Saturday, December 20, 2008

Dust, Diesel, And Dolphins

After much stress and manic activity over the last few weeks, the Bailey Family Entertainment Steering Committee unanimously decreed that it was indeed time for a day off. Now, some of you may scoff at the notion that we need to take a day off from what seems to be an extended vacation. Trust me. India is not exactly chill. It is a festival of extremes. A dichotomous pendulum that swings wide and fast. You love it. You hate it. It's filthy. It's beautiful. It's friendly. It's hostile. Pick any adjective you like and then pit it against it's polar opposite. Do that several times a minute until you senses becomes blurred and your brain turns to goo. And that's just the brochure.

We decided to head to the beach. We got up early and had a great breakfast of oatmeal (Nature's broom!) and fresh fruit. There was the requisite waiting around for the grains to do their trusty work, and then we were off. We walked up to the main drag, which is a little less than a kilometer from the house. We easily snagged an auto-rickshaw, and 40 rupees later, we were deposited by the boat jetty very close to the Bijus Tourist Hotel that we stayed at while looking for a house to rent. Cochin has a great system of ferries, and for a total of 10 rupees, all 5 of us climbed on board a little passenger ferry that seats maybe 80 people. Its about a 40 minute ride to the other island. These little boats are pretty old and battered, but they are surprisingly efficient and effective. They belch diesel fumes, the windows are non-exisitent, and a lot of the seats are broken, but you do get there, and on time too.

Once there, it's a short walk to the bus station, where we opted to kick it old-school and take a local bus for the 40 minute ride to Cherai Beach. There's nothing like an Indian bus. You don't spot many foreigners here. Its local all the way, and that's why we like it. For 33 rupees, the 5 of us made it clear across the island to a magnificent stretch of sandy beach that edges up to the azure expanse of the Arabian sea. It's definitely got a "resort town" feel to it, but its still sleepier than most. We did a recon walk down one direction of the main drag, and discovering there were some hunger pangs amongst the group, ducked into one of the local eateries. Actually, the whole strip was populated by ice cream shops. Food almost seemed to be an afterthought. Once again, the spider senses tingled. Hmmmmm.... just a bit too clean. No prices. No menu for that matter. We all ordered a masala dosa, and the boys each had a fruit lassi. When the dosa came, we could scarcely believe it. Mostly because it was so scarce. The teeniest, rubberiest, and most anemic looking dosa ever arrived, to our collective chagrin. We decided to say nothing and take one for the team. Twice the price of a regular dosa, and half as big. Once again, the law of Inverse Expectations...

We hunkered down later at a stretch of beach and actually got to relax. The water was incredibly warm and beautiful. I showed Miles how to body surf, and Isaac eventually got used to the idea that water was not a thing to be frightened of. The boys had a blast. For the ladies, it was not quite so much fun, as local custom dictates that a lady should have a proper bathing outfit on to go in the water, and that means essentially your street clothes. Men can trot out there in a Borat-style thong and not raise an eyebrow, but a woman must pretty much don a burlap bourka before getting damp if one does not want to raise the unwanted attentions of the local males. Bikinis are decidedly not cool, although one or two foreign ones were spotted on the beach. That's where groups of 17 year old boys in satin shirts and embroidered slacks hovered like a halo of flies.

While Laurel was in the water moistening her bourka, about 30 feet away from her a fin arched up in the water, followed by another. "A dolphin!" exclaimed Emma. I knew from my steady diet of English language National Geographic channel over the last 3 weeks that she was absolutely right. Two large dolphins lazily swam past, no doubt interested in the little fish that the boatloads of fishermen were actively trying to capture in their nets just offshore. We were also interested in fish, so we went off in search of lunch. Ambling back to a place I spotted earlier, we came across a lady who selling young coconuts, which the boy had been dying to try. She deftly hacked a small hole in the top to allow the juice to be drunk with a straw, and when that was gone, she cut the shell in half so that the "sporty" young jelly-like meat could be extracted. Appetites whetted, we walked on to the restaurant.

Lunch was nothing short of awesome. We had Black Pepper Fry Crab, Shrimp Roast, Okra Masala, and dal with rice and garlic chapatti. The crab was the real star of the show. Nice whole fresh local crab fried with butter, a load of garlic, caramelized shallots, curry leaves, and lots of fresh black pepper. Black pepper is a vastly underrated spice. We're used to the really old and stale pre-ground pepper we knew as kids, and that bears no resemblance to the stuff here, which is hot, fresh, and vibrant tasting. The whole dish we had is similar to Singapore Black Pepper Crab, but the addition of curry leaves, garlic, shallot, and tomato wedges give this version a uniquely Keralan twist. Everything else was quite excellent too, and we plan to return to try it again. I promise to post up my version of the recipe as soon as I can!

We retraced our steps back on the bus, ferry, and finally through the choking dust and exhaust that is Indian traffic in rush hour. If you don't believe in a god when you get in an auto-rickshaw, there is a high likelihood of religious conversion before the journey is through....

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