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Deep Breathing on the Backwaters – Kerala pt. 1

My last travel update ended with my awe at the view of the Himalayas from the air as I flew back to New Delhi from the Northeast. I touched down in Delhi and spent a little less than 24 hours repacking my bags for warm weather before my roommate Lesly and I hopped on a plane bound for Bangalore. We spent a couple days in Bangalore before we met up with my dear friend and fellow Bennie, Nakita, and the three of us headed south to Kerala. If God were to build the “model home” version of heaven on Earth, Kerala would be on the short list for its location. It is a paradise.

Kerala is best known for the network of meandering lakes and waterways, the backwaters, that run parallel to the Arabian Sea along the Malabar coast. Our first stop was Allepey, a small town and great place to access the backwaters. Our hotel was not far from the beach so the three of us rented bicycles and had a great time navigating the traffic on our way to the beach.

With Lesly…

…and Nakita

We enjoyed fresh coconut water, straw-in-the-coconut style of course, and watched the sun set over the Arabian Sea. The next day we woke up for a 7am canoe ride on the backwaters. As someone who grew up around lakes, rivers, and streams, I always feel more centered and in touch with what is right with the world when I am close to the water. Setting out in a large canoe that morning as mist rose off the smooth-as-glass water, not yet disturbed by the traffic of the day, I reminisced upon many similarly tranquil canoe rides with my family and friends. Though the scenery was a bit different, the bliss factor was one in the same.

As our boatman steered us through ever more breathtaking canals we saw families waking up and starting another day on the backwaters. Men and women dredged small black clam like creatures from the river bottom into long canoes. We learned that the shells are burned and used as fertilizer, a natural source of lime. Mothers and daughters rinsed dishes along the banks and washed laundry, slapping and scrubbing soapy cloth against flat smooth stones. Kids and grandparents still with the haze of sleep in their eyes brushed their teeth, standing outside the one story houses that spring up along the watery avenues.

The state of Kerala has the highest literacy rate in India at more than 90 percent and, due to sweeping and strategic economic planning by the state government, a broader than usual distribution of wealth than other Indian states. Keralans will tell you that the caste system, whose lasting legacy creates harsh disparities in other Indian states to this day, has all but disappeared from this southern paradise.

Kerala’s is heavily reliant upon tourism and local cultivation of rice and other products. Coir – the fibrous husk of the ever abundant coconut – is another important industry and I learned that all of the brown scratchy Welcome mats I’ve ever brushed my feet on probably originated in Kerala. So the next time you are brushing snow off your boots on a coconut coir mat, you can think of sunny Kerala.

After Allepey Nakita and I spent time at a homestay on the backwaters and then the three of us spent a couple days in Forth Cochin. I will dedicate a separate post to the second half of the trip. For now, I’ll leave you with this picture, one of my favorites of the trip. I brought along two of my Bennies shirts so Nakita and I could snap some pictures worthy of the alumnae magazine. Here we are in our canoe on the backwaters.

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Happy Macaroni and Cheese

I am writing to you after a delicious dinner of macaroni and cheese and fresh steamed green beans. I had reserved this cherished box of mac for the end of a rough day when needed comfort food from home, but instead I made it tonight to celebrate a happy end to what began as a difficult week. Thursday marked my one month anniversary of arriving in India. It feels like I have been here much longer than one month. Spending a whole year somewhere has a much different feeling than spending one semester abroad, as I did in Chile, but the initial period of adjustment is very similar in both cases. This week I reached the point in that adjustment period when I was questioning everything. Why am I here? Why did I leave home? And what in the world will I do for the next ten months? The root of these existential crisis-y feelings I might have been the boredom that also crept up on me this week.

As a child, whenever I complained of being bored my mom would tell me one must learn how to be bored, as life has plenty of boring moments to offer. Her lesson was not that I would live a dull life. Far from it. What she was trying to instill in me rather is that boredom, like frustration, anxiety, stress, and others are natural emotions that we will feel at various points in our life, on different days, in different places. These aren’t feelings that we need to run away from though. Rather, we ought to make friends with them because in doing so we learn that we are always in choice and in charge of our own experience. As a famous quote puts it, “you cannot change the wind, but you can adjust your sails.”

Three things turned my week around. The first moment that turned my week around was dinner with my host Rotarian and Indian grandfather, Gobind-ji. I visited him on Wednesday evening and had a simple but delicious home cooked meal followed by tea and discussion of the day’s events over the evening news. All of my family and friends back home should know that my Indian family looks after me always and especially when I’m feeling blue. It has been clearly articulated by Gobind-ji that I should feel like one of the family, so I am always welcome for dinner, and can bring home my laundry and get my own water or food out of the frig.

Second, Daniel and I took an afternoon outing on Thursday to the India Gate to see if we could catch a glimpse of some of the action of the anti corruption protests. There was only a small crowd at the India Gate, most protestors were likely at Tihar Jail where Anna Hazare in a tug of war with the police to meet his conditions for a public fast. Protestors or not, it was great to vent to Daniel about my frustrations and talk about what we missed most from home. He lived in Minneapolis last year as an Americorps volunteer so he knows exactly what I’m talking about when I say I miss lakes, Grand Avenue, fall in Minnesota, and Minnesota nice. After our outing we got dinner, Indian food, and ordered two sides of French fries. We reveled in the fried deliciousness with ketchup and the utter American-ness of it all. Then we decided we should probably have a drink to top off a great afternoon and toasted Kingfisher on his rooftop terrace looking out over a New Delhi night.

The third moment which really just completed the change from boring to great was an impromptu lunch and afternoon of fun with two new school friends, Anushree and Preeti. I met the two at the public meeting on campus I mentioned a few posts back. They are first years studying Spanish. Anu heard me speaking Spanish at the meeting and we struck up a conversation. They are as new to Spanish as I am to Hindi so we are perfect language exchange partners. I have been frustrated by my lack of comprehension of this new and difficult language, but speaking Spanish always makes me happy so it takes the edge off my steep learning curve. The two are very outgoing and we had a lot to talk about. We are all in the same boat – first years at a new school far from home (they are both from states in eastern India), learning new languages, and making new friends. I had lunch with the two of them in the canteen in their hostel (what we would call a dorm in the U.S.). It was neat to see more of campus, it’s a really beautiful area and being in the hostels makes me feel more a part of campus life. After lunch, a hostel tour, and great conversation, we got stuck in one of the magical monsoon downpours that happen often this time of year. We decided to ditch the one umbrella we had and splashed around in the rain for about half an hour. We all agreed the afternoon was one to remember.

On Friday night my roommates and I hung out with some Indian friends on campus. The highest point in New Delhi is on the JNU campus, a rock crested hill that reminds me a lot of the Heartley Park overlook in Duluth. The wooded path to get to the rocks reminded me so much of the path to Watab Island on the SJU campus. Walking around the streets of campus at night reminded me of many a late-night walk home from the Clemens Library at St. Ben’s. Delhi is not known to be a friendly city, but all will agree that the JNU campus is a cozy little bubble, more safe and much less conservative than the rest of the city. This week’s adventures have confirmed that I will do my best to spend much more time on campus from now on.

After living with myself for almost twenty three years I’ve learned that boredom and frustration know where to find me whether I’m at my parents’ house, in my college dorm room, studying abroad in Chile, or here in India. Wherever I go, there I am. So I spent the first part of this week sulking a bit, frustrated with Hindi, missing home and the advent of my favorite season: fall. But here I am at the end of the week celebrating a turnaround with Mac n Cheese (which Lesly tried for the first time and thinks is fabulous, cuz it is). And the cherry on top of all of this was an email from my Uncle Tom today letting me know that he’ll be in Delhi for business in September. It will be so great to see him and, as he put it, hear a real live Minnesota accent!

I hope all of you, my faithful readers, are enjoying the beginning of a wonderful week.