenda for my speaking engagements evolved, there were moments of excitement and of disappointment. I hoped that I would get to visit a university with a big food or nutrition department. I was excited about talks planned in Kerala, but then bummed that we'd only be there for a day. I didn't book any train or plane tickets or make any firm plans to do anything in particular because everything I learned about travelling in India made planning seem like a fool's game. I highlighted my tour book and dog-eared pages and hoped for the best. While there were certainly things I could have done better (like visit the beaches in the evening), I was amazed that more things didn't go wrong.

The agenda worked out perfectly. I ran 4 workshops in 3 days. The ones on Monday and Friday got cancelled or rescheduled, so I had even more time to explore! We ended in Kochi instead of Delhi and my colleague rescheduled my flight to Delhi and modified my hotel reservations so that I could spend time in Kerala (thank you, Sid!). Maybe I would get an ayurvedic treatment and visit the back waters of Kerala after all! I looked forward to the mishmash of Dutch, Portuguese, and British colonial architecture in Kochi. But first I had to rock my presentations. After one of them, I actually met one of our book authors, Professor Bhushan Patwardhan, author of Integrative Approaches for Health: Biomedical Research, Ayurveda and Yoga. He's interested in writing a book specifically on ayurvedic nutrition. How cool is THAT?! And he gave me a copy of a scientific journal about Ayurveda that he's the Editor of, which I read most of on the plane. I can't wait to learn more about it.

OK OK, on to the juicy stuff and the ugly stuff that was bound to happen at some point...
My favorite way to eat a dosa: with masala potatoes inside and a couple pouched eggs on top (special order)
Kerala was so cool. I can't wait to share pictures with you(here they are!). On Friday, after enjoying another breakfast dosa and some filtered coffee (the region is known for its coffee). I took a car to Alappuzha, AKA Alleppey. My tour book said I could take a boat from there to Kollam, and stop at Mātā Amṛtānandamayī Devī's ashram on the way, so of course that's what I wanted to do. What it didn't say is that would be an 8 hour ferry ride, that I wouldn't get to see the small canals, and that I'd essentially have to make a 3-day trip out of that. On to plan B.

I took a small motor boat for a half day tour of the canals. The skipper (I guess that's what you'd call him), barely spoke any English, but he was wonderful. I sat there in peace and quite (except for the hum of the motor) and sweat in the humid heat as I tuned out the world.

We made our way across a large lake then passed rice patties on either side of a large river before heading into the canals. The canals were unlike anything I'd ever seen. They call it the Venice of the east, but Venice isn't green and the people don't live life IN the canals. The people in Alleppey lived off the water. Their homes were right on the water's edge and each house had steps down into the water where I saw women hand washing dishes and laundry right there in the canal. Nearly all of the stoops had soap and I saw men bathing in the waters. Laundry hung on clothes lines and most houses had a canoe with their name on it tied up outside. There was little evidence of modern society except for the occasional glimpse through an open door of a grandmother sitting in her plastic chair in front of a small TV, watching what I imagined to be Bollywood's version of soap operas.

My skipper stopped a few times to ask if I needed to use the toilet, the conditions of which were better than expected (my ziploc of TP, lysol, and hand wipes FTW). I bought a coconut and sipped the water from it as we went deeper into the back waters. We saw school girls with gorgeous long braids in uniform khaki dresses with red scarves walking to school (Kerala has the highest literacy rate in India, which has been attributed to decades of the democratically elected communist government). We pulled over for another stop, where there were clear signs of tourists. I was curious what they were all there to see. The skipper motioned for me to get out and I gathered my belongings. As I picked up my backpack, I heard a plunk in the water beside the boat. I looked overboard and saw the ripples. I knew immediately that my company issued iPhone was now at the bottom of the canal. The skipper saw the look of distress on my face, stripped down to his underwear, and jumped in. I wondered if this was a routine problem that he encountered while shuttling tourists through his picturesque village.

A crowd gathered on the banks of the canal as I sat there helplessly. After a few minutes, I told him it was OK, but I'm not sure he understood. He kept swimming down to the bottom, coming up for air with blood shot eyes and continuing the search. I felt awful as I rationalized the situation. I lost some great pictures I had snapped with the phone but I had been using a real camera for most of the trip and in my backpack, I had another iPhone. It wasn't set up for international calls, but maybe I could call Verizon and have them activate it? Either way, the one in the canal was a lost cause, right? I mean, all of India's rice couldn't absorb the canal water, could it? I thought maybe one of the onlookers would jump in too, but they just explained to each other what was going on as more came and went. I tried to tell the skipper not to worry about it, but he was determined. Then he showed me what was making it so difficult when he came up with handfuls of dead foliage... water chestnuts I think (GGRC folks: they were as invasive in parts of these canals as they are on the Mystic, completely blocking some parts, appeared to lead people to abandon their nearby homes). He kept looking for what felt like an awkward eternity. I pleaded with him to abandon the search and he finally did. We headed back to where we came from without ever seeing whatever tourist sight we stopped to see. I didn't check my email for the rest of the day.

Was this India's way of telling me to disconnect? If so, it didn't work for long. More on that in Part 5!