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Warm Arabian Coast of Cherai

19 July, 2011 (18:44) | Living in Europe | By: admin

Click on thumbnail shots if you want a closer view of the toddy moonshine process.

It is Sunday afternoon and we have been driving all morning. Almost all businesses are closed, except a handful of temples and churches. Our driver is hungry and is on the look out for any half way decent place to eat lunch. He finds a dirty little dive, very greasy and grungy inside. Outside is a giant statue of a naked mermaid (very popular in these parts; we see them everywhere. When I ask Rajeev why there are so many oversized statues of naked mermaids in Kerala he replies, “Because in real life we don’t allow our women to expose themselves, but with art naked women are culturally acceptable”). Inside there’s a loud cricket match and filthy tables. Mark and I are both put off at first, but then the waiter (waiter isn’t really the right word; more like the-guy-working-there) takes us up to the 2nd story and out onto a breezy balcony which overlooks the cross section of two jungle rivers.

The view is fantastic. We stumble through placing an order. They only have three things available this Sunday, so we ask Rajeev to order for us. We aren’t up to dealing with all the explanations and miscommunications inevitable in this kind of situation.

After the-guy-that-works-there leaves to fetch our food I walk over to the end of the terrace and notice these weird clay jugs hanging upside down in the palm tree that is growing next to our terrace. There are plastic bottles underneath jugs and white liquid is dripping into them. The jugs are covering stumps of palm branches that have been cut off and left to rot. The white liquid in the branches ferments and seeps out and becomes a natural alcoholic drink called Toddy. Later we see the caretaker of this distillery in the tree as he shimmies up the trunk. He removes jugs, examines branches, cuts black rotting bits and ties tourniquets made from palm leaf around the ends of the stumps. We can’t tell if this is to squeeze out the liquid or to keep it in. Next he replaces the jugs and shimmies back down to the ground.

It is fascinating to see the whole process take place before our eyes, as we had been asking how they make Toddy and where it comes from. Toddy tastes a bit like putrid pond water with a tart sweetness and smelly aftertaste. Allegedly one feels a mild euphoria after drinking a litre or two. Even I wouldn’t mind trying the concoction that translates to “hit in the head” in Malayalan. Alcohol and valium are added to the brew. The word for this unique beverage is “Mayakki” and it becomes our mission of sorts for the rest of our trip to locate and consume said beverage. (We pretend to be William Burroughs in pursuit of the elusive yagé…)

I get ahead of the “real time” narrative here by fast-forwarding to a later toddy story which fits in nicely here:

One night Mark and I wander around the quasi deserted Cherai fishing village with hopes of finding some Mayakki to try and write home about. We see a peeling, weather beaten sign on the road indicating there is a toddy parlour if we follow the arrow down a dusty private looking driveway with no visible signs of life. Way in the back we find a shack with 7 or 8 guys sitting around apparently doing nothing. We become hopeful that they`re all high on Mayakki. We ask where the toddy bar is and one of them leads us to a really dark and shoddy cement box of a room with severed chords jutting out of the walls. We are instructed to sit down on the only piece of furniture in the room; an old wooden picnic table. Our guide introduces us to the toddy vendor and leaves us to it. We are told to wait. A black wire hangs from the ceiling with a flickering light bulb dangling at the end. Somehow this all reminds me of my Hollywood youth, when we’d venture into really seedy hellholes in Long Beach or Tujunga in pursuit of our at that time preferred drugs of choice. Although the toddy vendor knows what Mayakki is, he doesn’t sell it. Undaunted, we order a litre of toddy to share, growing increasingly comfortable in the shabby scenario many tourists would flee from. The young man who takes our order is gracious. He has not met many Americans, he says, “only on TV”. We take a peek into the adjacent room where the brew is stored in recycled plastic bottles and later sold to the locals for really cheap.

They fail to produce the now legendary Mayakki, which indeed has come to symbolize the unattainable high we’ll never know, but like Burroughs we will continue to seek it while in India… We are artists, not realists. We like to pretend we are Paul and Jane Bowles when we travel or William Burroughs himself, thus romanticizing our exploits in pursuit of new and wonderful highs in a strange new land.

1) Dank room where we wait while the guy goes in back to fetch us a bottle of toddy. 2) The room in back where Toddy is stored.

Toddy slide show

Montage of toddy images from our pursuit of Mayakki.

Later we stumble home and decide to try the hotel buffet even though we hate buffets. I stick to chapatis and sambar (typical Kerala spicy lentil dish) from the homogeneous, soft textured and lukewarm buffet spread. Plus a small bunch of bananas I stuff into my bag for later consumption. I am tripping on the toddy high and take these 2 artsy fartsy photos of my spoon while waiting for our drinks to arrive.

Through toddy filtered eyes I notice details that would normally pass unnoticed.

Cherai Beach

Mark and Rajeev share one last toddy for the road.

Today is our last day traveling with Rajeev. We have spent the last 10 days together, so I think we’re all happy our time together has come to an end. Rajeev looks forward to returning home to his wife and 2 sons, and we look forward to spending as much time as we want going wherever we want to go whenever we feel like it. Our motto in days to come will be *just do it*; when traveling one has to take a few chances…

Rajeev has communicated to his boss our non-negotiable request to be dropped off at a beach resort with fast WIFI connection. Tomorrow is March 1 and we need to at least begin the Partners in Rhyme payroll process and hopefully accomplish payment of our over 110 Musicloops composers within the next few days. Mark needs to work one on one with our programmer in Hyderabad to properly fix the website problems encountered in Kottayam and I really look forward to staying in one spot long enough to organize my photos and to back up my Nagra recordings onto my portable hard drive.

Bijoy does some sleuthing from his homestay in Trivandrum and calls Rajeev back with directions to take us to a 3 star hotel on Cherai Beach which boasts of a sandy beach on one side and backwaters on the other side of the compound. It is moderately priced and across the street from a wonderfully warm strip of shallow beach. We are shown several rooms that are a bit of a walk from the beach and the hotel internet service. First they show us their priciest room, which is located on a pond near the backwaters. I instantly think the room must be a mosquito haven, with its cute balcony sitting over the very still water. Next they show us a room between the hotel Ayuraveda massage center and the restaurant buffet which we think might have too much foot traffic passing by. Finally they show us a modest room right next to the check-in office. It feels right. There is a garden with hammocks and a few well placed benches strung between the trees separating us and the sandy beach. It is the cheapest of the 3 rooms we’ve been shown and suits our needs perfectly. We really don’t want to walk any farther than necessary to jump in the ocean or onto the internet.

We are told that to use the internet we must take our laptops into a tiny closet of a room next to the main office, where they charge by the hour. “At least we’re close to the office”, we reason, and book the room for a minimum of 5 days, letting them know we might stay longer than that but we’re not sure yet.

Mark goes to investigate the internet protocol and after much persistence is given the WIFI password. Luck has it that we are able to access their WIFI from our room, no doubt because it is located right next door to the designated internet room. So we’re styling! We have free internet in our room and both our laptops have a speedy connection. I even SKYPE a girlfriend in Hollywood just for the fun of it, because I am in India, because I feel like I’m getting away with something. Next I SKYPE my former SKANKSTERS band drummer Alibob, because I can! I love that feeling when I know I’m blatantly getting away with something harmless to others but useful to me. Instead of paying an hourly rate in a claustrophobic room, I am SKYPING with my 2 dearest, oldest friends; one in Hollywood and the other in Phoenix.

I set up charging stations for our gear and create a little office right outside the bathroom where either of us can work in peace with our backs turned to the bedroom. This will allow us to concentrate in the days to come.

We say goodbye to Rajeev and give him a big tip for keeping us safe and finding choice places for us to sleep. He’s actually an agreeable person when he’s not hungry or hasn’t spent one night too many in his car. We will hire him again if we return to Kerala and he is available, but only if he creates a checklist that *we* provide of the sights and sounds we want to experience. We will bring our detailed South India road map next time, the one we accidently left at home this trip.

How Indian men experience the beach

Mark goes out for a sunset swim in front of our hotel at Cherai Beach. He likes this time of day because all the Europeans are in their rooms or at the buffet and he usually has the beach to himself. Today there are a bunch of young Indian men swimming and splashing around in the water. Mark wades into the waves and starts swimming around. Two guys call him over. They yell at him and laugh. Mark goes over and says hello and they say “Can You Swim!?!?” Mark replies, “Yes, I can swim”. They look at him and yell “We Can’t Swim!!” and a big wave hits the four of them. They fall down into the water and spring back up laughing and yelling and choking. Another wave hits them and they all fall down again and come back laughing and yelling and spitting out water. Mark cracks up and waits for the next wave to come.

Mark’s 4 goofy new friends splash around in the waves.

Mark does what he usually does in the water and cups his hands like a bowl and fills it with water and then squirts the water out in a long stream by squeezing his hands together. Its one of those games his dad taught him as a kid. One never forgets impressive childhood talents…
This trick usually fascinates the kids at Barceloneta beach but here in India he finds himself surrounded by about twenty full grown men who want him to teach them this water squirting trick. He starts teaching them and they are learning. One of them yells at him “Are You Catholic??”, Mark looks at him for a second and notices a crucifix hanging around his neck. He replies “Well yes actually, I am”. The one thing about Indians is that they will ask you ANYTHING. How much you make, how old you are, how much you weigh, what is you business, what is you place, how many family members you have, where are your kids??? No question is taboo. Not that asking if he’s Catholic should be taboo but can you imagine if Mark shouted to a stranger swimming in the ocean in Malibu “Hey! Are you a Jew?!”.

But then his new friend says “God Bless You” so Mark says, “Well, God bless you too”.

Soon they see a security cop on the shore and they all leave almost instantly.

This is the beginning of our observations of how Indians in India experience the ocean differently than Europeans or Americans do. They normally only go in the water if they are with a group and they react to and experience the sensations of being in the ocean as a group. It is rare to see an Indian body surfing or even swimming unaccompanied.

I will come back to this theme later.

Wedding Season in Kerala

Every morning we both go out for a swim. Every afternoon Mark works with our programmer in Hyderabad while I fill orders and begin the laborious process of organizing my data. By evening we’re normally in our own respective worlds; we are not the type of couple who needs to be constantly together. We both feel comfortable and happy to coexist in our respective alternate realities. After so many years we have become two sides to the same coin.

Most evenings I try to go film the sunset or at least take snapshots. This is the perfect time for people watching; most of the Europeans that occupy the narrow strip of lounge chairs on our beach have retreated to their rooms. Only the travellers with fancy cameras are out at this time. Otherwise our beach, technically reserved for Cherai Beach Resort clients, becomes the destination of fully clad newlyweds.

Its so cliché, the image of erect Indian man trying to look proud and defiant in the face of future obstacles to be overcome together as a couple. His blushing bride tries to look coy and respectful of her man, her protector. The bride’s body language reflects open curiosity, respect, and fear of the incessant waves coming at them. She will strike a pose that suggests pride and admiration for her man, while his body language and stance look like they are copied from a sappy Bollywood movie. He tries to look brave, unafraid, protective and welcoming of the future they are about to embark upon together. Hand in hand they try to look natural and unafraid as they submerge themselves in the ocean surf, which I imagine must symbolize the challenges of their unknown future together.

Its the fully clothed part that really cracks me up.

I have thrown together this little slide show of a newlywed couple. Like all newlyweds we observe, they seem self conscious as well as self absorbed.

But before I leave you with some parting images and anecdotes from Cherai Beach, I have one more story to tell, which has no photos so I will try to narrate as visually and concisely as I am able:

The Ayurveda Experience

Since day one of arriving in India, everywhere we go we have been offered an Ayurveda massages and have collected brochures waxing poetic about the miraculous well being that results from having one. Neither Mark nor I am big on getting massages from professionals (I’ve had too many friends injured in the name of massage) but allegedly Kerala is THE place to get one of these massages.

Like all our hotel stays to date, our Cherai Beach Resort offers “authentic Ayurvedic therapy”. Many of my girlfriends *love* to get massages, so in the name of all my girlfriends I schedule a massage so I can report first hand what this specialized massage has to offer. Seeing as we are staying here at least another 4 or 5 days, why not?

I read the brochures I’ve been collecting, which have key words like “circulation”, “energize the body and mind”, “massage in a special pattern”, “vitalize your organs”, “tones the muscles and strengthens the body”, “helps maintain immunity of the body”, “total relaxation” (this appeals), “enhance skin beauty” etc.

There are several packages to choose from at our resort, so I opt for the 1 hour “Relaxation Massage” guaranteed to bring total calmness of mind and body.

I am scheduled for 4:00. I have no idea what to expect. At 3:45 I go to the hotel lobby and ask where I am supposed to go. They tell me to follow a path with confusing directions, so a hotel employee escorts me past the food hall, past the hut we decided not to rent, to a small cement hut with steam rising from it.

I am greeted at the desk at the steamy massage center, give my name and room number, am led to a small cement room and introduced to a semi toothless older lady who is to be my masseur. My escort leaves and I am with this lady, who reminds me of an elderly, goofy Olive Oli character, like in Popeye.

She giggles and orders me to disrobe.

I am a bit self conscious at first, but she sets me at ease with her laughter. Once naked she giggles again, pointing to my gold wire braids. “Take off” she says.


I have the taking off of my “sproing” braids mastered to where all I do is unloosen the top and then pull down. The wire is out in one tug. She laughs again, giggle giggle giggle. I amuse her immensely.

I can smell the aroma of what I later learn is that of “ayuravedic herbs” coming from the next room.

She puts my clothes and hair wire in a plastic box and says, “Leave here. Follow me.”

Sheepishly naked, with my waist length hair loose, I follow her into the next room, Spartan except for a cement table in the middle of it.

“Lay down here” she says, so I get on the table and she tells me to lay on my stomach.

I am expecting something soft and relaxing, so what comes next is a bit of a surprise,

Really warm aromatic oil is poured onto my head and neck, which she gently massages (if you can call it that) in circles. I am thinking to myself “I wonder how I will get the oil out of my hair later” but say nothing. She proceeds to giggle every so often and pour more oil on me, slowly working her way down to my feet with small, circular motions. I at this point notice an old fashioned looking hot tub in the corner, which reminds me of a Peter Greenaway (director) imagery where rotund but sexy women sit in barrel tubs with only their heads sticking out. I silently hope this is not where this massage will end up.

I let myself go with the flow (err…or the oil in this case, heh heh heh) by closing my eyes and concentrating on the tactile sensation of small, warm, oily hands slowly slathering me from head to toe in a thick, warm, aromatic oil.

At first it is off putting, but I recognize it is best to surrender myself to this unique treatment, am almost in a trance when she slaps me on the butt and says “you turn over now”.

I turn over and she belly laughs, long and deep for such a tiny person – she is laughing at the size of my breasts. “Are you pregnant?” she asks.


She laughs and points at my soon to be oily breasts. “Very big” she says. “You must have lucky husband.”

She continues to giggle for awhile and then sets about, first pouring the warm oil on my forehead (third eye), slowly massaging my face, working her way down to my amusing breasts, tummy, legs… Her hands are small, gentle, relaxing and indeed, now that I have come to terms with the reality that I will soon be totally covered head to toe in this pleasant but very oily oil I begin to enjoy it. She has a hard time containing her giggle as she covers my boobs with oil, but is silent as she proceeds downwards in gentle, circular, motions in the same fashion as she did on my back side. I am an oily being floating in an ephemeral world, my mind drifts as I recall a kingfisher bird in flight, dolphins at play, I even imagine being a jellyfish… until…

SLAP – “wake up! Time to sit in tub” and laughs as she points to the Peter Greenaway barrel, which she opens up. She points for me to sit on the round wooden bench. Only my head sticks out as she closes the door. It is very hot in here and I presume the aromatic fumes wafting up towards my face must have some sort of rejuvenating beauty ingredients in them. Why else would someone do this?

She leaves me to bake for what feels like an hour but is probably about 15 or 20 minutes. I begin to dream, I am floating on an islet in the backwaters… By the time Ms. Olive Oil comes back to let me out I feel borderline delirious.

Once I cool off, I am sure that whatever toxins might have been trapped inside my body surely must be sweated or evaporated out of me by now. I feel beautiful for a moment…

“You feel like cooked apple?” she asks, and giggles.

“Errr, yes!” (not the image I was imagining, but back to reality). “More like a stewed prune”. She becomes serious for a moment, worried I am complaining. But my twinkly eyes tell her differently. Her fleeting concern becomes a mirthful giggle floating up and blending with the herbal steam. I wish I could have recorded her laugh, and hope to have captured her unexpectedly buoyant and silly spirit with my “authentic Ayuravedic” tale.

She trots me back into the changing room, giggles as I pick up my gold wires and get dressed, then bows down, kisses my forehead and leaves the room.

That’s it.

I make my way back out and stumble back to our cozy room.

For those of you who are curious about the Ayuravedic massage experience, this is basically it. Later I read that this is a beauty treatment originally sought by wealthy British women in colonial days and that many men and women travel to Kerala for Ayuravedic treatments. It is allegedly sought out by Indian women aiming for fertility, by Bombay travelers wanting to be pampered, but mostly by tourists like me.

Later I Google and find on Wikipedia: Ayurvedic Medicine

Even reading about this “therapeutic treatment” later I see no mention of the fact that one is completely covered from head to toe in warm oil.

This one paragraph from above link is intriguing though:

Ayurveda stresses the use of plant-based medicines and treatments. Hundreds of plant-based medicines are employed, including cardamom and cinnamon. Some animal products may also be used, for example milk, bones, and gallstones. In addition, fats are used both for consumption and for external use. Minerals, including sulfur, arsenic, lead, copper sulfate and gold are also consumed as prescribed. This practice of adding minerals to herbal medicine is known as rasa shastra.

In some cases, alcohol is used as a narcotic for the patient undergoing therapy. The advent of Islam introduced opium as a narcotic. (note to self: next time in an Islamic country, seek out Ayurvedic treatment – could be fun, heh heh heh!)

I manage to find my way back, past the lotus pond and to the hammock awaiting me outside our hut. The shot of my feet in a hammock shows our room in the background, our private terrace is behind the palm tree.


It is now tomorrow. Ayuraveda is a warm, feely memory. Once we settle into a groove of swimming, working on our respective projects etc. our only complaint is that our hotel only serves buffets (which we loathe) and keeps rigid hours. Heaven forbid we should get hungry at the wrong time of day! At first glance there are no restaurants open on this strip of Cherai, possibly because official tourist season is over. Thankfully we still have some trail mix and granola bars (from USA) to help us until we eventually take a walk and find a friendly restaurant called Mr. John, less than 1 km up the dusty coastal road. Here I find the two dishes that are reliably to my liking; vegetable samba and vegetable curry Kerala style (really yummy!). I stick to these two dishes for the rest of out stay in Kerala.

This is the funky kitchen of the only restaurant open to cater to our a la carte needs. The food is surprisingly good despite the funky looking kitchen:

The two Mr. John Kitchen cooks pose in their humble kitchen. This place becomes our new dinner hang-out.

Cherai fishing village reminds us of Interzone. (another William Burroughs reference). The early morning fishermen set out to the spot where the backwaters meet the sea to earn their livelihood (and return late afternoon with their bounty). At Mr. John’s Kitchen we find a sprinkling of nefarious looking expats, but there does not appear to be much activity in these parts. It would be a perfect hideaway for someone either dodging the law or trying to escape the past.

Every day they offer fresh catch of the day as the dinner special. I don’t like fish, but Mark does. It becomes our ritual to walk there in the early evening to choose the fish Mark wants to eat later. ( I always eat one of my 2 tried and proven dishes.)

When we return a few hours later for our dinner we begin to notice singular expats, scruffy looking, almost feral, apparently living in these parts. They all dine at our restaurant. Like in Burroughs Interzone, we imagine it would be easy to stay below the radar of the law in a place like Cherai. We give the characters nicknames, like “the David Bowie look-a-like”, the Truman Capote guy (always with a handsome young male Indian escort) – We coin him “Capote” when we overhear his distinctively thin, high pitched voice ordering dinner for himself and his friend. There’s also an older Belgian looking woman with a deep, booming voice, Amazonian in size and demeanor and possessing a low pitched but high volume voice that cuts through all immediate sound. We will continue to cross paths with these eccentric characters in the week to come. Over dinner we make up background stories for these well travelled denizens, who appear to live here because everyone seems to know them. There’s also an elderly Anthony Quinn type who is normally seen with a multi-generational entourage of natives. I imagine he must have knocked up a local years ago and decided to marry her and stick around the area. Mark thinks he is a former drug dealer dodging the law, addicted to the simplicity of life in Cherai, as well as the toddy. It would be interesting to talk to any one of these distinctive people, but they’re true stories are probably much more boring than the ones we fabricate.

Kerala is communist, Cherai has a born again Christian school, the billboards and signs we pass on the way to Mr John’s Kitchen are funky and reflective of local taste. I finish this lengthy blog with some passing photos:

I am presently working on a slick “Beaches of Southern India” video for my next blog (Goa), so stay tuned…