Posts Tagged 'Kerala'

And then the rains came…

After our yoga practice the teacher told us that we ought to be doing breathing exercises, yoga and meditation every morning for one and a half hour and that, if we did, we would be in very good shape for the rest of the day. Why wouldn’t I follow such excellent advice?

Unlike the guests of the hotel, we houseboat people had to check out of our rooms/boats by 9 AM since the boats were leaving. Unprepared I through everything in my tiny suitcase and, with some pleasure, evacuated the rather grungy houseboat. If the resort rooms were 5 stars, the houseboat I stayed on was not even a one star accommodation.

To kill the time before departure I went to the spa for a pedicure that was described in the brochure as something too good to be true. It was. The young beautician had a beautiful smile and looked very pretty but that was about it. Still, I have nice shiny red nails again to replace the nail job Tessa and I had done nearly 6 weeks ago in Beverly.

In pairs or groups the guests started to leave, some for Bangalore and other points North and East, some for the airport and some for Holland. A new wedding party came in – this time a Moslem wedding with women wrapped up in black from head to toe with huge hairdos that made their abayas look even more like tents.

The enormous outdoor wedding hall was dismantled by an army of loin-clothed and very dark-skinned men. The structure was the size of one of our drug warehouses, exactly the kind we were looking for.

As soon as the formal parts of the wedding, in the outdoor hall, had been completed the rains came in. Typical for a dweller of a non-monsoon country I thought, ‘wow, weren’t they lucky.’ But the locals told me that the intense heat and humidity of the last few days would have been reduced if it had rained and they would have been happy if the rains had come earlier.

Everything at the resort was prepared for rain, pull down plastic sides to the various wall-less spaces, large umbrellas in stands everywhere with notices that (only) ladies could ask to be accompanied by someone from the staff to hold the umbrella over her head.

And now I am in another grungy and overpriced hotel near the Cochin airport after having said goodbye to the Dutch family who are travelling back via Mumbai and London tomorrow. The Ayurvedic spa that was advertised for the hotel and one of the reasons I picked, it is closed for the day – darn. The one redeeming feature of the hotel was its cook – the Malabar fish curry was to die for.

My movements are limited, as if I were back in Kabul, but for another reason: sudden downpours. And so I sit in the hotel waiting for tomorrow while catching up on my email and work and watching bad TV.

East and west

I imagine there must have been many negotiations when the wedding was being planned over how traditional or how modern this event would be. The parents of the bride were, I believe, very happy with the traditional part. The Jain vegetarian food and absence of alcohol were, no doubt, non-negotiables. The western ceremony, and especially the Bollywood disco party were probably non-negotiable on the young couple’s side. That’s the part that took place on day two, part two of the wedding.

After a very challenging yoga session from 7 to 8 in what must have been around eighty percent humidity and a swim to cool off, we were offered yet another lavish breakfast. Although mostly a breakfast for Indians, for those craving for their home food there was even bread and cheese.

The rest of the morning was free until noontime when the next event would start. Some people went on boat rides in the backwaters – the one thing we had already done on our way out here – others went to the spa, all slots of treatments were booked, and the friends of bride and groom went to the adjacent presidential suites respectively to hang out – apart but within hearing distance.

Each of these bungalows had a fair sized swimming pool and waiters at beck and call to bring in goodies. The groom and his friends hung out in the pool while the bride, on the other side was, I presume, chitchatting with her friends while being made up and dressed in another saree fit for a princess for the next program. The groom simply slipped into another stately Indian outfit just minutes before the next event; no turban this time.

The afternoon program consisted of traditional dances and dances by the groom’s family and friends. The groom’s sister and her friend, plus their teenage (male) cousins had studied a dance routine and the bride and groom had taken some lessons back in Mumbai. Everyone was forewarned – showing off your dancing prowess is apparently part of the deal. In an Indian-to-Indian wedding, I was told, the two families show off before the wedding in a rather competitive spirit.

The traditional dances gave us a taste of the variety of exquisite feminine dances like those from further east as well as demonstrations of martial dexterity with a variety of very scary looking weapons. Although these martial dances were done by men, a large poster from the Incredible India campaign showed women with shields and swords jumping high up while going after each other.

Then a late lunch buffet before the next to last part of the wedding. All the men, Dutch and Indian, including the groom came dressed up in two or three piece grey suits (although the Indian ladies continued to wear their bejeweled sarees). I knew that some of these suits had been tailor made from Italian fabrics according to the latest Italian designs but frankly, to me each grey suite looks like the next one.

The groom and his dad waited at the front of the completely transformed outdoor wedding hall – new flowers, new decorations, new theme, new lights, new colors – when the bride, now dressed in white, with still spectacular but now less abundant jewelry entered on the arm of her (suited) dad. The audience stood up and only the traditional wedding march was missing – now we were marrying the two in (somewhat) western style. There even was a churchman who sermoned about two becoming one and the responsibilities and duties of each towards the other.

There were vows, lighthearted and funny revealing things about habits that have clashed in the past and may well continue to clash in the future, then the rings, a wedding cake and other parts of the western wedding ceremony, slightly altered or influenced by the Hindu context.

Following western tradition a MC asked for people who wanted to say a few words and that is when the tears came when family members and friends of the bride offered tearful farewells (I wondered why as the couple is, apart from the honeymoon, not going anywhere).

The father of the bride had made a slideshow of the groom’s early years with the theme of ‘finding India.’ I wondered what the Indians thought of it all – scenes of snow and travels around the world. I noticed how we have all aged – four among the people in the audience were featured in the film (the parents, oma and friend Joe – over the last quarter of a century.

The grand finale was in two parts: first what is called the sangheet – a series of dance acts on Bollywood themes performed by family and friends of the bride with the greatest joy in the greatest heat that none of them seemed to mind. The young generation was taking over while the older one sat stoically in their seats – I wonder whether they were suffering all this or simply sad that the very traditional wedding they would surely have wanted was now a thing of the past.

Part two of the grand finale was definitely a western affair in a pavilion off on the side, decorated Bollywood style with lifesize cutouts of Bollywood stars, a smoke machine and laser light and a real DJ who played very loud western music. We danced a bit while there was still room on the dance floor – in spite of the immense heat – until the young people moved in, the girls in tight short dresses and the men in comfy clothes – most holding glasses with, I assumed, adult beverages.

Drenched from sweat I returned to my houseboat to find the electricity off. I dozed off thinking how most people in Indian sleep like this every night – mosquitoes, intense heat and no electricity for fans let alone AC. I was woken up at 2:30 when a generator was turned on and bringing the fan to life making the rest of the night a breeze.

A very long yes

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The mother of the groom refers to herself and all of us westerlings as the white monkeys. It was not a term she made up but that was used some time back before the bride’s family realized the relationship with this white young man was for real.

The bride’s family is a Jain family which means, among others, that the food is entirely vegetarian – fine with me as it is varied and delicious. It also means there is no champagne, beer or white wine at any point during the wedding. For me this is nothing new but I can see that for the contingent of friends of the groom that had come from a beer drinking country (including the groom himself) this is not easy. The weather is exceedingly hot and humid (it hasn’t rained for two days in a row) and a nice cold beer would have been perfect.

The groom’s male friends, from his student years in Leiden, came with wives and girlfriends, many from Holland, some business partners from Bangelore. They all wore the local pajama style dress and wore red turbans elaborately styled, some round and flat, others feathered like a peacock, by turban experts hired for the purpose.

All this was happening while the tall blond girls stepped out of the spa building in their sarees, expertly wrapped and pinned around them by the women who do massages during the day. Most walked awkwardly and much too slow for their liking in their unfamiliar attire.

Everyone, including the teenage cousins, looked the part that required accompanying the groom as he rode on a decorated elephant to the entrance of the hotel. In front of him the groom’s party danced on the frenzied tones of the band as if it was carnival in Rio. For us, the parents, aunt and uncle and grandma of the bride it was too hot for dancing – we fanned ourselves as we walked slowly in front of the dancing mass, wondering why it took an hour to cover the 200 meter distance.

There is much teasing in a Hindu wedding as we discovered. The slow progress of the groom, leaving the bride waiting, the stealing of his shoes to be sold back later for a fee, the bride’s effort to put a flower garland around her betrothed’s head while his friends keep raising him up on their shoulders to keep him out of reach.

Even later during the ceremony on the stage there was much irreverent laughing and joking and much tolerance of these westerners not knowing what to do when. Never was there the solemnity and the emotional moments that we know so well from our traditions. And indeed, the emotions and tears came the next day during part 2,the more western part of the wedding).

The bride was brought in carried on the shoulders of men clad in only a loincloth, seated in a palanquin that was curtained off with roses and jasmine petals – a very fragrant arrangement. She emerged in a red gauzy saree, bejeweled and embroidered. Around her neck and arms jewelry that was dazzling and heavy. I was told this was not custom jewelry. Even her face was bejeweled. She, usually standing tall and straight, appeared slightly bent under the weight of it all.

The ceremony was carried out by a priest who came with bags of paraphernalia needed to complete the countless steps in the process. There were various objects, spices and substances I could not identify, large shiny green leaves that were used to wrap around money as well as the couple’s hands, kerchiefs, straw rings and a fire around which the couple was to walk seven times over the course of the evening, bound together with a string, involving all sorts of other rituals.

The seven walks around the fire took forever, the groom grinning to his friends sticking up his finger to indicate how many more. The foreigners stayed and watched not knowing the drill – after all we didn’t want to miss anything , taking thousands of pictures – everything was so very photogenic, the indian ladies in the bejeweled and colorful sarees, the thousands of white and red and green lights on every inch of grass and draped over every tree branch. The lush greenery accentuated by large green floodlights while a laser show was going on above our head on the tent ceiling.

Many of the Indians, knowing the drill and how long the ceremony would last, got up at the very start and went to the dining hall to sit down and enjoy the exquisite buffet. Only the immediate family of the bride, her aunties and sisters, remained on the stage, sitting across the Dutch parents.

The Indian side of the family was actively involved in the ceremony, given a variety of tasks by the priest while the Dutch party sat at the groom’s side mostly watching in wonderment and confusion, Hans alternating in his role of father of the groom and photographer/videographer with both cameras on his knees. Although somewhat prepared by their son, there were a few awkward surprises such as not having bills of rupees on hand when money was supposed to be deposited in then this then that container the priest held out for them. They had nothing in their pockets. The Indian laughed good natured and moved on to the next step in the process while the Indian dad, well prepared of course, constantly put small bills in hands, leaves, and kerchiefs.

It was a bit of an ordeal for everyone on the stage because (a) they didn’t get to drink or eat anything like everyone else; (b) it was exceedingly hot and humid but the clothes the men wore were seemingly for colder climes – thick damast-like long coats with stiff collars closed high at the neck; c) a ceremonial fire was burning in front of them which required that d) at least on the stage, the high power fans that we in the audience benefitted from had to be turned off.

After the ceremony was finally over – as someone said, a very complicated process for simply saying yes, we joined the Indian families in the restaurant and had curries and ice cream. On the program was a reception but this was mostly a photo shoot with everyone and their mother and brother posing with the couple. Some of the Dutch saree-wearing contingent had gone back to their rooms and changed into more comfortable wear and take a swim to cool off.

I decided to call it a night and found my room on one of the houseboats where an enormous spider had settled in for the night as well. I called the boat staff and they entered my room with a spray can and chased the poor thing around the room – it was not a fair fight. I had intended to send it back to nature but the chemicals did their work. I slept like a baby.

Waterland

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I woke up early and walked around the center of Fort Cochin. The humidity hit me as if a very heavy wet blanket was thrown over me. It hovered very close to 100% turning damp air into rain now and then.

I walked over moss covered pavers, along moss covered walls and under trees that may well be a few hundred years old with trunks and branches that have seen a lot of history. First the Portuguese were here and then the Dutch who firmly planted Christianity on this heathen soil. Churches, crosses, jesuses and monks are common figures in the landscape.

In spite of the heavy humid air and the puddles on the makeshift fields, soccer games were going on everywhere at this early hour. A walkway along the ocean was used by people doing their early morning constitutionals, their exercises, people shifting through the mass of water hyacinths for plastic bottles and other recyclables and fishermen repairing or arranging their nets.

I passed by the Dutch cemetery which was locked up behind a rusty gate – perpetually it seems. Large moss grown tombs were visible but I would have liked to see the inscriptions – who died here in the 1600s, so far from home? Who were these brave souls who left damp and cold Holland behind to convert people in this far away place?

At breakfast I met the extended Dutch party, immediate family of the groom and old friends. All the women, including the groom’s oma had had their hands henna-ed, intricate patterns applied with great skill during the previous days in Mumbai where the family of the bride lives.

Everyone had been taken shopping for sarees and wedding outfits. I fear that I will probably look a little frumpy, coming from the backwater of Afghanistan amidst these very sophisticated Mumbaian.
My friend had arranged for all of us to spend one night on a houseboat in what is called the backwaters. I can’t explain the look of the boats, not one is the same, so the slideshow will have to do. We encountered hundreds of them as we explored the waterland between the coast and the hinterland. They reminded me of elephants – big creatures lumbering along the waterways.

We had two boats to accommodate us all, the youngsters on one and the older one on the other, except that oma and I got to be with the younger group – maybe to keep an eye on things. We knew they had, with permission from parents, bought some adult beverages.

For lunch we lashed the two boats together and tied up at one of the small man-made islands where paddy is grown – the lush green color a wonderful sight after the khaki color of Kabul (khaki means dusty in Persian). The boat ride through these island-dotted waterways reminded me of the lilac islands on the Westeinder lake near in Aalsmeer.

The cooks had been working on our lunch since we had left the dock – vegetable curries with coconut, dhal, rice, fried fish, chutney, beans and more.


May 2017
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