Kerala India Part 2 – Injuries, Amma, backwaters, and misty mountains

It could’ve been karma or just dumb luck. As we were checking into the ashram of Amma, the Hugging Guru, I fell and twisted my ankles requiring a cast on my right ankle and wrap on my left knee. I’d had on my big backpack, which had grown unacceptably heavy during our travels, and was handing my sister’s pack to her when I fell on a step, and the added weight exacerbated the sprains. When the wheelchair arrived, the name of the manufacturer was….Karma.

In any case, I’d long wanted to see Amma, known as the Universal Mother, and get a hug from her, and I thought it would be great if Elise got to see one of India’s few female gurus. We were disappointed to learn that she was leaving for a US-Japan tour, but we decided to stay one night at the ashram, a sprawling campus with pink high-rise buildings and a temple surrounded by dense palm trees that is home to 3,500 followers, most clad in simple, but elegant white saris, to understand a bit more about Amma’s philosophy. We were in luck, however, because she appeared in the temple for 1.5 hours of devotional singing that evening. (No photography is allowed at the ashram, so the photo below is from amma.org.)

The songs were melodic and thought-provoking and sometimes a wee bit terrifying. We could follow the lyrics, translated from Malayalam, on large screens. After the first song, Elise applauded..but was the only one. Everyone looked at her and she curled up in a little ball of embarrassment, poor Sweet One. One line, in particular, struck me: At the end of time this one is alone and afraid and asks: “Why have you not yet come for me, Mother?” The question remained unanswered. Other songs made clear that we are part of a universal whole. There were many references to lotus feet, a metaphor for the divinity of spiritual beings. I thought about how we all need a Universal Mother to heal us and to comfort us, most especially my own Mom, who had had a terribly unhappy childhood thanks to an unloving mother, and tears streamed down my face.

From time to time, Amma would ecstatically throw her head back and her hands up on the air. For some reason, I loved that. One of her musicians was a dude with long white hair and beard wearing an orange kurta and Hipster frames whose vocal accompaniment – a kind of droning – my Western ear could not follow or comprehend. I bought one of Amma’s CDs, in part, in the hopes that I could figure out whether there was rhyme or reason to the accompaniment.

When we’d registered, we had to give our real names as well as our spiritual names. I had never been asked that before so I spontaneously adopted the name of a friend, Shanti (Peace), I’d met long ago in Japan who’d been a follower of Osho. My sister gave her Jewish name, Rachel, and Elise chose “Unicorn”. A devotee we met from Westford, MA, whom we know only as Sreya, was like a guardian angel, giving us the lay of the land, wheeling me into the temple to see Amma, shushing followers who insisted that I be moved to another spot, and explaining how to get food and supplies. After Amma had left the temple, she tried to wheel me to a spot where I might get one of her famous hugs, but, that night, it was not meant to be. We met another American, Gina (her real name), who was in India studying classical Indian dance. She and Elise took to each other immediately – they were like big and small versions of each other. She was dressed in gorgeous flowing prints and had a dot on her forehead. When I asked her about the dot, she said, “Oh this?” as she touched it and it fell off. “I bought it. It’s for dance.” Looking at the ground, “Doesn’t matter. I have a bunch.”

I’d been in pretty good spirits in spite of the injury up until I was back in the ashram’s tiny hospital that night waiting to get my cast. It was pouring rain outside and wretchedly humid and the pain in my legs had spiked. I started crying. When the cast was finally on and Lisa, Elise, and I returned to our room, the crying got worse. The room was a bleak little cell with fluorescent tube lighting and only 2 beds. Even in my pathetic state, I knew that the point of the place was not to enjoy luxury but to transcend the physical world, but it was too much. There was a large ridge at the base of the bath door which I could not hobble over on my own. “I won’t be able to go to the restroom by myself or even brush my teeth!” I wailed. Elise said, “There’s a sink right behind you.” “Oh,” I said (and I think they may have chuckled under their breath). But the crying continued until after I’d gone to the restroom with Lisa’s help, brushed my teeth, and gotten into PJs, and a cool breeze had started to bring down the temperature in the room.  But poor Lisa had to fetch an extra mattress, which came with no bed frame, so she plopped the thing – a big icky vinyl slab – down on the floor and tried to cover it with sheets as best she could. She worried that the gecko we’d seen and other insects would crawl over her at night. It was about as bare bones as you can get and I’m surprised she wasn’t crying, too.

In the middle of the night, I used a blue bucket that was in the room to go to the restroom, rinsed it well, and hobbled back into bed, pleased that I’d found a solution that allowed my sister to sleep (and which fellow wilderness campers would appreciate).

The next morning I woke up refreshed and in a great mood! I suggested that we stay another night, but Lisa and Elise shut down that idea immediately, which I guess I understood, so I packed up. I told Lisa what I had done with the big blue bucket thinking she’d appreciate that I’d let her sleep, but she looked terribly distressed. “How am I going to shower?!” she cried. Luckily, unlike our previous lodgings, we discovered that the bathroom actually had a shower head on the wall and so the bucket was not needed for bathing.

En route to Alleppey where we wanted to do a houseboat tour of the backwaters, we kept an eye open for medical supply stores so that I could get some crutches. The first one we stopped at had only walkers, but the second one had crutches for just $17. The name brand? Again…Karma, lol.

In Alleppey, we checked into the Ramada, which had views of boats plying the backwaters. The food was decent and Lisa and I enjoyed our first tall, cool beer in ages. After the hardship of the day before, it felt good.

The next morning we decided to do a 3.5 hour day tour of the backwaters instead of staying overnight in a houseboat, since the one we’d wanted that looked super clean was booked, and, anyway, all the houseboats dock at 6pm, so there’s no being lulled to sleep on a moving boat.

We passed rice fields, small villages, men unloading boats, women up to their waists in water washing clothes, and an old woman in a sari fishing with a simple stick and string. There were tiny canals and large, busy waterways where the houseboats chugged along, one after the other, some with blaring music, others with groups of kids waving and screaming Hello, most with a few relaxed passengers. My injuries were no issue on the boat. I lay down on cushions and relaxed to the point of almost falling asleep. It was pretty wonderful.

Next stop was Munnar, famous for its tea fields. We checked into the Parraket, which had balconies with fabulous views of the sculpted, mountain-side tea fields, which were like an ever-changing canvas as the mist appeared and disappeared, and the fields went from muted green to glimmering emerald.

That evening, we saw a classical Indian dance performance called Kathakali, with elaborate costumes and highly stylized movements and facial expressions. The staff carried me down the stairs on a chair – my first Bat Mitzvah moment! At one point, Elise was called on stage by Lord Shiva’s wife, Parvathy, dressed as Kattalasthree (performed by a male actor). She handed invisible items to Elise, who was supposed to handle them appropriately. She managed to eat the right way, but when Parvathy gave her a drink, Elise squished it like food and the crowd roared.  Afterwards, Lord Shiva, disguised as Kattalan, fought Arjuna. I loved the vocals and drumming and Lord Shiva’s sprightly personality (below in green and black).

We moved downstairs to a martial arts arena to see a Kalari performance. Lisa was enthralled – here were three of her loves rolled into one: yoga, martial arts and gymnastics. The guys battled it out with swords and metal whips and poles, and then jumped through rings of fire. Afterwards, the performers let the audience take pix in the fight pit and then took their own selfies with Elise. Then they made quick work of carrying me up two flights of stairs to the entrance where our favorite driver and tour guide, Shefi, was waiting for us in his trusty Toyota.

We returned again to Kochi, and Lisa packed for her return to the US. She also very kindly took our camping gear and other stuff with her that we weren’t going to be able to use anymore thanks to my injury. After 10 days together, it was very hard saying goodbye!

Shortly thereafter, my orthopedic doctor discovered that I had deep vein thrombosis (DVT) in both legs due to the week of little activity while my sprain healed. I was admitted to the hospital immediately and given blood thinners and compression stockings. While I waited in the ER, scared, Elise returned to the Marriott with a hospital staff to pack up our stuff, and then came back to the hospital in a hotel car with some warm soup, which the Marriott had gifted us. I was so grateful for everyone’s help. Elise had a little bed in my room, and the nurses made sure we were comfortable. The food was surprisingly good – freshly made masala dosa for breakfast and Aloo Gobi and dal for lunch or dinner. Given that the DVT was in my lower legs, not, thank God, in my thighs where risk of pulmonary embolism is significantly higher, I was discharged two days later.

I recuperated for a week at our beloved Kochi Marriott, where we had come to know many of the staff on a first name basis. They helped me at the breakfast buffet while I was on crutches, carried items to our room, presented us with pens with our names on them and a photo mug, recommended Ayurvedic treatments, answered questions about articles I’d read in the Times of India, treated Elise to soup and spring rolls, and even brought surprise desserts to our room! It became a home away from home.

I had a number of random impressions that week. En route to the hospital, we passed a shop called Women Love Dots (a bindi or fabric shop or something more salacious?). There were billboards with students’ faces and their test scores, and the paper ran a full-page ad showing the results of the national engineering exam, in which the girls had beat out the boys for the highest scores. Signs offered aerated not carbonated beverages and big stores were hypermarkets not supermarkets. Instead of the present tense, the present progressive was often used, eg instead of Where do you come from?, Where are you coming from? It took me some time to understand that a head nod that seemed like No might actually be a charming, friendly Yes, and I was surprised when I started catching myself nodding.  

At the nearby LuLu Mall, I came across some Indian tunics and dresses I considered buying. When I posted them to Facebook, I was told by a resident of the SF Bay Area, where the cultural appropriation debate is raging, that it would be “inappropriate” if I wore them, as it would be if Caucasian women wore African dresses or non-Latinos wore Day of the Dead face paint. I was relieved when my expat friends nonetheless encouraged me to buy them, and a friend of Indian origin living in SF wrote that she found it “endearing” when non-Indians wear them, particularly the shorter tunics, and that it would be inappropriate only if, say, an ornate dress meant for a wedding were worn as a costume. Similarly, an African-American friend told me that it is fine if Caucasian women wear African dresses, so long as the intent is not to buy something inexpensive and then recreate it to sell at a profit. In my own experience overseas, people seem genuinely pleased to see visitors embracing aspects of their heritage. When Elise went trick-or-treating in Cuzco in a Day of the Dead costume, dozens and dozens of Peruvian parents asked to photograph her with their kids, of whom many were dressed as Elsa. It was beautiful. (My blog post about this is here.) What I take away from this is that, while the debate has an important role to play in the US, I am heartened that there are people there, as well as many overseas, who still appreciate such well-intentioned instances of cultural exchange. They can help break the ice, foster discussion and even friendship, and, in turn, challenge stereotypes – all basic building blocks of civil society. 

On a lighter note, that week I also discovered an Indian comedian, Hari Kondabolu, on Netflix, who proclaimed that Indians LOVE mangos. He said he wanted to do a show in which people sat around eating mangos and commenting on them. When asked who would watch such a show he said, “Oh I don’t know…one BILLION Indians?” Indeed, when  we shopped for groceries at the hypermarket, we saw a dozen different varieties. I felt ripped off that I’d only ever seen a single variety in stores in the US.

After a few more follow-up appointments, both my orthopedic surgeon and cardiologist gave me the green light to continue traveling, so I donated my crutches to the hotel, took a deep breath, and booked our fights to Thailand.

Kerala, India Part 1 – My sister Lisa joins us!

My sister Lisa finally arrived in India to join us for a travel adventure in Kerala! It almost didn’t happen. There were the usual travel hassles: finding flights, the unnecessarily complicated visa application, the length of the journey (24 hrs), vaccinations, etc, as well as the jitters that most world travel newbies feel before journeying to a country halfway around the world. (Her trips to Europe hadn’t evoked such feelings.) But after scoring a free flight as a credit card sign-up bonus and receiving encouragement from me and her world-traveling friend, Heather, Lisa conquered all obstacles and showed up smiling and radiant in Kochi with gifts and needed supplies for us.

I’d traveled backpacker-style years ago from Delhi to Udaipur to Jaipur and Mussoorie, and had faced some challenges I wasn’t sure my sister was ready for, so I thought I would ‘ease’ her into India by booking a room for us at the Kochi Marriott, a five star hotel starting at only $75 a night. Split two ways, it was cheaper than our bare bones lodging in Bolivia! (Soon enough, though, she’d be experiencing bare bones.) It turned out to be the perfect place to begin our journey. They upgraded us to a suite, and when the chef learned that Lisa was vegan, he gave her a customized tour of the vegan dishes that where part of their enormous Ramadan buffet. Chef Ganesh then whipped up extra dishes just for her and brought them to our table. We were thrilled. The other Restaurant staff, Front Desk, Concierge, and Housekeeping staff were also all infallibly helpful and friendly. #kochimarriott

The next day, we took a backwaters tours in Kochi where a gathering storm made the light and colors surreal.

There were resorts along the banks, primitive huts, and this post-apocalyptic-looking building.

We traveled overland to see the iconic Chinese fishing nets at Fort Cochin Beach, a subject we would see again and again in paintings on hotel walls. For me, they were interesting because I wanted to try my hand at photographing them, but I quickly realized that, to my gentle-hearted, vegan sister, they symbolized misery and death for millions of fish. Accordingly, my photo is nothing like the idyllic paintings in our hotel.

Whether due to pollution or to freighter traffic, no one swims at Fort Cochin, but there was an enormous crowd milling about on the beach under brooding skies.

As she is much like my sister, Elise hates seeing animals exploited. Instead of asking for a ride on this poor camel, she asked if she could pay to feed it, but the owner had no food so she just petted it instead. 

The next day, we set out for Alleppey to do a houseboat tour, but when we arrived, we learned the workers were on strike, so we decided to continue on to Kovalam, the southernmost point on our itinerary. Our driver was more than happy to oblige. Along the way we happened upon a Krishna-Radha festival, where the town was ablaze in all manner of lights. Lisa described it as “1,000 Christmases”. The brash, blinking lights in the shape of various deities were over the top.

But I simply loved the long strands of colored lights hanging from trees in quiet corners which made me think about the magic of childhood. French-Romanian playwright Eugene Ionesco’s quote seemed apt: Childhood is the world of miracle and wonder; as if creation rose, bathed in the light, out of the darkness, utterly new and fresh and astonishing. The end of childhood is when things cease to astonish us. I also thought of John Singer Sargent’s painting Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose in which two little girls light Chinese lanterns in a lush garden at twilight – one of the loveliest representations of the magic of childhood I’ve ever encountered, and I recalled my own wonderment as a kid catching fireflies on balmy evenings in our yard full of fragrant lilacs. I decided that I would find a way to surprise Elise by recreating these lights at an upcoming summer evening party for her.

When we finally reached Kovalam late in the evening, we checked into The Leela, a grand, airy hotel set on a cliff overlooking the beach. There was a poolside terrace restaurant, giant vats of rose petals floating in water, and slate walkways with rock pools in open-air hallways. It was a relief to have arrived at such a place after the 220 km drive, during which our driver overtook hundreds of vehicles (speed up, slow down, speed up, slow down ad nauseam). In the case of one particular truck, however, which reeked of some ungodly rot, we were grateful for his ability to speed past other vehicles.

At check-in, we were given shell necklaces and coconuts to drink, and then we headed out to explore the beach.

Given the incomparable service at the Kochi Marriott, when we sat down for dinner, we felt a wee bit neglected by the wait staff, but Chef Gurudeep more than made up for it the next morning when he gave us a marvelous tour of the many dishes in their breakfast buffet. We had various curries and masala dosas – thin crepes stuffed with potato and chutney, and discovered Kumbil Appams, steamed jackfruit rice cakes wrapped in banana leaves. Unlike the boxed cereals, donuts, and other junkfood you get for breakfast in the US, this was real food and deeply satisfying.

After some yoga on our balcony, we hit the pool, where Elise did cannonballs and then pulled me around on a float (so relaxing), and then we hit the beach. Unfortunately, there were red flags along the shore warning of strong riptides, so we didn’t risk going into the water. There was a lively local scene further down the beach where everyone seemed to be smiling or laughing.

Although The Leela was lovely, it had some quirks such as the heavy, antique-y, wooden bath doors that didn’t close right and a damp smell in our room which did not justify the price, so we decided to move to a guest house recommended by Lonely Planet that offered Ayurvedic treatments.

Our transportation there was comical. The resort golf cart brought us to the edge of the property, and then the three of us piled into one tiny rickshaw with our 4 big bags. We had to get in and out a few times to make everything fit. The taxi drivers watching us looked incredulous and offered to take us instead. I told them it wasn’t a matter of price, it was that we wanted the experience of riding in a rickshaw. It turned out to be fun! and the price was an astonishing 29 cents for .7 km.

After The Leela, our new accommodations seemed dingy, although they had just been scrubbed clean. Instead of a proper shower cabin, there was a faucet on the bathroom wall and a big blue bucket with a dipper to pour water over oneself. Splash too much and you get the entire floor wet and the toilet, too. At the start of our travels when I was unsure how long our funds would last, I’d opted for many such rooms and I think I’d finally had enough. Lisa, though, was surprisingly positive about the room. She told me that she had stayed in very basic rooms when she did her Master Yoga Teacher training at the Kripalu in Western Mass. I shouldn’t have complained…it was soon going to get much worse, lol.

But first, we got to experience an Ayurvedic massage from this wonderful lady with kind eyes. When I learned that she had traveled an hour and half from her village to provide us with treatments, I gave her a big tip and my shell necklace from The Leela as well as some red beads from Fiji which matched her sari perfectly.

In the evening, we set out to find a vegetarian restaurant, but Lisa got nervous as it grew dark so we popped into a German-owned restaurant on the main drag and ordered take out. We had tea while we waited, and Elise showed her Aunty her drawings. It was beautiful seeing their interaction – Lisa was so patient and positive, and Elise reveled in all the attention.

Indian visa madness, food adventures, and a wee bit of luxury in Kuala Lumpur

Our visit to Kuala Lumpur was supposed to be a short stopover between Sydney and Kochi, India, where we were meeting my sister Lisa. As this was to be her first travel adventure halfway around the world, I’d planned to arrive before her so that we could make sure everything was in order and pick her up from the airport. However, thanks to the glitchy visa application website of the Government of India (GOI), which failed to process payments, my visa was not approved in time for our flights. 

To make matters worse, although my Chase Sapphire Reserve visa card offers trip interruption insurance, a rep with an irrepressibly cheerful voice I spoke with said that our missed flights would not be reimbursed, because our case represents “a change of plans” which are not covered. (Ironic, since I was trying to stick with plans.) I will report back here whether this absurdity is actually the case.

But the biggest problem of all was that, as time wore on, I was getting knots in my stomach thinking that my sister would arrive alone in India and feel scared.

There was a silver lining to all of this, however. Given the lower cost of living in Kuala Lumpur (56% cheaper than Sydney, according to expatistan.com), as well as sponsorship of our travels by Elise’s wonderful godfather, Tony, I was able to book much nicer accommodations in KL than I had in Oz. For the first time, I used “infinity pool” as a search term on booking.com, lol, since Elise had been longing to try one out, and found one at the Royale Chulan Hotel. I learned too late, however, what every 10 year-old apparently knows: it’s a “real” infinity pool only if it has a glass wall. But the indoor skating rink(!), fabulous buffet, and very helpful manager more than made up for that.

One thing in particular that struck me about the Malaysian people is that they are extraordinarily empathetic about the loss of loved ones. Many asked where Elise’s dad was, and when I told them that he had died of cancer in 2015, each and every one of them stopped what they were doing, softened their voice and expressed sincere condolences. A taxi driver even waited until I had finished telling a few stories, saying “To get back to what you told me, I am so sorry about his passing.”

After two days there, we moved to The Majestic Hotel to be closer to the center of town. As Marriott members, we got upgraded to a suite. As we walked in, Elise squealed with delight and ran all around the room patting things – I’m guessing to make sure they were real. She immediately got in the tub for a bath, and then put on a robe and chatted with her friends in Europe. Truth be told, after a week in a Sydney youth hostel where cleaning staff seemed to ignore the restrooms that required the most attention, I was ready to follow suit.

As the visa saga wore on and we needed to stay longer, we tried a third hotel, Traders, which was connected via long underground passageways to the impressive Petronas Towers which lit up the night sky like giant faceted gemstones. They were splendid, but looking up at them from the ground near the entranceway, I shuddered, thinking of the Twin Towers in NY, and wondered whether the conspicuous consumption taking place in the Western-style stores there made them a target for terrorist attacks. Comforting, however, was the fact that Malaysia appears to have had far fewer attacks than neighboring Indonesia, and the State Department travel advisory designates it a benign Level One, i.e. exercise normal precautions.

The towers are so tall my lens couldn’t capture them in one shot, so I took multiple shots from the ground up and auto-merged them in Photoshop. Still, the towers look much shorter in this photo than in real life (and Elise looks like post-blueberry Violet in Willy Wonka).

The Towers are featured in a number of movies, such as the 1999 film Entrapment, which set the climax on the skybridge.  170 meters above the ground, the skybridge is not actually attached to the towers, but slides in and out of them to prevent breaking as they – gulp – sway several feet towards and away from each other in high winds. Other fun tower trivia includes the fact that, in 2009, French urban climber Alain “Spiderman” Robert scaled to the top of Tower Two with his bare hands and feet in just under 2 hours. His first two efforts had ended in arrest. How on earth did they nab him, I wonder? Yank him in with a hook? Point a gun at him at the 60th floor? Git in here, Spidey, or we’ll shoot.

The hotel buffets and Twin Towers restaurants provided opportunities to explore Malaysian food, including the national dish, Nasi Lamak, made of coconut rice served with anchovy hot chili sauce, fried peanuts, cucumber, and egg wrapped in banana leaves, a tidy, healthful, delicious, portable snack, and one we may well include in the travel cookbook we plan to create. We also tried Sayur Lodeh, veggies in coconut curry, and tasted various Chinese steamed buns stuffed with sweet potato, mushroom, and red bean paste. Strangely, the food Elise most likes seems to resemble her headband puffs.

The cultural highlight of our visit, though, was the Museum of Islamic Arts – a spacious, airy, modern building with five domes and gorgeous ceramic tapestries flanking the entranceway.

The embellished Qur’an and manuscripts were works of high art.

Elise particularly liked the gallery of miniature mosques and thought of how her dolls might visit them. She also had a nice science lesson at the exhibition on healing traditions in Islamic medical manuscripts where she learned that human arteries, veins, and capillaries, when laid end to end, can stretch around the Earth two to four times (a fact that would later be heartening to me as I waited for many smaller veins to open up to compensate for blood clots in my calves).

Back at Traders Hotel, Elise put the finishing touches on her drawing of a little town in a magical world, which has towering cherry trees the size of Singapore’s Supertrees with blossoms as large as beach balls, which the people of the town hang on their doors for good luck. Visitors to the town like to take boat rides in the lake at night, where the moon shines brightly and the cherry blossoms fall into the water releasing pixie dust. The central structure is the mayor’s house. To its right is a swanky high-rise hotel and an orphanage.

In the meantime, my Indian visa finally came through…the day after Lisa had arrived in India all by her lonesome. And yet, when the hotel car I’d booked for her failed to show, she grabbed a taxi like a pro, checked into the hotel, and then slept for a whole day, safe, comfortable, and blissfully unaware of all my unnecessary worrying.