Escape to Kerala

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Snakeboat among the hyacinths

It’s a true testament to a place when, after arriving, you feel that you never want to leave. That was my first impression of Kerala. The state on the southern tip of India is greener than green, with an overabundance of coconut palms, rice paddies, and fresh water lakes dotted with floating hyacinths and debris from neighboring banana trees.

Anthony and I took off to Kerala for a five-day Diwali/Id holiday weekend as a way to escape the heat, noise, pollution, and crowds of Bombay. Kerala definitely did the trick. After touching down at the 5-year-old International Airport in Cochin, we boarded a van en route to a resort, whose name I intend to keep somewhat secret (at least for purposes of this blog).

The sights on the way from Cochin to the resort on Vembanad Lake were the
usual: cows, women in saris, clusters of palms, and crows picking around in dustbins. But at first glance, Kerala was much more tidy than Maharashtra.
The sidewalks looked swept. Trash wasn’t strewn everywhere. Housing looked modest, but there were no visible slums – at least not like those that we’ve become accustomed to seeing in Mumbai.

Kerala was different in several other ways, too. There is a long history of communism/socialism in Kerala, so it’s not uncommon to see red hammer-and-sickle flags flying outside homes and businesses. Additionally, Christianity is more prevalent in the state, so there are dozens of churches and saint shrines dotting the roadside. St. George is one of the more popular saints in the area, as the lore of him having slain a dragon goes hand-in-hand with the Keralites’ need of protection from indigenous poisonous snakes. Ayurveda, the science of healing via herbal medicines and food, is also widespread in Kerala. So you have three forces at work there: socialism, religious tolerance, and spiritual healing. Somehow they all work pretty well together.

The resort, tucked away in an unassuming little village, was approximately a two-hour drive from the airport. We were greeted with coconut juice and information about the Diwali festivities that would take place over the weekend. Then, a woman dressed in one of the gold-bordered white saris typical of Kerala led us to our bungalow.

The best thing about the bungalow, other than the fact that it was a few steps from the pool, was the fact that it had an open-air bathroom. There was a tiled area with the sink and a proper toilet, and the shower was to the right of a grassy area. Walls were high, to ensure privacy. But you could also admire the banana tree in the backyard of the bungalow adjacent to us. Who knew getting back to nature could feel so mischievous?

We stayed in the resort for two nights, overdosing on spa treatments, good food, and relaxation. The ayurvedic massages and facials were relatively cheap, so both of us signed up.

I had no idea what an ayurvedic massage entailed. Imagine being doused with about 5 gallons of olive oil and having it massaged into your skin. I felt like a greased pig. Oil was rubbed into my scalp, temples, shoulders, chest, legs, feet…everywhere. Turning from side to side was trying, too, as I almost slipped off the table a few times. I felt really sorry for my masseuse. Not only was she having to work in such messy conditions, but she was doing so on Diwali Eve (somewhat equivalent to Christmas and/or New Year’s Eves). My only solace was knowing that Anthony was in the other room getting the same treatment. I tried not to giggle too much.

We also scheduled ayurvedic facials for the next day, and they were a lot more enjoyable. However, the combination of cucumber, mango and banana emollients can cause quite a stink.

Giant prawns cooked Kerala style Though the food at the resort wasn’t, in retrospect, the best Keralan food to be had, it was a nice departure from the heavy curries, tandoors, and spicy snacks of Maharashtra and points north. We ate our most memorable resort meal at the seafood-only restaurant on the second night. Anthony had the local fish, karimeen. It was prepared with a rub of earthy spices and baked inside a banana leaf. I had the local prawns, which were almost as big as lobsters. They were also partially cooked in a banana leaf. Apparently the leaf provides both steam/moisture and flavor. We washed all of that down with a couple bottles of Kingfisher and called it a night.

Of course, our resort stay wasn’t only about emptying our wallets and filling our gullets. The services of a mehndi artist and an astrologer were available for free during our two-day stay, so I took advantage. The astrologer, Mr. Krishnamoorty, told me I’m close to entering a 16-year cycle of happiness, but I need to make sure I do more yoga and pray to Vishnu. I’m getting the yoga situation worked out…now how do I find out how to pray to Vishnu? Sri Krishnamoorty said that praying to Jesus in the interim could also work, but I think Vishnu probably knows a whole hell of a lot more about sun cycles and birth charts.

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