God’s own country
This is a piece I wrote some time ago, but haven’t submitted. I apologize for references to events from a couple of years ago, but I think it should still be entertaining if nothing else. A couple of years ago, I found myself as a bachelor for about a month as the family spent their summer vacation in the US. I decided to make the most of it by using the weekends to discover India. On one of these weekends, I decided to visit God’s Own Country – Kerala. I decided to go and visit Kumarakom, a beautiful place on the edge on the 2nd largest lake in India – Lake Vembanad.
The trip was challenging. You see I am big world cup fan, to the extent that I was staying up till 2 a.m. every night watching games. I decided to go to Kumarakom on a Friday evening, right after the last meeting, but making sure I landed in Cochin by 7:30 pm, which was the time of the Portugal-Spain game in the round of 16. I was fairly excited about the plan. I would watch the game at a hotel near Cochin airport. The game would end at 9:30 at which point I would head for Kumarakom which was about 2 hours drive from Cochin, making it there in plenty of time to watch the midnight-2 a.m. game.
I landed in Cochin at 7:00. This was my first time in Cochin, and the airport I am sure is on the list of those to be upgraded from the 1950’s to something that remotely resembles 21st century. I made it to the prepaid taxi stand, only to wait there for about 25 minutes, which a staff of four tried to fix a vintage 1970’s Epson dot-matrix printer, which had stopped working. Waiting patiently, but very cognizant of the game time, I was starting to get a little concerned. Somehow, with a couple of taps and some prayer, the printer started working. I paid the 1800 rupees for the taxi, but told the gentleman at the counter that I wanted the driver to first take me to a hotel nearby so I could watch the game, wait for two hours, and then head to Kumarakom. The service person simply said, “sir, you can explain that to the driver”. I didn’t make much of it, till I got to the taxi and tried communicating with him…which I couldn’t. The driver spoke neither Hindi nor English. I simply smiled, which is my typical reaction when I run into similar situations, which I happen to on a fairly regular basis in India. I was less concerned about the communication constraint, and much more about the Portugal Spain match. I simply told the driver “drive”, and “hotel”. I assumed that there would something resembling a hotel near the airport. It was night, with few lights, and a downpour (lesson: don’t go to Kerala during the monsoon). We started driving, and I spotted a building with a flickering Hotel sign. I simply tapped the driver on the shoulder and said “there” pointing to the building. I got to the building, told the driver “wait” pointing to the parking area, and ran inside the hotel hoping to find a TV showing the game. I went to the reception, asked for the directions to the TV room/lounge that would be showing the game, only to find out that the hotel didn’t have a TV where the game was being shown. I couldn’t believe it. Calming myself down I asked if they could point me to any establishment that would be showing the game. He indicated that there is a Lotus hotel about five minutes away which might be showing it.
I went to my incommunicative driver, said two words “Lotus hotel”, and at least that seemed to work. I got to the Lotus hotel, and luckily they did have a little coffee shop with a makeshift screen for the match. Now it was about 7:45 pm, and there was a team of five people struggling with power issues. It was hot, but they indicated that if they turned the air-conditioner on, that the power would go and there would be no TV. I was willing to live with the heat as long as I got the game. It was just me in the coffee shop (along with the employees who thankfully were as keen to watch the game as I was). Finally by about 7:55, all issue got resolved. I had missed the first 25 minutes of the game, but thankfully the game was still 0:0 by the time we got the technical glitches worked out. I enjoyed the game, even though the environment was hot.
The game ended around 9:30 and I was finally on my way to Kumarakom. With all the construction, standing water, and the downpour, again it took close to 2.5 hours to finally get to Zuri, Kumarakom, where I was staying. I got there at midnight, and actually had a conference call from 11:30 to midnight in transit. Then the driver did something that was really annoying. Even though I had paid a good amount of money for taxi fare, he made the prototypical Indian gesture for a tip (this is where the driver or another service person makes the gesture as if they are putting something in their mouth, asking basically for some cash so that can have some extra to eat). I was going to tip him nicely, but once he did that, I actually reduced the amount.
Finally, I checked in, and rushed to the room since game number 2 had started at 11:50. At 2:15 am, I finally hit the bed excited about two days in Kumarakom, boating in the back waters and sightseeing. I woke up next morning, had breakfast, and made it to the reception to ask how I should be spending my day. I asked, “I am here only for two days. What should I do today?” The service person at the reception desk smiled (and that is usually a bad sign), and said, “sir, there is a strike today, due to the petrol price hike. Everything is closed, and no taxis or boats are running”. This was another very “Indian” moment for me. I smiled again, given that I have come to expect the unexpected. I, obviously, asked the staff “well, what do you recommend I do”. And again, smiling, one of the staff members said, “sir, you can spend the day at the hotel. There is a swimming pool, a spa and bars”. They did indicate that they ran a lake cruise at 5 pm, and that I could go on that. Well, given the very limited options, I agreed and asked them to put my name of the list for the cruise.
I somehow managed to keep myself engaged, by walking around the resort, having a drink at the bar, working out a bit and swimming. But I am an outdoors rather than in indoors kind of a person. Somehow, I managed to get through the day till 4:45 pm when I was asked to show up in the lobby to be taken to the boat for the 5 pm cruise. I was excited to finally be getting out of the hotel. It turned out that I was the only person on the cruise. It was low traffic season, and there weren’t a lot of people at the hotel. In any case, as we made the short two minute walk from the hotel lobby to the boat dock, all of a sudden, the heavens became extremely cloudy and within no time, we were in the middle of a downpour with strong gusty winds. In that short two minute span, the decision was made to cancel the cruise.
I had just made my way from Bangalore to Kumarakom, via cochin using a driver who might as well have been from a different country, only to find out that there was a strike which shut everything down, and now the only possible excursion got shut down by an act of nature. Again, I had no choice but to smile. I made it to the bar for a drink (no wonder liquor businesses do well, during good and not so good times, as the king of good “or not so-good” times himself knows), and even the bartender was sympathetic. He said, “sir, you chose the wrong weekend to come to Kumarakom”. Thanks for rubbing it in, I mumbled to myself, and he lost the tip as a result.
I went back to the room, called the reception asking if it was possible to reserve a boat ride or other sightseeing for the next day, since I wasn’t flying back to Bangalore until late evening. Rather than truly helping, the staff was more interested in upselling their own amenities. I was told that there is a speed boat which can show me the sights in about an hour. I was less interested in a speed boat ride, and more so in the slow cruise through the backwaters over the course of 4-5 hours. I searched online and called a few places, finally nailing down a shop that provided personalized 4-5 hour tours for about 200 rupees/hour, which I thoughts was a much better deal than the 1 hour speed boat ride for 2000.
I watched the night football games, and then was ready to go the next morning for the cruise. I was finally going to get out of the hotel and actually do something in Kumarakom. It had rained hard during the night, but the morning was sunny. The boat was at the pier on time, and I was off to and through the backwaters. I cruised the lake, all the way to Allepy, through some fishing villages. The guide even let me drive the boat for about 20 minutes (as he took a nap). As we were heading back to the hotel, the driver asked if he could stop for a bottle of water. I, of course, said “sure”. He docked the boat, asked me get off and we headed to a hut on the banks of one of the canals. I realized then that this was all part of the Kumarakom network. The driver’s friends owned this little hut which served authentic Kerala food, and it was more or less a little tourist trap for people like me. I had some fish curry, and other dishes on a banana leaf. There were chickens in the room along with strange black lizards. I went to the kitchen, which was as authentic as you could get. There was traditional fried fish, and fried prawns. Actually the cook had me hold a jumbo prawn for a Kodak moment. While I was having lunch, there was a group of 10-15 locals singing songs in Malyalam. It was a fun moment and made me forget the previous day’s trials and tribulations. As we ended the tour, and got back to the hotel, I took a photo with Rams, the boat driver/guide. It was now 1 pm. I had asked for and had been granted a late checkout at 2 pm. But my flight wasn’t till about 8 pm, so I had another 2-3 hours to kill.
I again went to the trusted front desk, asking for advice. I wanted to know if I had enough time to visit the bird sanctuary that I had heard about. The staff indicated that I could do that. I asked, “how far is it from the hotel”. They replied, “about 2 km’s”. “Can I walk there?”, I asked. “Yes”, said the staff. But right then another gentleman indicated that I could simply take one of the hotel bicycles and bike there. That sounded like fun, especially if the sanctuary was nearby. Before I got going, I realized that I didn’t have any sneakers and only dress shoes which may not be appropriate. I took a chance and went to the store at the hotel. Much to my delight, they sold shoes, but only those they had in stock. I tried on a pair that looked about right, and although slightly tight, I went ahead and purchased them. I went to the room to finish packing and get the luggage for checkout, and also to change into the sneakers. For some reason, one shoe fit, but the other was too tight. I looked at the sizes. One shoe was size 10 and the other size 9. How the two shoes could be different sizes made no sense to me. I had no choice but to return the shoes. The salesperson looked at me with surprise, almost indicating that I had somehow switched shoes and was returning the wrong pair. With that minor setback taken care of, I took one of the bikes and headed out to the bird sanctuary in my polo shirt, jeans and dress shoes. I went about a km, at which point I saw the sign for the sanctuary which indicated the place was another 8 km’s away. This was yet another “indian” moment. I should have known that when it comes to distances, one should always take the number given and multiply it by anywhere from 2-4x. At that time, I was committed to making it to the sanctuary. And finish the 9 km journey, at times coming close to being hit by buses which, by the way, were the fastest moving vehicles on the narrow two-way road. I finally made it to the entrance of the sanctuary only to find out that there was a 2 km walk to get to the viewing tower. Again, I had come all this way, so turning back without seeing the birds was not an option. i paid the 20 rupees, parked the bike next to the security guard and went on the trek to see the birds. It was hot, humid, and I was sweating profusely at this time, thanks to the 2 km turned 9 km bike ride, mostly uphill. I walked through the lush greenery, along the way listening to various Keralites singing “singh is king…”, which I thought was pretty funny (although, they were technically making fun of me). I ran into a friendly park ranger, who greeted me with a “sat sriakal”, and told me exactly how to get to the tower to see thousands of birds. Getting to the tower and seeing the birds chirping, playing, fighting, singing, made the sweat worth it.
After the enjoyment, it was time for me to head back to the hotel. I walked 2 km back to the entrance to collect the bike, only to be met by yet another surprise. The bike had a flat front tire. I had three options at this time – to ride the bike on the rim, to try and find a place that could put a temporary fix or walk 9 km to the hotel. I decided to try option 1, which I soon realized was dangerous as the buses were starting to get too close for comfort as they passed me. I started walking with the bike, hoping that I could find a shop that could fix the problem. About one third of the way through, one fine gentleman asked me what the problem was. I pointed to the flat, and he immediately offered to help. He grabbed the pressure tank from his shop and proceeded to fill the air. I had my hopes lifted, but only for a minute. After trying for a couple of minutes, the man turned to me and said, “sir, it’s a big puncture”, effectively putting an immediate damper on my short-lived enthusiasm around a solution. But before I left, he handed me his card. It turned out that besides owning a repair shop, he also had a small hotel and a houseboat business. I couldn’t blame him for being enterprising, and trying to upsell a houseboat with a loss-leading puncture fix. He was offering me a special deal on a houseboat rental. In India, everyone is always aspiring to be a Tata, Birla or Ambani, building conglomerates rather than focusing on just one business.
Without much of an option, I had no choice but to walk back to the hotel. By the time I got back, I looked (and probably smelled) like I had come out of a mine. The heat , humidity, rain, bike stains required a complete makeover. The dilemma was that I had already checked out of the hotel, and had no spare clothes. I dropped the bike outside the reception area, and made my way to the small shop inside the hotel lobby to see if I could buy something to change into. Much to my delight, the shop was open and had T-shirts for sale. The only piece that they had which would actually fit was a bright pink T-shirt with “I love Kerala” printed on it. Although not my ideal color or motif, I had no choice but to change into the bright pink T-shirt and freshen up. I definitely got some stares as I entered the airport. I wasn’t sure if the stares were due to the T shirt (likely) or the fact that I was the only Sardar at the Cochin airport (or perhaps the combination of the two).
The trip gets even more interesting. The flight was at 8:00 pm, but there was a Germany-England crucial world cup game at 7:30 pm, leading to yet another strange situation. Pretty much everyone traveling on that flight was glued to the one TV in the airport waiting area that was showing the game. And even though, final call for the flight was being called, no one wanted to leave (including the pilots). It wasn’t till the 8:15 half time did the audience finally decided to board the bus to get to the plane. Only in India can a flight be delayed due to world cup (or perhaps an IPL) match. And of course, the first officer on the flight kept the passenger apprised of the score along the way to Bangalore.
My friends sometimes ask me if I go looking for experiences like the one described here, or do they simply fall in my lap. The truth folks is the latter, but as I approach the three year anniversary of my arrival in India, one thing is crystal clear in my mind. It’s not the backwaters of Kerala that should be called “God’s own country”, but rather India itself. Because there is no other justification but divine intervention that makes this country function, and not only survive but thrive.
(Mohanjit Jolly is the Executive Director, Draper Fisher Jurvetson India. Views expressed are strictly personal.)