Friday, December 30, 2005

Backwater Reflections

We're staying in Fort Cochin right now, an idyllic little part of Kochi, Kerala. This became known as the Malabar Coast, a top destination for spice trading and colonization in the 16th century, and the Dutch, British and Portuguese have all left their mark on the city.

The town itself is made up of at least five large islands--urban, not tropical--and there are old forts, the first Christian church ever built in India, a busy port, colonial homes with balconies and porte cocheres, and a legacy of diversity.

We hear the Muslim call to prayer over Christmas carols from the Catholic basilica, and the spice market is next to a synagogue which is by a raja's palace. Vasco de Gama actually died and was buried here briefly, and traders from the court of Kubla Kahn left cantilevered Chinese fishing nets that are still used today.

We came to experience Keralan cuisine, plan the rest of our time in India in a relaxing atmosphere (there are FAR fewer car, moped, motorcycle, bike and rickshaw horns here) and wander down cobblestone streets to watch the pink sun set into the Arabian Sea. Plus, to experience the infamous "back waters of Kerala", a huge yet intricate system of lagoons, canals, rivers and marsh that meander inland from the coast line.

I had this glamorous image of us floating in the lagoons under coconut palms and cashew trees for a few days, but luckily, Andy balances me out in this way and we decided to proceed with caution over my romantic impulsiveness. We instead arranged a trial 8 hour trip into the Keralan backwaters, and that was the perfect amount as I can't seem to sit still on a wooden bench or plastic chair for more than an hour doing nothing...nothing!...but looking at lush shades of green in multiple textures.

Though it was super beautiful, and I'd never seen quite so much green--a lot to say for an Oregon girl. The water, grasses, trees, palms and even muck ranged in shades of green from lime to loden in both sunlight and shadow. We rode in a primitive teak boat covered with a rattan weave to shade us from the potent sun, and two men pushed bamboo poles into the shallow waters to float us along canals and rivers. Occasionally, the winding waterways were so narrow pineapple plants and hibiscus--its glorious red and pink blossoms a shock among the green--brushed along our legs.

We also stopped at a number of village homes planted among the palms. That was definitely interesting as we saw how they make a living from the plentiful trees, but you somehow feel like such a gringo as you float and watch them go about their life. They bathe in the backwaters and a number of soapy yet smiling faces greeted us around river bends, and women wash saris and sheets as the family ducks keep her company.

On one level, it's cool and enlightening to glimpse this, and on the other hand I end up feeling shy and somewhat bad. Reversing the role, I wonder how I'd like it if somone came to watch me pad about in bunny slippers on a Saturday as I did my laundry and contemplated what to cook, and maybe snapped my photo...?

Their children, however, are all used to seeing us tourists (Westerners and higher-class Indians in this case) and they have the brightest smiles that light up their faces as they wave and say, "Hello, hello, hello!" You can't help but wave back with similar childlike enthusiasm and call, "Hello!" right back. (or at least I can't...)

When I first started traveling, I remember feeling so energized by seeing how others live and reveled in the differences. Now, I'm not sure how I feel about it.

Perhaps there was a loss of innocence along the way and I know better what the divide actually means, or maybe I've lost a bit of the edge on the utter newness of things. I'm not sure, but this is why I love traveling and find it so good for the soul. When I get caught up in the rest of my life... when there is no time to sit and 'do nothing' or I don't make time for that...I often forget about or don't notice these feelings. On a trip, there's time to contemplate and process, even if I don't come up with an answer.

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