Pampered in Paradise

As the Kerala monsoon season threatens, I decide to jet south to the much talked about Maldives. I’m sure you’ve seen photos of these beautiful islands, located in the Indian Ocean, draped like a string of pearls, white sand glistening and water as pale blue as a martini with a splash of Curaçao.

I schedule a flight on SriLankan Airlines that includes a stop-over in Colombo, but very nearly don’t make it out of India. As I present my passport and a copy of my official certificate of residency, I’m asked for the original. “Well, I don’t have the original with me,” I blink, “as I was told you sometimes like to keep a copy.” This apparently meant that I should have a copy in addition to the original. I really need to pay more attention!

After I talk my way through customs and immigration, making sure they will let me back into the country upon my return, I board the flight and leave the stress of work behind.

The flight is short and the service fairly remarkable. I say that because the flight time is literally an hour and five minutes, and yet, they serve a complete meal, along with coffee or tea. I hang out in Colombo for a few hours and board the connecting flight to Male. After going through customs, I’m greeted by a representative from the W Resort – Maldives (really, did you think I’d stay anywhere else) and it immediately begins to pour down rain.

My welcome host begins to tell me how great the weather has been all day, when I thank him and tell him it’s no problem, I’m sure it’s just a passing shower! I’m taken to the other side of the airport where a W ‘way station’ is set up with food and beverages to await the departure to the island resort via Maldavian Air Taxi.

Air taxis in front of W 'way station'

Air taxis in front of W ‘way station’

Male from the sea plane

Male from the sea plane

A short flight later, we land at the island dock where the W Welcome contingent awaits our arrival. My tour guide grabs my backpack and escorts me to his ‘golf cart’ and off we go on a tour of the island (to get the lay of the land) before stopping at my ‘retreat.’

My little piece of paradise

My little piece of paradise

My oasis on this small island – I can walk around the entire resort in less than 15 minutes – is a very private, single dwelling on the beach with my own pool, complete with Jacuzzi, and a second floor under a thatched roof with a barbeque, bar and ‘swing.’ It has a lovely view of the ocean and ends up being a quiet place to sit during lazy afternoons with a good book.

View of the ocean from the 'swing'

View of the ocean from the ‘swing’

A flower on the path around the island

A flower on the path around the island

While the WC is inside, the bathroom is actually ‘outside’ double doors with walls of slate, a lovely shower, a huge soaking tub, sink and vanity. The room goes up two stories, but the second story walls are wooden slats that let in the sun, and a ‘ceiling’ open to the blue sky, the moon and stars; a perfect place for a relaxing afternoon soak, with a glass of wine and a perfect view of swaying palm trees.  Ahhhh!

Relaxing with a glass of wine

Relaxing with a glass of wine

That evening, I walk down to Sip, a wonderful bar built on pilings and surrounded by blue waters. It’s also conveniently located next door to Fish, where I make a reservation before slipping into the bar for a glass of wine and some conversation with Muthu, the bartender on duty. We have a great discussion about the changing role of the bartender and he tells me he has won the Best of Maldives: Cocktail compendium when he was tending bar at the Gili Lankanfushi resort.

I tell him about the Plate Shop, in Sausalito, California, one of my hangouts when I lived there last winter. The first time I went, I met the chef, Peter, and we had a lively discussion about the new world of bartending. The Plate Shop is organic and sustainable and the mixologists create drinks from whatever happens to be growing in their garden. Peter had created his own drink that he called Pedro No Mas (Peter no more), because it’s rather strong (Patron Tequila and cilantro being two key ingredients), and it reminds him to drink only one before getting on his motorcycle and heading across the Golden Gate Bridge to his home. Peter had decided that creating a new drink was no different than creating a new dish. And, apparently, that’s what the mixologists are doing. It’s the combination of flavors that set the drink apart.

And so folks … it’s a brave new world! As for me, I choose a great glass of New Zealand Pinot Noir.

Sipping a lovely Pinot Noir

Sipping a lovely Pinot Noir

Sip is situated for a perfect view of the sunset, and after drinks and a little nosh, the hostess from Fish comes to take me away for an enjoyable dinner. It begins with an amuse bouche of white snapper sashimi with balsamic reduction and a wasabi sauce. Draped on top were shaved carrots, onion and water cress; amazingly fresh and really delicious. Bread is served; three varieties with rolls and a baguette, served with fresh sweet butter and pureed English peas … delightful!

Outside Fish, at night

Outside Fish, at night

Amuse bouche - YUM

Amuse bouche – YUM

I listen to a recommendation from my waiter and end up with an enjoyable mouth-watering dinner of Grilled Filet of White Snapper (local harvest, line caught), with pureed yams and lemongrass sauce. The sauce is perfect and adds to rather than takes away from the light flavor of the snapper; flavorful without being overpowering. On the side they serve grilled vegetables. Crisp and delicious, the dish consists of zucchini, baby carrots, sweet yellow peppers cooked to perfection with a mild soy sauce.

Melt-in-your-mouth snapper

Melt-in-your-mouth snapper

Mads comes to my table to suggest dessert and I proceed to tell him how I never really have room for it and the menu looks like the servings are really large … delicious, but too much, I exclaim. Mads is from Denmark and he tells me he can prepare something, custom-made … very tiny portions, to appropriately end the meal with something sweet. I agree, thinking that it will be just two little bites, perhaps just wafer thin.  What appears is a plate with five small delectable samples. In order of my favorites, there was the Mango: a thin pastry on the bottom with fresh mango and topped with a buttery smooth mango cream; Coconut: tasty, yet crunchy shredded coconut sandwiched between dark chocolate; Chocolate Grenache:  a slice of dark chocolate as a base, served with strawberry sauce; Banana tart: in a perfectly flaky pastry, topped with chocolate; Green Tea Ice Cream: very creamy and only slightly bitter.

Let's not forget dessert - but only a portion of it

Let’s not forget dessert – but only a portion of it

Dinner was exquisite and the conversation with the wait staff and chef was enjoyable. They may feel sorry for me because I’m alone amongst this room of couples, they may think I’m a restaurant reviewer because I’m taking photos and writing everything down, or they may just be friendly and find me interesting and a little amusing. I’m hoping it’s the latter.

I awake early the next morning and question why I can’t seem to sleep past 7:00 a.m. these days, but get up anyway and take my time getting ready for breakfast. Kitchen is where breakfast is served and it’s a wonderful assortment of fresh fruit (and fresh squeezed juices), cheese, egg dishes of your choosing, breads, pastries, breakfast cereals and yogurts, and a quantity of other items. The air is fresh and clean and I choose to sit outside at a table that’s sitting in about a foot of water. I take off my sandals and step into the coolness that awakens my senses and refreshes my spirit. It’s an unusual concept, but with the sun on your face and the cool water lapping around your legs, it’s amazingly calming and very enjoyable.

A true water view

A true water view

After a peaceful afternoon, I head to the SPA for a facial (I have a massage scheduled for tomorrow!) and find it out on the water, the sea breezes blowing through the open doors and clear views of the colorful fish swimming around the reefs that are just beneath the decks. After a cup of ginger tea, I go into a room, all white and welcoming, with soft music playing, but not so loud that it drowns out the sounds of the sea.

SPA - from a distance

SPA – from a distance

Inside the SPA

Inside the SPA

Vera provides me with a refreshing facial that leaves my skin clean and glowing and I look forward to tomorrow’s massage.

Fire beckons me for dinner tonight and I have another amazing fish dish cooked over an open fire and drizzled with a superb spicy sauce. After dinner I head down to 15 Below. Located just 15 steps below Fire, the blue glow of the club and the beat of the music are intoxicating.  Shirry, the DJ I met last night at Sip, is doing her thing. She sees me and waves. I wave back and soon she joins me at the bar for a drink. The place is not crowded, so she’s able to head to her ‘station’ in time to put on another song. We have a great time talking, laughing and trading stories. Around midnight I say goodnight and we set a time to meet for dinner at Kitchen the next evening.

Outside Fire, at night

Outside Fire, at night

Bartender at 15 Below

Bartender at 15 Below

Shirry - spinning tunes

Shirry – spinning tunes

Sunday … my last full day; if I were younger, I’d try to get a job here! This place is so beautiful and peaceful. I’ve met some really great people from all parts of Europe and Asia who are working here and I’m feeling very relaxed.

I’ve been told to go snorkeling and follow the underwater ‘trail’ from the SPA around to Fire. I pick up my snorkeling gear, grab my life vest and head out to the beach. The water is warm and the fish plentiful. It’s like swimming on top of a very large salt water aquarium.  The colors are astounding and I see a medium sized fish that looks black, but as it glides along, it turns to the side and I see flashes of green, yellow and blue as the light catches its scales. There are black fish with bright white rings around their ‘necks,’ yellow fish with bright blue tails, ones with spots and some with stripes. I see some turtles and even a small octopus. It’s a fantastic swim.

Afterwards, I head to the SPA for my massage. Vera greets me and I have a cool drink of Tamarind; very refreshing. The massage is amazing and I leave very limber and mellow.

My last night I meet Shirry at Kitchen and we have a wonderful, light dinner. The wine is the New Zealand Pinot Noir and the scallops are cooked to perfection. I have a Caprese salad that includes Buffalo mozzarella that is clearly made in-house as it’s amazingly fresh. Living in India, I realize how much I’ve missed salads and specifically balsamic vinegar. Everything was wonderful!

Me and Shirry at Kitchen

Me and Shirry at Kitchen

Marcos, the Welcome manager, tells me to let him know when I’m coming back and he’ll give me a really great ‘room.’ And here I thought I had a really great room! I thank him and tell him I’ll be sure to give him advance notice.

I invite Shirry to meet me in India, or to visit me in the US, and leave her with a promise to stay in touch. Shirry says she’ll come and see me off the next morning. I remind her I’m taking the sea plane at 6:30 a.m., so while it would be nice, I won’t really expect her.

Monsoon has begun in earnest in Kerala, the rain coming strong and harsh, with occasional bursts of blue and streaks of sunlight. The sky is mostly heavy with dark clouds moving slowly and great waves of rain followed by steamy, hot and humid breaks. I was fortunate to have chosen my short escape to the beautiful and exotic island of the Maldives when I did! But my long weekend is now just a memory and while I returned to India refreshed and relaxed, the change of seasons reminds me that I’ll soon be heading away from this amazing part of the world.

The Birds of Kerala

One morning I awoke from a bit of racket outside on my balcony. You see, I’ve taken to sleeping with the windows open when there’s a breeze off the ocean.

A crow was sitting on the railing looking as if it wanted something. I propped myself up and said, “Good morning, what are you doing here?” To which he replied, “Caw!” and promptly flew away.

I got up to take a look and saw a lovely yellow parakeet, clearly frightened and distressed, sitting on the balcony floor. It watched me as I closed the windows, but beyond that, it didn’t move.

Little yellow parakeet

Little yellow parakeet

After breakfast, I went back to check on it and when it saw me this time, it tried to fly up to the air conditioner, but it wasn’t able to get enough lift, and ended up landing in a corner, thankfully obscured by any passing predator birds. I left it alone so it could hopefully regain its strength, and I got ready for work. When I checked again about an hour later, it had gone.

I think it may have been a caged parakeet, as I’ve seen many of those here, and I didn’t find this particular one in my Birds of Kerala book (by C Sashikumar, Praveen J, Muhamed Jafer Palot and PO Nameer).

Except for the color, it reminded me of the parakeet my sister and I had as children. Ours was green and so we named her Kelly. While her cage was covered at night when she slept, during the day, our mother let her out.

Kelly had a small rug at the bottom of her cage with a Ferris wheel and other toys. She used to fly to the top of the Ferris wheel and ride it down. She would fly through the house, perching where she felt safe, but her favorite spot was on top of a lamp shade on a dresser in our parent’s bedroom. Here, she could look at herself in the mirror and say, “pretty bird.” She had quite a vocabulary, but her words had an interesting lilt to them thanks to our English mum.

One day, Kelly got out and was flying around the neighborhood. We had everyone calling to her, trying to get her to fly down and land on one of our outstretched fingers, but she seemed to be enjoying her freedom. Our mother said she would come back home before dark because she had no other home to go to. So, we put her cage on the front porch with the door open and sure enough, as afternoon faded, she flew back ‘home.’ We closed the door and took her back inside and she never ventured outside again.

In my mind, I see this little yellow parakeet flying back ‘home.’ After its experience with the crow, I’m sure it was missing the safety of its cage.

The Birds of Kerala is a very large book, filled with amazing birds of all kinds with long tails and bright colors. Many of them are marked as vulnerable, threatened, near endangered, or endangered. Some are near extinct with dates from when and where one was last seen.

I doubt I’ll see many of the birds from this book, but I do see quite a few water birds and one magnificent Brahminy Kite that presumably lives nearby at the Mangalavanum bird sanctuary and frequently flies over the waters near my flat.

I first saw these amazing raptors last summer at Alleppey and thought they were Eagles because of their bright white heads. I was told they were Hawks, and while they are listed in a category with Hawks and Eagles, the Birds of Kerala shows them as Brahminy Kites. They have beautiful rust colored bodies, with black triangles on their wing tips. I can see the triangles clearly on the one that glides below me on the wind currents.

Brahminy Kite

Brahminy Kite

I’ve had the pleasure of seeing a whole row of Bee-eaters sitting on a wire, and beautiful Small Blue Kingfishers that look nothing like those in the Northeastern US. Each night at dusk, Swallows fly outside my office window catching mosquitoes. (I’d like to invite them in to take care of the pesky ones inside my office!)

Birds on a wire (Blue-tailed Bee-eaters)

Birds on a wire (Blue-tailed Bee-eaters)

The other night, I dreamt about a magnificent bird with iridescent blue feathers and a very long tail. Upon waking, I looked through the Birds of Kerala to see if I could find it, but it wasn’t there. I guess that’s what I get for reading Dr. Seuss before bedtime.

Today the Brahminy Kite was back with a friend. It must be mating season in Kerala.

Birds I’ve spotted and have been able to identify:
Little Cormorant, Little Egret, Median Egret, Cattle Egret, Indian Pond Heron, Black-crowned Night Heron, Black Kite, Brahminy Kite, Western Marsh Harrier, Common Sandpiper, Brown-headed Gull, Black-headed Gull, Tern (not sure which one), Small Blue Kingfisher, Blue-tailed Bee-eater, Common Swallow, Large Pied Wagtail, Red-whiskered Bulbul, House Sparrow, House Crow and many, many Pigeons — but not as many as in Rittenhouse Square.

Captured in flight

Captured in flight

GaGa over LuLu

No, not the Lady! As a matter of fact, no celebrity was necessary to bring out the crowds for the grand opening of the LuLu Mall in Cochin, Kerala. Touted as the largest mall in Asia, LuLu opened on 10 March.

On a Sunday afternoon, in a wild and crazy moment, Aswathi, Megha and I decided to go see what it was like. Hey … we did wait a week! But, clearly, we needed to wait a LOT longer!

LuLu has shops on five floors with a total size of 3,900,000 square feet. It has a cinema complex, a 5,000 sq ft ice skating rink, a food court that includes a dozen a half ‘kitchens’ plus three fine dining establishments and parking for 4,800 cars. All of the parking spaces were taken when we got there!! Ha, ha … no wait, I’m not kidding!

It took us about five hours to get in and get out. We were probably in the mall a total of 45 minutes. Most of our time was spent sitting in the car waiting for the traffic to move so we could just get to the corner to make the turn. Aswathi pointed out that many of the cars had license plates that identified them as coming from outside of Kochi.

The entire experience was really just too funny! We kept saying things like, “Aswathi, we’ll just get out here and walk the rest of the way. When we come out, we’ll easily find you because you’ll still be right here.”

When we finally made the turn at the corner, we ended up in another long line which led to the parking garage. We got behind a car that had a sticker on it identifying it as a new purchase. There was a little rise in the road as we entered the LuLu complex and the (presumably) new driver kept stalling the car to the point where three security guards rushed up and began pushing on the back of the car so it wouldn’t roll backwards into ours. We would have moved out of the way, except there was nowhere to move to!

LuLu Celebrate

LuLu Celebrate

About an hour later, we finally pulled into the parking garage, wondering why we were still doing this, but really, where else were we going to go at that point. Once you’re in a queue like that, there’s just no chance of getting out of it, so you just go with the flow!

So the big to-do at LuLu is their hypermarket, which is a huge grocery on two floors. But we plowed our way through the crowds in the opposite direction, as it was at capacity when we came up the escalator and found ourselves deposited directly in front of it. The five of us (Aswathi’s daughter and her mother were also with us) grabbed hands and wove our way through the crowds. I led the way and felt like a salmon desperately trying to swim upstream.

At this point, I can’t really tell you what the hypermarket has, but I can tell you that all of the grapes vanished on opening day and none of them were actually sold! It seems that everyone was taking a taste … but they were just taking one grape … what would that hurt? Well, apparently there were so many people taking ‘just one’ that all of the grapes disappeared pretty quickly.

I doubt much got sold on the opening weekend, except perhaps in the hypermarket. The weekend we were there, although it was very crowded, the shops were fairly empty. People were just looking around; doing some window shopping and taking lots of photos. And in the midst of the chaos and charm of the largest mall in Asia, we saw a number of young lads (early 20s perhaps) wearing sunglasses and ‘striking a pose’ in front of signs like Marks & Spencer. Seriously! And this particular shop wasn’t even open yet!

Crowds inside

! Crowds inside

We did stop on the top floor at the ‘food court’ to have a quick coffee, but they were pretty nearly out of everything and all Aswathi and Megha managed to bring back to the table we were desperately trying to hang on to, were two diet cokes, a juice drink and a Sprite.

Glass ceiling

Glass ceiling

When we left it was about 8:30 p.m. and traffic was still pouring – well, really, creeping (very, very slowly) – into the lanes for the parking garage. I said, “Well, that was fun!” to which Megha replied, “I’ll come back in about six months.”

Outside - a changing wall display

Outside – a changing wall display

The man with a most unusual hat

About a week ago, I was traveling the typical route to work, my camera at the ready to get any interesting drive-by shots, when I saw him.

We had almost come to the by-pass and there he was, standing by the side of the road with what appeared to be a very large hat upon his head. As we got closer, I couldn’t quite make it out, but it was quite colorful and very grand indeed. Now, we were upon him and I could see that there were, in fact, chickens festooned upon his head. I raised my camera and just then, the shutter closed and I missed the shot.

I know, sounds rather astonishing, doesn’t it? Well, I can tell you it took me by surprise!

The man was tall and very thin, with a disproportionately thick mustache. He was dressed in a maroon shirt and was wearing a typical Indian ‘skirt’ (dhoti) pulled up above his knees and tied at his waist, as is the custom on very hot days. His ‘hat’ was brilliantly balanced on his head.

The chickens were laying in such a way as to appear sleeping, but clearly they were not, as they weren’t moving at all, and it would have been a fine trick indeed were they still living. I don’t know how they were tied together, but you couldn’t see their feet at all, only their bodies and heads.

They were plump with beautiful feathers in an array of colors; feathers the color of saffron with the ends tipped in India ink. Others followed in burnt sienna, burnished gold and a mottled coffee and cream. They were lying, with one head resting against the next one’s wing and so forth in a circle, like a big feathery wreath of chickens.

I wanted to ask him how he came to be wearing such a unique head dress, but he had disappeared into the crowd before I had the chance.

I look for him every day now at the same place hoping to catch sight of him so I can confirm my story, but I fear I shall never see the chicken man again.

I’ve seen so much here in India and most of the things I’ve seen, I see again. But I have told many people here about the man with the chicken hat and they seem astonished as well. So even though I continue to look for him, I believe that was one sight that will live only in my memory.

For now, I hope I’ve described this well enough for you to see it too, if you just close your eyes.

A Biennale comes to Cochin

I’ve been fortunate to be here for the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, India’s first. Although it kicked off before my arrival on 12/12/12, it lasted until 13/03/13 and so I got to see for myself what all the fuss was about.

A little history

Biennale is Italian for “every other year” and is commonly used in the art world to describe an ‘international manifestation of contemporary art.’ It purportedly stems from the Biennale di Venezia first held in 1895. The Venice Biennale includes contemporary art, film, dance and architecture (this one held in even years).

The Kochi-Muziris Biennale was set up mostly around Fort Kochi. It was established to support the more modern Kochi, but at the same time, not letting go of the past and the historical values and significance of its mythical predecessor, the ancient port of Muziris.

The Kochi-Muziris Biennale

When I heard about this, I asked around the office to see who might have a bit of information and was told to begin the journey at the Kashi Art Café, also a gallery.

The Kashi is a fabulous, warm and inviting converted house, off of a small street in Fort Kochi. The gallery serves as the entry point to this unique place, which is a combination of indoor and outdoor space, with a tree growing through the roof in one room and an open, partially walled-in area in the back. The space is not large, but the atmosphere has vast dimensions. The menu is light, with breakfast and lunch options and some fabulous desserts. The food is organic and flavorful and the ambience encourages you to linger. In addition to their wonderful omelets, they have brown bread that they bake on the premises, and the masala tea is the best I’ve had anywhere in the city. (I asked if they sold loaves of bread separately, but alas, they do not.)

Omelette - YUM

Omelette – YUM

At the Kashi we found out where to go for tickets and more information. So we headed out to the Aspinwall House to begin the official journey.

Overlooking the sea, the Aspinwall House was established in 1867 as a business that traded in coconut oil, pepper, timber, lemon grass oil, ginger, turmeric, spices, hides and later in coir, coffee, tea and rubber. Today, it is a large heritage property supporting numerous artists and exhibits for the Biennale.

There were nearly 80 artists with work presented at a variety of venues including current gallery spaces and halls, with additional site-specific installations in public buildings and outdoor spaces. In some places, they used areas that were unused or barren. We were able to visit only about 10 of the spaces, but we got a really good feel for the variety of the work, which was vast.

The art at the Biennale was diverse and interesting. Some of it made you pause and reflect …

The room was dark, along the back wall ‘pockets’ of wood holding various seeds and herbs were lined up in rows. If you closed your eyes, the jumble of scents was intense. Around a corner of the large room, there were video art displays, soft blue light emanating from open books with blank pages. Messages came and went (courtesy of the video above), some with photographs, some with quotes like:

if we could separate each glance from the next
then could we separate our perception
of what each consecutive glance is seeing

or …

if a crime continues to occur regardless
of the enormous evidence available
then is the crime invisible or the evidence invisible
or are both visible but not seen?

The constant flow of messages made you want to stick around and see what was next. At the other end, was a story told in books, video and art about a crime against a young African man and the questions that surrounded his demise. The entire room was intriguing and thought-provoking, although in some regards, also disturbing.

But what is art if not something that makes you feel?

As with a lot of modern art, you have to ask yourself, “What does this invoke within me?” It doesn’t matter that you don’t understand it. You might find it interesting, disturbing, beautiful, humdrum, absurd, comical, amazing. You might feel a sense of loss, wonder, sadness, awe, enlightenment. You could even feel cynical, angry, happy, or it might even make you weep or laugh aloud. It could take your breath away or leave you completely puzzled. If you have no reaction whatsoever, the artist clearly missed the mark.

People react differently based on what they see in the piece, or what they don’t see. A reaction could be based upon a long-ago memory not quite present, but only sensed. One of our group had to leave that dark room that many of us found fascinating because she felt a certain dread.

Who can really tell what will move us? I remember standing outside Antoni Gaudí’s Sagrada Família in Barcelona with Jennifer, one of my traveling companions. As both of us stared at this amazing sacred place, we turned to each other and both of us were weeping.

While the art of the Biennale didn’t bring me to tears, some of it evoked strong reactions.

All-in-all, it was a really great (albeit hot!) day. And from my point of view, congratulations must go out to the organizers of this amazing event!

Here are some additional photos:

The Perfect World

The Perfect World, by Uttam Duniya

Butterflies with no shoes (inset)

Butterflies with no shoes (inset)

I know nothing of the end (inset)

I know nothing of the end (inset), by Sudarshan Shetty


Birds on the wall (outside Kashi)
Birds on the wall (outside Kashi)


The book
The book
Carved swan

Carved swan, by Sudarshan Shetty

Megha at hanging wood

Megha at hanging wood

Painted tree near the Chinese Fishing Nets

Painted tree near the Chinese Fishing Nets




Wellness through Ayurveda

Ever since I arrived here, I’ve heard about the marvels of Ayurveda. Actually, I’d heard about it before I got here, but apparently Kerala is the heart of it, so I decide to sign up and see what it’s all about.

They recommend a minimum of seven Ayurvedic treatments, one per day lasting about 1.5 hours. The first day, you see an Ayurvedic physician (or vaidya) and tell her (mine happens to be a woman) all about your aches and pains. My vaidya doesn’t ask for a medical history and I don’t have to sign a disclaimer or provide any written anything. Even though she speaks very good English, I “visibly demonstrate” my issues. I want to be clear about where I’m broken so I can be sure they will fix me right up!

Day 1:  I meet my masseuse (I’m not sure that’s what they’re called here), Dipti (meaning Light) and she takes me to a changing room where I … well, let me just say, there are no robes here ladies, so if you’re shy, you don’t want to do this! I follow her to the chamber (my term) that consists of a rather large, teak table.

I sit on a chair while my head gets massaged with hot oil, followed by my shoulders. Then, she points to the table, I climb up and lay down on my back to receive a massage with lots of hot oil: front, back, face, hands, feet, you name it. I will say that the table gets really slippery and is really hard!

The massage ends and I’m directed to a room for a steam. The steam “room” is actually one of those really old units where you sit on a stool and a piece of wood is inserted around your neck and the “door” is closed; your head is the only thing that’s showing. You remember these, I’m sure, from old movies, right? I’m completely soaked with oil and, well, actually, it reminds me of “cooking a goose.” (I told my friends at work later that I was oiled up and then sent to the broiler! They found this VERY funny!)

I am supposed to be in the steam “room” for 10 minutes, but honestly, when Dipti returns (probably less than five minutes has passed), I say, “I feel faint.” To which she replies, well, actually, she just looks perplexed. Clearly, we have a communication issue. So, I say, “Faint … you know, ahhhhhh” and I close my eyes and drop my head to one side. OK, a little dramatic, I’ll admit, but honestly, it is really hot in here. So, out I come and that ends my first day.

Day 2:  Today, I awake with a slight headache that thankfully goes away quickly, but during the night, I had a muscle spasm in my right thigh whenever I rolled over. I have a large bruise on my left thigh and my ribs are sore. I relay my ailments to Dipti, whereupon she presses on my thigh, presumably to make sure it still hurts.

There are two masseuses today and they are so in sync it feels like one person with many hands (like one of those goddesses you see everywhere over here). At the end of the hot oil massage, they do a synchronized kizhi treatment, consisting of small herbal pouches in cloth that they place on a heated plate and tamp on my body to release the healing herbs. They tell me that this will reduce the pain and swelling. And actually, the pain does go away once they stop the pounding. [OK, I’m just kidding here!]

I say to the doctor, “This is a process, right? So, by the end of the seven days, I’ll actually feel good, yes?”

I liken it to getting beaten up with small bags of sand and tell my work friends that yesterday I was oiled up and today I was tenderized with a hint of spice. The herbs smelled of, well, I’m not quite sure, perhaps Cardamom? Garam masala? I assumed I’d be ready for the broiler again, but they skipped that part. I’m hoping that gravy doesn’t make its way to Day 3 or I’ll be in real trouble.

Here’s a photo of the teak table and my healers.

Teak tables and my 'healers'

Teak tables and my ‘healers’

Day 3:  I am very sore today, with more bruises appearing, maybe because I bruise easily, maybe because I’m so pale you can see them! They do seem to be surprised by the bruises though. So I basically have the same treatment as yesterday, with one exception: when I am face down on the table, they put a pillow roll under my ankles. They clearly understood my whimpering yesterday about the pain in my knee caps as they pressed down on my legs, so I am really thankful for this.

Day 4:  I awake with a headache again today, but it goes away quickly. I REALLY don’t want to get up! I feel like I could sleep for another 12 hours! I am feeling really drained … probably because I go through these treatments and then go off to work a 12 hour day. Probably not the best way to do this! I tell Dipti that I need some energy today!!

What I get is another day of hot oil and kizhi, but I realize I am approaching this all wrong.

I decide I need to be one with the table. So, drawing on my brief Tai Chi experience (Judith would be proud … Calen will relate), I visually move the table to a forest (by the lake with five mountains). The table legs push their way through the moss into the soil, growing roots as they do so. Vines form on the legs and rise up to the top of the table. Flowers burst forth as I melt into the table top, drawing on the earth energy and becoming the table.  Outside noises disappear and all that can be heard is the song of the birds and the rustling of the wind through the trees.

When they begin pressing down on my arms as they lay across the edges of the table, I no longer feel the edges cutting into my skin … there are no edges, only the table, as we are one.

Today is a good day!

Day 5:  Hot oil and kizhi! The bruises are getting paler. My ribs are less painful. We may be getting somewhere.

Day 6:  As the kizhi treatments continue, I decide to follow the pain to its origins. During the hot oil massage, I reflect on the pain. I look internally to where it’s coming from. I’m afraid I’m not as good at this as I was at becoming one with the table. It seems to be less painful the more I focus though. Maybe I need more practice.

The kizhi seems to be hotter today. The pounding is the same, but the hot cloth feels like it’s on fire when it touches my skin. I decide to become the shaman who can walk over hot coals and not get burned. I envision myself lying on a bed of coals and not feeling the heat of it. It makes it bearable and in the end, there are neither blisters, nor red marks from the kizhi pouch.

Day 7:  The last of the treatments starts out the same. The kizhi is equally as hot today, so I encase my body in ice so that when the pouch touches my skin, it cools down immediately. I find myself smiling with the coolness of the touch.

The end of this day’s treatment is a therapy known as Sirodhara. This rejuvenating therapy is specifically designed to eliminate mental exhaustion and toxins. Thick threads are laid over my forehead just above the eye brows and wrapped behind my ears. Cotton is placed in my ears and wet pads across my eyes. Oil is then poured in a stream onto my forehead from a hanging golden urn some distance above me. The stream of oil sweeps slowly back and forth, like a pendulum swinging to the rhythm of some unknown universal music.

It is quite calming and I was given to understand that many people fall asleep during this therapy. I do not. I am whisked away to the outskirts of the universe where I see the planets moving in rhythm to the swinging pendulum. From here, I am pulled back to the top of what appears to be the Himalayas. The sky is crisp and clear and I can see the path before me. I have clarity of vision and feel like many pieces of a complicated puzzle are falling into place.

As I leave with my driver, Shaji, I am very calm and centered. And quite suddenly, as the colors and contrasts fly by, I realize I am looking through the chaos to the beauty beyond.


Happy Women’s Day!

To all my wonderful women friends, I wish you an absolutely wonderful day filled with special moments and endearing memories!

To be honest, I didn’t even know it was Women’s Day until this morning, when I was on my way to work.  I saw a ‘parade’ of women wearing the traditional Kerala sari of crème-colored cotton with gold edging (real gold I’m told, woven into the fabric) walking along the road with umbrellas to shield against the sun. They were following an open lorry with music playing from the back. My driver, Shaji, said, “They are walking in honor of Women’s Day.”

Women's Day March

Women’s Day March

I arrived at the office to find several young men and four or five women standing around the security desk where I sign in everyday. This was not usual, since typically, I come in at an odd time and no one is EVER standing by the security desk, except of course the security guards. In my usual fashion, I took in the scene, made a determination that they were engaged in some sort of photo shoot (someone had a camera) and began stepping aside, moving back, basically doing everything I could to avoid them.

They were all looking at me, which is not unusual, and then the young men started coming toward me.  One of them handed me a rose and said, “Happy Women’s Day!” while another took a photo. I replied, “WOW, this is pretty cool; thank you!” It turned out that the women were waiting around while they unwrapped a box containing chocolate bars that they were also handing out.

As I walked into the office, all the men that I saw said, “Happy Women’s Day” and they actually truly meant it! One of our team members came in and quite sincerely said he was really happy that I could be here for Women’s Day and he wished me all the best. Extraordinary!

One of my colleagues explained that in India they see women in the form of power. In the temples there are a number of very important devis (goddesses). He mentioned three Hindu goddesses, Saraswati (goddess of knowledge, music, arts and science), Lakshmi (goddess of wealth, prosperity (material and spiritual), fortune and the embodiment of beauty) and Prithvi (the mother goddess, in Sanskrit meaning earth). Prithvi and Lakshmi are both wives of Lord Vishnu.

When I looked these up, I found that two are part of what is called the triplet goddesses of Hinduism. Brahma is creator, so he needs knowledge or goddess Saraswati to create. Vishnu is observer, so he needs the goddess of wealth and prosperity, Lakshmi. And finally, Shiva is destroyer and re-creator, so he needs the goddess Kali (aka Parvati or Durga) for power.

My Hindu colleagues have mentioned 330 million deities. I’ve asked if they know them all, and I get very interesting answers.

The firm sponsored 100 of our women employees to attend a session and High Tea at the Crown Plaza from 2:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. (They were all dressed up for the occasion!) A presentation of 100 key women in history was included (our creative team put it together) and I understand they did other empowerment kinds of things.

Several of us decided it was a good day to not actually do any work … and then we all laughed and went back to work!! But later, we went outside for photos; here are a couple.

Gidget, Asha, Neelima, me skipping work

Gidget, Asha, Neelima, me skipping work

Gidget, Asha, me having a coffee

Gidget, Asha, me having a coffee

And so the day was bright with acknowledgement and you could tell that the men of India were happy to have such wonderful women around!

[Post Script: I was telling a friend about the High Tea at the Crown Plaza and said it was at the Crown Royal. After our laughter subsided, I said “I haven’t had a drink since I’ve been here and clearly I’m in need of one.” And then we laughed some more.]

Kodenad Elephant Kraal

When I was here last August, my UK colleague, Scott, told me about this place. He showed me some amazing photos of the elephants getting bathed in the river and recommended that I add it to my list for my return. So, when Marion, my US colleague who was here for several weeks, said, “What shall we do this weekend?” I immediately thought of this.

Along with several other teammates, we met at the Holiday Inn and in two cars, started off toward the sanctuary, which lies 45 km northeast of Cochin. The drive was quite beautiful as we passed through small towns alongside rivers with lovely mountain views in the distance. As is the case with travel in India, the traffic and road conditions meant that the approximately 28 miles took us about an hour and a half.

In days gone by, Kodenad was one of the largest elephant capturing and training centres in Southern India. In 1977 (not so long ago, really), the capture of elephants became illegal, but the elephant kraal and training centre still exists as a reserve and sanctuary for these remarkable animals.

The energy of the darkened wooden training ‘building’ was heavy with the echoes of the past. The thick wood and ghostly interior was rather frightening. But right next to it stood a couple of babies covered with thick, prickly hair that made them look like baby mammoths. Very cute they were!

The edge of the kraal

An edge of the training centre



Several of us were fortunate enough to take a ride on one of the six very large elephants set up with ‘saddles’ to carry passengers. One of our group saw the elephant being led away, presumably for lunch, and ran up to ask if we could have a ride. So back they came and three of us walked up the metal stairs and climbed on board. I tried to envision riding on one of these immense creatures for endless miles across India in days gone by. The heat, the shifting and exaggerated rocking, the slow, deliberate movements was not something I would have wanted to do for long distances, but the experience was tremendously exciting.

Ready to board

Ready to board

The elephant is the state animal of Kerala and they are used quite frequently, particularly in temple festivals. There’s actually a famous Elephant Palace, the only one in the world, near the Guruvayur temple in Punnathurkotta, that houses the temple’s 60+ elephants. There are also famous elephants, many made famous by the numbers of people they trample … go figure! I was told by my Indian banker that if you search for famous Indian elephants, you will find many reports of the famous and not so famous. So I did, and found this interesting site: Colors of India. They should probably reconsider their choice of color used in their text, but it does provide some interesting facts.

While I was staying in the hotel, I was fortunate enough to see a Temple Festival parade that included two very large, male Indian elephants robed in glittering gold with bells and lavish necklaces. People holding tinseled silk parasols and peacock feathered fans swayed back and forth as the elephants moved slowly forward to the beating of large drums. At one point, fireworks went off, but the elephants didn’t blink, clearly used to it (although I nearly fell out of the window).

So, back to the Kodenad. If you get up really early and get to the sanctuary in the morning, you can actually help bathe the elephants as they are taken to the river and brushed and washed by their handlers (called mahouts or pappan in Malayalam, the language of Kerala). We, of course, were lucky to make it by lunch. But we had a lovely time and, what can I say … I got to ride an elephant!!

Riding an elephant

Riding an elephant

Moving week

After moving from the Le Meridien (no more rooms available) to the Holiday Inn (in retrospect, a nicer hotel, but no Starwood points 8-), I moved into my flat this week.

It’s located on the backwaters with Bolgatty Island the only piece of land separating me from the sea. I can see the Port of Cochin from my balcony and the massive ships that come in regularly. One such ‘cargo carrier’ moves back and forth all day and night from the Port to the North side of Bolgatty island on the backwater side. It’s carrying containers that have been off-loaded from ships that can’t travel the more shallow waters of the backwater. Now that there’s a new road that connects Bolgatty Island with the city, the containers can be lifted from the carrier to trucks that will take them to their final destinations.

Barge carrying containers

Barge carrying containers

Behind my building is a bird sanctuary, so lots of green, but I can only see a portion of it from the ladies health club on the 14th floor. Next to the sanctuary is the fisheries department and the National Institute of Oceanography.

Indian Pond Heron

Indian Pond Heron

The flat is not in the building I originally looked at last August, as none were available. While this one is on the same road, the other was closer to shops and within walking distance of restaurants and markets. There’s a walkway out front that runs by the water that should be completed in the next month or so. It will connect the walkway that started in front of the previous building, so I’m hoping I’ll be able to walk down to the shopping area at some point. I’ve been told that it would be unsafe for me to walk along the road, and so, I’m trusting my colleagues’ instincts and use my driver when I have a need to go somewhere.

The building I’m in is fairly new and the space is pretty large. It has three bedrooms, three bathrooms, a half bath off the dining room for guests and a half bath off the laundry room for the help. I have a washer, but no dryer, only lines strung across the laundry room (Val would feel right at home).

As colleagues arrived this week from the US, it took me until Friday to find the time to go shopping for some of the things that weren’t included in the furnished flat. Things I needed were towels (I had one), dishes, flatware, kitchen knives and other cooking utensils, frying and sauté pans (a couple of pots were left), glasses, coffee pot, tea kettle and hairdryer. To be honest, the two biggest things were the hairdryer and coffee pot, although I’ve been drinking mostly tea since I’ve been here. And, it’s a good thing I had my hair cut really short, so it didn’t look too terrible!

I also bought some food, so now I can start packing my lunch and actually having breakfast before heading off to work.

Technology has been a real issue, as I don’t have internet connectivity, so therefore, no WiFi at my flat. I met with an internet provider this week and they are starting to work on that. Fingers crossed!

So, I’m settling in, and will be figuring out ways to put my own personal touches on the place. I need to buy a Kerala cookbook so I can begin my training in the fine art of India food.

Sunset view

Sunset view

Upon arrival: Remembered first impressions of India

My flight from Singapore to the Cochin International Airport was an hour late and I arrived after 11:00 pm. I gathered my checked baggage … oh, my, I can hear you saying, “You actually checked baggage?” Yes, for my six months to a year, I needed to take too many liquids over three ounces. So, I decided since I was checking one bag, I’d go ahead and check two. So I didn’t carry much onto the plane this time, which was really nice! I can now see why people check bags! Except of course, when you get on the other end and have to wait … and wait … and wait! But arrive they did, for which I was truly grateful. (You all know how bad my baggage karma is!).

My driver was waiting and even though I got into the car totally exhausted, I spent the time looking through the darkness getting glimpses of things along the roadways I had forgotten.

For example, I was reminded of the buildings with rows of small lights draped over them, similar to Christmas lights, but not limited just to December.

I saw people, including children, walking at this very late hour, very close to the road, their backs to the oncoming traffic, completely oblivious and totally unconcerned about the cars passing very close by.

I remembered the billboards, all different sizes and shapes; really large ones with faces of people looming out of the night sky. And smaller rectangular ones, all colorful with messages in interesting and beautifully written languages that I couldn’t even begin to grasp the meaning of. Signage here overwhelms the senses, blocks the views and hangs from fences, poles and even trees. The environment is colored by flowers, greenery and overwhelmed with signs vying for your attention! There’s certainly no such thing as Post no bills here.

Fairly organized signs

Fairly organized signs

I recalled a time in the US when many more billboards and signs dotted the landscape, grabbing your attention and clouding the beauty of the land. It made me realize how grateful I am to Lady Bird Johnson for her Beautification Campaign.

I got to the hotel after midnight and went to bed about 2:30 am. I didn’t wake until 1:00 pm and I couldn’t believe my eyes when I looked at the clock and it read 1300. So, it was a really good thing I came on the weekend.