Saturday, March 21, 2009

Kerala Kerala Kerala

I awoke the following morning to a city virtually devoid of motor vehicles, with women walking in large numbers and filling the streets. Other women lined the sides of the streets and were cooking, using a single pot held up between bricks set on either side of bamboo wood fires. I walked and the smoke became intense and at times slightly suffocating. Some streets were blocked off to most males, but I was permitted as a foreigner with a badge I'd obtained the previous day; as a non-active participant in the ceremony and the culture, I didn't count. I cannot describe the story or the purpose of the Attukal Pongala Festival better than this blog: Click here. In the evening, a children's parade involving elephants sets out, but I was eager to get to the yoga ashram. Traffic was nearly at a gridlock and buses were unable to make it to the bus stand, so I ended up getting a rickshaw. The driver spent most of his time on the right side of the road, which would have been cool in the U.S., but in India, it meant that we made good time, but I was white-knuckling.The Sivananda Ashram was a haven from the big city. Set in the hills above Neyyar Dam and preserve, this ashram is a place for serious yoga training. I arrived between yoga teacher training courses and toward the end of the "yoga vacation" two week course. I jumped right in, under know dillusion that this was going to be a walk in the park. A typical day's schedule involved Satsung (meditation, followed by chanting) from 6-7:30 PM; yoga from 8-10; Breakfast at 10AM (all you can eat vegan; silence requested; sitting crosslegged); Karma Yogo at 11 (I cleaned some bathrooms each day); Special Practice for working on assenas (I attended these to work on head stand, crow, and later scorpion); Lecture on eastern philosohy, meditation, etc. from 2-3PM; Yoga class 3:30-5:30; dinner at 6PM; Another round of satsung from 8-10; Then bedtime. The good news is that they added variety to this blank schedule. We were incredibly fortunate to have a concert by a Hungarian musician who specialized in Indian music. He played an instrument resembling a sitar, but without frets, called a Sarod (I tried, but failed to play this instrument later in the week because I didn't have long enough finger nails); a copper bowl filled with water whose wet handles he stroked to produce an etherial sound whose vibrations excited the surface water; and an instrument that he played with his mouth and fingers that made a twang-like sound. Furthermore, he was able to use Tibetan throat, mouth, and head techniques to produce multiple tones at once and some incredibly deep sounds. At times, I wondered whether the sounds were coming from him at all, but they were. The result was one of the most sublime concerts I've experienced. I have his CD. I was fortunate later in the week to have a vocal class with this artist. He taught us some of the Eastern scale and worked on our voice control. An amazing teacher!
Another highlight of the yoga was the evening walking meditation. We went down to the edge of Neyyar Dam on the full moon and meditated to the reflections of various gray shades of trees, the moon, and the mountains beyond over placid water.Meditation was a challenge for me, principally because I have limited flexibility in the hips and so it's hard to find tranquility inside when physically uncomfortable. We had a lecture one day which involved the things that we should and shouldn't do in life (according to eastern/Sivananda philosophy); at the end, I wasn't sure how this related to the original topic--meditation. The response was that the things that occur in our everyday life, really affect our meditation dramatically and meditation is a continuum with the outside world. I didn't entirely believe this until I experienced it for myself. Partner yoga, offered by a guest yoga instructor, lead to a flirtatious interaction between me and and an Indian girl named Sanditha (she was really doing most of the flirting, but I won't deny my subtle reciprocity). In any case, our interaction became slightly confusing and awkward after this and one phrase she'd said while enjoying the yoga session baffled me: "I'm nearly crying right now, we would make such a wonderful couple." Well, things never progressed to this point for reasons I won't explain here; however, I found that my meditation from here on out was a constant mental struggle. Questions and conflicting thoughts about Sanditha riddled my mind and attempts to use mantras or other techniques failed miserably to erase these thoughts as they kept returning. In the individual quest to understand oneself, meditation has a place, I am convinced. I am not ready to commit hours to it, however. Well, that's my "spice" delivery for you ...time for some more curd...the spice is more difficult to write.After the yoga session, I headed north to the Amma (meaning "mother" in Malayalam) Ashram. Amma has the reputation for being an enlighted individual who gives Darshan through her hugs. This is the reason most people visit and some report truly enlightening/lifechanging experiences. This Ashram is more like a city sandwiched between the canal and the ocean. My accomodation was 16 stories tall. Most people are slightly older and less happy than at the Sivananda Yoga Ashram. It was Amma's last night before she left her Ashram for a trip and I had an opportunity to attend Darshan, where I recieved a hug after waiting for about an hour. I actually received quite a long hug with forehead pressed to her shoulder while she whispered "moomoomoo" or something into my ear (the crowd control people had instructed her vociferously, "English" in advance). Well, I felt like I'd received a quality hug and the general vibe was one of adoration for this woman, so I felt a small surge of adrenaline. I let myself enjoy it and figured I might as well keep myself open to the possibility of a life-changing experience. A few people issued tears coming out of Darshan and one caucasian girl got significant attention as she gave some gifts to Amma, including what I was told was a pet squirrel. At the end, some ceremony occurred that I couldn't see and I was annoyed by the incessant photography, apparently from Amma's own crew.
I headed north to Alleppe, "the venice of India" and caught a ferry to a backwater village (Chemankary) where organized homestays can be arranged. Not wanting to pay as much as an organized home-stay, I just showed up and wandered around. Eventually, somebody took me to a family who offered me a home stay for a better price. The family had a beautiful home with Joseph, Sally, and their daughter Lijina (Liji) and son (Lijo). The house was in a backwater enclave, surrounded by surrounded by rice paddies (they farm rice and earn money through tourism). Interestingly, they told me that they use about 1/3 of the rice that they farm for themselves and during the harvest, about 300 people will come to their plot of land from surrounding villages to harvest the rice in April. I really enjoyed this family and the food they made for me (small fish fry for lunch, _various curries for dinner, and rice/coconut steamed served with steamed bannana--really good mashed together). I also enjoyed a canoe tour of the village. The calm water made for excellent photography in the evening light. Siblings in this town have interestingl similar names: (1) Lijo, Liji; (2) Stella, Stephi, Steha; (3) Tinu, Tiho, Tibin, Titi, Tindu, Tinsi. A pet mina bird in the hose repeated like a parrot the following words: "amma," meaning mother AND "Issuay sto dram," meaning Jusus Thanks You. A shrimp trap in the nearby backwater channel produced results that morning and Lijo played with the shrimp's latent triggering reflex which was abrupt and strong.

After a relaxing morning of reading (largely an excuse to stay there to eat lunch), I headed back to Alleppe, from which station I intended to catch a bus to Munnar. I happened upon somebody (Manoj) who was excited to practice English with me. He invited me to see his village to meet his friends and family and offered to let me stay overnight. The fact that I missed my bus made the decision easy, so Manoj took me to his small village nestled amid a maze of small streets outside of Harripad. Manoj's residence was two bedrooms. One for the pareents -- Pushpa, Manoj's mother, and Ma Tra Van, his father, with a small kitchen area, I presume; the other for Manoj and his older brother (and me). The room was about the size of my smallest college dorm room. 4 cows, including two calfs lounged outside and were brought into a shed out back for the night. Manoj took me toward the rice paddies and on the way we met most of his family and many of his friends and English students. He would often make comments to me about the quality of these students, saying something like "Her English is quite good, but she's too shy!" I was incredibly warmly welcomed and felt like everyone in town was amazed that I was there. I think Manoj was even surprised that I was willing to accept such marginally adequate accomodations (i.e. sharing a bed). I did have to establish earlier in the day that I was not interested in the favors he implied by his unusual offer of a massage, but he later earned enough trust that I was willing to work with the situation. Before bed, we took a hair-raising motorbike ride to a local Toddy bar. This time, I tried it without alcohol and still didn't enjoy it, but the spiced beef made the trip worthwhile.

The following morning, I headed to the Portuguese/Dutch old port city of Kocin. I will let the words of Arundhati Roy describe my Kathakali experience that evening. "In the evenings (for that Regional Flavour) the tourists were treated to truncated kathakali performances ('Small attention spans,' the Hotel People explained to the dancers), So ancient stories were collapsed and amputated. Six-hour classics were dashed to twenty-minute cameos." We were given an introduction to the make-up, the important role of the eyes, the mudras (which are really the language), and the emotions expressed in embellished facial expressions and hand gestures. The show we saw involved an infatuated female who was ultimately "slashed up" by the sword of the man she fawned upon. I would hope that if this were a 6-hour classic, there would be more to be witnessed...but perhaps I was missing a lot by not understanding the mudras.

That same evening, I experienced the wonder of green mango fish curry and my hotel owner agreed to teach me how to make it, so after a quick tour of Kocin's sites the following day, I learned to make the dish. Here are my notes:

Keralan Fish Curry (Green Mango or Tamarind)
150-200g shaved coconut (preferable) or 1 bottle coconut milk
1 small green mango sliced in thin-ish strips (for green mango curry)
2-3 Tamarind pods or 2 Tbs. Tamarind juice (for Tamarind curry)
2 Tbs. red pepper
1/2 Tbs. tumeric
~1 Tbs. salt
  1. Combine dry ingrededients and blend with one cup water
  2. Add to frying pan along with another cup or so of water (or coconut milk if subsituting).
  3. Add deeply scored 3/4" fillets of white fish (snapper was used here).
  4. Heat until boiling, then reduce heat somewhat and simmer 10 mins per side.
  5. Serve with steamed white rice.

After a five hour bus ride into the hill station of Munnar, a vestige of England's colonial influence punctuated by it's thirst for tea, I found myself shivering for the first time in months. The next day, I set out with an open agenda, but hoping to be able to climb the tallest peak in the Indian Subcontinent, south of the Himalaya. I was repeatedly told, I was not allowed (yes, NOT ALLOWED) in Ervakalum national park (in which Anemudi "Elephant peak" was located) because the rare species of goat was breeding. I avoided one security guard by going through thewell-manicured tea terraces and spotted a Great Lemir and a flying squirrel in the trees between plots of tea. The people working on the tea plantation were adding some sort of chemical to eliminate some sort of pest. The one I spoke with kept talking about "Elephant--very dangerous." Apparently, there was a herd of elephants in these parts, but lone elephants can be quite dangerous. I finally saw my route into the tempting high country. After a short stop at a waterfall, I turned my red raincoat inside out so it looked black, to better camouflage, and I started upward. Within a few minutes, I found myself amidst a swarm of 1,000-10,000 bees which were traveling rapidly. I was able to restrain myself from the urge to swat at the first few (very fortunate I didn't swat!) and I dropped down and cowered, motionless, probably not even breathing. The swarm passed nearly as rapidly as it arrived. I had some second thoughts about continuing at this point as I viewed this to have been a potential "near death" experience. After some discussion with Karen, my top source for all things entomological, we suspect that a swarm of female bees were following their queen and I probably hadn't disturbe a nest since the bees were not interested in me. I just happened to be in the wrong place along the subtle ridge they were crossing. At this point on the hike, I decided that the event must have been a freak occurrence and continued onwards. The greatest challenge was the high grasses, which I feared harbored snakes. Navigation became tricky as there were rock bands to negotiate with steep hill slopes between the precipices. I found a suitable route and found myself in terrain resembling the rolling gold hills of California (above 6,500 ft here). I spotted several packs of the rare Nalgiri Mountain Goat and realized that although far away, I was disturbing them as they ran off away from me. I was trying hard not to impact them and feel badly if I affected the breeding in any way. A few small cumulus clouds were developping, so I rushed to the summit. There was a small trail coming up from the other side, which is odd because the mountain is supposedly within the "core zone" of the park, which is never open. At this point, I should mention that I completed this 5 hour hike with only one of the 10 essentials (a rain coat, doubling as insulatin), which meant that I had neither food nor water. Thus, by the time I made it back to the road, I was severely dehydrated and even after 1.5 liters of water downed, my legs started cramping as I approached the entrance to the TATA tea museum (this must have looked ridiculous as I was having difficulty hauling myself out of the parking lot).

The tea museum has a functioning tea processing facility demonstration. It also has media which touts how the tea plantions (growing from 3,500-7,000 ft.) are one with nature. Although the plantations are genuinely beautiful, the monoculture introduced here must have been ecologically devastating. One pieve of evidence for this devistation is that 20 years ago Elephants roamed the streets of Munnar and people were afraid to walk outside at night as a result.

My final morning in Munnar, I visited a spice garden where I witnessed the very origin of the spice trade (40 species of plants with wonderous aromas). Then, I commenced a 24-hour journey to Goa. In an attempt to save travel time (and not backtrack), I decided to catch the train one station beyond it's origin (from which my sleeper ticket was issued). Well, my train didn't actually stop at this station (express train, yeah I'm an idiot!). So, they sent me to Thrissur to try to catch my train there...well, the train didn't stop there either, so the station master said they'd have the train stop "just for me." Well, I watched "my train" slowly pull in, roll by, and exit the station while I waved furiously and ultimately hopelessly for them to stop. It was going just a bit too fast for me to jump aboard. Thus, I had to purchase a general compartment seat for another train (the sleeper class being booked full on this one). I boarded the sleeper compartment and they refused to cut me a bone (threatening a 400 Rs penalty if I elected to stay in the compartment). Well, I followed a Goan lady in the same predicamment and we went to the jam-packed General Compartment. After some visions of hours standing, Ijoined some boys who were sitting in the baggage racks near the roof of the train. The position was uncomfortable because we couldn't sit up straight, but I enjoyed their company. Meanwhile,the lady I'd followed kept giving me food which she bought me from the train vendors. When I offered to pay, she told me that "Jesus gives it to you, not me." This lady had just come from a 7-week bible camp in Trissur. That night, numbers in the train thinned and I ended up with a baggage rack all to myself. I was able to sleep on my bag and hold my valuables to avoid any theft. Now, I'm in Goa!


Reddy Yatavelli said...

you have everything, spice and curd, for a good travel book. Good to hear the stories. Keep updating.

karen reagan said...

Hey Robert,

Curious about the coconut in your recipe--is it fresh shaved coconut, or is it dehydrated?

Thanks for posting about all the fabulous food you're encountering. I might try your fish curry recipe one day soon.


Jonathan L. said...

Well, I read this and the whole thing beneath it. Great stuff. Of course you know I loved the holy hug, almost as much as the experience with partner yoga. Guess I need to try that. Keep those romantic intrigues coming, they're my favorite parts of the tales. Can't help it.

I am jealous of the food. I love the convenience of the dining hall here, but the spiciest thing they serve is probably ice cream. The have chicken masala; it has the zing of carrot paste. They had a hungarian pepper pork stew once that I was excited about, it was, remarkably, less spicy. As spicy as water. Then there was the barbecue pork. Delicious pork. That BBQ in the title was just for fun though.

So while you've been on this trip I've both begun and ended a relationship. We had nothing in common, but she was attractive and it was worth giving a shot for a while. No harm done.
My life is good, every bit of it but the job search, which is probably going awful. On the bright side, it gets me down less than it has in prior years. There are a large number of people in my dorm with me (the students I RA for) who appreciate me, and Sean O Brien and Sarah Iams have proven good friends.

Last up was a great visit to see Danny a couple weeks ago. Probably the best time I've ever spent with him, and you know that's saying something. I know that'll make you happy to hear. I look forward to telling you more about it. Pictures not up yet, but if you want to see some other pics of my life, check out the flickr site (won't post the URL here but it's on facebook). But I figure your bandwidth can't be good enough for that.

Hope you enjoyed this long comment. Your post was almost unbeleivably long, but I guess it's amazing you get to the internet at all.

Holy hugs,


photohydraulicturbine said...

When making the dish in kerala, one cracks open a coconunt (they are everywhere!) and shaves it with this special grating device which all houses seem to own. I might try a combo of dehydrated shaved coconut and coconut milk, when I return home. I think the coconut milk alone might not lend the curry enough body, but perhaps it will still thicken.

yoga said...

Hey... I read your information from begining to the end and I think that is interesting information.. I think i will tell this information again to my friend and I hope this information will be usefull for them... oh yes I suggest you to check Yoga Teacher Training Goa on my site , I hope the Information on my site will be usefull for you..and we can share each other. thank you... :-)