We took off for Cochin this morning with Sabu and Saleem prepared to stop for just about anything that we might come upon. We knew luck was on our side because of our delightful run-in with the ear piercing ceremony the day before, and we had confidence that Sabu would know which roads to turn down to find similar magic. True to our intuition, minutes had barely passed when, coming up a dusty, small village road, we happened upon a festival celebrating the almighty Shiva. Without a moment's hesitation, the bus was stopped, and we were led out into the midst of the festivities. We first bumped up against lines of women dressed in bright and beautiful saris, carrying dishes of flowers and fruit, as well as the brightly colored umbrellas associated with Indian festivals. As we followed this line, we came upon a huge, gold-masked elephant carrying a framed depiction of Shiva himself, surrounded by musicians and dancers and children. With smiles and hello's exchanged, the festival continued on without us as we hiked back up onto our bus with nothing but praise for Sabu and the good luck that he was bringing us.
Before we could even fully relish the recent images, we came upon another festival, bigger than the one before, supported by three majestic elephants all carrying images of Vishnu. Sabu quickly explained that these festivals were heading towards each another, each bringing their beloved Gods to mingle with one another, so that they could all celebrate together. He then pushed us out of the bus, so we could once again experience the vitality and fun that encompassed these events. The procession for this festival was longer, containing not only the lovely lines of women and children, but also holy men, who danced in trances, cheeks recently pierced by hanger-thin rods, while their cohorts joined hands around them, keeping them safely within the bounds of the festival.
As we clamored back onto the bus again, our faces glowing with the understanding that our streak was unquestionably unsurpassed when it came to Kerala festivities, we kept our faces glued to the windows, questioning what could possibly surpass the wonder of all we had just witnessed. As if to answer our thoughts, yet one more festival appeared in the distance, this one featuring a young boy dancing as Garuda, one of Shiva's sons, as well as several more pierced men and dancing umbrellas. This final festival almost put us over the top, if that was possible. We couldn't have purposely orchestrated our wanderings to have run into each one of these festivals, and yet there we were, stopping every fifteen minutes to experience an event of a lifetime. As Sabu so beautifully put it, as we closed the bus door for the last time, "our luck had turned into grace."
Our already ideal day was far from over, though, because Sabu and Saleem had arranged for us to take a boat from the Coconut Grove Resort, through the back water canals to Alleppay, intimating that this trip would certainly equal, if not supersede our earlier adventures. As we lollygagged through these canals for over three hours, we passed villagers washing clothes, babies, and dishes; shampooing hair, swimming, visiting, and almost all yelling "ONE PEN?" to we fair skinned intruders sitting on top of our sputtering vessel. We even stopped in on one village, which was ominously quiet due to the inhabitants preoccupation with their favorite, weekly TV show which was showing on the one available television. With everyone's eyes faced towards the dim hues of light, it was the one of the few times when we didn't seem to be the main focus of people's attention.
Saleem, of course, was waiting for us, as we approached Alleppay, and we headed for our hotel on the Arabian Sea. Just as we were turning into the hotel, we looked to our left and saw what we thought must be a mirage: one last pachyderm just standing by the side of the road. Even Saleem had to reverse the bus back out to the road to make sure we weren't making this up, and sure enough, there stood a huge elephant. Of course, we had to make inquiries, and found out that local neighbors were "just looking after a friend's pet." For a only a few rupees, we were invited to pet and fuss over the gorgeous specimen, which we did almost in a spoiled manner, as if to say, "oh, yet another elephant...?"
We woke up to another beautiful day in Kerala, and looking out from our windows, onto the Arabian Sea, we even spotted dolphins playing in the wakes of the fishing boats. Sabu explained that we had a full day planned, so we really needed to be ready to go at 9:00 am. Every day he urged us to be timely by letting us know that we would be leaving at 9 o'clock, but of course, he would be in the lobby before 9 o'clock." And, even though we let him down every single morning by being tardy, we were always met with a kind smile and a gentle, but firm, push out the door.
This morning we headed directly for the center of Cochin, where we began our tour at St. Francis, India's oldest European-built church. As we headed into the church yard, Annie, Elisabeth, and I spotted a colorful row of puppets hanging from a nearby rod. Literally, all we did was tilt our heads in their general direction and all hell broke loose. Vendors from down the block came flying towards us, each with a reason why we should buy their puppets, or cobra baskets, or other various gadgets. With Sabu's promise to help us bargain, we promised to buy after our tour of the church, and we entered the original grave site of Vasco de Gama, himself.
As a young girl, I grew up learning about the grand adventures and travels of Vasco de Gama. I learned that he was a terribly brave man, who not only "discovered" India and all its spicy riches, but also translated the vast and foreign country for the more delicately natured Europeans. As I grew up, I also understood the destruction that went along with his discoveries, and therefore assumed that he wasn't a overly popular figure in Indian history. Imagine my surprise when we found his grave stone in this lovely church, along with a written statement about his fortitude as a statesman. Even though his bones had been shipped back to Portugal in the 16th century, his memory still lingered favorably in the floor of St. Francis.
When we reappeared into the church square, we were again greeted by enthusiastic and experienced salesmen. We pretended to bargain, but really didn't have a clue how to keep up with the jet-speed bartering of our venders. Even after we were finished buying our goods, one bold fellow came aboard our bus to sell us a few more puppets. Who could resist with such good natured marketers and such beautiful wares? At least we seemed to be amusing both Sabu and Saleem with our antics.
After a quick stroll around the fishing nets and fish market that lined the harbor, with promises from Sabu of seeing even more beautiful nets later in the day, we drove to the 16th century synagogue, which was tucked away in a channel of roads filled with shops and bookstores. We left no part of the synagogue or the streets undiscovered, while Sabu and Saleem waited patiently in the cool shade of the coconut trees. But, wait,where was Alf? In a moment of brilliance (or was it impatience?), Alf decided that he would high-tail it back to the hotel for a few moments of tranquility. He figured he would let Sabu and Saleem handle us for the rest of the morning.
So, Alfless, we made our last stop of the morning in Cochin, to the Dutch Palace, where Sabu had promised us a special treat. There were a couple of things that Annie and I had wondered if we could really see while we were in India, and a snake charmer was one of them. We had asked a couple of our previous guides if they existed and were told no. But, something told us to try Sabu, and he told us that he knew of a man who would be waiting for us outside of the Dutch Palace. Now, does that sound like a great short story, or what? Sabu even promised that if our charmer wasn't outside the Palace for some reason, he would go find him at home. True to his word, as we entered the Palace courtyard, Fakrudin was waiting for us, complete with two cobras and a mongoose. As much as I thought I would love to experience this event up close and personal, when it came down to it, I realized I was happy to observe from afar. But, no, this was India after all, and Fakrudin explained that his cobras had been de-poisoned, so the worst that could happen would be a little bite, if his precious serpents got ticked off at us. With Annie going first (for once, I insisted on being photographer!), we had our chances to look face to face with our slithery friends. Annie won the prize by actually holding one of the cobras while it was being lulled by Fakrudin's lilting tune. I think I actually grimaced as I so bravely tried to look casual sitting so close to the little vipers, and once again, Elisabeth used her common sense and deferred altogether, indicating with a swift cock of her head that, even if we didn't , that she certainly did know better than to experience India in such an intimate manner.
After lunch, Sabu, as if arranging a good-bye present, since this would be his last day with us, planned one last boat ride through the waters of Cochin, promising that we would end up by the fishing nets at the stroke of sunset. Soon after take-off, spotting a spirited fish market on the side of the canal, Sabu quickly asked the boat driver to tie us up to the nearest boat and allow us to disembark, so that we could see everyone's fresh catch of the day. Fish of all sizes and shapes were being thrown, bundled, weighed, and auctioned in every corner of the bustling bazaar, with people only stopping long enough to giggle at our sudden appearance and ham it up for our cameras. Puttering our way slowly back to the hotel, we did, indeed, have one last malingering gaze at the fishnets caught in the setting sun.
There was one last event to attend before the day was done, which was a performance of Kerala's most famous dance form, called Kathakali. A little bit wary of this particular cultural scene, perhaps because it involved actually having to sit cheek to cheek with other tourists, or perhaps because it seemed a bit contrived, we almost backed out of going, but due to Elisabeth's urging, we dutifully filed into the Cochin Cultural Center. The evening's host was an Ernest Borgnine look-alike, who ended up making us lifetime members of the Kathakali fan club. Alf, especially, was clamoring to get up on stage to sign up for classes upon his return in November. Just don't be surprised when you see a few new expressions on Alf's facial repertoire next time you see him.
We woke up this morning with just enough time to catch our bus to the airport. As we walked down to the lobby, lugging our growing number of suitcases behind us, Annie caught a glimpse of Sabu. We had said our sad good-byes to Sabu and Saleem the night before, after they had had to politely, but firmly explain that they absolutely could not fly to Bangalore with us. It turned out that Sabu had a last minute tour in Cochin that morning, and true to his style, he was waiting in the lobby before his appointed time. He sent us off one last time, but only after he promised the four of us that he would, in no way, enjoy this next crowd as much as us...
One more flight; this time to Bangalore. Unbelievably uneventful, complete with the boxes of curry, but without the corkscrew landing. We were whisked away to a hotel that, had we had our eyes closed on the way, could have allowed us to totally forget that we were in India. The colonial buildings were surrounded by lush greenery and billowing flowers. Restaurants bustled while golf carts whizzed around every corner. This was not lost on Alf, who quickly sent the three of us on our way on a "easy" city tour with our new guide, Ram, while he settled into the modern conveniences of the most beautiful hotel in one of India's "snazzier" cities.
Ram, as sweet and mod as he was, turned out to be the anti-Sabu. When he said "quick" tour, he meant it. He whipped us around that city faster than an Indian Airlines pilot taxiing out onto a runway. We saw more of Bangalore in that short afternoon than we had seen in the whole of Southern India to date. Somehow, it seemed fitting to the computer city, though, so Ram heard no complaints from us, as he deposited us on the hotel doorstep; our hair perhaps a little windswept from all the motion.
"You will get an eyesore if you visit Mysore." -- common saying
Bright and early this morning, Annie and I knocked on Alf's and Elisabeth's door to gather up our compatriots. Alf had already hinted that he just might pass on the day's events altogether, but we were sure we would find Elisabeth ready to go. Alas, still shaky after an unfortunate moment in the Spice Plantations some days back, Becky urged the two of us to forge on without her. Bidding adieu, Annie and I loaded ourselves on a rather huge bus with Ram, a driver, and a young "associate", whose job was to guide us in and out of the bus safely, while shooing away any unwanted visitors or vendors.
We were a little surprised when Ram informed us we wouldn't be returning that evening until about 9:30 pm, but it may have explained Becky's return for the worse. The thought of driving for over 8 hours on the bumpy, populous Indian highway was a little daunting, but we figured there would be great sight-seeing possibilities. Our first stop to a silk factory was interesting, but not altogether inspiring, which made us worry that Ram wasn't fully getting into our adventurous spirit. But, then he spotted a small village weekly market and understood immediately to back up the bus and show us around.
It was amazing how much time we were able to spend in such a small spit of India. No longer than a small city block, but jammed full of baskets, spices, vegetables, meats, kitchen wares, dyes, lyes, and rat poison, this market held us mesmerized for hours. We kept walking back and forth, back and forth. There were the regular children and adults asking for "one pen?", but there were equally as many people asking us to take their photos in front of their beautiful displays. Only a few people seemed to totally disregard us; some appeared not to be cognizant of what a camera was, and only one man really bothered to haggle with Ram for anything we would, or could, give him. Ram was somewhat prickly with this particular man, who none-the-less stayed by our sides until the bus door was pried from his fingers. This made us miss Sabu, who always seem to know who needed what at each stop, so that no fingers were in danger of being nipped off upon any of our departures.
Annie and were delighted, to say the least, of our sojourn through the market place, so we were compliant when Ram explained that we would need to drive straight to the Palace Hotel for lunch in order to make up for lost time. The hours fled by as we drove past rice fields, goat and pig herders, and women washing all their bright colors. Suddenly, in the distance, we saw a huge white building, that could have come straight out of Disney World, which turned out to be the Palace Hotel. Here we disembarked for a huge lunch in a Kennebunkport blue ball room, decorated ornately with huge white, plaster moldings, marble pillars and sweeping stairs. Refined Indian music played delicately from the stage, as Ram made sure everything was ordered quickly and to our satisfaction. After a little exploration, we were headed for our bus, when a magician stopped us on the front steps, holding up a newspaper with a photo of himself entertaining Steven Segal in the exact same spot. Well, how could we pass that up, being the huge Martial Arts turned Buddhist fanatics that we were? As it turned out, Syed Babu, magician, was an hysterically funny man, who not only pulled things out of his hat, he also blew fire out of his mouth, and of course, introduced us to his very own Cobra. Just think, before coming to India, I had never met a snake charmer, and now I am the proud holder of two snake charmer's calling cards. Eat your hearts out.
Afterwards, we had a beautiful tour of the Mysore Palace, which was as magnificent a building as I have ever seen, complete with massive stained glass windows and ceilings that rivaled Notre Dame's, immense silver-plated doors, and Flemish style paintings that told riveting stories of the Maharajas' vast fortunes and adventures. Just to remind us that we were really still in India, two elephants rounded the corner of the courtyard just as we were about the enter the Palace. Of course.
Time to ride home, and Ram explained that he would be leaving us in Mysore, due to another tour the following day. He promised that our driver and his associate would get us home safely and bid us a quick farewell. Figuring that most people would be snugly tucked in at home by now ( I have no idea where we got this idea.), Annie and I figured our ride back to Bangalore would be quiet and fast. No one had mentioned to us that night time is the busiest time on Indian highways, due, among other things, to the cooler weather. Therefore, the roads were busier than ever, with big trucks pulling up on all sides and cars lights coming directly at us at a rate of one per 1/10th km. The lack of road room had never been so apparent as it was with the benefit of spotlights on the whole production. Annie and I took turns gasping and giggling nervously as we bumped along for four hours into the night.
Today we arrived in Goa, and to quote Elizabeth, "We have landed in Paradise." I don't think we really understood the sheer beauty of where we were until we walked out onto the vast beach and witnessed bundles of color grouped in the sand, which upon closer inspection became stunning women in flowing saris, showing off their wares. Our dear friend Sabu tried to hint at the beauty of this place, where "the mountains and sea become one", but how could we understand the sensual beauty of the vibrant silks and cottons that these women flaunted in the breeze; the warmth and saltiness of the Arabian Sea, or the glow of the sun setting behind it all?
As Annie and I sit here, sipping our Masala tea, we are marveling at how lucky we are to have been be part of this grand adventure, where every day has been better than the one before it.
SILVER SCREEN GOES JET BLACK ... HOUSE LIGHTS SLOWLY FLICKER UP TO FULL UNFLATTERING BRIGHTNESS
An elderly gentleman near the front of the audience stands up and looks around him, apparently for moral support. He addresses his words toward an awkward rustling movement that is seen behind the stage curtain: "Excuse me! Hello there! I must make a point. The sunset scene in Goa was really quite nice and it would have made a fitting ending in any other journal, but we WERE led to believe that the final bits in this trip took place in Bombay".
A crescendo of seconds from the stalls and the balcony: "He's right ... why have you cut out the ending ... you've chopped the best parts ... what about the Prince of Wales Museum ... and Elephant Island and the Dhobi Ghat ... we wanna see Bombay ... we were promised that ... and more."
Alf (shifting forward uneasily from behind the curtain): "Yes, quite right you are! And you shall not be cheated out of your due." Alf (out of side of mouth, to Tilman): "Well?"
Tilman (plucking nervously at her newly acquired dreadlocks): "I suppose we could roll that vignette from James Cameron's "An Indian Summer'."
Alf (looking anxious): "You mean that part about driving into Bombay from the airport? It's a bit strong, don't you think? It might put them off their lunch."
Tilman (shrugging): "It's all we've got."
Alf (using his best upbeat voice): "Folks! Our little production team has laid on a special treat for you; a preprandial glimpse of Bombay. A mood developer, so to speak ... a warmer up for what is in store ... "
Tilman (interrupting): "Jesus enough!!!"
THE LIGHTS DIM
"On the empty scrub by the roadside and along the creek were half a dozen squatting figures, concerned with the morning evacuation of their bowels. In half a mile they had become a score, and then hundreds; the further we drove the longer and more densely packed were the lines of citizens on their haunches, dhotis gathered up, rapt and concentrated on the pleasurable business of defecation. It would appear that the urge had come simultaneously to the whole suburban population. Very soon the line of squatters had dragged out for miles, as though assembled to watch some parade. For some it would seem to be a convenient occasion for meditation, or even for forty winks; for others this great communal shitting-time was clearly a social activity, they shuffled sideways to approach one another, chattering and waving limp fingers. It is true they faced the roadway; the spectacle would otherwise have been perhaps even more disturbing.
"It is an enduring mystery why the Municipality - or the Tourist Board, or the airline, or whoever occupies himself with these matters - so ordains it that multitudes of visitors and strangers should be introduced to the country in this way, to find that the Gateway to India is a public shithouse many miles long - or, if they are lucky enough to ride by when the hour has passed, an avenue of small heaps of faeces. One would not have to be especially fastidious to feel that this, as a public relations gesture, is whimsical indeed."
A PLANNED DIGESTIVE PAUSE ... UNFORTUNATELY PUNCTUATED BY UNEXPECTED RUDE NOISES FROM THE AUDIENCE
Alf (to Tilman): "OK, one, two, three ... "
SOUND OF TWO TRUMPETS SOMEWHAT OUT OF SYNCH
Synthetic voice: "And now, the final chapter from "The Tilman Show'."