Over the course of a few days we crossed the subcontinent from the Indian Ocean west to the Arabian Sea. We left Pondicherry, first stopping in Madurai to celebrate the birthday of the elephant god Ganesh, and then to the hill station of Munnar to escape South India’s heat. The ground rose from the desert plains like a strange goose bump until we were in the middle of a Van Gogh painting with fluffy clouds and Assam tea fields manicured in rows of stripes and swirls. The air smelled of freshly cut tea leaves and at 5,000 feet it was actually cold. I strutted around smitten with happiness in my sweater while Brad removed Nacho’s starter and reshaped its mounting surface with a file to fix some starting issues we’d been having.
I loved everything I saw, and I even loved the things I couldn’t see. We had parked in front of an empty resort, and the next morning the security guard reported that a wild elephant had ambled right down the street and past Nacho while we slept. While I was excited by this, I was told that the villagers seriously feared the wild elephants. Over the course of the last few months, six villagers had been thrown like toys by the wild elephants and then trampled to death in the tea fields.
Munnar provided a refreshing introduction to the state of Kerala. A few days later we continued our drive west, dropping down in elevation until we were back at sea level and at Kerala’s famed backwaters, a coconut strewn spider web of waterways that fringe the Arabian Coast. I imagined it to be something like India’s Venice.
We stationed ourselves in the city of Kochi, a huge city with fabulous pockets of Portuguese and English architecture, ancient mosques, old colonial churches, a coast lined with 600 year old Chinese fishing nets, cashew sellers, spice traders and everything in between. We found a hotel in Fort Kochi, the city’s historic center, where all sorts of fun things were going on. When we left our hotel on the first morning for our backwaters tour, a film crew of a few dozen people was filming a scene on the street. Half of the crew was staring at Nacho and the other half was working on the scene in which a beautiful Indian girl in a sun dress was staged outside of a café, waiting for her boyfriend. She looked down at her watch impatiently. Moments later her beefcake arrived on his motorcycle and she threw on her helmet, pouted her lips, and stormed towards the motorcycle. The director yelled, “cut!” and angrily educated the girl on how not to put her helmet on backwards.
We drove for an hour to where the backwaters tour was to begin, and the van dropped us off next to small roadside stand. We bought our water and loaded onto a big lacquered wooden boat with a platform filled with big wicker chairs. We picked two in the front and settled in for the ride.
Our captain stood proudly at the front of the boat, a slender aging man with guitar string muscles and an white mustache. He clenched a long polished bamboo pole in his hands, and after all of the passengers had loaded the boat he let the pole fall through his hands until it hit the river bottom. He leaned against it and walked it along the side of the boat, and we slowly crept forward. Each time the man reached the end of his platform he’d pull the bamboo from the water and repeat. It went like this for over an hour.
Eventually the boatman stopped the vessel and we hopped out and transitioned into a canoe that cut down one of the many tiny backwater arteries. We passed by the doorsteps of rural homes, stopping here and there to visit a spice plantation or watch demonstrations in local toddy tapping—the cultivation of a mild local hooch made from fermented coconut sap, and coir making—a kind of handmade coconut husk rope.
The backwaters tour gave us a glimpse into India’s tranquilo side and we met some nice people while we were out, including a local Keralan lawyer who invited us to head south to his family’s house for Onam.
As we’d heard many times, Onam was a festival specific to Kerala—a celebration of the mythical King Mahabali. It is Kerala’s biggest festival of the year and I could feel the excitement in the air. Everyone was happy. It was ten days of food and family. The Keralans decorated their doorsteps with flower arrangements and made the most elaborate meals with dishes numbering in the 40s and 50s. Or so I had heard anyway. It was definitely something I wanted to see.
However, Brad and I had been itching to continue northward, and so we passed up on the offer to join our new friend and his family for Onam and left Kochi. We hit the road the day before the main day of Onam, crunching and smashing our way out of town and onto India’s terrible roads. After six hours of frustration Brad pulled over. We couldn’t believe that this could be a main highway. It was just dirt and potholes, followed by more dirt and more potholes.
We studied our GPS in search of a short cut that in reality didn’t exist. Just before we pulled back on the road an elegant looking couple approached our window. They asked the standard questions.
“Where are you going? Where are you from?”
We told them we were just passing through, which prompted looks of confusion.
“But tomorrow is Onam! It is the biggest celebration and our town has the best celebration. The other towns are not so good.”
I decided to keep quiet and not mention that by evening we would be out of the region altogether.
“You must stay here for Onam.” They waved at us to follow them. “You should come to our house and stay. You can have Onam with our family tomorrow.”
Brad and I looked at each other and knew that we just couldn’t. There was still time to drive a few more hours. It would be a shame to stop now. We said goodbye and pulled back on the road, and I almost immediately regretted what we had just done. These were the exact experiences we were looking for, after all.
I made Brad turn around and he reluctantly flipped a U-turn. We were too late, and despite looking up and down the street we couldn’t find the couple.
Brad looked bummed. “You know, now that I think about it, going to that couple’s house for Onam would have been really fun.”
We decided that we had to stop making such stupid decisions for the sake of staying on our imaginary schedule.
The next day Onam festivities were in full swing. Elephants marched down the street and people screamed with excitement in the back of trucks. It was fun watching everyone but I still felt really crappy about the day before. We made a quick stop for lunch and left the restaurant feeling pregnant with food babies. As we sat in Nacho ready to leave, two men appeared on their motorcycle. They asked the standard questions.
“Where are you going? Where are you from?”
We told them we were just passing through.
“You should come to our house for Onam!”
I glanced at Brad for just a moment and then shouted “yes!” They laughed in surprise and called home to report that they were bringing home two Americans. We couldn’t believe our luck.
We followed our new friends, two non-English-speaking Indian truck drivers who work in Saudia Arabia, while not having any idea where we were going, down a bumpy dirt road and through tropical fields of banana and coconut palm until we finally reached their home. The two women of the family were waiting outside for us. We sat on a sofa just inside the entrance way and drank tea while the women rolled a small card table out in front us. We were foreigners, after all, and foreigners eat at tables. The men sat Indian style on the spotless tiled floor in front of us.
The meal was served on banana leaves: goat and vegetable curries, spiced chutney, papad, and a massive portion of Kerala’s thick local rice variety.
Everything was amazing, and it would have been a lot more enjoyable to eat had we not just finished impregnating ourselves with oversized food babies at the Indian restaurant. There was a huge language barrier going on, and when we tried to refuse seconds we were misunderstood. One of the wives refilled our banana leaves with enough food to constitute another full food baby. Dessert came out next: an Onam specialty called payasam made of brown molasses, coconut milk and spices garnished with cashews and raisins. I absolutely loved it and the wife could tell. She brought me another serving of dessert. My first food baby had eaten my second and third food babies, and now I was pouring sugary desserts on its head. I looked at Brad, and could see that his belly skin was stretched like a drum over his food baby triplets. A few minutes later the husband grabbed his machete and began sawing coconuts down from his tree.
His wife looked surprised and delightedly proclaimed, “First!”
I took that to mean that it was the first time he had cut coconuts from his tree. He messily chiseled the tops off the coconuts off and presented them to us, his face dripping with coconut juice.
Our evening ended down the street at a relative’s home where we ate more payasam and drank coconut water. By now we felt like the guy in the movie Seven, who had been forced to eat canned spaghetti until his stomach exploded. Finally, after hours of gluttony, we managed to convey to our hosts that we were too full to put anything else in our mouths. At this, they took to getting us things that could be taken to eat later. One of the relatives was an experienced coconut cutter and quickly shimmied his body up 15 feet until he reached a cluster of coconuts, and commenced to let them fall with the practiced swings of his machete.
We left with warmth in our hearts and several food babies in each of our bellies—plus several coconuts stacked on our back seat to keep the feeling going.
(The family who invited us to their home for Onam weren’t comfortable with us showing their full photos on the internet, hence the edited photos).
(If you’re interested in making your own Onam meal, there are some great recipes online at http://www.spicytasty.com/indian-festival/onam-festival-recipes/).