Friday, January 22, 2010

By George, Is that Orange Pekoe?

I opened my eyes to remember that I was in the mountains now. My sleep had been completely calm and deep due to the atmospheric cold and the weight of the blankets on top of me. It was something that I haven’t felt since leaving Austria. I looked to my right and noticed a palm branch greeting me at the window. I hadn’t been able to see out the window the night before because I had arrived into Kumily after dark. Looking down now, I could see the length of the grayish coconut trunk descending four stories to ground level. I opened my laptop and logged on to Skype to call my girlfriend Lauren back in New York. No doubt she would be jealous of these surroundings.

After munching on some plantain chips fried in coconut oil and taking a cold, bucket shower, I shot down the elevator shaft and began searching for breakfast…it’s never too far. Finding a little place called Lord’s Family Restaurant, I ordered a coffee and their breakfast specialty, the egg roast with appam. It may strike you as odd that the name of the restaurant was Lord’s, but it definitely is not a surprise to me after spending two months in India. Every title, every sign, every business name is a profession of one’s faith...when you’re first meeting someone, the first thing from their mouth is, “Christian?” Yes, I always reply.

My breakfast arrived post haste, a glob of reddish-brown mixed in with some hard-boiled eggs. The white, stretchy rice cakes (appams) had steam rising off of them. I tore off a bit of the appam and dove into the reddish brown paste as the entire table to my left watched intently. It was spicy as hell, but I didn’t show it in my face…that’s what the locals expect. Not only was this egg roast spicy, but it was fiery. I’ve had some hot food in India, but this one had a special kick to it. Yes, there were gleaming hints of cinnamon and ginger, but they were quickly shut down by the heat of the dish. I surveyed the glob again and found that it was made of onions, garlic, mustard seeds, green chilies, curry leaves, cinnamon a lot of chili powder, some tomatoes, and probably some other spices like turmeric powder and ginger. Everything in Kerala has turmeric in it. This spice root has been a pivotal part of Indian life for thousands of years as I’ve learned from the ancient texts. For instance, a few days before a virgin girl was to lose her virginity, the family would begin smearing the girl’s body with a turmeric paste multiple times during the day in order to increase virility. Turmeric was also worn as a decoration on the forehead as a sign of auspiciousness. Medical uses also exist for turmeric; many use it for cuts and skin lesions. Now it pervades the cuisine.

Leaving the breakfast table, my lips sufficiently on fire, I sauntered down the street to survey my surroundings. “Lord’s Spice Market,” “Spices Supermarket,” “Periyar Spices,”…there were 10s of shops touting spices. I stopped in to check out some prices and also found myself surrounded by raisins, dates, peanuts, cashews, cherries, mango slices, pineapple, papaya, tea and coffee powder. These valleys are lush with agricultural diversity.

I have to be honest; I had no leads entering into these mountains. I was hoping that I could create something out of nothing as I have done before. Information is what I needed, so thank God for the government sanctioned tourism office…I knew someone would speak English there. They did. I learned of all the different things I could do in the area. I could take a nature walk through the tiger preserves…it’s like meals on sneakers. I could take a boat around Thekkady Lake; I could visit a tribal village; I could visit the cardamom auctions up the hill. In the end, I decided to hop on a tour that was fortunately leaving in ten minutes. The schedule read, “spice gardens, a tea plantation, a coffee plantation and some flower gardens.” I’m not especially fond of touristy things, because I like to see original things, but I really had no other leads. Plus, I had noticed that there were two people already waiting to go on the tour. I had heard them speaking English, so I jumped at the opportunity.

I quickly edged my way into conversation with the two others who were attending the tour and found that they were from New York…but looked Indian. Actually, Mr. Ashok Gandhi and wife were born in India but had migrated to Flushing in 1974 because Mr. Gandhi got hired to GE Medical. Mrs. Gandhi worked in a bank. Both are now retired and live in Queens. I was overjoyed at the information and began shuffling through possible topics of conversation in my head.

We headed out in our little van toward the spice garden, but first stopped at the Gandhi’s hotel…Greenwood something or other. The place was serene—a veritable oasis with a tree house lounge for sipping tea and coffee. My country boy roots bristled with excitement at the sight of a bamboo tree house. I was informed that the place only cost $100 a night, just another reminder of why Kerala is now among my top choices for a tourist destination.

As our van wound up the hill, I did my last minute check for the backpack essentials. Passport, check. Water, check. Contingency plan…Freakonomics, check. Camera, check. Camera battery charge….crap!! There are some oversights that I have to deal with, but having low battery while entering the spice forests and tea plantations is just abysmal. C’est la vie.

We pulled into “Abraham’s Spice Garden,” and filed out to meet our guide, Krishna. I was surprised to hear the Hindu God’s name in a decidedly Christian establishment. Usually the two religions don’t mingle. Krishna showed us three different kinds of coffee trees, nutmeg trees, low-lying cardamom plants, pink pineapples, bamboo trees, cinnamon trees, vanilla beans, turmeric roots, cocoa trees, cloves, decorative pink bananas, allspice trees, papaya trees, banana trees, a tomato tree (yes, a big tree spawning tomatoes), eggplants, bamboo trees that grow 9 inches per day, and a whole slew of tropical flowers and other fauna. I was particularly intrigued with a plant called the “shy lady.” It looked like a little tree with a bunch of ferns, but when touched the ferns would close up against each other; the branches would also bow out of reach of your hand. They say you should talk to your plants for the CO2 exchange. Well, not only can you talk to this plant, but you can actually interact with her, although a shy lady she is. I think a nice chat over coffee is about as far as she might go, though—which, come to think of it, is exactly what I did. The beans of the coffee robusta tree were just to my left.

Money plants, the locals call them. Cardamom, cinnamon, pepper, clove, nutmeg. Most of the people in these mountainous regions rely on agriculture for their livelihoods. The towns would not exist without the presence of the spices. Tea and coffee must have intruded on the spices’ glory. I took a closer look at the Coffee Arabica tree, which I knew had been brought from Yemen by Arab traders in the very early days of trading. Yemen can no longer grow this coffee because of global warming the guide was saying.

As I looked closer, I saw something move above my head. Then, my heart took a dive as I viewed a spider the size of my hand. It had a long slender black and yellow body with long, wiry legs. It looked militant. And it was. Krishna told us that these spiders are called tiger spiders and can be dangerous. I immediately lost all ambition to stray from the path.

The forest was piquant, a blend of spices befitting of a Christmas cake. The landscape rose and fell in rocky pathways, ponds emerged from the greenery, and the reds, greens, yellows, and purples of the flowers warmly invited all the guests into their tropical domain. Abraham’s spice garden was both educational and relaxing.

Our vehicle climbed higher in the mountains to reveal hillsides of manicured tea plantations shaded under jackfruit trees. Pepper vines released their foliage from the trunks of the jackfruit trees (pepper vines in the picture on right). Neighboring mountainsides provided a rocky backdrop for the scene, while the sun filtered light through the treetops. Ashok Gandhi and I talked about his fellow employees wonderment at how he and his wife were so wealthy so quick after he reached the U.S. He said to me, “we didn’t have some sort of black magic or anything; we were just…thrifty.” Yes, the U.S. is filled with careless spenders and plastic touters, but it’s also filled with this immigrant class from poor nations that know how to save their money and make things happen for themselves. These people were just as American as the next except they ate out less often, didn’t drink and didn’t throw money into the wind. They worked long hours and paid their dues. As a result, they had a nice retirement to live on and were enjoying it profusely. Now that’s something that’s respectable.

The tea plantation was immaculate. There were long rows of tea bushes contoured along the landscape, the roads were paved nicely and they seemed to have an efficient little factory spitting out bags of fragrant tea leaves. Speaking of fragrant, it felt like I was swimming in a cup of tea. The smell of black tea was diffuse across the estate. This tea plantation bore the name “Connemara Tea Plantation” and was started by an Irishman back in 1875. The factory had been running since 1941. As I strode up the hill, I saw a man in a lungi with a bandana on his head perched atop a single bamboo shoot that had produced natural branch steps on it. He was transferring little green pepper berries from the vine into a sack on his back. Our tour guide told us that they make 130 rupees per day, which is about $3/day; 75% of their income will go to feeding themselves and their families.

Our pink polo clad tour operator led us around the property a bit and gave us a brief history of tea. Apparently it was the Dutch traders who first introduced tea into Europe in 1610. Afterwards, the British developed a special bond with the aromatic beverage. By 1684, all of Europe was enamored with the exotic product. Now the tea-manufacturing operation is fine-tuned and spits out tea leaves 24x7…the factory produces all night long. The tealeaves are picked from the trees every 7-14 days and are then sent through an antiquated factory with machines that belch steam, rattle and bounce all over the place in order to transfer the tea leaves from place to place. The steam boiler is still wood fired. When first picked, the leaves have no special appeal or aroma. They gain all of their aroma, color, taste, pungency, bright infusion and strength after being shuffled down an assembly line that withers, shreds, tears and curls the leaves, then grades them and rolls them through tumblers to ferment them for 24 hours. During this process, the chemical polyphenol is catalyzed into other chemicals such as quinine and theoflavin. Afterwards, the leaves are dried and graded into large cloth sacks…ready for the wholesale market! Some of the leaves are fully fermented, which make a nice strong brew. The quasi-fermented leaves are for the ninnies that opt for mild tea.

Connemara tea factory produces about 7000 kg of tea per day, which sells for 130 rs. per kilogram. That’s about $19,300 in revenues per day…not bad.

After the tea estate, we headed up the road where there were blue tarps laid out with thousands of coffee beans on them. They were drying to bring out their flavor. The coffee acreage was up a dusty, rocky pathway lined with more tiger spiders than I care to be around…these ones were bigger. Putting two and two together, I determined that tiger spiders like coffee just as much as the rest of us. As I rounded the crest of the hill, I saw 10s of cloth sacks full of freshly picked coffee beans and hundreds of acres of broad-leaved arabica, robusta and Liberian coffee trees. The robusta is a South-African breed and the Liberian are from Brazil. There were millions of little red berries ripe for the picking; unfortunately though, the place did not smell like coffee. I learned later that the coffee is roasted by cooperatives in each of the agricultural towns. Arabica, having the better taste, sells for about 62 rupees ($1.32) per kilogram and the robusta sells for about 45 rupees per kilogram (96 cents). Remember that a kilogram is about 2.2 pounds. I headed back down through the spider lair to the street and headed to a church on the mountaintop.

The church was Roman Catholic, but retained a lot of the Hindu tradition. There were no seats, just a large green floor and there were boxes in three or four corners encasing statues and statuettes of Jesus, Mary and various saints. People would approach the box, stare, drop their heads, and then carry on. Unlike the marble and metal of churches in Europe, this church was adorned with wood carvings...a little more budget. The exterior of the church was actually textured stone, which is much different than most of the churches I see as I pass through the mountains. The usual church is a mix of pastel pinks, whites or blues and has a flat, plaster look to it. Most of the time, the figures and decorations are very round and brightly painted…Indians have a pension for the gaudy. While driving through the hills I noticed that the churches are very large and well built. The grounds are also manicured. It would certainly seem that the townspeople set aside a large budget for these structures. Considering the extreme devoutness of the people, it’s no surprise. After comparing my white toes to the brown ones next to me, I approached the door of the church and examined the landscape. The Keralites call it God’s Own Country. Seems fitting.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Western Ghats - a Tortuous Journey

January 19, 2010:

As I sat pondering the many and tropical bugs that a huge bus must run over on a seven hour journey through an Indian jungle, the bus skidded around its 500th hairpin turn of the day, this time nearly shaving a small schoolboy in half. My thoughts shifted to the more pertinent subject of how many human lives a large Indian bus must claim over a 3-week span in the Western Ghats—a mountain range that runs down western India. I came to the conclusion that they just don’t value life like we do back home. That was something that I remembered learning in Julio Videras’ environmental economics class, but had never seen at work. (the image on left is the valley I traveled up...I really got lucky on this one)

I was on yet another Indian adventure, but this time it was much cooler and fair-scented than my previous journeys. I had left the sweltering heat of Cochin earlier in the day and boarded a no frills attached steel bus that—interestingly—reminded me of one of those D day amphibious assault vehicles. This groaning behemoth of a vehicle was transporting me through valley and over mountain crest through Kerala’s hill stations…that’s what the locals call it. I would like to consider these hills as more of mountains, which in fact they are. They are the home of the world’s original supply of fine cardamom, pepper, cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg. The spice mountains!

They say the smells are what you remember longest. After passing through these mountains, I would believe it. When I left Cochin, the air smelled of items fried in coconut oil occasionally mixed with rancidity. As we graded the mountainside however, the air became lighter—clean and fresh with notes of jasmine and pepper. I couldn’t believe my nose. Yes, I had heard that these mountains smelled unique, but I never thought that it would be this distinct, this…spicy.

As I came to the mountain top I could see hints of river running down a long valley. It seemed as though we were traveling parallel to the water. Sure enough, we were. I passed two different damming facilities with substations, meaning that the people are harnessing the power of the river. All afternoon I (mostly) unsuccessfully attempted to shoot the tropical canopy that sprawled out below me with the neighboring mountainsides as an accompaniment. I guess I’ll be able to keep most of those images in my own head.

We passed by small villages as we ran the length of the valley. Most of the houses were built on stilts or had some other way of clinging to the bedrock. It looked as though people were happy and healthy, surely one of the more sustainable living models I have ever seen. All over, people were carrying bags and baskets on their heads, no doubt filled with vegetables, spices, or rice…perhaps some of the products were manufactured, but mostly the basic necessities. I wondered whether the people in these mountains live longer lives like the people in Georgia who regularly live to over 100. It must be true, because some looked like they were rounding a century. I wished I could stop and interview someone, however based on experience I know that it’s exceedingly difficult to communicate with these people even if I have a Malayalam guide.

As night closed in and the bus ascended, the chill of the mountain air began to pierce my t-shirt and jeans. I was cold! This was the first time in months. The locals were wearing winter caps and sweatshirts. Luckily, my upstate NY upbringing had trained me for the experience.

It was truly a unique experience to see the evening sun glancing off the tropical canopy below; I could see singular plumes of smoke rising through the palms. As it became darker, the valley started to light up with gas lanterns and electric lights and pretty soon that was all I saw, other than the gray outline of the Ghats above. It felt like my journey should have ended at that point, but our bus kept creaking and snorting around corners. I still had three hours left.

As I held on to the metal bar in front of me for stability, I glanced around the bus noticing that I was one of three people left. Everyone else had been dropped off in his or her little mountainside village. The corrugated steel shades were now drawn and the bus was a capsule darting through the night. The smell of cardamom was not deterred by the steel shades, however. It seemed as though it was everywhere, and it was especially pungent as we drove by spice depots in small villages. I put my brain into autopilot and just enjoyed the surroundings until finally we reached Kumily, which is just 2 kilometers from the Periyar Tiger Reserve and directly in the midst of the cardamom hills. I checked into my $6 hotel room for the night.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Kerala, India: Of Spice and Men

I awoke with a chill. This wasn’t the kind of chill that you might awake with in a horror novel. It was the kind of chill that comes from setting the air conditioner too low and only sleeping with a sheet. The view from the window immediately quelled the nuisance of the cold, though. I could see the shimmer of morning water—mirror-like. The reflection showed coconut palms, mango and banana trees. To the right, a man was diving for mussels, his canoe tied to a single bamboo shaft emerging from the middle of the waterway. I was in paradise.

My new friend, Arvind Nayak, also awoke, immediately commenting on the frigid state of the room. Apparently I hadn’t been the only one who was on the verge of hypothermia. Arvind and I had shared a room, but we both forgot to ask for anything more than the one bed setting. As a result, Arvind got a blanket and I got a sheet, which was more than fair considering I had butted in on his family vacation. I’m sure his wife and two daughters were more than cozy in the other room; women seem to remember the small things like blankets and sheets. Hell, women just seem to remember things more often.

In the middle of a jungle, priorities and motivation seem to drift away. Perhaps the tender coconuts that I’d been consuming so frequently harbored motivation-killing chemicals—or maybe it was the ethereal, tropical surroundings. As I pondered this familiar waning of motivation, another familiar sense began creeping in—accountability. I had spent the whole of yesterday taking in brand new sites, smells, sounds and tastes, but the pages in my notebook lay stark white in my backpack, scorned by my abandon. When you experience a lot in a short time, it’s easy to glaze over the details…five minutes, a pen and paper can help you remember later. Filled with this new sense of motivation—and the desire to leave my icy cabin—I hopped into the bathroom for my shower, another cold endeavor. How could I mind, though? I was on a houseboat just off of Poonamad Lake in Kerala’s backwaters. It wouldn’t be long before a large breakfast spread would arrive on the hardwood table at the front of the boat; five cushioned and inviting chairs stood waiting. No room for complaint.

I dressed myself in the same exact clothes as the day before, blue jeans and a white t-shirt. The smell of the t-shirt was already a little too heavy for my liking; some soap and water around the armpits wouldn’t hurt. The fact is, when you’re in a jungle and you don’t have deodorant, smells may arise. I decided some lemon juice around the pits today wouldn’t hurt. I then searched around for my little blue backpack, which contained only four items: a notebook, two pens and my camera; no toothbrush, no extra clothes, nothing! I had actually been invited on this little vacation unknowingly. As I left my Malabar Court Hotel to meet Arvind and his family the morning before, I failed to bring anything more than the clothes on my back and the couple of research items. Arvind’s friend and my contact in Cochin, Surendran, was confused as to my duration of stay on Arvind’s family vacation, thus (mis)communicated to me that I would only be spending the day on the houseboat and then returning to Fort Cochin. Arvind had planned about three days for me, though, and as a result, I was ill-equipped. Moreover, I hadn’t actually checked out of my hotel in Thoppumpady, right near the historic Fort Cochin. The items from my luggage were strewn about room 505 and they would be the only residents for a few days—well, them and the swarm of mosquitoes.

As I emerged from the still frosty interior, the heat and humidity assaulted me. It was definitely hotter here than in Chennai. How fitting for the spice kingdom. Occupying a cozy spot on the embroidered hardwood sofa, I flipped to the back of the notebook…two pages left. I had almost filled an entire notebook with recipes and storyboards from my 46-day stint in Tamil Nadu, the other coast of India…I was proud of my achievements. I began writing down the imagery from the day before:

1) Rice paddies…3 meters below sea level.

The whole backwaters area of Allepy is supported by a largely rice economy. As we made our way along the narrow waterways, you could see large expanses of green behind the trunks of the coconut trees lining the levees. The paddies were sunken down about 9-10 ft. below sea level. At midday, we could see paddy workers walking single file along the levees to their boat in waiting…lunch time. They all had large, wide-brimmed hats on, echoing the traditions of old. A lot about this place seemed to be unchanged—a picture frozen in time. History books would have a hard time tracking the progress.

2) Women doing laundry…everywhere…primitive: stones

GE or Siemens would not have a market for their washing machines here. Everywhere I looked, there was a woman doing the family’s laundry. She was standing knee dip at the water’s edge, dipping the laundry in the water, wringing it out, then beating it against a large, flat stone on the shore. As I watched, small children would gleefully race to the shore line, hand outstretched, fingers wiggling, wanting to secure a reciprocal wave from the “houseboat-people.” In fact, it seemed that everyone was gleeful in this place. Captain Babu turned to all of us and commented, “no monies, life beautiful!” His English mirrored the meaning of his name. Babu means baby.

3) Young boys in a saucer

About 15 minutes after we first boarded our houseboat, the Lake Surya as it was called, I noticed a saucer coming toward our boat. Inside were two small, wiry boys. One was sitting while the other paddled. Honestly, the thing looked like half of a big coconut…in fact, it probably was made of coconut. Everything in Allepy is made of coconut.

4) Canoe bus

A line of small schoolchildren in uniforms with backpacks equally as big as them was walking toward a small, very narrow canoe. The ones in the front had already started competing for a spot on the boat, which I thought was going to tip over. Apparently these children are more deft with a canoe than you or I. This is their life…the Venice of the east, as it’s rightly called.

5) Big school bus…boat

Have you ever seen a school boat? I have now. It seemed that there were children of all ages on this floating vessel, some sitting in seats on the bottom and some lounging on top. They were on their way to their small school along the banks of some waterway. All the buildings were located single-file along the waters edge. The water is their only means of transportation and is also one of their only means of income. Before, I mentioned that the town was supported by a largely rice economy. Well, it is also largely supported by a fishing economy. People have been fishing here for thousands of years. Every day, the fisherman go out in their boats and canoes to gather up the freshwater and brackish water treasures that await below the surface: mussels, tiger prawns, blue scampi, sardines and other small fish. They gather them and take them to the small town, from where they are distributed to the masses. No change.

Coming back to the boat of school children, I must comment that Kerala is actually the most literate state of India, achieving about 99.something% literacy. That’s damn good considering that India’s average rate of literacy hovers around 65%, and that’s including Kerala. India’s literacy rate was about 12% when the British left in 1947, so they’ve tracked some good progress since; however, their levels of literacy still fall way below the international average of 84%. In fact, India is the most illiterate country in the world. Furthermore, there is a big disparity between the literacy rates of men and women. Men exhibit a literacy rate of about 76%, while women exhibit only a 54% literacy rate. This, some say, is a main contributor to the rapid population growth in India, because the women cannot learn how to plan pregnancies or use any sort of contraception. Kerala has had a disproportionate amount of foreign influence, which probably accounts for their near 100% literacy rate. Kerala is a majority Christian and Muslim population, due to the Portuegese, Dutch, Arab and English traders coming here in search of spices. Infrastructure and dominance was necessary for these traders to have predictable and well-established markets, so they instituted schools bearing names like St. Sebastian’s Seminary or St. Josephs. Some of the schools in Fort Cochin are 400 years old. When school lets out, the streets are flooded with small girls in their navy blue and white dresses, their hair done up in braids with ribbon. The boys wear the same colors, but their uniforms are tight-fitting shorts and button up shirts. I wonder what this place would look like now if the spices had not drawn foreign influence? Some might say better, because the sucking colonial rules would not have drained the nation of its resources. However, many people here think that the British left a nice legacy of infrastructure and know-how. This is an entirely different topic of debate, however, so let’s carry on…

6) Food, don’t forget to talk about the food…

It’s hard to forget about my project when I’m sitting down to eat three times a day. It’s kind of like never having vacation, but I’ll not go that far. After all, I am fortunate enough to be eating my way across the globe. I am achieving famous explorers’ breadth of travel in a single year. A Marco Polo or Ibn Battuta would be proud of me. Too bad they’re not alive for me to interview.

Let’s see, what was it that I ate the day before:

MORNING SNACK. Along one of the water passageways, we stopped at a little shack on the banks. The captain assured us that we could get some toddy (an alcoholic coconut drink) and seafood there. It was a little suspect (a lot suspect), but it wasn’t the worse thing that I’d seen in India. Besides, Arvind seemed to be okay with it. Inside the dimly lit shack, there were a few sources of light. One was the daylight that peaked in between the wooded slats composing the wall of the structure. The second was the wood fire burning underneath a pot. It reminded me of my Boy Scout days. The chef was a skinny man with a few teeth dressed in a lungi (Loon-gy), which is the traditional cotton or polyester lower-body covering. It’s essentially a piece of rectangle cloth wrapped around the waist. It can either be worn long, like a full-length dress, or folded up once to just above the kneecaps, like a skirt. He handed us the bottle of coconutty liquid in an Aquafina bottle and then two plates of food.

Back on the boat, I inspected the food to find that it was all seafood. One plate was of mussels cooked in a dry preparation with turmeric powder, chunked coconut, onion, green chilies, chili powder, cumin seeds, mustard seeds and some coconut oil. It was a pleasant mixture of nuttiness, spiciness and seafoodiness (I backed myself into a corner with that parallelism). The other plate was of sardines deep-fried in coconut oil with a mixture of spices. If I had my guess as to the spices, I would say chili powder, turmeric powder, ginger, and cumin powder. They were very crunchy and spicy. They were almost like chips, actually.

The toddy tasted of coconut and a bit of sulphur. It was mildly sweet and had a little carbonation to it also. Apparently, this coconut drink is harvested daily from the coconut palms. The process is pretty simple. It consists of first cutting the new palm offshoots before they get a chance to develop, and then coating the wound with yeast. The liquid from inside the trunk of the tree then has a route of escape, so it drips out through the yeast causing fermentation. The locals catch it in small plastic jugs or pails and then drink it at toddy shacks. I’ll have more on that later…

LUNCH. For lunch I had dal sambar (a lentil and spice soup with vegetables) and rice to start. This was very similar to what I was eating in Tamil Nadu. Dal sambar is a South-Indian staple and is prized for its highly nutritious outlay. Lentils are about 26% protein by mass and contain an arsenal of vitamins that would make even your Centrum-Silver cower. When combined with the spice of a sambar powder and the fortitude of rice, this is a super-food.

The second dish was cabbage thoran, a mixture of shredded coconut, shredded cabbage, shredded carrots, onion, green chillies, mustard seeds, turmeric powder and a bit of coconut oil. To go along with this was a carrot pachadi, which is a mixture of grated carrot, shredded coconut, onions, yogurt, mustard seeds and turmeric with a bit of coconut oil. Can you see the common denominators yet?

Third was a grilled pearl spot (or karimeen as they call it here), which is a smaller local fish. It was grilled with a mixture of chili powder, turmeric powder, pepper, vinegar and a fish masala (a masala is just a mixture of spices). I wish I knew what that mixture of spices was, but I figure I’ll learn that while working at the seafood restaurant in Cochin.

A green bean (actually long bean) poriyal accompanied the fish. Poriyal is a dry preparation according to the executive chefs at Le Meridien Hotel. It seems to make sense, since every poriyal I’ve ever eaten is dry. This dish consisted of cut long beans, shredded coconut, mustard seeds, onions, cumin seeds, green chillies and coconut oil.

Dessert was fresh local pineapple, artfully cut and arranged with toothpicks. The little chunks were laid on top of the inedible part of the pineapple.

AFTERNOON SNACK. I’m not yet sure if afternoon snack is a customary thing in Kerala (I know an evening tea is), but for our houseboat experience, they served us some sweet lime juice and banana pokoda (cut bananas fried in a batter of lentils, cumin and coconut)

DINNER. Dinner seems to have escaped my notebook, haha! I’m sure you can fill in the gaps though. It goes something like this: curry with coconut, blah blah, vegetable with coconut, blah blah, rice, coconut, blah, and banana. How’s that for research?

The boat was now moving again and breakfast was on the table, so I put down my notebook and carried on with my day. Arvind’s two daughters, Navni (13) and Aditi (21) were sitting at the table with their mom, Arti. As the haze burned off the lake and backwaters, the Nayak’s and I burned through another feast. Appams—a flat pancake-like item made from lentil and rice flours, stretchy in consistency, brown on one side. Coconut chutney—a blended mixture of mustard seeds, coconut, green chillies, coconut or vegetable oil, water, and perhaps some ginger and garlic. And sambar. It was certainly different than the breakfast I had eaten the day before at Surendran’s house. That had consisted of appams, a mutton stew, prawn masala, boiled plantains, sambar, some chutneys, and fresh fruit. Oh, and a nice hot glass of water!? People in Kerala often serve hot water with their meals to wash down the oils from the food. It can be served plain or as jeera water (hot cumin infused water). Both are far from refreshing in my mind.

I took note of a few more items as we passed. An eagle. It is fairly common to see one of these majestic birds soaring above the tropical canopy. Indian Cormorants. There was an entire colony of jet-black cormorants strategically poised in three trees over a deep section of water, waiting to dive and snatch up a fish. Cormorant is from the Latin corvus marinus, meaning ‘sea raven.’ Everything hummed at an exotic, ancient pitch in these backwaters. Well, everything except for a few inklings of modern society scattered about. Some electrical lines, a Vodafone add, a fluorescent light post. However, these modern vestiges were no match for the overpowering jungle all around.


Our Toyota SUV dropped us at our new destination in the middle of mainland Aleppy. My surroundings were somehow more fragrant; I just couldn’t place it yet. The owner of the property introduced the Nayak’s and I to our new homes, telling us that the cottages were over 300 years old. Let’s see…300 years old. 1709. That means that they were standing before George Washington cut down his fabled cherry tree. Of course, they had been refurbished, but the roofing and interior were basically the same as they were 300 years ago. A very large mango tree grew straight through the center of one cottage’s porch.

I opened the door to our new cottage and found a large mosquito net covering the entirety of the bed. It was held up by a rope connected to the peak of the ceiling about 15 ft. above my head. As I stared, it brought back memories of a Salmon Rushdie novel that opened on one of Vasco da Gama’s descendants sickly and dying beneath a mosquito net just like this one. It also brought back the story that I had read prior to visiting Vasco da Gama’s grave in St. Francis’ Church, Fort Cochin (left). Gama had actually died of malaria in 1524. ‘Shitty way to go,’ I thought as I stared at the flowing and perforated yellow net. I quickly sprayed myself with bug spray and then retreated to the outside.

The split was the same as the night before, Arvind and I in one cottage, his family in the other. I kept insisting that I should have slept in one of the hammocks outside, which was certainly better than the bed of water hyacinths that I had offered to sleep on the night before. Hospitality reigned supreme, however, and I carried my little blue bag into Arvind’s cottage.

By this time, I was thoroughly drenched with sweat. It was close to 95 degrees outside and the leather seat of the Toyota didn’t offer too much in the way of breathability. Everyone else was already taking showers, so the owner showed me to another cottage where I could take a shower of my own. I walked into the bathroom to find that it had no ceiling. The sun-soaked interior, the coconut palms above and the clay shingles of the roof next to me made me want break into a tropical dance, but I settled for washing my boxers and t-shirt instead. Crouching over a bucket, sun ablaze overhead, I scrubbed my garments with a small bar of soap and repeatedly massaged them in the water. Prior to this year, I had only done this with my soccer socks during varsity soccer season. The past six months, however, have brought out the inner sink-washer in me. I knew that it would be weird wearing only my jeans for a while, but I figured if I laid my clothes over some sticks in one of the clearings, they would dry in an hour or less. After all, more energy from the sun hits one square yard of earth in one hour than it takes to power the earth for an entire year--my renewable energy plug.

I don’t know which bar soap company does commercials for a tropical scent, but they definitely should have been taping as I took that shower (waist-up)…they would’ve sold millions! The sun was beating down, cold water emanated from the shower head…I was actually so warm that the cold water became hot by the time it reached my toes. It may have been one of the most enjoyable showers of my life. Too much information?

After all this was done, I perused the ground for some good climbing trees. Finding one, I slipped into its branches and climbed to the top, surveying all the grounds. I could see nuts and fruits hanging all about, not knowing what was what. The owner had promised me that his wife would give me a tour of all the plants later in the day…this promise wasn’t fulfilled to the day after, though.

After my vertical excursion, I slipped into a hammock, made it five pages through Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons, and then passed out.

I was awakened by Navni, Arvind’s youngest daughter. It was time for lunch!

For lunch we had a typical Kerala-style fish curry made in a sour and spicy gravy, a cucumber-coconut salad with mustard seeds, and some fish cutlets fried in coconut oil. I failed to take note of much during this meal, because I was engaged in a conversation with seven people at the same time, no joke. There were two older Swedish men sitting to my right, a couple of English gals to my left, and then a family of English people who split their time between England and Italy just down the table. We talked intently about my project, my college, Italy, Sweden, England…you name it, we talked about it. Apparently I did an okay job of promoting my project, because all of them were very eager to write down my blog and give me any food advice that they had.

After lunch, Arvind’s family and I took a walk to the beach. To get there, we had to walk on a little path through the jungle, which was surprisingly high-trafficked. I constantly saw people walking to and fro. At one point, we had to cross some logs over a meandering stream; I could see all sorts of small fish going about their daily chores in the currents (that is, nothing). As we were trotting along, Arvind’s wife, Arti, pointed out five or six different hibiscus flowers, all unique and of a different color.

Before reaching the beach, we had to cross through a little village that housed some fishing families. A dad and a boy were playing cricket in the backyard of one home. A small boy and his mom passed; the boy was rolling a tire with a stick. A man was sitting cross-legged on the ground constructing a fishing net with only his bare hands. Yup, this was a different place alright.

The beach was, well, a beach. There were a couple of rock jetties popping out to the front and some fisherman were on the beach casting their nets into the water using the same techniques for throwing their nets as I remember hearing about or seeing sketches of in Sunday school.

The rest of the day before dinner was uneventful. Arvind and I took a couple rickety bikes into town. I bought a shnazzy-looking purple toothbrush and Arvind bought his daughters some shorts. The shorts were God awful, but we joked that they were the best in Aleppy…probably not far from the truth.

Dinner was a mix of fried king fish steaks (in chili powder, turmeric, salt and coconut oil), a cauliflower Manchurian (a red dish made with chili powder, green chilies, onion and turmeric powder--an adaptation of the Chinese cuisine), and some rice pilaf. Dinner is always served around 8-9 pm, so the only thing to do after that is have a beer or two and go to sleep. Arvind and I did just that.

The following day I awoke with not a chill, but a stark reminder of where I was: the mosquito net. ‘Right,’ I thought to myself as I slipped out from under it. ‘I’m in paradise.’

Arvind’s family and I had the usual sugary and milky tea that all South-Indians love. They actually drink much more tea here than coffee. Both crops are grown here on coffee and tea plantations, neither native to these soils. Tea came from China and coffee came from the Arabs. While I was in Chennai, I noticed many more coffee drinkers--again, another reminder of just how different India is after traveling a couple hundred kilometers.

Breakfast consisted of toast, jam, and butter, some dosas (the thin, rice and lentil pancakes), coconut-tomato chutney, boiled plantains, and a seasoning of whole garlic pieces in red chili flake oil with black peppercorns. The toast is an adaptation from British colonial rule. You can find hints of the British legacy everywhere. The breakfast conversation centered on Sweden and its ailing car industry, and interestingly, Latvia, Estonia, and Croatia, which are not usually hot topics of conversation. History and world politics should be taught like this, not in a classroom.

After breakfast, I was given the grand tour of the plants around the little plot of land. I realized that I was lounging amongst spice and fruit trees, but the diversity was shocking. I was shown a cashew nut tree, cinnamon tree, allspice tree, pepper plant, tamarind tree, jackfruit tree, mango tree, banana tree, papaya tree, betel nut tree, grapefruit tree, aloe plants, something in the sage family, and a green tamarind tree. These trees and plants have been the lifeblood of the region for 6000 years. 6000 years ago, the Panis of this area—the Malabar and Travancore coasts—were trading with the Indus Valley civilizations on the northwest coast of India and the Sumerians in the Tigris and Euphrates river valleys in modern day Iraq. After Christ was born, the Arab traders dominated the trade in this region, bringing back cinnamon, cardamom, cloves and black pepper, among other things. They would bring it back to places such as Alexandria in Egypt and up through the Persian Gulf to meet the land routes that would take the riches to the Levant (modern day Syria and Lebanon) and further. This land was a fairytale for the people of Europe until Vasco da Gama finally landed here in 1498. Previous to that, the Arabs had told everyone that their rich cinnamon and cardamom supplies were coming from the East African Coast; they were careful never to trade the black pepper with the cinnamon, cloves and cardamom, because the people of Europe knew that it came from the Indian coastline. They had to shroud their supplies of these precious items in mystery and concoct stories of great birds that guarded the spices in order to maintain steep profit margins. The Europeans were hornswoggled for centuries by these Arab traders. Their seagoing Italian brethren in Venice and Genoa were also on the hornswoggling train. Although ignorant of the sources of the spices, the Venetians and Genoans were not complaining—they, like the Arabs, were also middlemen, bringing the spices from the Arab traders to the Europeans. They controlled huge profit margins. Next time you’re making your way down the Grand Canal of Venice or lounging upon a seaside pillar in San Marco’s square, just imagine the immaculate stone buildings as piles of spices instead, because that’s what they were built on.

The earliest trade in these Asian areas was called the “silent trade,” because none of the traders spoke the other’s language. As I’m woefully trying to learn a new dish in a restaurant and all I get are fast, incomprehensible syllable’s of L’s from my teacher, I can’t help but crack a smile. ‘I’m going through the same thing they did,’ I tell myself.

At 2.00 pm (as they write it here), Surendran arrived on the sandy scene, donning the usual button up shirt tucked into gray pants with some leather dress moccasins on his feet. His hair had not changed from business to party either; it was still arranged neatly on his head forming a straight line across his forehead at the bangs. His smile was a little more mischievous than usual though.

I soon figured out why the mischievous smile. Arvind and Surendran had made plans to go to a local toddy shack and discuss some business. So, we jumped in the SUV that we had hired and navigated our driver to a little shack of a place buried amongst the coconut palms. Out back, we washed our hands in a bucket lined with rings of vivid yellows and dull browns, a common sight in any bathroom over here. I left the bucket wondering if my hands were in fact cleaner than before.

The toddy shack’s construction was very simple—some metal posts holding up a frame of fiberglass, sheet metal and palms. The ample cobwebs waved in motion with the currents of the fans above our head; the heat trapped between my shirt and my back longed to succumb to the same breeze, but in vain. Our waiters wore lungis about their thighs…I was wearing the same, much to their surprise. They had scraggly beards on their face, a huge smile, and some nice brown teeth. They gave us a private stall furnished with a picnic table and a nice earthen floor.

We ordered our first bottle of toddy, which came in a green glass bottle. Again, I could smell the sweet and slightly sulphuric scent of the white liquid.

“Cheers,” we all rang out. The party was started.

“A health and wellness center in Dolgeville NY with ayurvedic massage,” Arvind said. We were trying to think of businesses to incorporate in the town that we both spent part of our childhood years in.

“What about the food business in India,” I put in, always looking for a new business idea. I say new like I already have a business…

By this time, the fish had arrived and we were picking the meat off the bones. A deep red gravy saturated our finger tips and made our lips burn. Ostensibly, the fish was marinated in onion, garlic, maybe some ginger, and lots of chili powder and green chilies. One of the fishes was a mackerel and the other was, well, not a mackerel. Fish dishes are the hardest things to identify on a food journey, because everyone has a different name for the fish. The people of this area must have been uttering these fish names for millennia, because that’s how old the fishing business is. If you go over to the harbor, you still see all the locals wandering off into the blue, hopeful for the days catch of king fish, squid, pearl spot, mackerel, snapper, king crab, sea crabs, blue scampi, tiger prawns, shrimp, sand lobsters, deep sea lobsters…you name it, they’re getting it. The amount of fish here reminds me of the fish markets I attended in Catania, Sicily.

“Another bottle of toddy,” Surendran piped in. He doesn’t drink often, so Arvind and I exchanged surprised glances.

I dug my hand into the plate of boiled, chunked tapioca root, which they call ‘kappa’ here. Like their thick red rice (chor rice), tapioca root is another starchy staple that has been fuelling the masses for centuries. As you’re driving down the roads, you can see the women digging up the roots from the jungle floor. Sometimes it’s cooked with some oil, turmeric, mustard seeds, cumin and curry leaves, but most times it’s just eaten boiled. It’s perhaps the most unexciting dish ever, but essential for life here. I find that most people here are out for sustenance rather than taste, which is a lot different from my western upbringing. When I ask people what their favorite foods are, they respond, “rice, fish curry,” as if they’re the only foods in the world that exist. It’s deeply ingrained, I suppose.

After six bottles of toddy, we realized that even the weakest of alcoholic drinks can make you woozy, so we decided that it was time to go. This was after about 2-3 hours, a majority of which was spent with no fan because the power was out—another common thing in these parts. The alcohol and the heat worked against me.

We returned home to catch the sunset and take some pictures on the rock jetty…the fishermen were still casting their nets, except this time it was into the red and orange hue reflected off the surface of the waves. One of the local girls, Alfonsa, had come out to join us, so we took some pictures of her too and promised to print them out and send them to her…a luxury here. Then, we headed back to the cottages.

“One more round before you guys head out?” Arvind asked.

How could I resist? The last round of business discussion and toddy had been so much fun.

So we headed back to the toddy shack and finished off another two bottles with a plate of seasoned mussels before Surendran and I had to make our way back to Fort Cochin, an hour and a half drive through the jungle.

We said goodbye to Arvind’s family. We’d see them for breakfast in the morning back in Fort Cochin. Then, we headed off. Both Surendran and I slept the whole way back. Why do my stories always end with sleeping?

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Arrival in Cochin, India

January 6, 2010

I have landed in my new place of study, which is Cochin, India, where the great Vasco da Gama built his spice empire out of in the early 1500s.

Flying into the Indian state of Kerala, I could tell that Cochin wasn’t going to be anything like Chennai. The airport was clean and well kempt. There were black, wrought iron light posts giving off a very charming European style and they were fastened to concrete pillars with clean, sparkling bolts. It was like a dim light at the end of the tunnel for Indian infrastructure.

The airport is about an hour from the booming center of Ernakulam and the quaint seaside port of Fort Cochin—both are enveloped under the city of Cochin (Kochi). On my way into the city I caught a glimpse of some incredible tropical sights. The landscape was scattered with mango trees, coconut palms and banana trees, and wild bison and buffalo roam the plains. In fact I saw a bison with a huge rack of antlers (horns?) fording a river. As I made my way into the outskirts of the city, I saw stands with green coconuts and men with scythes to chop their tops off. The people here call them tender coconuts and it’s a customary greeting gift. Usually, you drink the refreshing liquid in the center of the coconut with a straw, and then the cart keeper chops the coconut in half, produces a spoon--chopped off the side of the coconut--and then scrapes the tender portion of the coconut meat onto the spoon for you to eat. Does it sound tropical yet?

There were many large billboards touting jewelry, diamonds, clothing and Indian “treasures,” no doubt for the groups of tourists motoring along. Also common were large hotels, no doubt to house the motoring tourists.

The city actually progresses in steps. The first district you arrive in is Ernakulam, the bustling city center. The second is Willingdon Island, which lies just off the coast, and the third is Fort Cochin, an island of its own and the historical center. While crossing the bridges to each island, I could see the many fishing boats making there way on the water, some modern and many very old looking. I could actually see people throwing their nets off of their wooden boats, which I thought was amazingly anachronistic. I also saw a large wooden boat in the distance that had 10 men sitting in it. Five large oars jutted out on each side and moved up and down, propelling the banana-shaped wooden vessel through the water. My jaw dropped.

I met up with my contact, Suravendra (if you remember correctly, the last contact’s name was Raghavendra…I sense a pattern), in Fort Cochin. He runs one of the two diesel and petrol stations directly on the harbor and owns a large palatial-colonial style house right on the island. He took me to my Malabar Court Hotel and helped me book a room for the night (about $14/night). After I had delivered my stuff to the room, we took off on his motorcycle through the small post-colonial town on the way to the beach and harbor. I couldn’t believe my nose…the smell of garbage was almost non-existent and was instead replaced by the smell of coconuts from the coconut oil used in the restaurants. My mind hearkened back to a line from the hit-musical Annie that goes, “I think I’m gonna like it here.” (that was cheesy)

On the way, we stopped off at a little roadside hole-in-the-wall restaurant. It was very narrow and only had two rows of rickety, planked wooden tables along each wall. The only places to sit were on the long built-in concrete benches along each side. We ordered a typical South-Indian fare of vadai, onion utthappam, and some deep-fried breaded item filled with bhaji (a blend of potatoes, mustard seeds, curry leaves, turmeric, green chilies and onions). The vadai, which are small, deep-fried, ring-shaped, lentil-based items with cumin seeds, onions and green chilies were served with some coconut chutney, mango pickles and sambar (a South-Indian soup consisting of vegetables, tamarind, mustard seeds, cumin seeds, peppercorns, green chilies, onions, curry leaves and a powder made of red chilies, lentils, and coriander seeds…everyone’s recipe is different). The spice of the vadai nicely complemented the milder, sweeter flavor of the white coconut chutney to which they added a side spoon of grated coconut, just in case it was too spicy. The onion uthappam was served last, with the same chutneys and soups. It is a fermented lentil and rice flour based food that is cooked in pancake-like fashion on a griddle with some ghee or oil. It is especially tasty with the onions and has a little bit of a sour taste from the fermentation. Utthappam and the thinner dosas are two of my favorite breakfast or snack items with some nice gravies or chutneys. We ended the meal with a typical creamy and sweet South-Indian coffee before heading off again to the beach and harbor.

The first thing that I noticed at the beach was the line of carts selling all sorts of fish and seafood. There were heaps of sea lobsters, deep-sea lobsters, big fish, little fish, red fish, blue fish, tiger prawns, squid, king crabs, soft shell crabs, and blue scampi (a cool looking shrimp with very long and narrow royal-blue claws). I marveled at the selection. Just down the way was a fish auction with long benches. This is where the fishermen offer up the days catch to the waiting merchants. There was a tarp right behind the benches that had hundreds and hundreds of pounds of fresh (large!) squid.

Suravendra and I took a walk down the rocky beach and watched the sunset, apparently a common thing to do judging by the number of French, German and British tourists occupying the beachside. The sun was a dim red-orange sphere on the horizon that popped out in a 3-d fashion. I realized that it was my first sunset on the Arabian Sea.

Afterwards, Suravendra and I headed off to the stalls again to buy some large, juicy tiger prawns, which we did. It cost us a little less than $10 for 2.2 pounds (1 kg.) of those suckers…steal! And that was even a high price! We took them to one of the seafood stand restaurants across the way and had them grilled with chili powder, ginger, lemon and salt…mmm were they delicious. I ate about 90% of them though, because Suravendra is not a big fan of fishy tastes. That was perfectly fine with me…the vegetarian cuisine of Tamil Nadu and Chennai was a bit stifling for my carnivorous appetite. I actually hadn’t eaten that much meat since the Zwiebelrostbraten in Vienna! Oh, and I would love to say that Suravendra and I were the only ones at the dinner table; however, we had a host of man-eating mosquitoes to accompany us. I actually noticed some of the fishermen lighting huge bonfires to ward them off by the sea.
Before returning to the hotel, Suravendra and I stopped off at his house so that I could meet his wife and 15-year-old daughter. We were greeted with his two dogs, one a German shepherd and the other some scruffy white thing. His house had all marble floors and big open spaces. There were columns all over the place too that looked to be hard wood, but were actually concrete with the wood pattern painted on. I looked closely and couldn’t even tell…impeccably done. The house was also accompanied by wooden, handcrafted ornamentation. All in all, a lovely abode.

As I slid off the edge of the motorcycle at my hotel, I wished Survendra a good night, and then headed up to my room to drift into a tropical induced slumber.