Monday, February 25, 2008

Cross-Country to Kerala

After a 24 hour journey across India from Hyderabad to Delhi to rendezvous with Aaron, in from his Amman flight, we made the impossibly inevitable decision to mix a night in GK1 Delhi with one hour of sleep and another cross-country flight, a mix as potent as any cocktail.

While our delayed flight got us into Kerala after we'd expected, a frenetic drive landed us at our houseboat dock in time for four hours of afternoon cruising on the placid backwaters of Kerala. Armed with fresh fish, good company, Kingfishers (both bird and bottle), and a boat staff of three, we set off down the flat reflection of the sky, where the coconut palms reached toward us in reverse order, crawling with their fawns over the ripples toward our hull. With some light Arabic tunes from Madinat in Dubai, the mood was pretty unbeatable, and we crashed under the stars.

When we awoke at dawn, our houseboat staff was preparing for a dip at the water's edge. Although my post-swim sickness doesn't corroborate my claim that the water looked clean, I lathered up and jumped in covered in soap like a Keralan village local. The calm, cool water opened up a new day.

Arriving back at the dock, we had time to kill and so boarded a 150cc bike with three men and all our luggage. Again, helmets are optional, and we chose the cautious path of "not necessary." After showing the business owner Google Analytics tips on his shack wireless connection, I naively assumed that we were on good terms. Not more than 10 minutes later, as he pocketed our wad of 500 rupee notes for his troubles, he altered the arrangements of our transport, demanding yet 1000 rupees more. In a fit of rage I pounded the car, got on my cell phone and said two words beginning in B and S no fewer than 10 times. This delicate tactic smoothed over what I like to refer to in India as the "quid pro screw you." What happened to the quo?

That afternoon we spent touring Fort Cochin with a rickshaw driver who charged us a paltry 50 Rs for his all-day services (1 dollar), and took us to a number of sites, including a ginger factory where we even got to paint transport boxes. Our tour ended at a Kathakali performance in traditional Keralan style, and we watched, mesmerized, as men in dhotis spun swords, fought in traditional martial arts style, and performed Kathakali, or dramatic-style Peking Opera.

Following the performance we attempted to organize a driver for Munnar, or the far-away tea plantations in central Kerala. 90km inland, the drive takes nearly 5 hours. Because in Communist Kerala all drivers were protesting gas prices, we were warned not to attempt the roads. We were advised that we would likely get stoned by villagers. Heeding caution, we paid a muscular-looking local named Hari to drive us in his tiny personal Tata Indica. He promised that he could drive fast, and I can attest to his insanity. We made the journey in 3.5 hours, though for much of it the puzzle-piece hillsides of Munnar appeared more like a blur, and less like tea. We survived without even one stoning, and after doing a yell with 30 kids at echo point, eating fresh pineapple and black pepper off the trees, made our return to Cochin, a drive I likened to nearly 4 hours strapped into Space Mountain. We pulled the G-Forces of Maverick, and arrived back in town feeling more like Goose, albeit we'd seen elephants.

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