Through the years, India has developed quite a piece of stardom in the world’s stage, from its 1.1 billion rivaling China’s population, Indira Ghandi, Regular Ghandi, its colorful saris and spices, adopted oh-so-well by yoga teachers of the Western World. (Even the Indian guys we met there said, “Um, we don’t do ‘yoga’. We call it stretching.”) There lies this rose-colored version of a romantic India, ignoring the mosquitoes, malaria, garbage, slums and the scent of feet-and-curry at the Taj Mahal.
However, on my trip to India a couple years ago with my business school class, I took India for what it was – a developing nation thrust into the digital age, clashing classes and traditions, regular guys and girls our age kicking our asses in MBAs and engineering. That aside, I was able to overlook the garbage piling in Delhi and enjoy the cleanliness of Bangalore, the cow-strung beaches of Goa, but I believe my favorite was the backwaters of Kerala.
From Bangalore, my friend and classmate Boris and I flew Kingfisher Airlines (same company that makes the local beer) down to Cochin in the south. We were greeted with a waft of extremely humid air that settled onto our skin and didn’t leave. We had booked a houseboat to take us along these famous backwaters – a network of waterways from Cochin to Kollam, passing through different villages and towns that live and survive off these waters. It would give us a real look into southern Indian life, far from the frightening tuk-tuk traffic of Delhi.
There are several backwater houseboat tours, but we went through TourIndia (www.tourindiakerala.com) who booked us on a two-day, one night trip. For about $100, we got a private boat with a double bedroom equipped with mosquito net, full bathroom with shower, an upper sitting deck, a boat driver, a chef and a tour guide. Our guide even ran out to buy us beers that we requested.
It was all incredibly romantic, although Boris was engaged and Jon was back in L.A. Ironically, the night we took our boat tour, Boris’ fiance was hanging out with Jon for Jon’s birthday while Boris and I lay back on our rattan deck chairs watching the rivers go by in the sunset. For dinner, our chef prepared a seven-course meal served on plaintain leaves of local Kerala style. Now, for someone who can take about 2 days worth of Indian cuisine, I really enjoyed our dinner. Boris decided to eat it Kerala-style, which is with your fingers.
The backwater residents truly lived by this water – they did laundry in it, they bathed in it, they brushed their teeth in it, they washed their dishes out in it, they also used it as a toilet. Later I saw our chef cleaning out our dishes in the river as well, but fortunately and surprisingly, I never actually got sick in India. Being about 95 degrees and humid outside, Boris decided to go for a swim in it with the locals, and later sealed up his wet swimtrunks in a bag and packed it in his suitcase – later, when he unpacked in Goa, it created such a reeking stink in our hotel room that he had to hang it outside.
At night we parked along the side and listened to crickets and watched stars and lanterns glow in the houses like lamps on the water. Boris and I, already accustomed to random travel situations, tucked in our mosquito net and crawled into our double bed and gossiped about people in our business school class until we passed out. In the morning, the sun rose with a tiny bite of it missing – a sun eclipse, that is. The tour ended by noon, and a taxi took us back to Cochin- an hour ride, only $13.