Small observations about Kerala. Some good, some bad, all of them make this region the wonderfully unique place that it is;
-The crescent moon, rather than standing up straight, lies on its back so that it looks like a smile in the night sky.
-Keralites love flags, especially communist ones.
-Rooms are fitted with large panels of around 10 electric switches. Some do things, some don’t, take your guess.
-Signs, notices and information on tuk-tuks and trucks are colourfully hand-painted. The calligraphy is either beautiful and swooping or neatly stencilled.
-The Malayalam word for ‘Yes’ is pronounced a’t’e. The sound ‘aa’ is often used as an abbreviation. This is a really convenient and easy replacement for ‘yeah’.
-It’s really common for all shops in one town to sell exactly the same things, over and over.
-The pineapples are so juicy and tasty. So much better than the fruit back home.
-A power cut can strike anytime, anywhere, usually about thrice a week.
-There is absolutely no system in place for getting rid of waste. Seeing as, until fairly recently, all of their waste was organic, there is no taboo surrounding littering. The only way people deal with rubbish is to burn it/hide it in a bush.
-Almost all of our tuk-tuk drivers were so helpful and would go out of their way to make sure we were dropped off in the right place and were completely safe. This ties in with the general helpfulness, kindness and humanity towards others.
And now, a slightly bigger observation;
-For the people of Kerala what’s most important is how you feel. To our highly-strung Western brains this can be alarming, it’s so inefficient! But, they don’t mind, it’s more important to focus on your feelings than the pressures of work or time. Stop and have a chat for an hour even if you’re running late. It takes you all day to send one email due to power cuts, oh well. The train is 5 hours late, no problem. The fact is that, in the majority of these cases, no real damage is done; it’s not the end of the world. And isn’t it nicer to be in a good mood? This has made us feel a little ashamed of ourselves at points, I could easily get irritated at a train being 10 minutes late. It’s all about balance at the end of the day, perhaps India is a little too far one way, but there’s no doubt in my mind that our society is very much too far in the other direction.
In short, it’s been A LOT. Cultural, historical and personal realisations and experiences have made for a heady mix of emotions and thoughts. It’s been a beautiful, eye-opening, delicious, sweaty, exciting, new, learning experience.
Another amazing aspect of Kerala is ayurveda. My aunt Sarah and cousin Hannah had both been to Kerala before and informed us of the glorious ayurvedic massages (also big shot out in general to these two for all their tips and advice.) We were intrigued and keen to find out more.
The origins of ayurveda have been traced back to around 5,000 BC, it is an alternative medical treatment to Western medicine. It focuses more on spiritual and holistic practices. To train to be an ayurvedic doctor it takes seven years, and you also have to learn Sanskrit. The fact that ayurveda not only focuses on treatment, but also prevention of diseases, has lead to tourists loving the unique massage treatments.
The first massage we had was in Fort Kochi. I was taken by a young woman, and Joseff a young man, in to a small room. It was quite dark, with closed curtains. In the centre there was a large, flat, wooden board.
First you have to completely strip down naked. There’s no British awkwardness about it as your masseur just stands next to you. You’re then given a tiny string thong to wear. You definitely have to put complete trust in your masseur, which I did find quite hard at points. You can feel a bit vulnerable, but once you get over it and relax, it is a great experience.
The masseur motioned for me to take a seat on a small stool. She then began to give me a head massage using oil through my hair. Her nimble fingers scratched my head quite hard. She would take pieces of my hair and curl them around her finger, pulling on them slightly which kind of hurt. And then there came the head patting, this was a little weird at first, but, as with the whole massage, once you get over the strangeness, you can enjoy the benefits. You feel extremely relaxed.
I was then motioned to lie down on the big board. She heated up some oil using a small gas cooker. She then covered my whole body in the oil. Slowly, she worked her way round my body; legs, arms, back, stomach, face. She would often slide her hands up and down the entire length of me in-between focusing on a certain area. It feels as if every inch of you is massaged, from (and including) your toes to your nose! It definitely made me feel more connected to my body. Immediately after, and in the days following, the treatment I often felt energised and lighter. The oil was also great for my skin.
I had a few other treatments at different locations. All of them were similar but sometimes the massage techniques and order would have slight differences. Seeing as most tourists only want a massage rather than a medical consultation, the ayurvedic centres often hire therapists, who have trained only in ayurvedic massage at college, to work under the instruction of the centre’s doctor. However, at a small ayurvedic hospital in Wayanad I was lucky enough to receive a massage treatment from an actual ayurvedic doctor.
The doctor explained to me that her and her husband were both ayurvedic doctors and ran the small clinic themselves. They believed that all treatments should be given by doctors as they have the full knowledge of ayurveda which includes the spiritual knowledge. She began the massage by lighting a candle and some incense. She then began chanting and praying. As with the other massages, there are points when you open your eyes and realise you are lying completely naked in a random room in India with a stranger and you feel so weird/hysterical. Having said that, I, again, managed to relax into it and take it seriously enough to enjoy the experience.
She told me about the seven chakras and she touched and blessed each one to bring balance to me. She then began the massage, her movements were lighter than some of the therapists and you could tell that this was a spiritual treatment that focused on more than just the body and its muscles. It was after this treatment that I also tried a steam session. Much like the idea behind a sauna, but instead of a room you are just sat on a stool inside a large wooden box. Two doors are closed in-front of you, your head poking out the top. A slab of wood is then slid along the top of the box so that there is just a hole around your neck. Yet again, this was a slightly terrifying experience as you had to rely on someone else to get you out. Various herbs and some lemon are boiled in water and the steam is collected and piped into the box. Completely refreshing and revitalising.
Now interested in some of the other treatments on offer, I also tried a Shirodhara treatment. This was something that was often featured on the leaflets and adverts for ayurveda so I thought I would give it a try. Heated oil is poured in a continuous stream over the forehead. It is used to treat many ailments and for general relaxation. It effects the sinuses as well as the brain. The oil also deeply treats your hair.
I was a little nervous for this treatment and I had no idea what to expect. It took place after a massage, so, as usual, I was naked. It didn’t help that soaked cotton wool was applied onto my eyelids so I couldn’t open my eyes, meaning it was difficult to know what was going on. I had to rely on my other senses. A strip of cloth was applied to my forehead to stop the oil running onto my face. I could then hear the masseur move the hanging bowl with a hole in it, which is used for this treatment, over my head. I could smell the oil heating. I then felt the light, warm sensation on my forehead.
Because the pressure was so light it was hard to tell exactly where on my forehead it was, I think the bowl was swinging slightly as it felt as if the oil was moving around my forehead in patterns. I could hear it draining off the board into a metal bowl on the floor. Sometimes it almost felt as if a light fingertip was being run across my forehead. My head felt a little tingly. Afterwards, I felt refreshed and very awake, as if I’d had a long and satisfying sleep. I also felt calmer.
I really think a lot can be taken from ayurveda. I like the idea of maintaining a healthy body, mind and spirit via treatments. Linking the mental and spiritual being into physical treatment is something I think the West could benefit from for sure.
Those of you who know me well will have probably been wondering why I haven’t been speaking about all the food we’ve been trying! Well, here is your answer, I’ve been saving it up for this special post, dedicated to what I love the most!
In short, it’s all been unbelievably tasty.*
Homemade Masala Chai
*Apart from that one time we tried to emulate Kerala cooking ourselves. We bought what we thought was okra to make a simple vegetable curry. It turned out to be the devil’s vegetable, bitter gourd. We didn’t cook it properly and not only was it inedible, it actually made your tongue hurt. Yeah. We decided to leave it to the pros after that.
Obviously, curry was a staple. Sometimes having it three times a day was a little hard for us, but, the sauces are light and often quite watery, so it isn’t like an Indian back home! One traditional Kerala curry is sambar, a lentil-based simple vegetable curry. It is often served at breakfast with idli (small rice cakes) and a cooling coconut chutney. Black mustard seeds and green curry leaves are in everything.
Dosa and Sambar Breakfast
Many a lunch was spent getting a sweet, milky chai and various fried snacks from small cafes. Vegetable samosa and pakora were ones we already knew. Vada (fried savoury donuts) and masala vada (crunchy vegetable biscuits) became ones we loved. Once we found a snack which consisted of half a boiled egg coated in vegetable batter and fried, similar to a scotch egg. These small stalls often also had deep fried bananas or large, round, sweet donuts. Delicious.
Other sweet, sweet delights could be found in the many bakeries. Selling cakes, halwa and fried treats. Halwa is a sugary gelatinous-like snack with different fruits and nuts mixed in. One of my favourite snacks was jalebi, a sweet orange batter, fried in a circular pattern and then coated in syrup. The Keralans love sugar and so do I. Another to die for taste sensation we experienced was when we were served freshly deep fried bananas, which had had their centre hollowed out and filled with sugar and mashed up coconut before frying, so good.
Samosa and Crispy Noodles
Due to the reputation India has in the West for giving us bad stomachs we both decided to go vegetarian while we were here, a decision which ended up working out well for both of us, as we’ve not really gotten ill at all. However, we couldn’t resist the seafood, especially by the coast in Kochi and Varkala. My ultimate favourite dish we tried was fish pollichathu. This involves a whole fish being cooked with vegetables and spices in a banana leaf. All the delicious juices are locked in. The parcel is brought to you on a plate, as you unwrap the banana leaf, the smell is divine.
Some of the most authentic cooking we received was the delights of lovely Devaki at RASTA. She served delicious and varied curries with large, fluffy grained Kerala rice. As the jackfruits on the RASTA grounds were in prime vegetable ripeness (they later become a sweet fruit) we were served many a tasty jackfruit curry. We also got to try tapioca with fried fish. Away from the coast ‘fish fry’ is how you get your seafood hit, small fish fried in spices. The tapioca had a potato like consistency and replaced the rice in the dish. We also got to eat a traditional Kerala meal on several occasions. Served on a banana leaf, with a mountain of rice and many, many small amounts of varied curries and chutneys to try.
Traditional Kerala Lunch
Munnar was one of the only places where street food was served as full meals. The fresh food was simple but extremely delicious. You could choose from chapati, dosa (fermented crepe), idiyappam (steamed rice noodle cakes) or, our favourite, parotta (layered flat bread) to go with your sambar and coconut chutney.
Munnar Street Food
Although we have missed some home comforts at times like pasta, cereal and cheese, we can’t deny that the food has surpassed our expectations. Everything is so finely spiced to perfection. The food is simple, cheap to make, energy giving and, of course, delicious. We know we will miss it.