The blurred view from my window seat was breathtaking as the plane lowered to the land of green. Kerala. There was a calm in the air that seemed to infect all the passengers as we exited the aircraft into the open, unaffected by the light rain tickling the deep green branches surrounding the airport. The infallible work of God, I thought. A little more effort in the strokes on this particular canvas.
My assigned guide was about five minutes late, comfortably managing his 'dhoti', the traditional Indian garment for men particularly in South India that consists of a piece of cloth loosely wrapped around their lower body, while he held my name board with the other hand. Murli, also the name of a musical instrument in India, welcomed me with a big smile that flashed a set of very white teeth, especially in comparison to his dark complexion. I had no idea what to expect of this trip as I had booked the package online, marveled by the picture gallery alone! Completely spontaneous. No friends, no acquaintances, my first real tour in a country I was visiting for the first time, all by myself, a nation that still has a long way to conquer gender differences; it is quite unusual for my gender to take off all alone on a journey like this, and I was reminded of it by locals in Bangalore repeatedly. Maybe more so because I do not look very foreign for I happen to originate from the neighboring rival, Pakistan. I had no other option but to trust. Trust God for protection, the agent for a support system, the driver not to kidnap me, the staff (three men), who would be my only companions for the next 24 hours on the houseboat exclusively booked for me, not to turn into serial killers and throw my chopped body into the water. Trust. I'm good at that. So that's the way to go. Dismiss all negativity and go experience Kerala's notorious backwaters, I thought as we headed to meet Sebastian, my initial contact for the tour, at his office.
It was reassuring to hear Sebastian speak so confidently of both the driver/guide and the houseboat crew. "It's totally safe, you don't worry," he said about three times during our brief conversation. After relieving my bank account of about $500 I was off with Murli to one of the most exciting and adventurous experiences of my life. And although it may sound strange considering I was alone and am so very single, it was very romantic. The weather, the boat's interior, my choice of music playing to the tune of the relaxed waves, minus a mate, it was indeed romantic.
As soon as I set foot on 'my' boat, I was welcomed with a coconut drink and from that moment on, I lost track of everything but my unearthly surroundings. My bedroom was impressive; fresh towels and a small box of herbal soap were carefully laid out on the double-bed between two side-tables facing a spacious wooden cupboard on the left, the unique bathroom door in the center to the left of my second-favorite part of the room, the built-in writing table. A glance at that put me in the shoes of Florentino Ariza in Marquez Gabriel's Love in the Time of Cholera. My favorite, the two windows, set a feet apart, looking more like dwarfed doors, giving an infinite view of the waters outside.
Lunch was served shortly after a friendly introduction between the employees and myself. Coconut. Almost all edible items have a coconut flavor to them, which may not be my idea of fine dining, but the rest of the experience was far too distracting to think about food. And the chef worked well with what he had. I spent most of the time till dark in the open area on a comfortable sofa, sipping my welcome drink, and later, fresh coffee, gazing through the stitched arches at the water and the green lining small villages we passed by. Dark was when I felt a tinge of discomfort as the realization of spending the night with three foreigners in the midst of practically a jungle dawned upon me. But again, I didn't entertain frightening possibilities for long. After tying our boat to a banana tree with a single rope and stating that this is where we would put up for the rest of the evening, the staff wondered out amid the congested trees and goats. I followed. But it wasn't long before insects I didn't even know existed feasted on my legs and I decided to go back to my home for the night. Dinner was a little difficult to digest as I saw mosquitoes fall casually into the good-looking vegetarian dishes laid out in front of me. I called it a night and retired into my room.
I slept in the lap of nature. For the first time. I could see the backwaters from my bed before my eyes reluctantly shut the serene image right before me, I knew our boat was tied to a tree in some unknown village with the deafening sound of the inhabitants (insects) outside my room, and there was nothing even close to civilization nearby. And with abbreviated thoughts of fear, I managed to sleep for four hours of disrupted sleep. At one of the breaks, I saw a tiny boat passing by my window, an old man probably going to his house at about 1 a.m. After making sure he wasn't going to break into my room, I dozed off, once again in the lap of nature. And seeing the sunrise couldn't have been more beautiful, even in my soporific state. I woke up refreshed and energized to a huge breakfast, also including a coconut curry of some kind, along with omelette and toast. I didn't want the journey to end and held on to every moment thereafter until we reached our ending point. I joined 'the captain' on the deck, savoring the cool breeze brushing my face, attaching memories to the songs playing in the background. My last thoughts on the houseboat experience, 'that's definitely going in the treasure box."
I found Murli waiting for me. The next destination was a hill-station, also in Kerala. We met snakes and flowers on the way and I bravely took my chances at the first waterfall. It was truly majestic. I think after Niagara Falls about twenty years ago, this was my first encounter with one, which must have explained my childish reaction that involved jumping out of the car and running to the opening, getting completely soaked and still loving it. I climbed as far as it was possible and connected with nature in a different way. The force of the water, the height of the fall belittled my being to the core! And I loved the feeling. And despite my dripping state, we still stopped at all the scenic spots on the way to the hotel. Upon arrival, reasonably, I collapsed into a 9-hour deep sleep!
The next day was a little less of nature, more adventure. I took my first elephant ride! Huge. Massive. I had seen elephants before but to be on one was a different story altogether. And I have to add, when the elephant stopped to pee, I thought it would never end! The size explains it. After the elephant, the horse ride seemed, well, overshadowed. Also I think the horse was not in a good mood, and neither was his master! But that didn't mar my joy. I continued having specialty tea every hour at the tiny stalls, bought home-made chocolates and did some tourist shopping from the streets. The day ended with an ayurvedic massage, which Kerala is famous for. My first body massage ever, I felt like I was floating in pure luxury. It was a basic but clean center with courteous, professional staff, at least as professional as I have seen in India so far. My masseur was a sweet, charming girl in her late twenties. Ayurvedic treatments include massages that encourage blood circulation, cure diseases and implant relaxation. I'm sure I am missing more benefits, but those are the prominent ones. As a one-time experience, it's a definite yes!
The fourth day was my last, but my generous driver also made that memorable by taking all sorts of detours to the airport so I could see as much as time would permit. I realized after landing back in Bangalore, I had a smile plastered on my face till I fell asleep. I didn't leave Kerala behind.