We’d been working practically non-stop since we arrived in India back in November. When Max’s girlfriend Priya’s parents suggested we join them for a week’s vacation at a resort in Kerala, we jumped at the chance. We’re not really “resort” people—but I could get used to this. Ashtamudi Lake is a large and beautiful body of salt water that is considered the head of the ‘backwaters,’ the intricate network of canals and rivers that are a defining feature of this region. We spent the first night on a permanently moored houseboat. My dream has always been to live on the water. This was pretty close. We spent the week sharing paradise with Kala and Shyam (Priya’s parents) and their friends Subhash and Sonal. And I got to live my other dream—a swim before breakfast.
That evening, our ‘Mahindra Resort’ offered a cultural program. I expected something cheesy, but instead we were treated to a Kathakali performance, a traditional story-based dance form, with each movement and gesture having a specific meaning. A young boy was sitting directly in front of us, and, once again, art’s power was evident. He jumped when the dancer moved and grimaced, turning around to us, utter glee in his eyes.
The next day, we visited a small temple, which was getting ready for a festival. We would end up returning to this place several more times to witness a memorable elephant festival (no, no…that has nothing to do with elephant memory.) Then to the Tangasseri Point Lighthouse in nearby Quilon. One-hundred-ninety-three steps and worth everyone of them.
Near the resort, we had passed a sort of idol graveyard—a place where old sculptures used on floats were stored, probably repaired and brought out of storage when needed. These aren’t actual consecrated idols—imagine the floats in a spiritual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, without the inflatables, but with the same huge crowds.
India has thousands of years of spiritual searching under its belt. This takes all sorts of forms. One of them is an ashram started by “Amma,” Mata Amritanandamayi Devi, which was nearby. Known as the “Hugging Saint,” she literally hugs thousands of people and has a non-sectarian belief in the power of love. India has definitely opened me up in many ways, but I’m still basically a transplanted New Yorker, so I can’t help but look at such things with a jaundiced eye. This is probably my loss, since so many people find solace and meaning in places such as this. It is quite an operation—large buildings looming out of the jungle, thousands of devotees who came to the ashram from all over the word. We hadn’t seen so many white people in months. Unfortunately, Amma wasn’t in that day, so we weren’t able to experience the transformative nature of her universal affection. It is definitely impressive to see so many people devoting so much time to a deeper sense of their lives (seriously.). Jerri I and I disagreed, but I am also certain that such a large number of attractive young people all in the same place all seeking meaning…also find other, more physical paths to enlightenment.
Just outside the ashram lies a small fishing hamlet. I had Murugan, our driver, stop because Ihad seen a fishing boat near the shore, with men silhouetted against the sun, hauling their nets. Pretty classic scene but thankfully there is still a difference between seeing something in real life, no matter how “picturesque,” and seeing its image, no matter how many times it been recreated. It’s that postcard dilemma I wrote about in our 2011 blog. I can’t help myself. Plus, we got to talk to the fishermen on shore and to see their family shrine, so tiny that you had to bend down to enter. Here, they would offer prayers both for a good catch that day and for their survival at sea. It is still a dangerous way to live.
We then returned to Temple Guruviayurappana at Shakthi Kulangara, where a huge shrine was being built. It was to be carried in the elephant processional the next night; this was a smaller gathering, in preparation. Musicians blew strange curved trumpets, the elephants were all decorated, crowds gathered. There is something magical about not knowing precisely what is going on around you. I think it is being in that state of childlike wonder that is so appealing, where experiences flood all over you and you are simply too young or too inexperienced or too stupid to possibly understand—and it doesn’t matter at all. It just is. (I probably shouldn’t live here too long or I’ll always talk this way, which really isn’t appealing at all.)
We spent the next day relaxing, an alien concept, even when we’re on vacation. The resort had a terrific pool, and as is true in every hotel I’ve ever stayed at, I was the only person to use it.
That evening we went to the town of Kollam, a starting point for the great elephant festival ‘Kettu Kazhcha.’ Temple elephants from our small temple and others were marched down crowded lanes and onto the main road, where they would walk several kilometers to a larger temple in Valli Kezhu. The elephants with their mahouts and their finery walked along with drummers and dancers, transvestites and trailers carrying immense, often animatronic floats, replete with gods and goddesses, fiberglass, plaster or paper maché animals and trees, sound effects and lights, dazzling colors and throngs of people. It was Mardi Gras on steroids…with elephants. It was the most astonishing thing I’ve ever seen. Jerri will go into more detail, but it was really spectacular on so many levels.
We needed a break after an intense evening, so spent the next day exploring Kerala’s famous backwaters. The resort had a traditional style boat that ferried guests deep into the area, past houses and small temples, boatbuilders, cows and fields. It was beautiful and silent. I want to buy a house here.
And the other remarkable thing is this: Jerri suffers from intense sea-sickness (which clearly has had a negative impact on my desire to sell everything and travel around the world on a sailboat) yet she was fine on the 3-hour boat-ride. The secret? Another guest started dancing to Bollywood music on the boat and when he offered his hand to join him, she was a more than willing participant. The Silly Dancing Cure™ worked, although Jerri insists she didn’t get sick because she had also asked for assistance from Ganesh.
Our last day in paradise was spent at Varkala, one of the great beaches of the world. Cliffs in the background from which para-gliders soared, beautiful open sandy beaches, sunshine, seafood.
What a glorious week.
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