Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Up a Lazy River

For our last day in Kerala, we chose to do the guided boat tour up the Inland Waterways. Off in a van with other Western travelers—from Australia, Israel, Canada, Germany—and down the backwater alleys in boats powered by a man with a pole. Got off and were given a tour of the plant life—tapioca, curry leaf, nutmeg, clove, vanilla, pepper, chile, cocoa, coconut, jackfruit, banana, pineapple. The medicinal properties of each were explained as we crushed and smelled leaves, tasted bits and pieces, learned how different parts of the plants are used. Here was all the taste and color the British lacked and what havoc they wreaked, all for a little sugar and spice.

We then watched women making rope from the coir of the coconut, an elegant process that required patience, dexterity and ingenuity to set up the system. Here we touched what impressed me so much all those years back, the sense that just about everything you used was transparent—you grew it, you knew it, you knew just how to use it. A whole lifestyle built from coconut, rice and spices. Us modern folks mostly have no idea where the simplest things come from or how they’re made—salt, oil, clothing, never mind steel and silicon chips. We miss the connection with the things of this earth, the relationships we establish with the sources of our food and daily necessities, the pleasure of it all (as well as the tedium). Indeed, at the beginning of my adult life, that was part of the cultural renaissance, from those who went “back to the land” to at least baking your own bread, making your own yogurt and sprouting alfalfa sprouts. And now, the slow food movement, the farmer’s market renaissance, Barbara Kingsolver’s book “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle”—some of it is coming back. Figuring pleasure, connection, sociability, aesthetics into the economic choices we make beyond mere convenience and efficiency. A trip to the Farmer’s Market will cost more than Costco, but out in the open air with the buzz of happy people, the music of street musicians, the conversations with farmers who know and love what they have to offer, the tastings at each booth, one feels like a much better deal. Shopping is not a mere necessity to stuff this mortal body, something to be endured in large-boxed buildings with bad lighting in shopping malls with enormous parking lights. It is the event of the day and each step a pleasure.

Back on the river, lazily ambling down its light-and-shadowed waters. A man and his son are bathing, distant workmen are hammering, a snake swims along the bank, butterflies flit overhead and a kingfisher calls out from atop a coconut palm. Time slows down—it’s “summertime and the livin’ is easy.”

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