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?