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Our first stop in India was the city of Mumbai. We would spend two quick days here before flying to the southern state of Kerala. We were amazed by the efficiency of the people. We saw the famous Dhobi Ghat, which is the largest open air laundromat in the world. All of the clothing is washed by hand, beaten against stones, and hung to dry. It made you wonder if you had ever worked a hard day in your life.
In addition to this, we saw men pushing huge wheelbarrows full of lunch pails through the streets of the city. Our guide explained that these men, called dabbawalas, are part of a lunch delivery service. They take hot, home-cooked lunches from the homes to the offices of hundreds of thousands of people every day. Many of them come from small villages and lack reading skills, so the lunches are labeled with a numeric code that gets them from A to B. They are so famous for their accuracy, I’ve heard that they make one mistake in every six million deliveries. Take that, Seamless!
The word thali literally means plate in Hindi, and that’s exactly what this dish is — a large platter filled with small portions of various dishes in a range of flavors. I’d like to say that Andy and I weren’t complete Indian food novices when we arrived in Mumbai, but I remember slightly panicking when this platter was set down in front of us. I wasn’t really sure how to approach this. What goes with what? I didn’t want to be the clueless person doing the equivalent of putting sugar on top of my French fries. I prodded the waiter for tips, but he just plopped more (and more) food onto my plate. You often received endless portions with this platter. In the end, I did embarrass myself by accidentally dipping the garlic naan into my pudding.
It’s common in India for people to eat with their hands (always one and typically the right) and we did try that many times, but let me tell you, it is a fine art to break apart naan bread and scoop up curry with just the fingertips of one hand. We were always excused for our lack of dining skills and happily offered some silverware.
With its endless festivals, India can feel like it’s in a constant state of celebration. Our very first night in Mumbai was also the first night of the Hindu festival Navratri. Navratri lasts nine days and 10 nights, and is dedicated to the worship of the Hindu deity Durga. That night we blindly wandered out of our hotel and stumbled down some barely lit roads until we came upon a little neighborhood bursting with lights, music, and people dancing in the streets. We hadn’t been there more than five minutes when a little girl came out of the crowd and begged us to join her dance circle. There were about 20 young people dancing together on the street with music blaring like a real life musical. We were so shocked by her openness and desire to share this experience with total strangers. It was an all-inclusive celebration of life.
After our short stay in Mumbai, we flew down to Kerala which is known as “God’s Own Country” for its abundance of natural beauty. There’s also a mix of religions, such as Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity, co-existing there. Kerala is a land of lush greenery, brilliant beaches, exotic animals and spices. And in contrast to bustling Mumbai, it felt serene and laid-back.
We began a road trip through the state from the coastal city of Kochi. We rented a car and hired a driver through a tour agency a friend of ours had worked with on his own visit. That might sound like a very luxurious way to travel, but in India it was more than reasonable for the amount of miles we were covering, and for the lack of reliable public transportation. We spent two days exploring the historical town of Fort Kochi, which has been drawing explorers for over 600 years. Because of this, Kochi is an interesting mashup of Portuguese houses, Chinese fishing traditions, and relics from the British occupation. Here, the ubiquitous tuk-tuk sits under a massive tree near the coastline.
While in Kochi, we caught a traditional Kathakali performance. Kathakali is one of the oldest forms of theater in the world — originating in the area that is now known as Kerala over 1,500 years ago. It’s based on Hindu mythology and combines music, dance, drama, costume, and elaborate makeup. The performers do not speak, but use purposeful body movements and exaggerated facial expressions to convey the story. This performance began with the two artists sitting on the stage applying their makeup — which was an artform in itself. Then, one performer went through a facial expression exercise which boggled our minds. He displayed how he could shift his eyes up and down at a rapid pace. That might sound simple, but try darting your eyes up and down about 10 times without feeling like you’re going to faint. Finally, we got to experience a shortened version of this elaborate performance, which can sometimes last for days.