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Spice gardens, elephants (!), ancient story/dance, and a death-wish

[NOTE: I've been traveling in India with (brave or perhaps stupid) friends Janine and Jaya for several weeks. My apologies in advance for any delays in responding or posting. I’ll be adding updates about our adventures as quickly as I can get to places with internet connections.

[NOTE: I’ve been traveling in India with (brave or perhaps stupid) friends Janine and Jaya for several weeks. My apologies in advance for any delays in responding or posting. I’ll be adding updates about our adventures as quickly as I can get to places with internet connections.

With this cheerful little guy to wish us farewell, we left the tea gardens and hills of Munnar behind and headed for the spice gardens of Kumily.

JpegOur driver, Suresh, had been pointing out various spice trees growing along the road, so we decided to stop at one of the gardens for a tour. At the Anakkara Spices & Avurvedic Garden, our guide Bindhu raced us through examples of pepper vine, coffee, and several plants which she assured us would heal everything from diabetes to obesity. By an amazing coincidence, she confided, their shop just happened to sell each of these wonder cures. For example, she held up some green leaves that looked…well, like green leaves.

Bindhu: “This is D-Fat. You take it and lose fourteen kilos. No diet or exercise needed.”
Me: “I might need that.”
Bindhu: (without missing a beat) “Yes. You really do.”
Me: [!]

My erotic novel pitch. Three women, one hotel bathroom--wet clothing everywhere...And bungee cords.

My erotic novel pitch. Three women, one hotel bathroom–wet clothing everywhere…And bungee cords.

unnamedWe reached our hotel in Thekkady, and were greeted with sindoor—a gold and red sandalwood paste dot on our forehead—and a suggestion that we attend one of the evening theater performances. While Janine and Jaya headed out with Suresh to get tickets and pick up some groceries, I did a scary amount of laundry and daringly ignored the monkey warning signs as I draped the front porch of our bungalow with my dripping efforts.

My roommates returned triumphant after scoring tickets to two evening performances. First up was Kalaripayattu. This, we learned, is an ancient martial art form, said to be the oldest fighting system practiced today. From our central seats above the arena, we watched as about a dozen very fit men (which we could tell because as the performance went on, there was less and less clothing covering up all that…fitness) lit oil lamps before the shrine at one end of the sunken arena. They then proceeded to beat the tar out of each other using a series of dance-like moves and an armory of swords, spears, chains, knives, a little red scarf, and stuff I couldn’t even identify although much of it was actually on fire.


16602134576_485d19ac44_oThe show went a little overtime and I was worried about getting to the next performance of Kathakali Theater, but attendants assured us “No rush… Numbered seats”. Sure enough, there were seat numbers handwritten on the back of the tickets. But apparently, that bit of news wasn’t shared with earlier arrivals, who had rushed in to occupy the first several rows. The performance had already started, but there was almost a riot when people came in to claim their seats only to find current occupants asserting that possession trumped seat numbers. Polite inquiries turned to arguments, and raised voices got so loud the performers were drowned out. They stood around for a while, but eventually gave up and drifted offstage. Finally, audience members pulled chairs from upper rows and filled the lower aisles until everyone was seated. The musicians turned back to their instruments, and the singer and the performers returned.

During an introduction, we found out that this story-dance art-form, which originated in Kerala in the seventeenth century, features all-male performers who train for half a lifetime for the physically demanding performances, which traditionally last all night. We looked down at our less-than-comfortable plastic chairs. Luckily, the singer told us, this would just be a short episode, telling the story of a virtuous young godling being tempted by a beautiful demoness. Jaya whispered that the ones with green faces had not made a mistake and drunk unfiltered local water, but were in fact the good guys.

After the performances, we headed over to a local restaurant for (of course) parathas. (After experimenting every day of the trip, I finally concluded that there actually is no such thing as too many parathas.) Stuffed with culture and mixed-parathas, we staggered back to our little villa and bed. And then we laid awake listening to someone nearby who apparently was in the final throes of attempting to cough up his toes and spit them out. We were concerned, but figured that given the pitch and volume he was devoting to his efforts, his condition was not immediately life-threatening.

When I was planning my trip, I told everyone that I had two goals: to see the Taj Majal and to see wild elephants. I’d already crossed the Taj off my bucket list, but we found the next morning that all jeep-treks through the Periyar Tiger Reserve were cancelled because a few days earlier, a pair of tourists had startled the elephants with their camera flash. According to the Times of India, “The couple did not have time to move from the elephant’s path as it ran straight into them in a mad frenzy.” My elephant enthusiasm immediately plunged to just below voluntary-root-canal levels, but Suresh was undaunted. He found out that we could take a boat ride through the tiger sanctuary, and perhaps see elephants from outside of flash-photo-frenzy range. Of course, I immediately googled “can elephants…” and the first complete was “swim”. I found a video of a herd parade (thanks, Google!) of elephants swimming like champs, including an adorable baby swimming elephant. But, I reasoned, they probably can’t swim and frenzy-trample at the same time. (BTW, the second complete was “jump”, to which the answer is “no”. Duh.)

Off we headed to the tiger reserve’s boats. Suresh had to park outside, but we walked through the park to the waterfront. So, apparently, did every tourist in India, because there was an enormous crowd waiting. I didn’t really get worried until the ticket-seller told us, “No rush… Numbered seats.” As we got close to the boats, we noticed that the one holding our “numbered seats” was the furthest away from the dock. But people were boarding the nearest boat in a stream that defied the laws of physics, and that’s when we realized that the method of arriving at our designated seats involved everyone from parents with babies to old ladies like me entering through the boat nearest to the dock and then jumping across from one boat to the next.

Our boat moved slowly through the waters, and the friendly crew pointed out the wildlife visible—Indian bison, wild boar, deer, waterfowl, etc. They were not optimistic that we’d see elephants, especially because we weren’t on the early morning tour. We came to the far end of one of the little bays and everyone sucked in their breath. Elephants! Splashing away at the water’s edge. The only sound was cameras (no flash!) snapping. As the boat inched slowly by, a mama elephant and her baby kept playing in the water and enjoying their bath. My life was complete.

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Came back to the room to find this little guy waiting for us!

Came back to the room to find this little guy waiting for us!

We celebrated with seriously excellent coffee at the park cafe, followed by a terrific lunch, back for more of that great coffee, then an afternoon of intensive retail therapy.

Best vacation day ever!

Followed by worst vacation night ever. Through the evening, the sound of our hotel neighbor’s suffering rose to frightening decibels. Surely, by now, he had hacked up every one of his internal organs. Alarmed, we asked the hotel staff what to do, and found out that the screams were coming from local black monkeys with attitude issues.

Maybe they were mad about those wet socks I left on the porch...

Maybe they were mad about those wet socks I left on the porch. Or maybe they were upset at Donald Trump stealing their hairstyle...

But actually, I no longer cared about monkey screams because by then I had made one of the biggest mistakes of my life. Believing the hotel when they said that the carafe of water they’d brought to our room was filtered and safe, I absently drank when I brushed my teeth. An alarmingly short time later, I was thinking about death. Good, good thoughts.

Janine and Jaya swung into action, each of them producing handfuls of pharmaceuticals. The winner was, apparently, the pills usually administered to cancer patients on heavy duty chemo. Actual conversation between them that I will never be able to unhear:

Jaya: “Hey, this one sounds good.”
Janine: [reads from box of pills] “Slows intestinal transit time, thus allowing more water absorption into the bowel.”
Barb: “I’m going into the bathroom and never coming out.”


Tomorrow: Delhi Belly: a level of hell that Dante missed. Previous posts include:

  • Part 1 Indian Drivers
  • Part 2- Temples, trains, and the kindness of strangers
  • Part 3 – Agra is closed today
  • Part 4 – The Taj Mahal is very clean today, and Bargaining in India: beware of the chair and the special suitcase
  • Part 5 – Tastebud assault, Indian medicines, and an iron-mystery
  • Part 6  Delhi is closed today, and how to queue in India
  • Part 7 – Tea and pharmaceuticals as close to heaven as it gets
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