Sunday, May 15, 2011

Keralafornia Four: Kumarakom

No Kerala holiday is ever complete without the houseboat experience, and this time we had the extraordinary excellent opportunity of experiencing a houseboat in style - a giant 2-storeyed one all to ourselves, where ourselves is 30-odd twentysomethings and lots and lots of daru. 

the upper deck

and lots of daru

The lungi is likely to become a favorite; practical, seriously airy and comfortable, as long as certain people restrain themselves from trying to yank it off.

a rare moment of peace and breeze circulation 

On the way, we stopped off at a lakeside traditional eatery for a giant dose of fresh-from-the-lake lunch - fish, shrimp, rice and curry, assorted veggies, served on banana leaves, and (of course) coconut. 

fish, food
 Lake Vedambanad is huge, I mean, seriously gigantic. You can't see from one end to another. The lakes and backwaters were, before the roads got laid down, the veins of Kerala, carrying the lifeblood of trade and commerce from one end to the other in giant cargo boats laden with spices, coconuts, grain and more... the same boats that converted into the ultimate luxury experience now. 

The giant lake's on the right. This is just an access path. 

And no, it's not a GPS error this time

The afternoon went in a pleasant haze of alcohol, slowly digesting lunch, watching the water slide past in silence while music played in the background, feeling the breeze play softly on your face... punctuated by brief visits to the volcanic beef chilli fry plate, the single most devastating snack item I've ever tasted. It'll take the skin off the roof of your mouth, steam out of your ears, slide lava down your tongue, and trust me you do not want to know what it does the next morning... but man, does it taste sublime and make beer heavenly. Have a mouthful of this, and the next pint of beer comes with it's own angelic choir. 

not pictured: fire extinguisher (but mandatory)

add harps and music from the celestial spheres here

a day not wasted is a day wasted

Dusk falls quietly over the lake, and the sky slides imperceptibly from breathless, blinding blue into soft gold and indigo, setting the lake on fire with a billion broken setting suns; as we grow closer to the shore, the silently whispering wind changes to the ultrasonic, distant, hungry while of clouds of mosquitoes coming out for their dinner; we slowly haul ourselves back from the daydreams we were lost in...

 ...and it's time to go home. 

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Keralafornia Three: Kochi

Kochi is a few hours on from Guruvayur and Thrissur, the commercial hub of Kerala, and having a fairly popular airport, probably the most likely place you'll be starting your Kerala trip from. We'd landed here 2 days ago and headed down to Thrissur; Now we're back, and again, Kochi is a stopover before the next leg. 
But even as stopovers go, there's plenty to see and do; most obvious first being the iconic Chinese fishing nets at Fort Kochi. This is an image that's been splashed across all the tourism posters, along with the ubiquitous houseboat and coconut tree, and here at sunset, gives some awesome shots. 

an awesome shot

the brightness of boats

a satyajit ray moment for some reason

 For some reason, Fort Kochi seems to be terribly fond of Bob Marley. Maybe it's the trickle-down from Goa, maybe just the generic ambiance, but... there you go. 

There's also tons of stalls all over the place selling freshly-caught seafood, which you can take across to the restaurants and have them grill it up for you while you have your beers. Seafood + Tourists = Lots of Lazy Cats. 

lazy cats

fresh seafood

nice foto

Another place you can check out while you're here is the Kashi Art Cafe, which had some truly mind-blowing food - don't leave without at least one visit. We had the banana cream pie and it was worth coming to Kochi for. 

tip of the Chinese fishing nets

Fort Kochi turns very Goa in the evenings, and a little bit of the Himalayan, too, despite the mosquitoes and the humid heat - dim lights, Konkani music, cobblestones and the water...

Friday, May 13, 2011

Keralafornia Two: Guruvayoor

Gurvayoor is also a small temple town, famous for the Guruvayur Temple and the Punnathur Kotta elephant sanctuary 3 km outside the town. Since we've never, in the long years that you've known us, been particularly religious - (actually, not particularly elephantine either, but ignore that for now) - this post will primarily be a photoessay on a plethora of picturesque pachyderms.

Happy Elephant

Elephant decorating it's head with grass

Elephant scratching its head with stick in deep thought

Tiny little unreadable notice that says, effectively, "If you stand here reading this too long you will be violently attacked, trampled, and gored by the four-ton monster five feet in front of you."

The trouble with being an elephant is there's precious little to hide behind when the paparazzi come around

No, you're right. That's not a leg. 

Bathing elephant

Elephant hamming for the camera

Elephant dusting self with leaves

The Guruvayur temple itself is fairly so-so - it's a pilgrimage place, not a tourist attraction, so isn't very tourist-friendly; the rules for enetering are fairly draconian so you can;t do a casual visit, but try the banana-leaf thali in the MTR outside.

This photo is added here out of pure spite because the shopkeeper got extremely irritated with us and started yelling to not take photos and bugger off if we weren't buying.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Keralafornia One: Thrissur

Thrissur is a small town towards the center of Kerala which is like most other small towns all over India - a central bus station that forms the core of the town, surrounded by expanding ripples of markets, hotels, and residences in a maze of twisting, narrow streets, all circling and bunching around key parks, temples, and offices, filled with pedestrians, cycles, two-wheelers, cars, and assorted animals churning in the buzzed brownian motion of daily life under the summer sun and dust. 
Today, that changes. 

Today is Thrissur Pooram, the Festival of the Elephants. Today, dozens of elephants, dressed and decorated up to the nines in the gold and colored finery of nettipattam (decorative golden headdresses), beautifully crafted kolam, decorative bells and ornaments, will march through the town. They come from all around, from elephant farms, neighborhoods, other temples, etc, and parade to the Vadakkunathan Temple in the center of the town to complete in what can only be described as a highly stylized, noisy, and symbolic Yo Momma contest. With Elephants. 

What happens is, there's a face-off of two lines of elephants in front of the temple; the mahouts climb up, and start a display of umbrellas. You start small and low-key (by Thrissur Pooram standards, which means something that could land spacecraft during a snowstorm) and do a symbolic, dancing presentation. The the other side takes it's turn, makes it's move. Back to you. Each display has a meaning, a backstory, some significance, but you need a local guide and a lot of reading up about the cultural background of Kerala to understand what's happening. 

Sounds very civilized and interesting, doesn't it? Wait. Did I mention that the two lines of elephants are backed up by a double row of hysterical giant drums and a spectator crowd of at least a few hundred thousand? And they're all hysterically happy and hysterically drunk on coconut tadi (and I mean hysterically, falling-down-but-somehow-staggering-upright, bloodshot-eyes drunk)? The kind of drunk that happens when you abstain from all drink, evil activity, and evil thought for the better path of a month and today, at the culmination, all brakes are off and all the pent-up drunk erupts out. 

The crowd's rowdy, not particularly evil-intentioned; but what you need to watch out for are individuals inside the crowd, because today, you're on your own. So if you're new to the place, stay in a compact group and stick to each other. 

We made our way almost till within fifty feet of the elephant lines, where the girls and some of the guys stayed back and me and one other fellow guest (btw, we were in Kerala for a wedding) made it almost to the front, accompanied with a lot of happy camaraderie, hugs, and Malayali questions and suggestions, while we got progressively more light-headed in the haze of sweat and alcohol fumes that had replaced the atmosphere; the nearest you can imagine it is like a peak-hour Mumbai local where someone's kept a case of arak under every seat. 

Some time later, one group of elephants won, everyone cheered lustily (ok, even more lustily than before) and started to scatter through the streets. There's a kind of relaxedness in small towns in the evenings you'll never find in cities; you do have at least four more hours a day of leisure in small towns, with no traffic, where you can sit and chat and sip coffee and giant-coconut water. 

But it's not over yet; this was the official pooram, but there's another side to it that emerges at night. The same crowd, even more tanked up now, congregates at around 1 am around the Swaraj Maidan for the fireworks display. My advice is - as early as you can, maybe like in the day, get your car a reasonable distance from the area and park it. Hang onto that parking spot for dear life, because you're not going to get one anywhere close later. 

The fireworks are in the middle of the park, which is cordoned off and heavily guarded. Around the park there are illuminated, decorated pagodas with an elephant inside (as you'll see in the coming few posts, elephants are kind of Kerala's thing) and an even more humongous and smashed crowd. When the fireworks start going off, you can be miles away and still appreciate them; but if you haven't felt them up close and personal, right outside the park, you've not had the full Thrissur Pooram experience. 

First of all, they're not fireworks, they're demolition explosives. In the north, fireworks are supposed to be pretty and colorful, bright, glittery and genteel, where people can dress up in nice clothes and eat nice food and watch the colors and sparkles and go away and play cards afterwards. 
In Kerala, they go for volume

All you'll see of the fireworks is a flaming wall far away between the trees and fences; but the sound, man, the sound will reach out from the park, through the dark and the multitude, bypassing your ears and your brain and settle straight into the bone. Every rib, every joint will rattle in it's socket, your insides will be kneaded and mashed, and your skin will prickle in the heat that comes in percussive, no, concussive waves - there are no individual explosions, there's just a continuous wall, of something beyond sound, a boneshaker roar that lasts at it's peak over several minutes continuously and leaves you with PTSD and an inability to hear properly for a week (and not at all this night). It'll squeeze your guts, rattle your ribs, and blow your mind. 



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