Southern Comfort

What the heroine said to her friend, or What the heroine’s friend said to her
May you live long, my friend!
Has not the ancient adage that if one does
good in this birth, no evil will come, has
failed?

We did not do anything with hatred
for him to pass through many chilly
mountains, where
red-eyed wasteland warriors, with tightly
curled hair like that of ram horns that cover
their napes, chew sand to control coughs,
carry powerful, small kindling and bows,
and seize butter churning rods that reveal
foam, and capture herds of cattle with
calves from protected places, as their
leather slippers hide their steps and creak,
move the herds to their homes in the huge
forest with vast spaces, and like a boat
in the wide, huge sky, the hot sun with
its bright rays burns in summer, and the
swirling winds cause many mature flowers
of the dry-trunked, murungai trees to drop
like rainy season’s hail.

-Akanānūru 101, South Indian Poetry translated by Vaidehi Herbert

What is it about the Southern part of some places that makes it so damn laid back and friendly? I mean, the American South is defined by some big negatives (the Confederacy and all that goes with it, from then to now, oh, and by the way, if you haven’t read or seen Mayor of New Orleans Mitch Landrieu’s speech about removing confederate memorials, you should go ahead and do so right now, I’ll wait, no problem), but there are also positives, like amazing food, friendly people, warm sultry weather and a lushness of life. Having grown up with parents who took me to historic American cities like Charleston and Savannah, I saw a very elegant and stately version of the South, and it’s one I love even today. Is that a little Scarlett O’Hara? MAYBE. But frankly, my dears, I don’t give a damn. Oh, come on, it had to be done!

Here in India, there is a lot to see, of course, because it’s a massive country, duh. But because of my current research for my new novel, as well as a general areas of my interest, I’ve spent a lot of tourist time in the north of India. Some of that also has to do with the fact that the north, specifically Rajasthan, is the only area of India I’ve been to that seems well set-up for tourism, and some of that has to do with the fact that a lot of the traveling I’ve done here has been when people have come to visit.

One of the things that is difficult about India, for me, is that it’s not really a great idea to travel alone, especially if you are a woman. Is it possible? Absolutely, and I wouldn’t discourage anyone from doing it. But spending so much time here, and seeing the way women on their own, be it in that moment or in their lives, are treated with suspicion or worried over ad nauseum, has discouraged me personally from wanting to get out there on my own. I actually really like traveling alone, and I’ve done a lot of it. It’s deeply satisfying to face travel challenges and overcome them, it’s exciting to figure things out on your own in a new place, and it’s empowering to make all your travel decisions and get all the things you want. No going with the group, no compromising for other people, just you and a ton of art museums and historic sites. I mean, if you’re me. I honestly have no idea what other people do when they travel…

But here, with the language barriers and the dangers and the general lack of preparation for tourism that makes navigating anything outside of hiring a car and a guide for the day a little bit of a struggle, I have avoiding going solo. So when people come, I have the opportunity to try out new places, and I’ve been pretty lucky in the fact that a lot of my friends have chosen to explore different parts of the country. And so when my friend Sarah came recently, and expressed an interest in going south, south we went, and I got to maintain my “Taj Mahal only once a year” vow. What a life I’m living….

We decided, what with the monsoons and all, that we might as well lean into the rain and go somewhere that is well served by a vigorous soaking. So we headed to Kerala, the small state tucked up into the side of the Malabar coast, filled with remnants of the Portuguese who once invaded and conquered, in search of cheap spices and a way to screw the Venetians (but I mean, WHO ISN’T?). Once in Cochin, a significant port for centuries, and the one time resting place of Vasco de Gama (until they moved his remains back to Portugal because he would be DAMNED if he spent eternity in a colony, COME on!), Sarah and I walked (a novelty in India, but it’s actually super pleasant!) to the old synagogue which once housed a thriving Jewish community. Strolling around, fending off a thousand offers for guided rickshaw rides of the tiny city and offers for kashmir scarves, we instead enjoyed street art, spice shops, and Chinese fishing nets, as well as goats. Goats, they are the pigeons of India, except that there are also pigeons.

Then, we took a terrifying (although, honestly, at this point in my life, with so many car rides in India, how does one even gauge terror anymore?) car ride up into the Western Ghats and despite this nature special I missed most of the cool animals and instead spent some time with a bunch of trees. We had Ayurvedic massages and sat in a sweat box from the 1930’s and enjoyed air that was pure of pollution, while people all around us were insanely nice. I mean, this place was seriously pleasant. From the lovely woman who taught our cooking class, who got us the hook up on coconut vinegar (IS THERE SUCH A THING? YES!) to the amazing tea plantation nestled into the hills where we looked out and thought, yep, that’s what tea looks like, certainly, it was all gorgeous, but more than that, it was so pleasant. Look, life in Bombay is great, but good God, I think the South might be just magnificent.

The only problem? Kerala is a dry state. And yet, our hotel had wine! So maybe if I just live in hotels I could, like, make that my life? I could afford that for a little bit, right? A few months, at least? I mean, seriously, you gotta try that chicken…

And now, to the photos:

The former resting place of De Gama.

Making friends wherever I go.

Seriously, just very kind locals.

Take your son to work day.

The Kerala Folklore Museum is a graveyard of objects and it’s bonkers.

Worshipers come in all sizes.

Local dancers in light make up.

 

 

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