An umbrella lowers my temperature as I struggled up a hill in Cambodia. People struggling with the heatwaves in Europe right now would benefit from an umbrella too.
Here is an excerpt from my book, Naked in Budapest travels with a passionate nomad, which explains how I learnt to always carry an umbrella in hot places.
See, others carry them too … being out of the sun lowers my temperature by about ten degrees it feels
Cochin, Kerala, India
for rain too in The Netherlands
‘You go ahead. I can’t walk up here. It’s too steep, too hot.’
‘Yes you can. We’re nearly there. You will love the waterfall.’
‘We have waterfalls in New Zealand; I’ll give this one a miss.’
‘Come on. You can get up here. Just around the next corner is the last steep bit – you can make it. Just take it a step at a time. We’re in no hurry,’ Rob tells me.
‘No, I’ll sit here in the shade and wait for you all to come back down. I won’t go away from the track.’
‘Here, I’ve got an umbrella, use that, it will reduce the heat for you.’
‘I don’t have the bloody energy to hold a damn umbrella.’
‘Well you walk and I’ll hold it,’ says Rob and step by slow step I get up the mountain, feeling like a cross between a missionary with her servant and a stupid, overweight, unfit, old fool.
I’m the first to fall into the cool water – my T-shirt, shorts and sandals are off in seconds and in my underwear, I’m wallowing like the buffalo. Later, back in the boat, we make a list of the 20 different creatures we’ve seen: leeches are not on the list. The others return to Sihanoukville leaving me in this small village to find a bed for the night.
Next day I’m the only foreigner in the taxi when I travel through the mountains towards Thailand. We get pushed through sticky orange clay and cross four rivers by ferry and at each one, I’m the centre of attention – few westerners have used this road that opened two months ago: no one in the taxi speaks English.
What is Theyyam I was asked when I posted a video of dancers on Facebook recently, and why is it at night time? At its most basic, it is a ritual dance glorifying the mother Goddess and is a mixture of dance, mime, and music. Let me set the scene – but first a wee taste of Theyyam.
Kerala is a small state on India’s south-west coast – locals call it ‘God’s Own Country’. Considered clean and green by many Indians, it’s one of the wealthiest states and is always at the top of statistics for high literacy and life expectations. It has a good healthcare system and low child mortality. However, it also seems to have high suicide rates according to local papers. About 56% are Hindu, 26% Muslim, and 18% Christian. Malayalam is the official language and it uses a script of voluptuous letters – round curves and looping twirls which match the landscape. Fittingly, the word Malayalam itself means “hill region.”
The name Kerala is apparently derived from kera, the local Malayalam word for coconut, and mythology has it that Kerala was created when Parasurama, an incarnation of Vishnu, threw his battle axe into the sea, resulting in this conflicted countryside, neither all water nor all land and ‘backwater’ cruising is top of the must-dos in this state.
This month-long trip (Dec/January) was my 2nd visit to the state and was there for a month rather than the few days last time.
Staying with Rosie and Hazir at the Kannur Beach House, I was looking forward to hearing local knowledge about Theyyam. Interestingly, unlike much of India, most of the Hindu temples here are not open to non-Hindu. However, many of the places with Theyyam are open and sure enough, Rosie finds one for the half a dozen people staying with her over Christmas and arranges transport for 3 AM the next morning. (Note, although Kerala tourism website sometimes lists Theyyam times and dates, they often change and local advice is best. Also note this tradition only happens off the beaten track in northern Kerala, especially around Kannur, from November to April.)
Our anticipation is high as we walk with our drivers up to their Tuk-tuks and some 30 minutes later we arrive.
The temple complex is already full of local villagers most of who have been here all night helping or watching the preparations.
Drawing on ancient pre-Hinduism mythology the ‘actors’ don heavy costumes and their make-up – quite similar to Kathakali which is seen all over Kerala – can take hours to prepare.
we join the locals
its a small temple
breakfast is being prepared
These characters, whose main aim is to become at one with the deity he represents, are interesting, an extended family of Dalits (previously known as the untouchables) and who in this setting are highly revered. They are accompanied by drum and trumpet music which appears to help put the actors into a trance as they become one of the gods in this theatre-like religious celebration.
The drummers are beating an almost frenzied sounding rhythm and I feel the anticipation rising, not only in me but the whole crowd. Men, with lit palm fronds, flick embers in the air and unexpectedly the god arrives and an air of magic emanates from a circle of people in front of a small temple. According to Wikipedia, there are more than 400 different types of Theyyam.
The god, now standing on a small round stool, spins and stomps his feet – the bells and bracelets around his ankles add to the noise. he leaps off the stool to continue spinning, around and around and also around the circle we audience have formed. We all step back when he seems too close, ready to spin into us, then moving forward again as he spins off, away from our section and I wish I knew what the story was that he is telling.
This dance, with its various characters, continued for some hours when suddenly a man in a crisp white lungi urgently swishes me, and others, away from a fire of ambers. I didn’t move quite fast enough, and when one of the gods starts kicking at the embers, some small ones landed on me – easily removed by ruffling my hair although the smell of scorched hair remained until I had a shower.
The main god is now sitting on a stool and young boys are cooling him by fanning towels around him.
Shortly afterwards, it was all over, for now, and many people went forward to get a blessing from the god. Others had breakfast or bought odds and ends from the stalls that had been set up while we were watching. I give a small donation – for the actors or temple I’m not sure – and return to the Beach House which is on the mostly deserted Thottada Beach.
Of course, when all this is over, this Dalit family will return to their homes – mere mortals again. These dances are handed down through family lines and often the boys start training at a very young age.
Sometimes you can witness this event in the daytime, but I believe the fire is only at night – a dramatic addition that added to the atmosphere for me.
Note: I’m sorry the handheld videos are not of a high standard – I was, as always, too busy watching and enjoying to concentrate on technology 🙂
I wondered if the Taj was worth visiting – after all I’d been before. Yes, for me it was well worth visiting – but this remains my favourite photo from my first visit.
Did you know the Taj Mahal gardens are only a tenth of the size they were in the days of Shah Jahan? Designed primarily as Gardens of Paradise, they planted fruit trees for harvesting and which contributed towards the upkeep of the Taj Mahal.
The trees – in the gardens now – are not of Mughal origin but a legacy of the British. During the British Raj, Lord Curzon initiated the restoration of the Taj Mahal after it had fallen into disrepair and made renovations to the lawns and surroundings.
Most tourists are local
Visiting the fifteenth century Taj Mahal for the second time was just is great as the first time. As you know it’s a mausoleum, built on the south bank of the Yamuna River in Agra.
A combination of Indian, Islāmic and Persian styles it was commissioned by the Emperor Shah Jahan and he dedicated the building to the memory of his beautiful queen Mumtaz Mahal. The Emperor died 23 years after the tomb for his wife was competed and he too is buried there.
Some of the facts I heard while there were:
Over 1000 elephants were used to haul the construction materials.
Over thirty different types of gemstones decorate the Taj
Many types of marble were used – from Afghanistan, Sir Lanka, Saudi Arabia, and China.
The marble walls seem to change colour over the day – in the morning it seems pink, white during the day, while in the moonlight, it apparently seems golden.
I saw the Taj from about four different places: from beside, and on, the river; from the fort; from nearby gardens, and inside the walls: my favourite view is from the river.
In India, architectural heritage is often linked to the major religions of the country: Buddhist stupas and monasteries; Hindu and Jain temples in many styles – many share structural characteristics such as stone columns and horizontal blocks carved with sacred imagery or decorative motifs sculptures of the vast pantheon of Hindu gods and goddesses are everywhere the various deities have many manifestations which becomes confusing as their names, like many Indian cities, are interchangeable.
Udaipur, Rajasthan, is a fairy-tale city with marble palaces and lakes – and I will blog about them later. In the meantime, here is a slideshow (23 pics) some of the local wildlife.
‘Stir faster’ I’m told – it seems Indian cooking is not for sissies. Jacob, my tutor, said he’s not a good cook which didn’t sound promising, but then went on to say he’s a great teacher which was encouraging.
This hands-on cooking course takes one to ten days and there is no standing back and watching – it is a learn-by-doing course. I’m here for 3 days and a real asset is having Madhu in the kitchen. He is a great cook – he is also an expert in preparing everything we need: chopping, measuring, slicing, dicing, peeling, blitzing, and blending the ingredients. Even better, he cleans up after we’ve done the cooking and taken the glory!
But before the reflected glory, I’m still ‘stirring faster’ and now expect my right bicep to have developed centimetres and strength before I leave Kerala.
Jacob had introduced me to all the ingredients for my first vegetarian curry – and that’s a trick I’m taking home – this way nothing is left out of the dish.
All the ingredients are lined up in order of use – each container with the exact amount needed. This happens every time we cook – we know the name of the recipe, the ingredients, and how to cook it before starting. In keeping with the learn-by-doing method, we’re not given the written recipe until the dish is complete.
A lawyer for some twelve years, Jacob returned to this family land where, as a solo dad, and with his widowed mother, he farmed Haritha Farm for a while and, impressed by Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring, Jacob stopped using pesticides. ‘I’m not an ecocentric or big crusader’ he tells me, ‘I’m human first and just thinking about the next generation.’
The 6.5 acres of land had been in rubber for some ten years and he has slowly ‘. . . turned back the clock. I’m recreating the old Kerala – a small holding which is self-sufficient, plus some to sell’. The land is now producing many fruits, vegetable, and spices, including coffee, coconut, ginger, banana, papaya, pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg, turmeric, and of course jackfruit, a regional, carbohydrate staple. It’s also growing mahogany and bamboo. The bamboo is good for holding water and land as well as a cash crop for scaffolding. He calls it ‘do nothing farming’ and it seems to be working well.
Part of his self-sufficiency and diversified income stream, are four stand-alone bungalows set on the hill behind the main house which he built as homestay accommodation. Sitting on the patio up among the mature trees, birds and squirrels, I realise this is a different type of Indian tourism, eco-agro-cultural. Most cooking classes are show-and-tell, this is a dive-in-and-do-it course.
Over the three days I’m reminded to ‘cook slowly’, to ‘stir constantly’ and, to ‘always have a smile on your face.’ A pressure cooker is essential in an Indian kitchen and I’m also told, ‘cook for one whistle’, or two, or three, depending on the dish.
Evidently Kerala cooking is very much like the state – a fusion state he called it. Over thousands of years trading and the mixing of diverse cultures – Egyptians, Romans, Arabs, and Chinese – all who bought their religions and food. Coconut, originally from the Pacific, is an absolute staple in Kerala, while rice, another primary food was rarely grown here. Of course, the various churches, mosques and synagogues alongside Hindu temples also show its chequered past as a spice trader.
Pimenta Homestay is about 1 ½ hours inland from Cochin but a thousand miles away in atmosphere. Starting the day with freshly ground coffee, grown and roasted there, Jacob ensures his guests have an authentic experience of the culture and flavours of Kerala.
In between eating and cooking guests are taken to various places and saw activities in the area: this of course changes with the seasons. As well visiting farms and food markets, I also saw rubber bands being made in the middle of a rubber plantation; clay pots being made by hand; and the dying art of cotton-weaving. I especially loved watching men decorate trucks with a riot of bright floral motifs, miniature landscapes and messages such as, Save Oil Save India; Prayer is Power; and the common, noise inviting, Horn Okay or Horn Please.
Unlike many tourists’ tours around the world these day trips are personal with nothing for tourists to buy – just great interaction with locals who are rightly proud of their crafts. Well done Jacob, you exude generosity and warm hospitality along with the mouth-watering food lessons.
Had a short ride with a ferryman yesterday. We picked up a couple of women and on my return to the landing spot saw an elephant leave the river side Hindu Temple. Here’s a photos – sorry I didn’t take any on my phone and the internet is too slow for uploading so once again you’ll need t wait until I’m back in NZ and can blog about birds and elephant and potters and weavers all near The Pimenta here in Kerala.
If you have followed me you will know I take city hikes in Wellington – my monday morning walk, and often post photos about that day’s walk. Here is today’s #mondaymorningwalk – my last in Wellington for six weeks, the next one will be in #India.
we took the #20 bus to the top and wandered down. Enjoy the slideshow of our morning.