Greetings from Ooty, a delightful hill station in the Nilgiri Hills! We’ve been having too much fun, and too few moments of calm, to get any updates in over the past few days – but last night we retired early to get some much-needed rest before the madness continues.
We got an early start on New Year’s Day with a quick dip in the sea before embarking on a journey south to Alleppey to explore the backwaters – apparently, the thing to do when in Kerala. Some go so far as to call Alleppey the “Venice of the East” on account of the graceful boats navigating narrow waterways instead of roads, but Riccardo, in defense of his Venetian roots, was quick to point out that the similarities pretty much end there. It was a very cool experience, and unlike my trip to Alleppey in 2007, it didn’t end with anyone becoming violently ill (this, despite Eric being brave [foolish?] enough to get slightly toasted on coconut toddy [fermented coconut wine] purchased from a dubious-looking riverside toddy shack).
Afterwards, we’d planned to have a quiet evening watching a kathakaliperformance, but none of us were prepared for what happened instead. (Riccardo is quickly learning that in India, things rarely happen as planned.) In Fort Cochin, our autorickshaw came to a grinding halt in the midst of what we quickly realized was a gigantic and completely insane New Year celebration. A staggering number of people were flocking to the city centre at an alarming pace, and we had no choice but to join them, as the sheer mass of people prevented us from going anywhere else. We found ourselves trapped in the middle of the celebration’s main attraction – an exuberant, nonsensical, seemingly endless parade. In spite of the driver’s protests, we tossed him some cash and got out to walk.
Given our privileged status as the only non-locals for miles around, we were somehow able to stride purposefully right alongside the floats, incredulously snapping photos as we went. Some people cheerfully assumed we were journalists, and we were happy to oblige them. The theme of the parade was unclear – floats alternately featured very serious reenactments of famous historical scenes such as Gandhi’s salt march, and mobile discotheques chock-a-block with young men in drag gyrating to obnoxious Malayalam techno. We concluded that we were actually at a pride parade disguised as a regular parade (in order to evade Kerala’s rampant homophobia). All we could do was glance at each other in bewilderment. After a very intense couple of hours (and a comparatively relaxing seaside dinner), we faced the day’s ultimate challenge: braving the ferry ride home. The antiquated boat was dangerously overloaded with hundreds of parade-goers, including us, squeezed in like sardines. I survived by breathing through my mouth and focusing intently on the starry sky above, while Riccardo had the unpleasant task of warding off fellow passengers taking advantage of the cover of anonymity in order to cop a feel. That night, back at the beach house over cocktails, we tried to convey the craziness to the rest of the group, but it was impossible.
After the sensory overload of the previous day, we elected to spend the next couple of days doing nothing but enjoying the pristine and virtually abandoned Kuzhupilly Beach. We did manage to get in a little exercise in the form of a bike ride around the beautiful village. We were quite comfortable with the heavy, cumbersome bikes, the treacherous roads, and the complete disregard for traffic rules by other road users (having Bixied in Montreal), but it grew a little tiring stopping to chat with curious schoolchildren and fishermen eager to show off their limited English-speaking skills. (Conversations are generally limited to “Hi!” “How are you?” “Fine, thanks!” “What is your good name, please?” and “Where are you coming from?”, followed by wordless grinning until we back away awkardly.)
Monday’s highlight was the fantastic dinner prepared for us by the one and only Sajimon: a typical Kerala-style meal of assorted curries, chutneys, and rice served on a banana leaf. Our hosts even ceremoniously gifted the ladies in the group with gorgeous, fragrant jasmine garlands for the occasion. Also in typical Kerala fashion, we all forewent cutlery in favour of… our hands. Most of the group found this wonderfully liberating, but Riccardo and I were both secretly longing for a fork. It ain’t easy being a squeamish person in India.