Our readers share tales of their rambles around the world.
Who: Betty Belanus (the author) of Arlington and Cathy Kerst and Anitha Kerst of Silver Spring.
Where, when, why: South India, Sept. 15 through Oct. 1. I tagged along while Cathy and Anitha revisited Kerala, on the southwest coast of India, where they had both lived briefly. We also visited a friend in Hyderabad.
Highlights and high points: The province of Kerala is described as “God’s Own Country,” and its rural areas are startlingly green, with rice paddies along peaceful canals and traditional boats and fishermen going about their daily business.
Hyderabad, a short plane trip to the northeast, is an insanely busy city with traffic that is beyond belief, but it is beautiful in its own right. The city was traditionally ruled by Muslims, and it sometimes feels like being in the Middle East instead of in India, with highly decorated religious structures such as the Charminar Gate and the many dargahs (shrines with domes — think Taj Mahal only smaller).
Cultural connection or disconnect: Walking in any larger town or city in India is a trial because of the lack of sidewalks and busy traffic. Waving off auto rickshaw (small motorized taxi) drivers as politely as possible and dodging motorcycles became a common occurrence. In the more rural backwaters of Kerala, Anitha and I enjoyed walking the short distance to the small town near our homestay, along a scenic canal, and exploring the shops there and buying fresh pomegranates. Other travelers writing on the Internet had suggested a cheaper, more authentic alternative to the popular, and much more expensive, overnight or day-long boat tours of the backwaters: the local ferry. Our home-stay host helped us find the nearest ferry stop, and we spent the day riding the ferry across Vembanad Lake and up the canals to the end of the ferry line. Upon our return trip on the ferry, the children who use the boat as a school bus had just gotten out of school and found us curious indeed. They sang us songs in English and tried to teach us some local Malayalam words!
Biggest laugh or cry: Experience 1: Cathy and I wanted to experience an ayurvedic (traditional Indian medicinal) massage, and we got much advice from Indian friends to seek out a “known quantity” spa at a hotel with registered massage therapists. Instead, we waited until we were at our homestay (Airbnb) in the backwater area near Alleppey (also called Alappuzha) and had our host book a massage for us. This turned out to take place in a very traditional home with a mother and daughter, which was a great and a much more authentic experience — but would have made our more conservative friends cringe!
Experience 2: We wanted to visit the Kerala Folklore Museum in Kochi because Cathy and I are both folklorists by profession. None of the auto rickshaw drivers we flagged down had any idea how to get there. We finally had to call a friend who spoke the local language to explain to a driver what location we were trying to reach. (Interesting fact: Malayalam is a palindrome.)
How unexpected: All of my friends who had traveled to India convinced me that I was going to get sick at some point during the trip. I kept expecting it to happen, and it never did. The food was amazing and there were so many kinds of breads, rice and curry dishes to try. Traditional biryani (fragrant steamed rice and meat or vegetable dish) is a must in Hyderabad. Lunch or dinner at homestays in Kerala are definitely a bargain, and they’re often better than restaurant food and served in a homey atmosphere. I followed my more India-savvy travel companions and learned to eat the local way: by scooping up curries and condiments with rice or bread with my right hand instead of using a fork. Every restaurant and home has an extra sink to rinse the food off your hand afterward, so it is not as messy as it sounds.
Fondest memento or memory: The women’s clothing is so beautiful and comfortable. I wanted to redo my whole wardrobe in salwar kameez outfits (long tunics or dresses with leggings or close-fitting pants underneath and matching scarves)! I settled for buying a couple of tunics and matching leggings in beautiful block printed fabrics, which I am enjoying wearing.
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