Tuesday, June 12, 2012

To Smitha's house I go!


I finally had a good night's sleep last night, waking up energized and refreshed. I started my day with a refreshing shower and packing. Checkout time is 11am so I had plenty of time to head downstairs for breakfast, which comes free with the room.


I took a seat at my table....yes, my table as I have sat here every meal. I like this particular because it has a bit of view. Breakfast is a buffet but I went a head and ordered my masala dosai. While that was being made, I munched on other foods. I blame all these breakfast buffets for the fact that I have put on weight on this trip. I know because my clothes are feeling a tighter fitting now than when I arrived :-(

Breakfast over, I headed back up stairs, grabbed my bag and headed down to the reception desk to check out. This hotel is the epitome of great service. As with check in, I didn't have to stand at the reception desk. I took a comfy seat at the lounge and young women walked back and forth between me and the desk to bring papers to me to sign and to take my credit card over the desk for swiping. At some point, she also handed me two gifts - a terracotta necklace that's a typical handicraft of the region and a box of spices. You can't leave Kerala without either being giving or buying spices - especially cardamon which is grown in the region.

After checking out, I headed back to the concierge, Jimmy, to arrange for a car and driver to take me to Smitha's house. I have absolutely no idea where she lives - not the city or town, let alone street. When I spoke with her last night, she told me she would provide the driver the instructions so I called her and handed my phone to Jimmy so he could work out the details with her.

Jimmy went back to his desk and it was quite a while before he came to where I was sitting. He had worked everything out and since I had already checked out, I needed to pay him for the car and driver. Payment worked out, I followed Jimmy out the front door where the car......and Biju, the driver who took me to the Vasan Eye Care Hospital was waiting for me. It was nice to see a familiar face and he's a good driver.

Before I got in the car, I thanked Jimmy for all the attention he gave me and in return I gave him a very generous tip. As the car pulled away, it seemed all of the hotel's front desk staff along with the doormen were there to wave me off.

It would take about an hour and half to get to Smitha's house. I just sat back and looked out the window as Biju did all the hard work negotiating the traffic in Kochi. Biju doesn't speak much English but for some reason, he felt compelled to point out particular highlights as we passed them e.g., the tallest apartment in Kochi.

Soon, we left the city behind and began cruising through the Kerala countryside, passing through smaller towns along our way. One thing about Kerala is there are a lot and I mean A LOT of billboards and I would say the vast majority are either for wedding sarees or jewelry. I'm guessing Kerala is the marriage capital of India.

We passed one village after another.  It was nice to finally be away from the hustle and bustle of the Kochi *metropolitan* area.


Understandably concerned, Smitha called a couple of times to check on progress. On one call, she asked me where we were. Uh.....I had no idea but the last road sign I saw said that we were about 90km from Munnar so I passed that tidbit on to her and of course, that meant nothing to her :-) I handed the phone over to Biju and let the two of them talk. Better that way than to have me act as messenger :-)

We continued our ride and I can only imagine what must have been going through Smitha's mind because plans changed once again. Instead of us driving right up to her house, we would be meeting her in town - near the Nirmala School.....at least that's what Biju told me.

As we arrived in a town named Thorudphuza ("Thor-rood-pura"), Biju started the process of rolling down the passenger window and asking for directions. I figured we had arrived and he was trying to find the school.

Lo and behold, up and down several streets later, we found ourselves parking near the entrance to the Nirmala Junior School. My cell phone rang again. It was Smitha wondering where we were. I handed the phone over to Biju and after he handed it back to me, he started up the engine and headed down the road. He said that Smitha was up ahead waiting for us in a car with license plate number 2240. Of course, we had to happen upon a fork in the road :-)

Right or left? Biju's instinct told him to go left and left we went. He began to drive slowly and so I started to read the license plates of the cars as we passed them and wouldn't you know it, I spotted 2240!

We pulled up in front of the car and Smitha emerged from the back seat. Her husband, Regi was seated in the front. We both hugged each other - I think we were both relieved that I had actually arrived. As I travel to places like India, I have to constantly remind myself that this is not the US - streets in India are not marked like they are in the US so finding any address is a major challenge. Even with Biju asking for directions, we could have easily spent an inordinate amount of time basically driving to nowhere.

We decided it would be easier for Biju to just drive to Smitha's home so she got in the back seat with me and gave him the instructions.

Before we knew it, we had arrived *home*. The moment we pulled up to the gate, I had an immediate flashback to my childhood living in Malaysia. The driveway, the garden, the house.....it all looked like something you would see in Malaysia.

As we pulled under the covered car port, a small crew of people came out to greet us - Smitha's two beautiful twin children....her daughter Neha and son Rohan, her in-laws (who don't speak English) and Regi's niece (who does speak English).


Smitha and Regi built this home a few years back with the long term back that this would one day be their retirement home. In the meantime, Regi's parents live there full time and it's basically a house shared by the family. I think that's what made it feel so warm to me the moment I entered it. Look and feel wise, it could be as much a house in Malaysia as it is one in India; it's an Asian home through and through. The layout though is very Western in the sense that rooms open out to one another. This is a reflection of Smitha and Regi being influenced by American home design. It's a very comfortable place.

Smitha led me upstairs to the room I would be sleeping in. I later found out that that was Rohan's room. I thanked him for letting me use it while I was visiting with them. I took a few minutes to freshen up and then headed back downstairs to join everyone else around the dining table.

As expected, everyone was speaking in Malayalam which is the native tongue here. Even though I didn't understand a word, it was nice being in the presence of a family; there's something very comforting about that. They were all curious about me; especially about what I would or would not eat. Smitha reassured them that I have travelled the world and I eat pretty much everything and that is the honest truth. I pinched the tire around my belly and told the women that extra fat is because I love to eat! I think Smitha's mother in-law was still a bit skeptical but she would soon find out that there was no need to worry about me when it comes to food.

Outside, Smitha's father in-law was busy knocking the tops off several green coconuts. Fresh coconut water, one of absolute favorite drinks, was waiting for us. I graciously accepted a coconut and sipped the thirst quenching liquid through the plastic straw. So, so good. After we were done with drinking, Smitha's father in-law cracked the nuts in half so we could dig into the flesh. That's the pot of gold at the end of the juice rainbow. Nothing is tastier than fresh young coconut and it's such a treat for me to get it. I can buy fresh coconuts at home but they are the old ones so the meat is at the stage that it's used for grating or cooking not eating fresh.

While I was enjoying my time getting acquainted with everyone, two electricians were shuffling back and forth between the carport, working installing an air conditioning unit that Regi had bought earlier in the day. Apparently, one night of sleeping in the hot, humid Kerala weather was enough to drive Regi to buy the AC unit. I teased him about losing his *Indianess*; he's turning into a *soft American* :-) I told him that it was the same for me, that I thought I would die in the heat and humidity when I landed in Mumbai but that after 10 days of being in Kerala, I had gotten used to the weather. I don't think he believed me.

As we chatted to pass time, the skies above us continued to darken. Before we knew it, they opened up and buckets of water rained down on us. Though I had arrived into Kerala during monsoon season, this was the first time it had really poured hard.

The power soon went out and the inverter kicked in. I had never heard of an inverter before but apparently, it stores electricity and in the case of the unit that Smitha has, enough electricity to supply the house for about 8 hours. Of course, we were all hoping the power would come back on - especially Regi because without it, he would not be able to use his new acquired AC unit :-)

As the afternoon progressed, Regi, Neha, and Rohan all retreated to the bedroom to take a quick nap. This was just their first full day in Kerala and they were all still battling jet lag. Smitha was hanging in as best she could.

Towards early evening, Regi's sister arrived home. She's a social sciences teacher and so she's gone during the day but returned home to share in the meal.

Before dinner, I took a quick shower. Water was cold so it was a very quick shower. Brr.... Felt good to be clean. The heat and humidity leaves you feeling *sticky* in no time - nothing like a shower wash away the grime and feel refreshed!.

Eventually the rain let up and it was dinner time! A huge metal bowl filled with the red rice that is integral to a Keralan meal was placed on the table. I've never seen so much rice for so few people but everyone said that was the *usual* amount. They were all amused by how awestruck I was :-)

Along with the rice, there was a pitcher of buttermilk with somethings floating in it. Apparently, you pour that over the rice. There were several other dishes - the accompaniments. There was a dish of what looked like small flakes of a very deep green leafy vegetable. Smitha said is the the leaf of the tree that grows the drumstick vegetable. I must have looked absolutely dumbfounded at her because I have heard of such a vegetable. Then, there was a bowl of fried tindora which is the vegetable that looks like baby cucumbers

The meat dish was small pieces of spiced, fried chicken and there was a small bowl of fried sardines. The sardine roe had been removed and cooked separately - flavored with mustard seeds and curry leaves. I already know I'm going to enjoy the roe. According to Smitha, you only get this dish during the monsoon season because that's when the sardines spawn so I'm lucky to be able to enjoy this seasonal delicacy.

The condiments were a bowl of the Keralan classic - fresh coconut chutney which I can down by the spoonfuls and a bowl of shallots and chili cooked in coconut oil which you drizzle over the rice.

We had glasses of cold water to wash our meal down with.

Oh my God, I was beginning to drool over the food as Smitha described each dish. I couldn't wait to dig in but I patiently waited my turn to sit down and get my place of rice. First bite and I thought I had died and gone to Keralan food heaven. Honestly speaking, it was really delicious and my favorite meal so far.....nothing can compare to a good home cooked meal surrounded by family even if you're just an honorary member of another family for one night!

Before I plunged in though I had to ask for utensils. Otherwise, I told Smitha, the food would end up all over the floor. She laughed and said that they had to dig up a fork and knife for me since no one in the house ever uses utensils :-)

I was absolutely stuffed by the time I swallowed the last bit of food that was on my plate. When I head that there was pineapple for dessert, I magically found an empty pocket in my tummy to fill. The pineapples here are small in size but so, so fragrant and sweet. As in so many parts of the world, other than the US, fruits are sold perfectly ripe so they are delectable. I think that in the US, the need to hybridize fruit to create monstrous sized fruits has resulted in fruit that looks good but lacks flavor and sweetness. Such a tragedy, if you ask me.

After dinner, it was chat time. A lot of lingo I didn't understand and that was okay by me. It was just nice being in a home wherever there is laughter and joy. I loved seeing Smitha in her element. You can see that she really enjoys her roles as wife, mother, daughter in-law, sister in-law and aunt.

By about 10p, Smitha's eyes were starting to glaze over. The poor thing was tired so one by one, everyone called it a night.

Back in my room, I turned the fan on to cool the room down which was not only warm but humid as well. I left the windows open as I knew it would cool down dramatically over night.