Jan 2014

Asia, Blog

DISCUSSION 13 Comments

The Onam Food Babies

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/).


  1. Patrice

    Nice ending to your stay on India

    Comment by Patrice on January 9, 2014 at 7:39 pm

  2. Mim Keo

    I loved this story with all the pictures! Particularly, the photo of the smiling child leaning out the window, and the one of the bow of the small boat passing through all the greenery in the jungle like area. Fantastic, glad you stopped to go celebrate in someone’s home!

    Comment by Mim Keo on January 9, 2014 at 8:16 pm

  3. So glad you decided to accept their invitation. In spite of the trials and tribulations of traveling in India, we found the people there to be more inviting about asking us into their homes than anywhere else we’ve ever been! We loved Kerala area… ahhh, your pictures bring back so many happy memories.

    Comment by Rhonda on January 10, 2014 at 2:16 am

  4. Terrance Maloney

    Hi Brad and Sheena!
    Met you guys at the beach in Ecuador…
    I loved the narrative and pictures…such a difference from your other Indian posts.
    I am curious how the folks you were with for Onam could understand you guys were bloggers and their pictures would end up on the internet.
    I assume wifi is not readily available in a rural area. I would think explaining you would put a black bar over their eyes a big communication stretch..
    Perhaps you were near a Starbucks and could show them your blog?
    PS, are there Vanagons in India?? I mean besides yours.

    Comment by Terrance Maloney on January 10, 2014 at 2:29 am

  5. funny. even in india people will escape places like chennai to go live in the boondocks next to a body of water. if you would of asked them about chennai they probably would have said, “cars honk, the cows eat trash and people stare at you.”

    Comment by baron on January 10, 2014 at 2:48 am

  6. Ernesto

    aha bellos lugares hermosas personas lindas sonrisas, hermosos corazones.

    Comment by Ernesto on January 13, 2014 at 8:02 am

  7. Anoop

    Hello Brad & Sheena,
    I truly am sorry to hear of your experiences, it saddens me very much. I never accounted for the time lag between your blog and the real time travel. Only if we could have met up in Chennai.

    Well, never say never.. Hopefully you guys will get a chance to make a trip again in the future, and can see parts of India that you missed during this hassled and hurried trip. The cultural immersion you will be exposed to would atleast be your Malaysia experience times 10. By that time I hope and wish the “Pesky” elements and the people who justify such behaviors reform. Change comes from within…

    On a separate note, you skipped out on China due to the costs and Iran, Persia and AF-Pak due to the passports you hold and security issues, you essentially bypassed the cradle of some of the oldest civilizations…

    Good luck for your travels in Turkey and enjoy the rest of your stay in Mumbai.

    Both of you have an amazing writing ability and I keep reading your travel stories again and again, and never does it get boring. Keep it up.

    Cheers and Safe travel ahead…

    P.S: Both of you, being very open to trying local cuisine, should start posting an ” Ethnic recipe of the month”

    Comment by Anoop on January 13, 2014 at 8:48 am

  8. Rebecca

    Love reading about your adventures! We met you both on the Kerela backwater cruise (5 girls from Cambridge, England). Loved hearing about all your adventures up until that point and all the harwork that went into getting the van from country to coutry!

    Also remeber the evil Geese and goats in the spice garden! Was a day to remeber! Keep safe and keep the expriences coming! Good luck!

    Comment by Rebecca on January 13, 2014 at 10:27 am

  9. Mom

    So nice to hear that you escaped the big cities and experienced the carefree life of the country. I was surprised at first that you turned down an invitation to go to someone’s house during such a festive time—so uncharacteristic of you! My faith was renewed when you turned Nacho around. More memories to cherish, and a refreshing look at the beautiful side of India.

    Comment by Mom on January 14, 2014 at 10:16 pm

  10. Sheena

    @ Terrance: Given our language barrier, it would have been nearly possible to describe we had a blog, but we showed them our book (we have a copy in our car) and they understood that our stories and photos are shared with others. Yeah, definitely no Starbucks in these areas. :)

    No other Vanagons in South India that we’ve seen but we did meet a German couple driving a VW LT40 (just think of a massive version of Nacho).

    Comment by Sheena on January 17, 2014 at 1:46 am

  11. Sheena

    @ Anoop: We would have loved to have had a contact in Chennai — it always makes a big difference, both in understanding the people and culture and feeling more comfortable in a new environment. Do you live there?? Brad and I both tend to write about different things and in a different light, and because of that, I would have written about Chennai from an entirely different perspective. It was where we experienced India for the first time and it’s where we had our culture shock and yes, many days I didn’t want to leave our hotel room, but it’s not that I didn’t want to see what was outside the door, because I did. Chennai was indescribably fascinating. I could have sat all day and watched people, but being IN IT was difficult. I believe our experience was also effected by what was happening at that time; being that we were trying to get our car out of the container for two weeks.

    As far as the route that we had to take to get to Europe, it is not so easy for Americans to get through the Middle East. It is heartbreaking that we couldn’t go through because we’ve talked to many Europeans who have driven through and they had nothing but good things to say about the region. As for China, well our pockets are only so deep and we didn’t care to give ungodly amounts of money to China simply for permission to drive through their country.

    Comment by Sheena on January 17, 2014 at 2:21 am

  12. Sheena

    @ Rebecca: Great to hear from you! Yes, of course I remember those horrible geese that were biting the baby goat’s ankles. I added a photo to this blog (of the goat) just for you!

    Comment by Sheena on January 17, 2014 at 3:10 am

  13. What an interesting journey!

    Isn’t it amazing that you can have so many unexpected, yet joyful experiences while traveling. I know there have been many times where my husband and I ended up in some odd situations, but they almost always turn out to be exciting and give us plenty to share with the kids. They say a picture is worth a thousand words — I think these pictures definitely fit that description. The food shared in the photos is quite interesting. It’s been awhile since I’ve seen such an odd ‘dinnerplate’. Bonus points for snagging the goats in the picture — I love those little things! I really enjoyed reading this post.

    Comment by Debbie on January 29, 2014 at 3:45 am

Leave A Comment!