Update from Kerala
I realize that the term ‘Indian subcontinent’ is primarily a geographical term, referring to what is considered a single land mass, flanked and separated by oceans and mountains. But it seems that we could continue with this theme, and start examining individual states as countries. Just as the geographical features separate the subcontinent, the vast cultural features divide the country into states. Certainly the island city of Mumbai, with its 14 million inhabitants, could be examined in this manner. The people of Mumbai share a unique culture, dialect, and history, all of which combine to make a place unlike anywhere else in the country. Karnataka seems to be the state of empires, with the endless ruins of Hampi and the splendour of Mysore. It has become a recent source of amusement to watch our drivers resort to the lingua franca of English as we travel south as Hindi isn’t widely understood outside of the north.
Kerala too has its own unique identity; certainly from the seat of the bicycle it has a different feel and look about it. As we descend out of the unforgettable tea plantations, massive churches and old synagogues now join mix with the ubiquitous temples and mosques. We are hit with a wave of heat and humidity, unlike anything we’ve experienced thus far, and lush forests bear testament to the land’s astonishing fertility. Welcome to Kerala, “God’s own country” as the locals put it, lush, green, tropical, humid; a sliver of a state, separated from the rest of the country by the imposing Ghats and dominated by rubber, spice and tea plantations. As we entered Kerala, our final state to be seen on the tour, we experienced a change more dramatic than any other on the tour.
Travelling by bicycle our observations are inherently superficial, this is not to say that they are not unique. No other traveler will observe the change in elevation, temperature, smell, landscape, etc, quite as intimately as the cyclist. We observe the geology and geography as it morphs along our path, and we interact with the locals, noting a change in the way we are received from place to place. We see the places of worship and the frequency with which they appear along our route. The inner workings of India, with its corrupted politics, intricate caste system and esoteric rituals, go on unobserved.
Kerala is the final state to be visited on the tour, and the group is beginning to sense the end is near. Talk of seeing loved ones, continued travels, or the comforts of home inevitably become a focal point for conversation, which is normal. But I fear there is much more sinister talk around the table. Blasphemous talk of adjusting diet and cutting back intake. The long awaited embrace of a lover back home, that I can appreciate, but cutting back caloric intake? The trip ain’t over yet folks! Just as no other traveler can boast the same intimacy with the environment as the cyclist, no one else is better equipped to enjoy the culinary delights the country has to offer. For no other traveler eats, or should eat, like a cyclist. Now, more than ever, is the time to relish our final days in India. Each of us has a life waiting back home, but I can guarantee the days aren’t as exhilarating and exciting as the days we spend cycling across this colourful and chaotic country, nor as delicious.
That wall of heat and humidity waiting for us in Kerala has produced a thirst of mythological proportions. Take us to the man with the blackened machete skillfully slicing the tops off fresh coconuts, and while we wait, get the sugar cane juice vendor to run another cane through the press; his sweet green frothy elixir is the poor man’s Gatorade, and the perfect antidote for this heat. There isn’t a hotel in the country that can bring a fresh lime soda quick enough, so you better order them two at a time, and as far as I’m concerned there’s only two sizes of Kingfisher beer in this country: regular (650ml) and baby sized (350ml).
All along this trip the pigs have been mocking me. They trot through the towns casually chewing on sugar cane and orange peels. They wallow in the mud next to the sacred cow, neither seem particularly concerned about their fates. I’m told only the lower castes eat the pigs, and the irony is not lost on me. But here in Kerala the sacred cow isn’t quite so sacred; curried beef in its various guises appears on menus around town. God’s own country indeed! We’ll have to wait for home to get our porky fix, but in the mean time we can now get our fill of coconut beef fry to go along with the juicy chicken tikka, and spiced mutton biryani that have become group favourites.
Yes this is our final state, yes the trip is almost over, but now more than ever is the time to eat because once we get home it’s not going to taste nearly as good. As our observations on the country encompass such a limited scope, food takes on an even more important role to the way we experience the culture. If we all roll home shaped like a gulab jamun, friends and loved ones can be sure that we’ve had a good time.