Magical Mystery Tour: PART II

KERALA

Monday, February 16th to Thursday, February 19th

The next morning we flew via Chenai down to Trivandrum in the southern state of Kerala. Thapovan, an Ayurvedic Clinic and Treatment Center, was our destination in this tropical region.

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I must admit I’ve tried yoga and its accompanying spiritual Ohm-ing. It hasn’t really captured me. I remember one class I attended many moons ago. When the guy said root yourself to the ground and be a tree, I couldn’t help wishing the ground was somewhere else and that the tree served doughnuts. So, no, I did not attend the morning yoga practices. However, if our friend Gail was teaching, I would!

It was both Max’s and my first glimpse of the Arabian Sea, so Max donned his Summer Salstice tee in honor of our friend John Arndt and strolled down to the beach.

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Noel had told us this state had a strong presence of communism, so we weren’t surprised to see the hammer and sickle signage on our way to this yogi-ish resort. We also learned this state had one of the highest literacy rates, thanks to the communist emphasis on education.

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What did surprise us was Noel giving us the okay to consume the fresh fruits and vegetables. But, it was because he trusted the preparation at this healthy spa. Up to now we weren’t allowed, which is no surprise because most travelers are forewarned not to eat fresh fruits or vegetables unless they’re thoroughly washed and then cooked.

Throughout our wanderings the abundance of the watermelon, pineapple, bananas, papapyas, and other tropical fruit left me drooling as we passed roadside stalls with the aroma of freshly squeezed juices. I’m convinced if there’s a fruit, an Indian will figure out how to make any and all food offerings out of it. Followed by crafting shoes, or some sort of useful item out of the remnants.

But here, permission was granted to indulge. And, each day I did just that. It was heaven. I don’t think I had a meal there without devouring one of the delicious fruit plates offered in this Sangria-la setting. But, you had to ensure your plate was close at hand for the crows would swoop into the open-air dining room to snatch any leftovers. Don’t blame them. If I lived in India I’d be poaching food here, too.

Because there are so, so very many sites to see and events to experience, we were only dipping our toes into India’s offerings. And, Kerala was no exception. Noel had to juggle schedules and logistics to ensure all of our senses were exposed to the real India. Which meant we couldn’t do everything we wanted, such as simply lay down on the verandas around here with a cup of good java and watch the palm fronds wave (the hammock pic reminds me of a painting Ellen, a good friend of ours, created… it’s hanging in the blue room on Orr’s Island :).

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In this peaceful setting roosters and chickens roamed the grounds. I loved seeing them cluck their way through the plants. Although, when the rooster starting crowing at all hours of early morning, I would have preferred to have seen him and his buddies on a plate.

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On Tuesday morning the group chose different activities. Since Max, Diana and I were volunteering at Mitraniketan, a rural community development NGO, after the scheduled group tour, we headed off with Noel. Our destination was approximately one hour away in a small village called Vellanad. There we’d meet one of its co-directors, Dr. Reghu, who ran the center’s People’s College. Leslie, Layne and Daniel would have a recuperating day with ayurvedic consultations, massages, and beach time. Believe me, it was tempting to join the latter group, but I didn’t want to miss the opportunity of a road trip.

Having visited the Mitraniketan’s website (www.mitraniketan.org) prior to our journey to India, I was suitably impressed not only by the center’s programs but also by the photos of the founder with the Dali Lama. Now that’s what I call a stamp of approval. We later discovered the Dali Lama asked to come back several years after his initial visit in the late 1990’s. I found that even more impressive.

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The campus was quiet due to a holiday (there are a lot of temple holidays in India, and, whether one believes or not, who doesn’t like a reprieve from a routine?), but the three of us met Reghu while being guided around the center by Sumam, a lovely young woman who was also pretty quiet. We were accompanied for part of the tour by a Danish couple who had met years ago when both were volunteering in India, one in the north, the other in the south. They were retracing each other’s time with the husband’s time at Mitraniketan being part one.

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After a shared lunch the four of us left for our return trip, spotting some of the local festivities along our route, such as the huge cauldron of boiling rice mixture stirred by one of the taxicab and rickshaw drivers outside their temple set-up. And, yep, another photo-op.

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Before we landed back at Thapovan we stopped at one of Mitraniketan’s properties located in Trivandrum, the capital of Kerala. Tanjavoor Amma Veddu was the home of Sugandha Valli, the Maharaja’s mistress. The story goes Swathi Thirunal, the Maharaja, fell in love with this Bharatanatyam dancer (try saying that fast) and began neglecting his responsibilities. Enough so his family ordered Sugandha Valli out of the city without her lover’s knowledge. He didn’t live long after that and no one knows what happened to the dancer. A sad story but a magnificent house and dance hall. The structures have fallen into disrepair, but, hopefully, some renovations will occur before too long for it’s a jewel.

We took a tour of both buildings, admiring the attention to detail. In spite of neglect the colors are still bright and remaining furniture is not too badly damaged.

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As we were touring we entered a small room on the second floor only to be startled by some beating wings flashing by. Noel began to say ‘don’t worry, it’s just a pigeon’ when he changed that to a screech ‘it’s an owl!’. And, it was a big one. Just as it scared the beejeesus out of us, we found we had done the same to it.

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Sugandha Valli was known for the famous Kerala dance, Kathakali (“Story-Play”), a theatrical combination of drama, dance, music and ritual; and, her dance hall was the perfect spot to act out some moves.

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Thanks to Noel’s strict dietary instructions (no fresh or raw fruit and vegetables, only bottled water, no ice, and disinfect utensils, bottles and cans with alcohol wipes) only a few had gotten some twinges of Delhi Belly. However, there were some odd manifestations occurring, one being Leslie, Diana, and Daniel’s swollen feet and ankles (quickly termed “Camelitis” versus “Elephantitis” due to the first two’s camel ride) and Layne’s and my poka dots.

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Fortunately, all gradually disappeared but not without each of us scrutinizing the offending appendage or skin area carefully on a daily basis.

Arising the next morning we gathered for a backwater cruise, an activity famous in Kerala thanks to the numerous canals flowing around this southern tip of India.

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For over an hour we glided past locals harvesting coconuts and bathing…

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 as well as the brightly hued kingfisher perched along the banks.

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We landed on a sand bar where Max tested the water for a swim,

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then adorned himself in Neptune’s head gear with Noel’s help.

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Fortunately, he didn’t run into one of these in his ocean dip.

IMG_4941Surrounded by running water and a fairly deserted sandbar also provided an opportunity to perfect our female rite of peeing in a circle.

Mid-afternoon found us back at Thapovan with Max, Diana and I scheduled for our traditional Ayurvedic massages. Our time in Baden-Baden had prepared me for this experience as well as Layne and Leslie’s descriptions of theirs.

The masseuse sits you on a stool, naked, and proceeds to anoint your scalp with oil prior to then asking you to lay down on the mat so she can use first her feet then her hands to jiggle the helll out of our muscles and flab.

One and a half hours later I exit dazed to stumble back to our room to take the first of many shampoo showers to get the oil out of my hair and some control over my numbed, cellulite body.

That night we walked around the village then took tuk-tuks to another beach resort, Kovalum. This area had become one of India’s popular honeymoon destinations, and Noel pointed out newly married woman who were wearing the traditional slinky armful of red bangles.

On the way we stopped at the local grocery store called the Divine Supermarket. We surmised it possibly got its name from the Russian Roulette one played when standing under a lump of limestone hanging by a not-so-substantial piece of fabric. Serving as a good luck omen, it seemed to me one could quickly enter the divine kingdom of death if stood below this slowly twirling object for any amount of time.

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The next morning Diana, Max and I were having our joint Ayurvedic consultation. We also had an opportunity to ask specific questions about our health, so I displayed my poka dots. That, along with some other questions, prompted the doctor to load me down with medicines. (I wish I could say I followed doctor’s orders, and I definitely believed in his diagnoses, but I can’t lie. After toting bottles of oil and batches of pills around, I slowly unloaded them in various hotel rooms. It was that or give up gift-purchasing space, and you can imagine what won out. It helped that one of the oils I discreetly left behind was castor oil.)

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The three of us also left with sheets of foods to-eat and not-to-eat. Unfortunately, as a 50-50 mix of deer and tiger (the other animal is elephant), I supposedly could have one food as deer but not as tiger and vice versa. And, yes, these diet sheets, too, went by the wayside.

If I was planning on staying there for a week or more, like a lot of the other guests (mainly European), I would probably attempt to follow the deer-tiger prescribed massages and diet. But, since I am a true creature of desired comfort, that wasn’t going to happen.

Plus, I had fallen in love with an Indian snack Noel had introduced to us in Hyderabad, and I had subsequently purchased a grocery bag full. I doubt it was on the “good to eat” list of either of my animals.

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We posed with one of the bags at the Trivandrum airport as we began our trek back north to one of the most magical places on earth:  the Taj Mahal.

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