February 5, 2006


It used to be that I necessitated hot water for a bath in the morning. Now, I find myself putting ice cubes in the bath water as it comes out warm from the scorching sun heating the water tank on the roof of the building. Summer in India. It is hard to do anything in 42 degrees except lie under a fan and wait, sleep or complain. But it wasn’t always this way. I only recently returned to the infamous summer of Chennai a couple of days ago (just after the hottest day in 35 years…perfect timing!!!). For most of the month Anu and I have been traveling a little, visiting some of her relatives and such. A good portion was spent decadently in Goa with Anu’s cousin Anjali, her husband Jeetu and grand old aunt Chitra. How can I explain?? Jeetu owns a farm in Gujurat which among other things grows perhaps the best mangoes I’ve ever tasted so we had our daily share of those. Radiant orange and oh so juicy. Not to mention something close to four meals a day. Breakfast, lunch (usually with no less than four dishes of sumptuous homecooked eats), “pre-supper” which could be anything and then a hearty meal late in the evening at one of the many local restaurants that the family always insisted on paying for. On top of all this, I partook in my share of a local drink named “fenny’ which is made from fermented cashew nuts. Straight up it tastes something like rubber cement but mixed with some lime and/or soda water it hit the spot….repeatedly. Needless to say, after that sort of treatment for 8 days or so I am a few pounds heavier. One of the highlights was getting to know the old auntie Chitra. She hails from a southern Indian family and knows a little about Carnatic music and enjoyed listening to me practice. She was always full of stories about her childhood, married life in different parts of India, recipes, full of curiosity and open-mindedness and she also graciously painted me a picture as a token of her gratitude for us coming to visit. Besides the joy of the family atmosphere, the house we stayed on was about 2 minutes from a pleasantly clean beach so almost everyday was spent basking in playful waves. After a brief stop in another coastal town further south in search of snorkeling, we decided to spend a couple of days in “God’s Own Country” (as they like to call Kerala), in the little trading town of Fort Cochin on the coast. A strange mix of neo-colonial architecture with a hint of old India but not much, it was a quiet and relaxing place, though geared towards the tourists who frequent the place. But one of the gems of the town is the Kerala Kathakali Centre which puts off shortened shows (2 hrs instead of 9) of the fabled dance form. And added bonus is that you can watch the application of make up for 90 minutes before the show. All natural made from coconut oil and ground stones which when mixed yield vibrant hues. On top of all this these guys are dedicated and put their hearts into every expression. And have been doing so for the last 15 years or so….every night!!!!! (that’s what they told me)

And since we were on a bit of a tourist kick, we decide to take one of the famed “backwater cruises” of Kerala. Cruise meaning you and about 5 others on a 15 ft boat with coconut leaf covering. But it wasn’t an ugly tourist excursion as such. Basically, one is given a glimpse of the charmed and highly relaxed life of the backwaters, where the “streets” are actually waterways that connect each plot of land to the next. Indeed, one of the most relaxing ways to spend time and a few rupees…slowly drifting while surrounded by hundreds of coconut trees and lotus paddies.

Continuing with our travels we decided to beat the heat and head to a “hill station” as they are known here. Basically a town located in the hills. In this case we slowly ascended 7500 ft at night to finally reach the city of Kodaikanal. Collapsing into our room, I sacrificed my sleep to listen to folk drum ensemble that was practicing outside our window at 7am. And though the temperature was quite agreeable, the onslaught of “real” tourists was not. They come I groups, ignoring where they are and who they are around. And leave tell tale signs of rubbish and sickening exhaust fumes (and oh so loud horns) from their caravans of cars, mini-buses or large commuter buses that dare you to walk on the road (as we preferred). But the walking pays off. With a little determination and bush-wacking you can find yourself away from the maddening crowds and the plethora of vendors selling anything from chocolates to socks to various plastic crap that no one needs or wants to peanuts to sunglasses. Once out of earshot, you can find yourself surrounded by magnificent eucalyptus trees opening up into grand vistas of rolling mountain peaks that keep watch over the distant plains far below. All swimming in a light haze which would be the clouds. And of course veritable symphonies of birds and insects that echo through the hills and trees. A few minutes of this and the tourist trash and commercialism is erased from memory. However, we did take the opportunity to take a pedal-boat around the lake and rent a bicycle made for two. Harmless fun.

I must admit though, that moving around this country opens your eyes to one thing, the utter lack of respect that many people have for their own environment and even more so, that of others. I have said this before. This is most apparent on the train. 99% of the people on the train think nothing of just throwing any and all trash straight out the window and not thinking of where it lands, whether it be someone else’s backyard, farm field or a major part of a city. It is quite baffling. Newfoundland used to be like this. I remember everyone just throwing trash out of moving cars. Nowadays it is a crime and you rarely see it. I think the majority just don’t think about it and an ecological bent of mind is only starting to take shape over here in a major way. Most people are only concerned with their front doorstep and nothing else. Push the rubbish aside. Maybe some rag picker will come and clean it up or “the city” will take care of it. Not a healthy mindset I think. Especially for a nation of over a billion. But there is always hope. Meeting people who go against this grain is always heartening. (Hey Bhagawan!!) One such fellow we met named Arun who is a teacher but also runs a sea turtle conservation group. He is one of the few Indians I have met who are really changing their lifestyle to live with his surroundings instead of only living off of it. He eschewed to normal path of an Indian youth of being an engineer, doctor or IT professional and instead teaches at an “experimental” school and rides his bicycle around the city and takes kids to nature when he can. He also lets students partake in the running of the turtle conservation project, which he let us experience one night. In brief, they have taken all the turtle eggs and help them hatch and help the baby turtles out to sea. An amazing sight…they crawl out of the sand, no more than 2 inches long, with little flippers and eyes and clumsily make their way towards the ocean after about an hour or so. Since it is dark, it is easy to lose track of them (especially when engaged in conversation), and we did lose one only to find him stuck in a bit of sea refuse on the beach. Tiny little packets of life they are. Amazingly, when they grow up and travel the oceans, they instinctively return to their birthplace to lay their own eggs.

And now, on the eve of my birthday, we plan to move yet again. A trip to a set of islands way off the coast of India (closer to Burma actually) where my only preoccupation will be snorkeling with fishes. Then off to Canada.

I admit, I am lucky.


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