The phone rang. It was Babu, our tour director, on the phone saying, “Mrs. Winn, could you come down here immediately? I have to talk to you right away.”
Lynn turned to me and said that Babu was here and he wanted to meet us immediately downstairs in the lobby. This seemed a little strange because we had just finished morning check-in to this Taj hotel, the Taj at Kumarakom, after having spent the night on the houseboat in the middle of Vembanad Lake. We were worried about a possible emergency at home since we were out of touch for about 24 hours, and something always seems to happen when you go on a long vacation.
The houseboat tour deserves special mention. We boarded the houseboat (a converted rice-boat) in a hurry as we were late boarding. Unexpected traffic, a late departure from Periyar, and a stop at the camera store, where Lynn bought more special film for the multi-purpose camera we were using, added extra time to the day’s trip. The store operator had to phone out for the film; it arrived by motorcycle courier within a few minutes. We had a quick greeting on the houseboat; traditional Kerala welcome of flowered necklace, fresh coconuts with straws for sipping the milk, and fruit. Reminded me of Hawaii, I guess the tropics are similar all over the world in some fundamental sense. We left the dock on the powered boat, the tiller-man steering with his feet while puffing away on bidis. Lunch followed: Fresh batter fried fish and aloo gobhi, was served by the captain, a local Keralan.
Soon the waterway narrowed. From the left bank of the canal we heard a young girl running next to the boat shouting, “Pen, please. Pen!” Lynn looked over at her and threw a ballpoint pen in her direction. It landed on the shore and the girl picked it up, treasuring her prize. Later, fried bananas and chai made up the afternoon tea break.
A bell rang at 6pm (I checked my watch); the tiller-man got up, lowered the anchor and announced “time to eat.” We were now in the middle of Vembanad Lake.
It became dusk; dinner was served (chicken sambar, basmati rice, hot green beans, chai, sweets). This fine dinner became our standard for Kerala country dinners. The view from the boat was now spectacular. Gently rocking and anchored about one kilometer away from the shoreline, we could hear music from four different locations and we could see and hear fireworks in the distance.
The mosquitoes, though, were everywhere. After dinner, I had my star-chart and telescope out, and my Walkman tuned to a local AM radio station featuring South Indian classical music. The captain came forward to see how we were doing.
“Fine,” I said and offered him my headphones, as I was engrossed in the music I was hearing and wondered what he thought of it. He put on the headphones and listened for a minute. I asked, “What do you call this music?” Since he spoke some English, I was thinking, he would name the type or otherwise have something to say about it.
He replied, “I call this beautiful,” as he handed the headphones back to me. It was a startling revelation, this boat captain and the beautiful music. I tried to imagine this conversation with a boat operator in the U.S., but could not.
I turned to my wife, Lynn, and said, “Man, I must be in the right place!” A place where music is central to daily life.
Night never did get pitch black. I tried to find the Clouds of Magellan but couldn’t due to haze and humidity near the horizon. We did find Jupiter and Saturn though. They were high in the sky during early evening. It never got below 28 C at any time on the boat, and with the mosquitoes (although we had mosquito netting), I didn’t sleep much. Intimacy was out of the question as there was no privacy. We had a crew of three with us on the small boat in the middle of the lake.
Morning came, as it always does, and I looked forward to docking at the shore. After breakfast, we pulled into the dock near the Taj Kumarakom, a palace of a hotel. The transition was a shock: We went from rice-boat and country food to a converted Taj residence, giant pool, servants, buffet meals, and an international clientele.
After checking in, we thought we had a little time to ourselves, and, after showering, began looking at books Lynn had bought in Agra. This is when the phone rang.
Babu was waiting for us downstairs on the porch near the check-in. Our minds raced, thinking, “What was the emergency?” Lynn’s daughter was pregnant, Lynn’s mom is getting older, and our house was on a hill during the California rainy season, winter. We met Babu outside and downstairs. He said, “In honor of your birthday, I have brought this cake and a present.” He drove 90 kilometers to deliver this, and wished Lynn a happy birthday. We opened the box. The cake inside was a large, two layer, square white cake with no chocolate apparent; a cake with white icing and the words “Happy Birthday Mrs. Winn” written in large English script on the top. Surprise was the dominant emotion.
Lynn had told Vikram, our travel agent in Delhi, that this was her 50th birthday trip. It was interpreted this to mean that it was Lynn’s 50th birthday, today. Babu had been sent to deliver the cake and the present, which, after opening, was revealed to be a 750 ml bottle of Indian champagne.
I thought it was time to explore on our own for a little while. The Kumarakom Bird Sanctuary was adjacent to the hotel and we decided to take an unguided tour. Talking to the hotel staff, we enquired about possible poisonous plants and animals. They said there were none, so we left the hotel for the steaming, jungle-like sanctuary. Walking down the road a few meters, we came upon the sanctuary entrance.
We went to the entrance booth, manned by a few locals working for the government. The entrance fee was Rs 3 each, so I gave the man a Rs 10 note. They didn’t have any change, but said they would have it when we exited the reserve. I thought, “OK, keep the change,” but it was a matter of pride to get the change, plus their books would balance.
The reserve was beautiful. We walked along a stone and rock path, which paralleled a canal through the jungle and sweated profusely in the heat and humidity. We saw another couple, in love we thought.
I felt a tugging at my shirt and heard a voice say, “Do you have any hobbies, please?” We turned and met two adolescent teenage boys, one with his arm around the other. The speaker, who had his friend’s arm around his shoulders, identified himself as Joby. He lived nearby, and he gave me a letter to read, which I kept and read later. I thought a minute and said my hobbies were music and astronomy. He said his was stamp collecting, and asked me, “Did I have any stamps, please?” I didn’t but promised to send him some.
He pointed out a local bird called a “cohke” (kind of like a raven, but colored) and we saw a “poocha,” a cat. Further along, we heard a school across the canal where children were practicing singing by imitating their teacher. We walked along to the end of the path, at the lakeshore, and met more people; this time banana sellers and boat pilots who wanted to take us on a lake cruise. We declined the offers. A park guard tried to shoo the boys away, unsuccessfully though, since we were enjoying the conversation. I took a picture of Joby and his friend and we turned around and started to retrace our steps.
With the kids at our side, we began to leave the park. Joby and his friend said good-bye and asked me to send a picture. (I sent him a picture and some stamps after I returned home). Near the entrance of the park, we met an English-speaking park ranger, who told us the story of the park. It was originally built as a rubber plantation. After independence, since it was a plantation, it was not taken over by the government until the death of its owner, an Englishman named Mr. Harris. After that, it became a bird sanctuary. The ranger said that many birds came here including the Siberian Tern, which came in the winter. At the same time, there was a commotion, and the rangers were expelling the couple we saw earlier from the park. They were doing “something illegal,” according to the ranger.
“Drugs?” I inquired.
“No,” the ranger responded. “I don’t know if I should tell you this, but they were doing something illegal.”
“What?” we asked.
“They are not married,” he replied, and out they went. We went by the entrance booth where our Rs 4 were waiting. “Namaste,” we thanked them and took the equivalent of 10 cents in change.
We walked to a nearby bridge and a cigarette stand, where I bought a 10pak of Will’s for Rs 20. The proprietor threw in some matches for that price. We walked back to the hotel.
Later, we went swimming in the large pool, and heard much commotion, mainly in Italian. The Tamil Nadu state bus had arrived earlier with a busload of Italians. This was right out of Fellini. Everyone wore either bikinis or Speedos, and loud voices penetrated the Indian quiet. We talked to the Italians, some of whom spoke English, and met a boring but friendly Swiss couple who talked about record snowfalls at their home. Then it was time for dinner.
“Oh boy, a Karnatik band,” I remarked as we were seated outdoors in the twilight buffet. The band was off to the side of the buffet. Harmonium, flute, tabla (strictly speaking, this was not a Karnatik band), and shruti box was the line-up. The buffet was Indian and Italian. I don’t know how authentic the Italian was, but the Indian food was great. Sambar, aloos, nan, salad and chai were the highlights. The band played, we ate, and we watched the smoke from a nearby garbage fire as it drifted over the hotel. It became dark. Then the second cake came.
The second cake was a two-layered chocolate cake with chocolate icing. Good thing Babu was not there eating it with us. It was topped with the words “Happy Birthday” in white icing script. A large knife was on the side of it and the waiter came and attempted to sing “Happy Birthday.” Lynn and I looked at each other, laughing, oh no, a second cake, we’ll have just a small piece of it. We told the waiter to take the cake into the kitchen, cut two small pieces off for us to eat, and then share the rest of it with the staff and the musicians. We waited quite a while, Lynn savoring the thought of her first piece of chocolate in several weeks.
One of the waiters appeared with a knife. Lynn told him to cut three small pieces of the cake for us and save the rest. Babu said it was OK for him to have some since it did not contain chocolate, as chocolate gave him migraine headaches. He took medication for this condition, but found the power of God (Babu was Baptist Christian) to be more effective. Lynn (who was Roman Catholic) thought that the power of God had also helped create the medication for his condition, but declined to point this out. The cake soon reappeared, cut into thirds. Lynn chuckled at the miscommunication and politely cut three small pieces from one of the thirds and sent to cake back to the kitchen to eat later. Enjoying the cake, we commented on Babu’s 90 km trip to deliver the presents. It probably took him about over three hours to get here and we were gracious recipients of his largesse.
The waiter came back with two pieces of the earlier white cake cut for our two plates. Fine, we thought. We’ll have this, and have the other, chocolate cake later. The musicians had now taken a break, and we could hear the people at the other tables talking. The musicians returned minus the tabla player. “Drummers! He’s probably eating the cake right now,” I told Lynn. The manager walked by the musicians, pointing at his watch. “Some things never change,” I said. The manager wanted to band to start again. Finally, the drummer returned, and the band started. Those two small pieces of cake we had were the last pieces of cake we saw that day. We never saw or ate any of the chocolate cake. But it was a wonderful way to celebrate Lynn’s 50th birthday.