Sunday, January 22, 2012

A Passage to India: January in Coconut-Land

I returned today from one of the most inspiring and fascinating adventures I've ever been on-- to Kerala, in Southern India. The trip was a college graduation gift from my mother, and my first time in India (and, for that matter, Asia). Prior to my departure, I'd been inundated with stories, advice and warnings from different people who had been before. I was told that public restrooms would literally be holes in the floor with no toilet paper (sometimes true), that I should avoid dairy, meat and fruit at all costs, that I would most likely come down with a parasite of some sort, that rabid dogs and monkeys ran rampant on the streets, and that men would leer at me if I didn't wear loose-fitting clothing that covered my shoulders and the outline of my legs (interestingly enough, I found that showing the stomach is considered less risqué in India than showing the shoulders). Though I did find the condition of the public toilets to be rather unappealing, to put it lightly, I ended up eschewing veganism-- how can you go to India and not eat raitha (yogurt with cucumber, mint and other vegetables), paneer (Indian cottage cheese, served with all different types of delicious sauces and curries) or kheer (a milk and rice-based dessert spiced with cardamom)? I didn't even get sick once, and learned that I actually could have brought a few tank tops if I'd wanted to without risking complete public humiliation (the South seems to be a bit more laid-back than the North in terms of dress code for women, probably because it's so incredibly hot-- around 95 degrees Fahrenheit in mid-January)! In my experience, the food was absolutely delicious, the people were some of the friendliest and most genuine I'd ever met, the mountains and coastal areas in which I traveled were stunning (Kerala is known as one of the most beautiful states in India; it is called "God's Own Country" and literally means "coconut land" in Malayalam, the state language), and a mélange of different cultures (Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Jains, Parsis, expatriates, etc) seemed to intersect harmoniously for the most part.

One of the greatest things about traveling in India is that it's insanely cheap once you get past the plane ticket-- one American dollar is equal to approximately fifty rupees, and the prices are low (for example, we found 100% pure silk scarves for around six American dollars, and ate full-course meals, including alcohol, bottled water and dessert, for around 10 dollars per person). We began in the hills of Munnar, where we hiked in the Ghats and walked through a tea plantation, then traveled to Periyar, a slightly hippie-ish walking town full of monkeys, twenty-something backpackers with dreadlocks, Ayurvedic massage centers and Kashmiri shops selling silk scarves, pashminas and spices. In Periyar we walked through a spice plantation, rode an elephant, hiked through a tiger reserve (we didn't manage to see any tigers, but we did see wild bison, elephants, deer, monkeys, and leeches... which, our guide informed us, die when you sprinkle tobacco powder on them-- useful tip if you ever have them on your shoes, which we all did). From there we went to Alleppey, where we stayed for one night on land and then spent the next day and night on a rice boat that sailed through the "backwaters," a brackish, river-like body of water lined with rice paddies and homes. Next we made our way further south to the coastal village of Kovalam, where we discovered, during a morning walk on the beach, that the men of the town customarily use the Arabian Sea as their toilet, intermittently squatting on the beach in plain view of tourists throughout the day. Another memorable moment of the same ilk was when we sat on a five-hour train ride from Kovalam to Cochin, holding our bags on our laps because we were surrounded by tiny cockroaches that crawled up and down the walls and floor of the train (and this was in "first class.") All in all, it was an eye-opening adventure, and utterly different from any of my other travel experiences... and cockroaches/public toilets/men-pooping-on-the-beach aside, I can't wait to return someday and explore other parts of India.

For a more thorough account of a foreigner's experience in India, I would recommend reading Gregory David Robertson's Shantaram (I have slightly mixed feelings about this book, although it is without question a gripping story and seems to be turning into a cult novel as I type this-- rumor has it a feature film based on the book and starring Johnny Depp is in the works), but I wanted to share a few photos I took on my trip. I usually shoot on film, but I received a good digital camera as a Christmas present and decided it'd be less of a hassle (I was right, although I'm still biased towards film and think it generally looks much better than digital...)!!

Outside the post office in Cochin

A colorful storefront in Chowara, near Kovalam

Young boy in Alleppey

A backyard / view of the rice paddy in Alleppey

"Jew Town" district in Old Cochin

A family in Alleppey

Weaving a sari in Cochin

Outside the (purple!) Christian church in Kovalam

Reflection in the water at Alleppey

Men's shirts hanging to dry by the backwaters of Alleppey

Cinnamon for sale in Periyar

A tame elephant and his keeper in Periyar

Drinking chai outside a fruit stand in Periyar

Evening on the rice boat


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