Saturday, February 04, 2006

Go South young man - How to travel in India without really trying

On my second day in Varkala in the southwestern state of Kerala, I narrowly escaped being hit by a falling coconut. There was a strange thrill in the near miss, for it was a hazard I hadn't encountered elsewhere in India. Runaway rickshaws, wily touts, poisonous dal - I had survived them all, but I had not thought to look out for falling fruit. As I was to learn in the coming days, Kerala is different. Not only are there coconut trees, there is sand, and sea, and you can go whole days without having an argument with anyone. At some point during the flight from Mumbai we seemed to have entered a parallel India that wasn't like India at all.

It took a while to settle in. Along with my luggage, I brought to Kerala a steeliness that I had cultivated during my time in the North. For months I had walked India's streets ready to dispose any number of weapons at a moment's notice: the withering glare, the barking rebuke,the efficient elbow. But all of this seemed a little out of place in the South. As we walked along the clifftop in Varkala, vendors called out to us to enter their shop, but it was half-hearted, as if they were glad to retreat to their stool in the shade. It was very different to the North, where touts would follow you home and marry your sister on the off-chance they could sell you a rug. In the end E and I had no option but to succumb - we shed our steeliness and decided to relax.

There were swims before breakfast, and again in the evening, the small waves gently massaging our tired bodies. In the day we escaped the sun, lying in hammocks under coconut trees and reading. And if we were in the mood we would head out for a cocktail before dinner, most often a pina colada, made with local fresh pineapple. We spent a day on a houseboat, and sat on the front deck as our personal staff punted us through the gorgeous Keralan Backwaters. Giant banana leaves swayed languidly in the breeze, as if telling us to take our time. In the the Western Ghats we forfeited an afternoon of sitting to have an Ayeurvedic massage, and lay back as masseurs rubbed oil over our suddenly slippery bodies. Against my will, I began to fret about what were appropriate thoughts on a massage table - I tried to concentrate on the feeling in my muscles, but soon I was thinking about dinner, and returning home, and I tensed as I thought I'd better come up with some better thoughts, and quickly. It occured to me later that my time in Kerala had left me in such an intense state of relaxation that my mind had begun to rebel against it.

The only cause for consternation came at meal times. Keralan cuisine is different from northern cuisine in two main respects: it is cooked in coconut oil, and it is far more spicy, for the very practical reason that, in the tropical Keralan climate, the chili cools you down. The only problem is, as Kerala's popularity as a tourist destination has grown, the more restaurants have rushed to cater for what they perceive as the blander tastes of Westerners. Kerala is marketed in Europe as a tropical holiday destination for middle-aged travellers who like eggs for breakfast, pasta for dinner, and if they must, "Indian food but not too spicy, please". And so it arrives on your table and you brace for disappointment - it's been made with curry powder, or it's served cold, or it looks like chicken nuggets. We've been telling any restaurant that listens that this is the worst Indian food we have ever tasted - in the world. Each night is a little tug of war with those travellers who bring their cardboard palletes and the restaurants that are afraid of turning them away.

On our houseboat, of course, we had a personal chef, and we told him at every opportunity that we liked our food spicy. And he did not disappoint. He served up a delicious spread of local food: fat Keralan rice, tasty sambar, and colourful dishes of fish and vegetables cooked with liberal doses of green chilies. Halfway through the meal our chef came to check on us. Sweat was dripping from our brows, our noses were running, my mouth was having trouble tasting the food, and we gave him the big thumbs up. And, magically, our bodies seemed to cool, as if the chili had dissipated the heat and humidity that had clung to our skin for days.

The chef had delivered the goods, and we gave him our last beer to say thanks. It was evident that he didn't share it with the crew, for a short time later he was red-faced and ten minutes into a runaway monologue about Kerala, linguistics, capital punishment, Chuck Norris and Jackie Chan. As he drew breath we politely told him that we needed a good night's sleep and had to get to bed - after all, there was no telling how much swimming, and reading, and daydreaming, that the 'morrow would bring.

Photos of Varanasi and the tropical South


At 11:57 PM, Anonymous mircea said...

I liked the coconut phase but should wear helmets. on spicy foods ... worth to try the original.


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