After making the 24 hour pass through Mumbai and fortunately averting any bombings on our train, we boarded a plane back south to the beautiful state of Kerala, fondly known to its inhabitants by the spiritually elitist nickname of “God’s Own Country” (after all, how are all of us from other places supposed to feel about that one?) Kerala is an oddity in this crazed, anarchic country. Its people are almost uniformly literate, educated, and well fed. They routinely vote for left leaning candidates and were the first people in the world to usher in a communist government through election rather than revolution.
Not wanting to give us a day without multiple hours in an oh so comfy Toyota Qualis, our agent booked us for 2 nights in the mountain town of Munnar, 1 night in another hilltop locale, Thekkady, and a final night performing the quintessential Keralan rite of passage and one of National Geographic’s 50 Experiences of a Lifetime, a backwater cruise on a houseboat in Aleppy. Our driver met us at the airport, or should I say his breath met us. It preceded him by a good 20 feet. Once again we strapped our bags on top of the Qualis (an older model with even less space) and headed off for the obligatory 4 hour ride. This one took us up winding mountain roads, which were mysteriously lacking in cows. “The people are keeping the cows in the houses here,” the driver explained. Tom, once again sharing the front seat with our chauffeur, winced at the odor and chuckled as he drove right past a billboard proclaiming the breath freshening powers of cardamom, one of the many spices grown in Kerala.
As we all struggled to keep our lunches down during the hairraising ascent, we noticed the humidity lifting and the temperature dropping. The landscape changed dramatically as we climbed into the mountains and entered tea country. I don’t drink tea, but that wouldn’t stop me from living on a tea plantation. I might even grow it just to look at it. Acre after acre of carefully trimmed bushes blanket the undulating earth. Winding pathways cleave the hedges into striking and varied patterns so that when viewed from a distance, the plants form geometric tapestries that blanket the landscape. The valuable vermillion leaves are nurtured by the sparkling mountain sunshine only to be plucked by the seasoned hands of chatty Keralan women. We stopped by the roadside and I stood transfixed imagining myself one of these women, breathing the clean, cool mountain air, soaking up the warmth of the sun’s rays, and laughing with my friends, all the while meandering through some of the most beautiful scenery I’ve ever encountered. It didn’t look like such a bad life, except maybe during the monsoon months of June and July.
Our hotel was a rip–highly priced, tastelessly decorated, but incredibly comfortable. It had an internet booth on the main floor and most importantly an inexpensive restaurant called Doof on the roof. We spent the next day “sightseeing,” i.e., following the firmly established route followed by throngs of giddy Indian newlyweds. It included visits to a few dams, a lake, and long lines of souvenir stalls. At one of the dams, we took a spin in some pedal boats and learned that Kieran and Asher are completely devoid of any steering ability. Sitting in the middle of the boats with the rudders between their legs, they effectively directed us in circles for the entire 30 minutes we were on the lake. Despite our lack of progress, we managed to upset the guard who stood on the bridge and whistled furiously at anybody who got within 100 feet of the dam. Apparently he and the man who rents the boats don’t communicate, because we had been instructed to go precisely where he didn’t want us since “the current was too strong” in the other direction.
The next day we got an early start for the….you guessed it…4 hour ride to Thekkady. The driver had warned us that 28 kilometers of the route would be “very bad” and take over an hour to negotiate. That’s more than 60 minutes to go 17 miles. We knew we were in trouble when he passed out vomit bags. Dax, McKane, and I quickly downed some Dramamine and hoped for the best. Tom, Asher, and Kieran tried to sleep, as did Heather, our travel companion. An hour passed and I didn’t think I was going to survive. Then all of a sudden, as I clutched the handle above and bowed my head to avoid seeing the road, I slipped into a state of drug-induced diffidence. I wasn’t nauseated any more, or was I? I wasn’t awake any more, or was I? Wow, look at those pretty tea plantations! Why is my head in my lap? Are we there yet?
After a brief visit with a loquacious Christian preacher who is going to send us one of his books even though we won’t be home for another five months and is looking forward to some sort of proselyting tour of Michigan, we arrived in Thekkady, the town that neighbors yet another wildlife preserve. Tom and the kids planned to take a boat ride to view the wildlife while Heather and I opted for an Ayurvedic massage, an oily, yet strangely satisfying ordeal. The boats were all booked for the afternoon so the kids chilled in the rooms. Glad the travel agent gave us a whole 18 hours here!
The 5 hour ride back down the mountain the next morning was less traumatic but still exhausting. Our new driver’s skill level proved inferior to our Rajasthani driver’s and he attempted to put at least three of us through the windshield on multiple occasions (seatbelts do not exist here). We laughed as we approached the houseboat town of Alleppy that given our luck with the camel safari, the houseboat would probably just stay docked during our brief stay. Unfortunately, our joke was not far from reality. After boarding, we joined a fleet of other crafts on the “houseboat highway,” cruised for a generous 15 minutes, and stopped at the riverside for the crew to buy something they apparently couldn’t get before the paying guests arrived. We then went another 30 minutes or so before they stopped the boat to take their lunch break. A final hour of cruising followed before we docked alongside a rice field for the night.
Tom and I immediately noticed a bright white Christian church in the distance and decided to investigate. With Asher in tow we headed down the path that led to the church. We passed through a group of houses where women and children were doing the usual women and children type things. Tom began taking pictures of the kids and showing them their faces on the LCD. The women were delighted as well and laughed as the kids made funny faces and worked on their karate poses. We continued on to the church, where by now neon lights were shining and music was stirring. We were tickled to learn it was family meeting night and began chatting with the locals who were dressed in their Sunday best. The children from the path arrived in clean clothes followed by their mothers toting scriptures and wearing the same smiles we had left them with. We stayed for about 30 minutes but had to leave when a swarm of flies started biting Tom and burrowing into each and every of his facial orifices.
We were so smitten with the spunky little church that we decided to stop along the distant riverside to capture it on film. Tom found a good spot and kneeled in the darkness to position the camera on an earthen berm. Only when he pushed the shutter, did he realize a large cow stood only a few feet in front of him. He moved a few yards south and again sunk to his knees and elbows. “Uuuuggghhh!” Apparently the cow had been in that precise location only a few moments before, because Tom’s left elbow was now covered in warm cow dung. Trying hard not to vomit or have a panic attack (even after four kids he is still feces-phobic), he quickly took the shots, passed me the camera, and ran to wash his arm in the river.
The church seemed a little less quaint now but still presented a heartwarming view from the deck of our houseboat. We ate a dinner of chicken bones and mushy rice by the light of a single, dim yellow bulb and decided to settle in to enjoy a movie. We chose The DaVinci Code since we would be in Paris only 48 hours later and wanted the kids to get a sneak peak at The Louvre. This proved a frustrating endeavor as all night long music of a curious sort had been emanating from the church, and it had only grown in intensity as the night wore on. It is almost impossible to describe, but imagine a portable organ issuing a bossanova background beat with 80′s hand-clapping overtones masked by a poorly played Indianesque melody, then drowned out by a chorus of atonal, whining voices. Tinny loudspeakers much like those used in China and Vietnam to blast daily propaganda were rigged to strategically located palm trees and amplified the din. We could not hear a movie much less each other. “They told me the meeting would end at 9:30,” Tom assured us. At 11:00 we were still waiting for someone to put the choir out of its misery. Only around midnight did the wailing cease, but even then there would be no peace for the weary Americans as equally loud Indian pop tunes replaced the pseudo hymns.
So much for the peaceful backwater. And so much for letting travel agents make our arrangements. We left the boat the next morning exhausted and eager to get to Bangalore, the last stop in our Indian adventure. We adored Kerala’s rich landscapes but think if it was really “God’s own country,” he would have endowed the Keralans with a little more musical ability.