As they say, “when in Rome, shovel rice in your face with your hands”. Rome, India, same same. On our last day in Kumily, Kate and I finally let our inner children win the forks vs. fingers, West vs. Indian style of eating battle. Surrendering our beloved cutlery and supposedly civilized Western dining manners, we joined the locals in the art of feeding your face directly with your grubby paws. And then wondered why I’d held out for so long. There’s something incredibly gratifying about it. Especially when you’re eating your meal off of a banana leaf someone’s just plucked from a nearby tree. It felt primitive at first with our hands covered in rice and gravy, but I can now imagine what they’ve been thinking for all these years: why do you strange people use those bizarre metal implements to separate yourselves from your food??
With greasy smiling faces, we left the spice capital of India and threw ourselves back in the chaos of Indian traffic and headed west, back to the coast to a town called Alleppey in the backwaters of Kerala. Along the way, Kate and I started laughing (and occasionally gasping, shouting, gesturing with fingers and crying) about how truly mad the roads are in India. Just a few years ago, cars were the exception in here. Bicycles dominated. With the success of the economy and new wealth flowing through the country, most of those bikes have been traded in for motor vehicles – many of them diesel-powered. The roads, ill-equipped to deal with it all, are overflowing with the thick putrid exhaust, honks and insanity of a mix of vehicles that’s evolved faster than the country’s ability to develop a system to deal with it. Only one law holds on the roads here: the bigger you are, the more important you are. That’s it. The pecking order goes like this: trucks and buses trump cars which trump motorcycles which trump auto-rickshaws which trump bicycles which trump the occasional poor bastard walking down the road. It’s survival of the largest, or death of the dumbest.
Vehicles advance at a rate determined by the size of the vehicle they’re in, but moreso by the courage or stupidity of the driver. They pass one another by swerving into the opposing lane of traffic, sending those people coming at them onto the shoulder of the road. Tons of fun when you’re on a motorcycle (worthless in the eyes of truckdrivers) and one Greyhound bus in the opposing lane of traffic decides to pass another by entering your lane, coming at you at 60 mph with zero intention of getting out of your way, sending you into the gulleys of dirt on the side of the road, heart in throat and doing the sign of the cross on your chest. I’ve actually seen a car passing a car passing a car – all on a two lane road. No one uses rear view or side mirrors. You simply merge when you want – and assume others will get out of your way. Need to turn right? Just stop in the middle of the road and put your hand out (no turn signal needed). Again, assume others will stop. I often stand dumbfounded and watch it all – trying to figure out how it all works so well together. Most rely on intuition that allows them to all pass and dodge one another with a miminum of accidents. And absolutely no anger – they all know how it works and all cooperate. It’s a thing of beauty – controlled chaos. (If you run into my mother, don’t mention the fact that I rode for 10 days with nothing more than a single layer of wicking sport fabric between my skin and the steaming asphalt. Seriously, don’t tell her.)
Most important of all is the horn. I could write novels about the Indian use of the auto horn. Sometimes, I dream about it. There’s no limit to the use or volume of them on Indian vehicles. It’s astounding. At home, we use it to signal danger. Here, it’s used to signal…everything. A merge, a turn, an overpass, ‘get the f out of my way’, I want some ice cream, you name it. I started watching drivers as they passed us and saw that most had their hands somewhere near the horn at all times. It must be subconscious. I started to wonder how it could actually warn anyone of anything anymore if everyone did it constantly. Once, in a cab ride to the Delhi airport (on my layover from Morocco to Nepal), my taxi driver continued to honk even when we entered the airport driveway, a completely empty road without a single vehicle anywhere in site for the 300 yards of road in front or behind us. He just couldn’t stop honking. He asked me several times if I thought he was a good driver. Hell’s yeah, kid. HONK! HONK!! HONKKKKKKKKKKKK!!!!!!! They’re nuts for it here. Nuts, I tell ya.
Alleppey is a little town near the coast and the gateway to Kerala’s backwaters, a riverine network of some of the most beautiful green palm-stuffed waterways in the world. Before taking a look at all of that idyllic scenery, we spent a couple days wandering through the city’s streets filled with stands selling spices,
freshly roasted peanuts (most are cooked streetside in a wok with sand – could never get down with the grit that invariably ends up in your teeth), fried plantain chips, chai, oranges, coconuts, bananas, papayas and pomegranates, and trying to fit in with the locals. I bought a lungi, a piece of fabric wrapped around the waist that most local men wear in South India (except for the growing number of younger guys under the Western influence with designer jeans, sneakers and shirts with poorly translated English phrases on them) and did my best to look nonchalant parading around town in it.
Most of the men wear a lungi, sandals and button down shirt, a funky mix of tradition and formal style. Another fun fact: I’ve probably seen a grand total of 3 t-shirts on men in south India. They wear collared shirts exclusively. I’ve always found that interesting.
After an hour and a half long ride through serene picturesque backwaters
where we sat sweating on the back rail playing gin rummy with local men (none of whom spoke English but were damn savvy card players), we arrived at a homestay situated on the banks of a quiet canal run by a sweet guy named Thomas and his extended family. He educated us a bit more about what communism really means in Kerala, and that despite the appearances (hammer and sickle everywhere you look) and the communist party in government, there isn’t much of a traditional communist system left in Kerala, aside from the power that the trade unions hold in the state.
Following a hand-drawn map Thomas gave us, Kate and I spent hours walking dirt paths alongside the serene backwater canals that break up the land in the area.
Locals came out of their homes in the jungle-like surroundings to stare at the strange white people, waving and shouting the only English they know – “Hi!”. We stopped at a little dirt path-side chai shack in the middle of nowhere with old men in white lungis and button down shirts who smoked hand-rolled leaf cigarettes (beedies) and smiled as they looked us up and down, and wondered what life would be like in a place like that. Quiet and cut off from the madness of India by water, car-free with canoes for transportation, lush greenery everywhere you looked, white egret-dotted canals outside your home and a community where everyone knows each other. Probably slightly more relaxed than Mumbai or Delhi..
We were invited into a little brick building by some local men and soon learned about the local custom of drinking ‘toddy’. Toddy is an alcoholic drink consumed all over Kerala by local men, made in this little town from fermented tapioca root, which was growing just outside the little brick building we were sitting in. The brew it up in buckets, store it in barrels and pour it ‘fresh’ into an old glass bottle for you as you sit waiting in a little brick room with dirt floors and a wooden table with only sunlight streaming in through the holes in the wall.
The rooms were like little drinking dens with 2 or 3 men stuffed in each one and eventually stumbling out back to their homes. The most interesting ‘bar’ I’ve ever been in. On the way home, Kate and I decided to take a shortcut through acres and acres of some of the most luch rice paddy I’ve ever seen.
As we skipped along the raised mud pathways that crisscross the wet green rice fields, we were stopped by an old man who lived in a home smack dab in the middle of the paddy. With the few English words he knew, he convinced us to come into his home for some coconut milk. We didn’t know it but he planned on climbing the palm tree in his backyard with his bare feet and hands to get the coconuts first.
As the sun set on the incredible scenery all around us, we sat and watched and laughed with his family, drinking the sweet white milk, smiling and having yet another in a long line of ‘if my friends could see me now’ moments. Life is amazing sometimes. A lot lately.