Sunday, February 17, 2013

Kochi and Nellimugal, Kerala, India

Chinese fishing nets and boats on Fort Cochin's shore.
A fisherman throwing his net.

A lack of internet has made us late, with lots pent up to say, sorry for the long post. Intermittent internet may become the norm for the next couple of weeks as we head first into the backwaters, and then to the Andaman Islands.

 Kerala has, in the past decade, secured itself a place on the international tourist trail. When I was here just 15 years ago, the lazy backwaters were attracting Indian tourists and a smattering of foreigners, but the tour groups were not yet here. The state at that time was already prosperous and progressive. In 1957 Kerala had the world's first democratically elected communist government. This resulted in frequent strikes, but also improved education and health care facilities. Kerala had, and still has the highest literacy rate of any developing nation, 89-99% depending on the source, and even village girls are frequently educated to a masters degree level. The state has a high standard of living, but used to have high unemployment, the income coming from the huge number of Keralites working abroad, especially in the Persian Gulf region.

Our first stop in Kerala was Kochi. It's a lovely seaside town, and we stuck mostly to the peninsular area of Fort Cochin and Mattancherry/ Jew Town (it's really called that, on the map and everything). The water side is lined with Chinese Fishing nets, kept and operated more for their tourist appeal than their actual efficiency for catching fish. Behind each net was a fish monger, hawking all kinds of fish, prawns and crabs, most likely not caught behind him, but hopefully not imported from Vietnam.

On arrival in Fort Cochin, our attentive and persistent host informed us that our room would not be ready until tomorrow, but that we could stay at the neighbor's "guest house". It turned out to be a family home with a room with attached bath, and a kindly Grandma entreating us to join her in some TV watching. Back at our guest house the friendly old Uncle was no less interested in our comfort and experience. In all we felt like teenagers stuck for 3 nights with doting relatives. The hands on South Indian hospitality at it's finest.

Our first night out we went to (and walked out of) 2 restaurants looking for South Indian cuisine, settling finally on one of the fish shacks. Subsequent nights we stuck to a restaurant near our guest house that served Kingfisher (beer) in teapots. We searched in vain for a South Indian breakfast, one waiter even laughed when I asked for some dosa or idli.

I think that our main problem with Kochi is that we have been in India long enough to not be impressed by the exotic-ness of the town (unlike many of the 2 week tour travelers), but also cannot yet see past the dirty beach and smelly canal to the seaside haven many Indians experience. We were also not quite ready to be back in the land of multi-cuisine restaurants, and marauding tour groups.

Visiting the village.
Appachan, Ancy and me at Appachan's hardware store.
Rubber plantation.
Rubber tree.
Rubber harvesting
The family home.

A cory (chicken) in the yard.
A kaidachuka (pinapple), weirdly one of the few Malyalam words I remembered.
Fresh papaya.
Fooling around with the ladies.
The girls, Anju, Ancy, Lincy and me.
Nellimugal, 16 years later.

Our second stop in Kerala was possible the exact opposite. We took the train to Chengannur, and then had to convince a taxi that we really did want to go to Adoor. Adoor is a small town near enough to Sabrimala Temple to have some Hindu pilgrims, but solidly off the tourist trail. After searching a bit for a guest house that was not under construction or crawling with young single guys, we settled on one that then produced a thin comment book proving that they had indeed host a few foreigners over the years.

Our next stop was Nellimugal, the village I lived in for 3 months, 16 years ago. The T-junction village was much the same as it had been, a few shops had grown to two stories, but the buildings still only stretch a few hundred feet in all 3 directions before giving way to rubber plantations and new homes built with Gulf money. We were greeted by a family friend who remember me all these years later, and told us Appachan (Grandfather) was at lunch. We walked the 10 minutes out of town, and easily found the house even though there was a new Catholic church on the once empty lot across the road, and a new home next door built by Appachan's second son.

The main house was, except for the vibrant color change from blue to peach, exactly the same right down to the comforting smell. The lunch prepared by Ammachi (Grandmother) and her daughter-in-law was the Kerelan food I have been trying to find for past 15 years. At that dining table, eating that food, I suddenly remember how to eat comfortably with my hand, it's like it took the other sensory inputs to make the muscle memory react.

My little host sisters had, as expected, grown into gregarious, beautiful, well-educated young women. They have that self-confidence and happiness provided by the security of a strong family and community. The eldest, Ligi is married and living in Oman with her husband, her sister Lincy has her MBA and was recently back from looking for work in the Gulf. Their cousin Ancy has her degree in Bio-medical Engineering and is hoping to find work closer to home. As she discovered while at school in Chennai, the village life suits her. Her little sister Anju, the baby that Mini and I used to carry around on our hips, is finishing up high school, focusing on commerce. I always thought it must be so difficult for the two wives of Appachan's sons, living with their husbands' family, while their men were away in the Gulf. I see now they are like sisters, and have the camaraderie of the other housewives in their local "neighbors group".

Matt got a small dose of my 3 months, being watched while you eat, encouraged by Ammachi to eat more and more, sitting in the middle of a group of ladies speaking Malayalam hearing your name repeated. I learned to laugh at myself, and not take myself too seriously during those three months, a lesson worth repeating every once in while. I also learned to trust that the chatter was not malicious, and that observations and comments that seem a little too personal to us westerners, are said with affection.

Being in the village reaffirmed the real reasons we travel. To see other places and people, and try to understand a bit about how they live. Maybe it will change how we live our lives, even if in small ways (I know I am a better at hand-washing clothes thanks to my Keralan Aunties). It also gives us a new prospective on the struggles new immigrants have coming our home, a place foreign to them

- Bree.