Belladonna Bess

An edible garden in Wellington, NZ

Necessities and luxuries December 16, 2014

Filed under: Environment,India,Invasive species,Photos,Travel — belladonnabess @ 5:27 pm
Tags: , , , ,

In spite of my time here, I still have no understanding of the reality of life for most Indians. I’m aware that Kerala is not representative. I don’t know exactly what “communism” has consisted of in Kerala, but the result is a wealthy state, where wages are considered high and the inequalities less pronounced than elsewhere. Many people here are mobile, spending years in the Middle East, earning good money and returning to build big houses to make their neighbours jealous. Their children are well-educated and scattered across the world, but it seems less certain that they will return.


This is not, of course, the same for everyone in Kerala. In a couple of places in particular I have seen a little of what life is like for the people who are less well-off. I saw some around the tea plantations of Munnar and Wayanad, and some around the backwaters in Kumarakhom and Allepuzha. I could also watch my neighbours, immigrants from northern India and renting a rather substandard house, as they went about their daily life.


Electricity, though sometimes unreliable, appears almost universal in Kerala houses. Apart from a tiny tent community in Ernakulum (the only evidence of homelessness I saw), there always seemed to be electricity lines running to the houses. This would provide lighting and charge a cellphone and maybe run a fan, but, I suspect, little else. Kerala has not reached the degree of wealth where you can own a television and be considered poor.


Despite the climate, fridges are also on the luxury list for these poorer houses, condemning the women to the constant labour of preparing food fresh, since such things as cooked rice and curries cannot be stored. Nor can items such as milk, fish and vegetables. I can’t imagine life without a fridge in New Zealand, let alone the climate of India.


I have more comprehension of life without a washing machine, as I have mentioned in a previous post. I’m actually yet to see one here in any house I have visited, and I’m pretty sure that rather than being a luxury item they are simply considered unnecessary. They aren’t particularly practical for many of the clothes, and if you can afford to spend the money on a washing machine, you can probably afford pay someone to do the washing for you. The washing machine may wash your clothes, but it won’t remove them from the machine, put them out to dry and then fold up the dried clothes for you.


As far as I can tell, some items that we consider essential are almost unknown here. I’ve seen no sign of clothes driers or ovens. The cooking style doesn’t use ovens, and I suspect that clothes driers are both impractical for the clothing and prohibitively expensive to run. I can’t help thinking that they would be useful in the humid climate though.


On the other hand, I’m yet to see a house without ceiling fans. Air conditioning is a luxury but popular, but I think that living in a house without fans would be considered hardship – worse than life without a fridge.


Cars are another item that are considered virtually essential in New Zealand, but they are a definite luxury here. I don’t know how much a car costs to buy, but petrol is comparatively expensive – it was somewhere around NZ$1.40 per litre. This sounds cheap to us, but in comparison to incomes and other prices it is not. A 10-15 minute trip on a bus cost me 14 cents, while the same journey in an “auto” (auto-rickshaw, basically a scooter combined with a rickshaw) cost about $1.60. A similar bus fare in Wellington would cost more than 20 times the Kerala price, and I’d wait a lot longer for a bus. On the other hand, Wellington buses come with windows.


Motorbikes and scooters are more common than cars, and it’s not too uncommon to see Mum, Dad and a child or two on a scooter. Most were ridden by men, but it was common enough to see women ride them too. Scooters seem more popular with women as you can wear a sari and ride a scooter. For passengers, it’s easy enough to ride pillion on a bike wearing salwar kameez (or churidar as they call the outfit in Kerala) – I know because I’ve done it myself. But if the passenger on a bike is wearing a sari or full Islamic hijab, she’ll ride sidesaddle.


While motorbikes a common, helmets are just slightly more common than washing machines. Most of the ones I saw appeared ornamental, as they weren’t done up. I don’t want to think about the road toll, although mercifully the congestion does keep the speed down in many places.


Of all the necessity/ luxury distinctions, it is the situation with water which is the farthest from my comprehension. We’ve all heard about the hazards of water in India. I’ve had dire warnings from the travel doctor, colleagues and friends about amoebic dysentery, cholera and typhoid. I spent my first two weeks here in a state of paranoia about every drop, even using bottled water for tooth brushing.


But I’ve reached the point now that if I was to visit any reasonably well-off house in Kerala, I’d take an offered glass of water and happily drink it. This is not because I’ve discovered that Kerala water is pristine – it’s because boiling household drinking water is routine here. On the scale of necessity to luxury, drinking water directly from the tap doesn’t appear – it is somewhere beyond.


Domestic water supplies come from a range of sources – reticulated supply in some towns, household wells, rainwater tanks and rivers. Where I’ve been staying is in a village, and there is a well with an electric pump which is used to pump water to a roof tank. Water is reliably supplied to all the expected taps indoors, as well as several outside, but hot water is considered unnecessary. Given the climate, this isn’t much hardship. The quality is pretty good – although the drinking water is boiled, I’ve probably swallowed a fair bit of unboiled water from washed fruit and dishes that were still a bit wet, and I’ve come to no harm.


The house next door has given me an idea of what life is like for the less well-off in Kerala. I’ve already mentioned that the tenants have to hand-draw water from their well for washing. Every day – several times a day – I see them lifting water from the well by hand, and scrubbing dishes and clothing on a concrete area beside the well. It must be constant struggle to keep things clean, as I’ve also been told that the house has a dirt floor, and looking at the state of the roof, I suspect it may leak. Kerala has a rainfall similar to New Zealand’s West Coast, so it must be miserable at times.


However, in having their own well, I realise that they have something that many don’t, because the well water is good water. In a previous post I mentioned the traditional way of washing was to use the river, but I didn’t realise that this is still important for many people. If there is one thing that has shocked me about life in Kerala, it was that people are still dependent on what must be some very polluted rivers.


I know it is the traditional way, but the rivers of Kerala are not what they once were. I’ve been told by a number of older people that when they were young the rivers were clear, and washing in them was no problem. But they are not clear now. They are murky and greenish brown. The sandy bottoms of the rivers have been dredged up for construction materials and now they are muddy. The mud encourages the invasion of the submerged weed cabomba (Cabomba caroliniana), and rafts of floating weeds like water hyacinth (Eichhornia crassipes) drift down the river, collecting plastic bottles and other rubbish in the tangled mats. In the upland areas like Munnar, some of the water is clearer, and, I assume, cleaner, although in an agricultural area of India I’d wonder about the pesticide levels. But the famous backwaters, which attract tourists to their houseboats and tranquil setting, are slow-moving lowland canals and lakes. By the time the water reaches there, they have collected every bit of pollution that Kerala can throw in them.


And from a boat puttering slowly around these backwaters, I saw people constantly in the water, scrubbing clothes, washing dishes, washing themselves and fishing for food. The steep edges of the canals are punctuated with steps and platforms so that people can access and use the water. The murky, green liquid is the centre of their lives.


It makes me realise where the wealth of Kerala really lies, and how vulnerable it is. This state has always had what much of India hasn’t – abundant water. Unlike everything else I’ve discussed in this post, water is a true necessity for all of us. Phones, cars, fans, fridges and even electricity are luxuries compared to water. But, like New Zealand, Kerala is in danger of squandering that wealth. And the first to suffer – as usually happens with environmental damage, are the poorest people.


Wellington, brace yourself! December 10, 2014

Filed under: India,Photos,Travel — belladonnabess @ 3:04 am
Tags: ,

I can remember comments about American tourists when I was a child – large cameras, loud voices, loud shirts. They were soon replaced as the stereotypical tourist by the Japanese – equally large cameras, shepherded by placard-carrying guides. Today it seems to be Chinese tourists, or sometimes Russians that are the stereotype – large cameras often replaced by cellphones but equally numerous.


I’ll make a prediction that the next tourist stereotype will be the Indian tourists. They are numerous enough, with a developing economy and increasing middle class. They have an advantage as travellers too – since English is more commonly spoken, Indian tourists are likely to be more independent than the Japanese and Chinese tourists.


Mostly, they are still tourists around India – with such a large, diverse and fascinating country, with so many regional languages, they can feel like they are in a foreign country without bothering with a passport or visa. Kerala is a popular destination, as I discovered today visiting the tourist spots of Munnar. But on my flight from New Zealand to Singapore, I was surrounded by Indians returning from a New Zealand tour. So it’s starting. Wellington, brace yourself.

I can't wait for the Indian sense of colour to reach Wellington.

I can’t wait for the Indian sense of colour to reach Wellington.


I have to say I’m looking forward to the arrival of throngs of Indian tourists in Wellington. Wellingtonians stare at me for my colourful clothes as I walk down the street. I expect this black-clothed city to have some sort of spasm at the colour explosion that Indian tourists will bring.


Of course, tourists tend to do similar things whatever their nationality. Today I watched endless couples photograph eachother in front of the view. Some will ask someone to take a picture of them together – I took a couple of pictures for couples myself. Many feel the need to be photographed against every attraction – the park entrance, the visitors centre, the utterly indifferent Nilgiri thar which just kept quietly grazing at the roadside.


Nilgiri thar

Nilgiri thar

The Nilgiri thar is a highly endangered species and the world’s largest population is found in the precipitous Eravikulam National Park. They’re a wild animal, yet they act as if people are rocks. They don’t respond to voices, shrieking children, movement, bright fluttering saris and dupattas, or even an occasional autorickshaw straining its 2-stroke engine up the mountain. But they show no interest either – clearly, they haven’t been tamed with food or hand-rearing. People are simply invisible to them. Move along, nothing to see here.


My visit to Eravikulam was on a weekend, and so I had to contend with the queues of locals as well as tourists from elsewhere in India and a few foreigners. And I soon discovered that, apart from the views and the thar, that Eraviklam had another tourist atraction that day – the strange white lady wearing salwar kameez. I’ve been somewhat protected from curious attention by the company of locals for most of my time here. But now I was conspicuously alone, and that is uncommon enough for a female tourist, without the novelty of local dress. (I should add here that foreign tourists tend to stare at me more than locals. To the locals, I’m unusual but appropriate, to foreign tourists in shorts and t-shirts, I’m bizarre. I’ve seen only one other westerner wearing local dress, and she was resident here.)


Views at Eravikulam

Views at Eravikulam

My starring role as a tourist attraction started with one boy requesting a photograph, and before I had left the mountain, I had been photographed with numerous teenage boys and girls. I suppose that thar (which just look like plain brown goats) and scenery are not much excitement for teenagers.


This entertainment continued later in the day when I visited one of the other local attractions, a flower garden. This time, I became an object of great excitement for a group of students on a school visit from St Thomas’s School in Andhra Pradesh. Initially, one of the teachers asked if he and some of the students could be photographed with me, after that every student wanted a picture with me taken on their cellphone. I also encountered India’s legenary national passion for cricket for the first time. The Kerala people seem more interested in football, but the Andhra Pradesh students, on discovering I was from New Zealand, began delightedly shrieking “Brendan McCullum”, “Ross Taylor”, “Tim Southee”.


My presence at the tea muesum provoked no comment or interest whatsoever, and I was a little relieved. The museum is part of the Kenan Devan Tea Company, which appears to be one of the major brands, since I’ve seen Kenan Devan tea at the supermarket in Kochi. I was curious as to how the tea estates work, in particular how they remained as huge estates during the communist government’s land reforms during the 1950s/ 1960s. Unfortunately the otherwise informative documentary about the history of the company glossed over this period, noting that the government had nationalised the estate but then given it back in a couple of years, rather than breaking it up. I don’t know whether this was better or worse for the people.


One thing I noticed was that the houses of the employees on and around tea estates look to be of a much lower standard than the average houses I’ve seen around Kerala. On the Kennan Devan estate, a lot of the homes appeared to be rows of small, single-storey flats. In the roads around my Munnar hotel (on a tea plantation), a lot of the houses seemed to be 2 room cottages, some unpainted and without glassed windows (just metal bars and shutters or plastic). There were electricity lines running to the houses and they were clearly lit at night. But I saw a woman carrying a big water container and balancing another on her head, suggesting that some people don’t have their own well or other access to water at their house. I’m not sure how good my assessment of relative wealth is though, since it’s based almost entirely on what I’ve seen out of car windows. (I’ve since seen houses of similar size and condition around the paddy fields Allepuzha, so it may be more that agricultural workers in general are poorly paid.)


One interesting point about the Kennan Devan Estate is that since 2005 it has been owned as a cooperative by the estate workers, many of whom have been on the estate for generations. So maybe things are changing there.




My visit to the tea museum provided the stunning revelation that in making tea, the tea itself should not be boiled. This was presented to the largely Indian group doing the museum tour as a novelty – first boil water, then remove the water from the heat and add tea. And milk (separately boiled) should be added after adding the tea. This is completely contrary to Indian tea making, where not only the water but the milk is boiled along with the tea (and copious quantities of sugar).


The undoubted highlight of my day as a tourist in Munnar was the Kalaripayattu (Kerala martial arts) show. I’d read somewhere that Kerala has spectacular martial arts, and I was not disappointed. Kalaripayattu emphasises flexibility and agility, as well as the use of an alarming array of weapons. There were wooden and metal sticks, spears, daggers, swords and shields, fist daggers, flaming sticks, flaming rings and a flexible sword. The flexible sword is a double sword, with two long flexible blades on the same handle, whirled around almost like a whip. The noise alone is terrifying.


At times I questioned my choice to pay extra for a “premium” seat – which turned out to be front row, and felt very close to the action. Even with the regular sword fighting, there were sparks flying from the contact of sword on sword or sword on shield. While I didn’t feel that the audience was actually in danger, it was clear that the performers could be badly hurt if something went wrong. They did take occasional safety precautions by putting down a gymnasium mattress when they were doing some of the more spectacular jumps – like leaping head first through three flaming hoops. While I’m at a loss to see how a flaming hoop could be much use a weapon, it was certainly impressive, and I could feel the heat from the flames too.


After the performance, I had another opportunity for tourist-watching, as many went down to the arena to talk to the performers and pose with their weapons. Fortunately, I had ceased to be of any interest.


Traditional ways December 4, 2014

Filed under: Cooking,India — belladonnabess @ 2:19 pm

On the surface, things are familiar. I’m staying in a large, modern, four bedroom home. The style may be different, from New Zealand, but the layout and furnishings are similar enough. I have a bedroom with air conditioning and an attached bathroom. The broadband internet access is at least as fast as mine at home, and as reliable as New Zealand. Modems and repairmen are also as reliable as they are in New Zealand; unfortunately, this is a low standard to aspire to. And so I’ve been without internet access for three days.


By choice, some modern appliances and conveniences are here – TV, fridge, blender, microwave, chapati maker, western toilets, cellphone. By choice, others are not, including a washing machine and hot water. Many things are still done in the time-honoured way. I won’t forget that I’m in rural India.


For those who haven’t heard the explanation of what I’m doing – I’m staying for a couple of weeks with the parents of some friends. I decided that I would like to spend some time pottering around and experiencing local life, rather than racing around being a tourist.


I arrived, grubby and tired, with a suitcase full of dirty clothes that I’d had neither time nor facilities to wash in the Maldives. So washing was a priority. I quickly discovered that a washing machine was not one of the appliances in the house – nor would it have been particularly practical for my brightly coloured cotton clothes which would leak dye. So I learned to wash the semi-traditional way. Traditional would have been in the river, something I saw yesterday at Kumarakhom. The next most traditional way would be to hand-draw water from the well, like my neighbours do, but I’m spared that by an electric pump which delivers well water to a roof tank.


I’ve seen, but never used, the traditional scrubbing boards that pre-dated washing machines in New Zealand. Here, a rough stone performs the same function. For convenience, the stone is embedded in a sloping concrete slab, at a height which means you can scrub without bending. There’s a tap beside it and a shelf below the slab for soap. In all honesty, it’s easier than hand-washing in a tub in New Zealand. What’s not so easy is drying the clothes in this humid climate. There’s been barely a glimpse of the sun, nor breath of wind. I found myself missing the drying breezes of Wellington. Here, clothes are dried flat on the gravel around the house, which works fine when there’s some sun, but takes a while in this misty weather.


While the kitchen is equipped with a fridge, gas stove and microwave, rice is still cooked the traditional way, outside, in a clay pot over a fire made from dried husks and old stalks of coconut. I’m told that the clay pot gives the rice a better flavour, and it does seem to taste better than the hotel rice, which was probably cooked in a pressure cooker. It would be demanding work to keep a large family fed, especially in the rainy season, but since I’m on holiday and rice only needs to be cooked every few days, it’s quite a pleasant activity to tend the small fire.


I’ve been told that every Kerala house outside the town centres has a suite of essential plants in the garden – coconut, mango, jackfruit, banana, pepper, chilli. I’m reminded of the essential plants the way that my mother and her relatives all had fruit – figs, grapes, plums, feijoas, peaches, citrus, apples – when I was a child. The culture of home gardening may have experienced a small revival in New Zealand, but it is still relatively weak. Here, it’s considered essential. Where I’m staying, some of these plants are not obvious, as some trees were removed when the house was built. However there are small trees planted around and in a few years the garden will have mango, jackfruit, guava, rambutan and sapota. It already has abundant mature coconut and nutmeg, banana and papaya just beginning to fruit and a selection of vegetables. Surrounding houses have mature trees, and it feels like we are in the forest here.


Over the back wall is an abandoned paddy field, where a neighbour’s three cows graze during the day. Morning and evening they are led by the house, one with a calf following behind. Milk from these cows also comes morning and evening, delivered by the neighbour in a reused 330ml soft-drink bottle. For those wondering whether this is hygienic – of course it isn’t! Both milk and water are always boiled before drinking.


I once drank at a roadside tea stall and was a little alarmed to watch the tea-seller wash the glasses with his hands in a basin of cold water. But then he filled the glasses with boiling water and left them to sit before tipping out the water and filling with boiled tea. I came to no harm. Despite India’s fearsome reputation for sickening tourists, most people here do understand food safety.


What they don’t seem so understand so well is diabetes. I’ve met so many people with type 2 diabetes here. There’s a reason the Indian diet isn’t promoted by weight-loss advisers and health enthusiasts. Even in the south, where curries are lighter and not laced with jaggery, cream and ghee, I’m strugging to manage my weight. The carbohydrate quantity in the diet is staggering. An average rice serving is about three times what I’d normally eat. Coffee and tea comes with cloying quantities of sugar, although my kind hosts have accomodated my Kiwi eccentricities and make it unsugared then offer a sugar bowl, which I quietly leave untouched.


Surprisingly, coconut appears less of a problem. It grows in every garden, and is used in every meal, but the quantities aren’t excessive. And there are a lot of calories used to get the flesh from a coconut.


The trees where I am staying are huge, and there’s no chance that any of us will be climbing them. So green coconut is off the menu, but ripe coconuts are gathered from the ground. First you need to remove the tough, fibrous husk, which is as difficult as it sounds. There’s a cunning device with two metal points together, and you need to impale the coconut in just the right spot. You then remove it, rotate it by a third, and impale it again. There is a lever, which moves the two points apart and splits the husk. If you are skilled, two or three goes at this will see your coconut mostly husked. If you are me, five or six will leave you with a mess of husk and fibre, with the nut still concealed inside. Cleaning that mess off is quite a job too.


Splitting the husked coconut requires no effort all, just tap it firmly in just the right spot with the back of a standard kitchen knife, which looks like a small machete to my eye. I haven’t bothered trying, as I can see it going very wrong. But I did drink the delicious milk from it to get my energy up for the next stage, grating. I’m a bit better at this one. A coconut grater is an alarming device, a flat piece of metal the size of a dessert spoon and bristling with teeth, embedded in a huge block of wood. You sit sidesaddle on the block, holding it still while you scrape the inside of the coconut against the teeth. The grated coconut is collected in a pan below. My grating skills are improving with practice, but it’s not the easiest task in thirty-plus degree heat.


The air here is so warm and humid, it feels like I’m smothers in a heavy blanket, including my face. I’m grateful for my nice cotton, and getting used to wearing long sleeves and trousers in the heat, but, whatever I do, I end up soaked in sweat unless I’m parked under a fan or in air conditioning. And so, dripping with sweat from the effort of producing a cup and a half of grated coconut, I need to retreat to a shady room with a fan for a rest.