GOD’S OWN COUNTRY
Kerala, India is known as God’s Own Country. With it’s backwaters and tea plantations it looked like, once again, nothing I’d ever seen before. It’s also respectful to many religions including Jainism, Hinduism, Christianity, and Judaism. It has a thriving Communist Party and embraces socialism. Malayalam is the most common spoken language in Kerala, not Hindi. Ayurvedic treatments, yoga, and amazing South Indian cuisine rounded out the trip.
As with Brazil and Australia, I needed a travel visa to visit India. Every country has its own travel visa rules. But I’ve learned to be patient, do exactly as they say, and come prepared.
This process started in early June. After six temporary IDs, four trips to CKGS (the company the Indian Embassy outsources to process its travel visas), three different web browsers, two tracking IDs, two missing additional proofs of ID, waiting 10-15 business days, and one carefully worded email to sort out the hold-up, I was finally able to book my airfare, lodging, and day trips…just three weeks shy of my scheduled departure.
Given that I was also applying for a design patent at the same time, dealing with two bureaucratic nightmares … tew much.
ANTI-BLACKNESS IN INDIA
I was aware of the caste system before arriving to India. Further reading of abuses to dark-skinned Indians and people of African descent game me pause. But people have a way of showing up and being their best selves. I saw that. But I also experienced staring that was rude at best, hostile at worst. The vast majority of Indian people I met were generous and hospitable. But from strangers, this was my experience:
At every airport. Every mode of transportation. Nearly everywhere I sat to eat, or wash my hands. A lot of lines in my actual journal are dedicated to the anxiety this induced. It was intimidating, awkward — at times humorous. You’re told this happens because many native Indians don’t come across a lot of foreigners, especially those who are black. Given that millions of foreign travelers come to this country every year, I found that hard to believe. I also experienced classic street harassment and unwelcome advances, which I will briefly cover in the next few entries.
I could let those negative experiences define my entire time in India. But that would disregard the kind, intelligent, honest, funny, generous people I met along this journey. Their stories will be here as well.
"ALL YOUR SENSES AROUND BITTER, SPICY, SMOKY, TART, EARTHY ARE TRIGGERED, AND COMING OVER YOU IN THESE WAVES. THEN 20-30 MINUTES LATER, YOU TASTE NOTHING. YOU FEEL NOTHING. LIKE NOTHING EVERY HAPPENED. LIKE GOOD SEX."
My room tempted me to stay in and not be social. But the two days it took to get here reminded me to take advantage of a full day in Fort Kochi. After breakfast, I secured a motor cycle day tour and just loved how freeing it was be on the scooter. One thing I loved about traffic here is that, give or take a cop, it’s self-managed. The combination of drivers, motorcycles, and pedestrians make it impossible to over-regulate. And as long as you’re a little fearless, it’s actually easy and safe to navigate.
My guide took me to the Kochi Museum, the ancient synagogue in Jewtown, and Alleppey Beach. But we mostly rode around town. We were going off the beaten path, as I saw fewer and fewer tourists. Unfortunately, the one place I wanted to visit—the Jainist Temple—was closed to visitors until later this month.
Now, the spicy masala we get in the States—even highly-rated authentic Indian restaurants—don’t make them very spicy. But bae-BAE when I tell you this masala…orgasm was the best word to describe it. Fusion Bay in Fort Kochi is typical of a local favorite: small, unassuming, near touristy areas but not overcrowded. Then it hits you with the best regional cuisine. All your senses around bitter, spicy, smoky, tart, earthy are triggered, and coming over you in these waves. Then 20-30 minutes later, you taste nothing. You feel nothing. Like nothing every happened. Like good sex.
I ventured to a Kathikali show and listened to classical Indian music. That evening’s performance focused on the sitar of Northern India. All I have to say is respect the game. The music was like jazz, with room for solos what seemed like improvisations. I was so overcome with the Raja, the feeling, that I began to cry. During the Q&A, I asked about last song’s meaning. The percussionist said it was meant to evoke a kind of sadness; to live in that feeling. Word, yung.
The show started at 9pm, but on the way it did not take long before street harassers approached. One asked me where I was from. I told him the U.S. and kept walking, but he continued to walk with me. He asked if I was from Jamaica or South Africa. I turned to him and said, in the clearest American accent,
If you know where I’m from, you will respect me.
That stopped him. But left me very terrified. Fort Kochi did not have a lot street lights. And guys kept staring and following. Just when I lost all faith, a friend I made here named Aaron came up on his bike and invited me to dinner. He’s travelled more, and his worldview was more nuanced. I told him how good it was to see him. He told me that there is a saying in Kerala. When a guest comes to our country, we are to treat them like a God, or like the way we would want to be treated.
The next morning, I made my way to Munnar, thinking about the good, bad, and ugly of traveling alone, as an African American. It comes with challenges, but there’s too much kindness and beauty in the world to let it pass you by.
"THIS AIN'T TEAVANA, WHERE TEA COMES OUT LOOKING LIKE GRANOLA."
The road to Munnar was a long and winding 3 hours and 45 minutes. I snaked up to the mountains of Munnar, with visions of tea plantations in my head. But every few minutes felt like Mad Max. My driver was skilled. But when I saw a skull and crossbones on one of the few traffic signs, my lower-lip curled.
By day, Gruenberg Tea Plantation Haus was one of the most beautiful experiences I’ve ever had. Up there with the beaches of Jericoacoara, and witnessing the first inauguration of President Obama. Nestled into a working tea garden on all sides. I got a tastefully decorated room, with a balcony and views of the mountains and garden. People sung nightly chants as I walked the garden grounds.
Munnar is more like a farming town. Munnar Village is a small town of about 30,000, all of whom either work in eco-tourism or for the privately-owned tea gardens. Tata tea company is owned and operates exclusively in India and owns really all the gardens in Munnar. Tea pickers live on the grounds, and the company covers housing, utilities, health care, and education for their children. All workers are adult. Most are women, but some are men. They get paid Rs300/day, and work a standard 8-hour shift including breaks.
Munnar was like Napa Valley to us. Where the focus in winemaking is about environmental factors, tea growers focus on the process: The use of silver oak trees planted in set distances, to rehydrate the tea trees. Determining which tea leaves work best. Separating black, green, and white tea leaves. A cutting and drying process that dries the outside, but keeps enough moisture inside the leaves.
They also focus on refined powder tea over our preference for visible leaves. This ain’t Teavana, where tea comes out looking like granola. Rather, the best teas in India come out feeling like talcum powder. For example at the Talayer Tea Factory, they refine up to six types of tea. And guess which one the U.S. gets? The crappiest, grainiest, lowest grade tea. Even I wasn’t smart enough to get some well-refined tea.
Our hotel’s local tour guide and fixer gave me and a few guests a walking tour of the area. Cloves, cardamon, coffee, peppers, tree tomatoes, lemon trees, nutmeg, sandalwood, tumeric, are all grown here. Either cultivated or grow wild on the side of the road. We also went into town, and checked out the markets.
Through the cultivation of quality tea, prayer, meditation, yoga, and Ayurveda, India has cultivated a sense that life is hard. Hard enough to practice relaxation.
In Part 2, I’ll get into the more passive phase of the trip, Tamil Nadu and an Ayurvedic ashram in Palakkad.
Sela Lewis is the owner of Inherent Design by Sela Lewis (IDSL). She is a graphic designer, world traveler, feminist, a pretty decent cook, and a strong believer in the power of fashion and design. Sela has worked in such varied settings as commercial real estate, law firms, retail, and political campaigns. Currently she works in education advocacy. IDSL is based on the idea the strong design is set within the fibers of the work. More Sela: Inherent Design By Sela Lewis