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.