February 16, 2011

India is not always what it is made out to be. It is a third world country, which means that it has all the baggage of that a third world country comes with. To say that India is made up of picturesque villages nestled under the shadows ancient temples would be like saying New England is a collection of 18th century colonial houses surrounded by stone walls and perpetual fall foliage. It is simply not true. India is a bustling, developing nation, with pollution and trash in every breath and under every step.

But that is exactly what you love about it. You love the juxtaposition, the gray crumbling concrete buildings built into wall of the brightly colored temple, or the ox and wagon waiting next to the Mercedes at the stoplight. It is these moments, when fact meets fiction, that are the most beautiful.

I say this because that is what I began to realize as I started traveling further from the bubble that is Bombay. My first stop after leaving Sali was Alleppey, aka, “the Venice of the East.” Known for its famous backwater riverboat cruises, Alleppey is a town surrounded by rivers and canals. Whenever I asked anyone what I should do down south, the answer was always a unanimous “do a backwater cruise.” But after being out there for five minutes, in the murky green water, surrounded by other tourist boats with a steady stream of trash floating by, I was starting to wonder why. However, I only wondered this because I was still learning to adjust my standards.

That being said, even with my skepticism, I was not about to let this opportunity slip by. I had hired a local guy named Therrybenben (or something like that) to take me out on his canoe for five hours. After ten minutes, I was bored. So I asked (or told, depending on how you look at it) my faithful guide that I was going to help row up front. He probably didn’t understand at first, but once I got started, we became fast friends, regardless of the fact that he knew about ten words of English and I knew about three words of Malayalam. At one point I tried to get him to sit up front and let me show him around the backwaters, but he wasn’t having it. I was having a great time shouting out “sukum ano!” to all the other starting boat captains and being the object of many other tourist’s photos. But even with all this fun, it was still hard to see such a beautiful place tarnished by floating trash, oil sheens, two stroke engines, and blaring TVs.

From Alleppey, I continued south to the famed beach resort of Varkala, which certainly lived up to its name. A beautiful beach set against a massive red rock cliff, with a collection of spectacular restaurants and shops lining the upper edge. The town also has a pretty heavy ex-pat scene, so it was nice to sit back and relax, speak some English, and make a few new international friends.

Then further down to Kerala’s capitol, Trivandrum, which is really just a typical Indian city, filled with burning trash, chaotic streets, and lots of adventure. It was here that I made a big personal step forward into South Indian culture. I ate my first thali with my hands (or rather my hand – you never ever use your left hand to eat). It cost 50rs, came to me in the traditional fashion, on a banana leaf, and I ate until I was stuffed. From then on, I was a convert – hands-only for the rest of the trip.

Edamala, Kerala

February 9, 2011

I was a bit apprehensive about going with Sali, having met him only hours before. But then I scolded myself for missing the point, and climbed up after him onto the bus to Pala. Over the course of an hour an a half, I watched the world shift from a chaotic and dirty landscape to a serene and natural one. Set on the edge of the Western Ghats, Edamala is is not on any maps and is only a simple road with a handful of houses strung along the sides. But its not the scale that gets you, it’s the people. I was immediately greeted by smiles and waves all around. In about a half hour, I had already met some of Sali’s friends and had been instructed on the correct way to drink alcohol in Edamala: half alcohol, half water, all in one swig.

The next morning, as the early sun was shining through the kitchen smoke in Sali’s Dad’s tea shop, I was treated to some of the best chai I have ever had. We then set out to pick up Sali’s wife and kids on the other side of the mountain. This was my first real chance to see the landscape around Edamala, and I was not disappointed. The views of the Ghats, covered in mist and purple in the morning sun were breathtaking, and meeting his family was just as special. We returned home and after some relaxing, set out to visit Sali’s friend Benny’s rubber farm to pick some jackfruit, which is not as easy as it sounds. Lets just say I got to see some of Sali’s mountain climbing skills (and subsequently pick loads of fire ants off his back), and then pull apart and harvest the jackfruit, which is a very messy process but loads of fun. The rest of the afternoon was spent cleaning the jackfruit with the wives and then surrendering my camera to the kids, who probably took as many photos as I did the whole trip.

The pace of life in Edamala is different than anywhere else I have been. Its slower, more relaxed. The people seem to be more in touch, and there is a true sense of community. It was a time that I will never forget.

If you are in India, make a trip to Kerala and visit Sali. He is starting a farmstay at his house and always wants guests. I cannot encourage it enough. Edamala is a beautiful place, and Sali makes it feel like it is your own.

Email me and Sali (he only checks it every week or two when he goes to Erattupetta) and we will make it happen.

Sali: otmg43 [at] yahoo [dot] com

John: johngmartin [at] gmail [dot] com

Goa to Kerala in 16 Hours

February 6, 2011

At the train station in Goa, I ran into a slight problem. I wanted to take a 16 hour sleeper train south to Cochin, Kerala, but the train that day was full. The ticket-master vaguely implied through some indefinite answers and some head-waggling that I could upgrade a 3rd class ticket to sleeper class while on the train. A man behind me in line confirmed this. So, I bought the ticket and figured I would just wing it.

I had a two-hour wait, during which time the man who helped me in line came over and introduced himself as Sali. We sat and talked as we waited for what turned out to be our two-hour late train (so now four-hour wait). A former mountain climber and guide in the Ghats in Tamil Nadu, Sali now has begun to take up rubber farming back home with his wife and two kids in Kerala, where he was born and raised. When the train eventually came, we were immediately faced with the inevitable on any 3rd class car in India – not a single vacant seat. So some guys who were somehow sitting above the seats, crouched in the luggage rack, motioned for Sali and I to join them in the opposite rack. We crawled up into what would be our seats and beds for the next 16 hours.

It was spectacular! I did not even bother to attempt to change classes. There was not enough room to sit up straight, getting down to use the “bathroom” took a massive amount of negotiating, there were three large fans right in our faces, and nowhere near the amount of room to sleep with the two of us. But we managed, in true Indian fashion. I slept, somehow, with my feet across on the other side, my head on my backpack, and my body somewhere in-between. I have no idea how Sali slept. During this nice 16 hour jaunt, Sali invited me to his village, three hours from Cochin in the mountains of Kerala. I accepted…

Saligao, Goa

February 6, 2011

The date was January 17, 2011. I was still in a post-wedding daze, and was on my way from south to north Goa to meet a friend of Dan Saulnier’s (who is a best friend of mine in Boston). I knew only that his name was Darryl Pereira, and that he was “awesome.” I made my way to the airport via bus, and then after a quick call to confirm his address, managed to arrive on his doorstep in Saligao. We met and then immediately proceeded to go out and buy PVC and sprinklers, go home and start building said sprinkler system, have a quick shower, meet friends, play pool, drink, meet more friends, go out for pizza with even more friends (nine by now), navigate treacherous Goan roads, and be home for bed sometime in the wee hours of the morning.

It was so great, I didn’t leave for another week and a half.

The description “awesome” that Dan gave me of Darryl was an apt description. Without complimenting him too much (because I know he will read this), Darryl is a man with limitless energy, excitement, and love. He is  a drummer, an investor, a teacher, an organic prawn farmer, a partier, and a father. With him I met and became friends with some great people, ate some of the best food of my life, set up a sprinkler system, became a hardcore Saligao United fan, and had many, many good conversations over Indian Story coffee and homemade feni. I will be back soon.

Goa and a Wedding

February 3, 2011

Goa is not quite like the rest of India. In Goa, the girls wear bikinis, everyone goes to mass on Sundays, and international restaurants outnumber Indian ones. This is in part because of the Portuguese rule for 450 years, which slowly converted the culture away from its roots to a more European flavor. Most Goans have Portuguese last names and learn Portuguese in school, and many live part-time abroad in Europe. Any culture that remained after Goa’s independence from Portugal in 1961 was then diluted further by the arrival of the hippies and party scene in the 60s and 70s. And now today, Goan culture is under siege by massive pressure from tourism and the western world.

My love for Goa began with a wedding. And not just any wedding, it was the wedding of Smriti and Ayush. The time energy the two of them put into it paid off. It was beautifully done, with excellent vegetarian food (much to Sunny’s annoyance), a sunset pheras, and plenty of dancing, partying, and making new friendships.

Enjoy the photos.