Backwaters, Keralan food, train journeys and sacred city


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February 5th 2010
Published: February 5th 2010
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BackwatersBackwatersBackwaters

the big boat
Only a week left to this trip to INdia. But the last few days have been quite busy. Cochi was awesome. Of all the places where I stayed in about a year in this country, Beena's was in the top 3!!! For a very very reasonable price, she and her husband were providing some of the best food I had India, their rooms were simple but very clean and the hospitality was unbeatable. Little things like letting us use their computer, organizing trips ands rickshaws without taking a commission, and even getting up at 5 to cook one last breakfast before my early train journey, make a difference and when I left them I was very sad. They even let me sit in their kitchen on my last day to learn a little bit about Keralan cooking. I think the secret is coconut oil. Good in food, good on the skin, good for the hair, good everywhere, that's how Beena looks so much younger than her age.

Cochi doesn't have anything really fascinating about it but it is a very pleasant city. I enjoyed walking near the port and seeing the old buildings, the people loading and unloading merchandise, people
Making ropeMaking ropeMaking rope

from coconut fibers
testing the different types of rice, etc. It had a very ancient atmosphere. The people in the city are also very friendly and even the rickshaw drivers are nice, telling us that they drive Ferraris with A/C... I also saw a funny sign in a cafe: "Do not criticize the coffee. You might be old and weak too one day".

One day in Cochi I did a Backwaters trip. We left in the morning and travelled on a big boat in the bigger channels between Cochi and Alleppey. It was very slow, very peaceful and we learned a few things about village life, ayurvedic plants and what they do with mussle shells to extract different forms of calcium. I also learned that "Kerala" means "land of coconut", which makes a lot of sense... We had a fabulous lunch and in the afternoon they took us on smaller boats, more like a big canoe, and explored the smaller channels. We stopped to see how a woman was making rope with the dry coconut fibers, apparently half a million people do this in Kerala!!! Then we stopped for the mandatory chai at someone else's house and we slowly slowly went back
cooking lessoncooking lessoncooking lesson

with colorful spices
to Cochi. We saw a water snake on the way and also many colorful birds. We saw a few Kindfishers and our guide said: "Ah, Kingfisher is a very common bird. We even find it in the bars"! (Kingfisher is the name of the local beer). He also made me laugh almost to tears when someone commented about how load the hindu "music" was playing while we were in the backwaters. He said:"Ah, Hindu Gods are very old. They can't hear very well".

The morning I left Cochi, Sudi and Beena had called a rickshaw to take me to the train station. It was early in the morning, and the rickshaw driver arrived on time at the door. I had about 45 minutes to get to the station and it was supposed to take about 20 minutes to get there. Lots of time. But this rickshaw was probably the slowest rickshaw I ever had. It really felt like it had no power at all. I was getting worried I wasn't going to get to the station on time. At one point the driver said:" Mad'm, I have to stop there to get something". I didn't really look where he wanted to stop, and told him :"OK, but quick please...". Then I realized it was a gas station!!! Ah, yeah, better "get something" there if we want to make it to the station I thought... After that he drove a little faster and I arrived at the station just a few minutes before my train left but the driver insisted to help me find the right train and coach. Very nice.

So I took the train to Kannur and from there shared a rickshaw with some English people to Costa Malabari, a beach area a few km south of Kannur. It is in a very small village and there is nobody on the beach other than maybe a handful of tourists who are staying at one of the few guest houses. They also provide food, and the main reason I went there was actually to see a Theyyam performance, some very old ritual, older than the hindu religion apparently. It is a ritual where the Theyyam, usually a man, gets into a sort of transe and "becomes" a god (temporarily). THere are over 400 forms of Theyyams, and each one is associated to a different caste if I understood the story correctly. They perform this ritual only certain months of the year and sometimes after a wedding or after harvest to bring good luck.

So when I arrived at Costa Malabari, I was very lucky, it was lunch time (!) and in the afternoon they had a Theyyam ceremony happening a few houses down from the guest house. It was a very small Theyyam, but in a way it was more intimate and therefore more interesting. I was amazed that they allowed foreigners to watch the whole ceremony or part of it, as we so wished, and they also offered us tea and snacks. We could take pictures, stay or leave, as long as we didn't cross our legs, which was a challenge for me!!! The ceremony lasted for at least 2 hours, with VERY lound drumming, some kind of flute, and dancing, chanting, etc. It was very interesting.

That evening was also great. We were 6 people staying at the guest house, and that night we talked about travelling experiences (some of them had been teaching in Africa, others travelled a lot everywhere), and we tried to solve the world's problems. Unforgettable evening, probably one of
Costa Malabari beachCosta Malabari beachCosta Malabari beach

And nobody around
the best I had on this trip. The next morning, very early, there was another Theyyam further away but unfortunately I was a bit sick from the A/C (had to travel in an A/C coach to get to KAnnur because there was no other seat available) and decided to sleep instead... Too bad because this one was a big one and I saw the pictures. Looked amazing.

But that day I visited a weaver's Coop instead, again a fascinating experience, seeing how they make bedsheets, towels, carpets, fabrics using very old techniques, or so it seemed. The beach at Costa Malabari is also worth mentioning, but unfortunately I didn't have enough time to enjoy everything!

Now I am in Gokarna, a city where a lot of pilgrims come to visit the hindu temples. I arrived last night after a whole day travelling by train again. I landed in a somewhat dark hotel room again (I have been spoiled recently so I am a bit more fussy!), and after hearing storied about bed bugs in different hotels in India, my imagination was going wild last night! Yet I managed to sleep OK and am now enjoying the city. I got up early, and it was the best time to see Gokarna. No Westerners in the streets, only Indian pilgrims or locals, the soft morning light, the holy cows and the beautiful temples and old houses. I also walked past about 50 women receiving the vegetables they will be selling in the market today, it was busy and colorful. I had a wonderful indian breakfast for a wonderful INdian price (less than 25 cents). I can't say I enjoy the place so much no that the neo-hippy-tourists are out, but it doesn't really matter, I am leaving tomorrow for Goa, a few more days to say goodbye to my friends there before going home.


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