Ordinary humans, extraordinary lives

Tropical beaches and peaceful backwaters aren’t what I think of first when reflecting on my travel in Kerala, India. Here’s what is… and how you can experience it, too.

 

Clinton didn’t look like he’d adventured on the high seas.

In retrospect, the name of his Fort Kochi homestay—Aldo’s Ark—was a bit of a giveaway, but I wouldn’t have guessed on my own. His solemn face, sharpened by a salt and pepper goatee, evoked more notions of a stern teacher than a hardened sailor. His hospitable attitude did the opposite: every morning he asked what I was up to, reminding but never pressuring me that if I ever needed help, he was there.

But, like most privileged tourists too preoccupied with the shiny surface to consider what lies beneath, I was too engrossed in Fort Kochi’s sights to ponder Clinton’s backstory.

Chinese fishing nets in Fort Kochi, Kerala, India

Fishing nets in Fort Kochi

On my last night in his homestay, his origins emerged: in his youth, he pursued his passion for travel by working on shipping vessels. He shared a claustrophobia-inducing tale of how he first made it aboard—we’ll leave those details off the record—and the sparkle in his eyes made me smile as he recounted experiences ashore in countless countries, plus the quirks of crewmates from countless more.

Clinton’s stories seemed oceans away from the reassuring squish of armchairs and stability of cabinets full of trinkets in his living room, yet his humble demeanor left little room for doubt.

His story was still on my mind the next morning as I hefted my backpacks and stepped into Fort Kochi’s humidity one last time. Gazing at the plain white walls of Clinton’s home, I was struck by the thought that, like Clinton himself, the simplicity of his home belied the extraordinary story within.

Local ferry in the backwaters of Alleppey, Kerala, India

The backwaters of Alleppey

Tiny tales

That wasn’t the last time I had that thought in Kerala; it soon resurfaced to float alongside me. Literally.

Alleppey’s backwaters are one of Kerala’s most famous attractions. Tourists pile into brightly-colored motorboats and luxurious wooden houseboats, lounging in comfort as they putter along canals canopied with palm fronds, past wooden boats piled high with sacks of rice, bottles of beverages, baskets of fish, and everything between.

My budget was too meager for the lap of luxury, so I ended up in the next best option: local ferries.

Local ferry in Alleppey, Kerala, India

As I leaned over the edge of a wooden ferry, watching plants twirl in its wake, the gleeful laughter reserved for the end of school days announced primary students coming aboard. Most of the students moved in groups, but one boy sat on his own, a quiet island in the after-school rush. He wrote carefully in a workbook as his colleagues gradually disembarked, his face illuminated by sunlight reflecting off the pages.

After glancing up at some landmark invisible to my foreign eyes, he pulled his book into his backpack, clambered onto the edge of the ferry, and casually leapt across to land and disappeared down a village street before the ferry came to a complete stop.

From appearance alone, I’d never know the little boy had just navigated kilometers of waterways on his own to return home from school. Of course, to him, it was just another day’s commute.

School boy doing homework on a ferry in Alleppey, Kerala, India

Divine dance

Not all of Kerala’s stories are layered in such subtlety. Some stories float languidly by, others burst forth in a fiery blaze at the darkest hour of the night.

At 4 AM on my last night in Kerala, I waited in the darkness of a modest village temple complex hidden among trees. Around me, locals buzzed with hushed anticipation. A lone bonfire cast a soft glow over the onlookers as they waited for the arrival not of dancers, but of gods.

For most of the year, theyyam dancers are ordinary humans. But, like seafaring Clinton or the schoolboy in Alleppey, there is more to them than initially meets the eye. Once a year, layers of hand-stitched costumes and hours of face painting transform the dancers into something extraordinary: it’s said the moment a theyyam dancer sees their reflection a mirror, their body is taken over by a god.

A sudden onslaught of pounding drums announced the god’s arrival. Young men wrapped in lungi sarongs dipped torches into the fire, setting the world ablaze as the god, Kutty, arrived.

A traditional Kutty theyyam dancer with fire in Kerala, India.

The whites of his eyes shone through layers of burnt orange paint, almost manic as he looked on with haughty authority of the divine. Cradled by a peacock-like headdress wider than his arms’ reach, his skirt’s decals glittered as he leapt and spun faster than my eyes could follow.  Bare feet struck the dusty ground to an ever faster beat of drums. The crowd recoiled as he grabbed torches from the fire, flames licking dangerously close to a beard embedded with jewels.

The dance felt primal. Timeless. Like a language humans have spoken for thousands of years, and will understand for thousands more.

I couldn’t tell you how long the god came down to dance; only that he didn’t stop until lavender tinged the sky. The drums rapped with finality; the dancer stopped in line with the temple, panting as he was supported by other men. People moved forward with brass plates of flowers and sweets, offerings in exchange for blessings and advice. For the first time since his arrival, his eyes slid away from his astral plane to connect with the people surrounding him.

He was human once again, though no less extraordinary for it.

People giving offerings to a theyyam dancer in Kerala, India

Travel in Kerala: how to find the extraordinary

Aldo’s Ark is Clinton’s homestay in Fort Kochi, a multicultural port city in southern Kerala. Don’t stop there—Kerala offers hundreds of local homestays throughout the state.

The Blue Yonder is a Kerala-based responsible travel company that connects tourists with local storytellers and artists… and pays them for their time.

Kerala Tourism’s theyyam calendar has dates of performances (most 2020 events were due to COVID). Travel Kannur can arrange theyyam tours.

 

 

Travel to Kerala, India is extraordinary, but not just because of its tropical beaches and scenic backwaters. Here's the local, human side to India's southernmost state that makes it one of the best places to travel in India.
Travel to Kerala, India is extraordinary, but not just because of its tropical beaches and scenic backwaters. Here's the local, human side to India's southernmost state that makes it one of the best places to travel in India.

 

Yay transparency! This post was sponsored by Kerala Tourism for their Human By Nature campaign. Never fear, the love and wonder for Kerala’s human stories are most definitely my own, drawn from my independent travel in Kerala back before anyone ever paid me to do anything.

 

Alex Reynolds

American by birth, British by passport, Filipina by appearance. Addicted to ice cream. Enjoys climbing trees, dislikes falling out. Has great fondness for goats which is usually not reciprocated.

More about Alex

3 thoughts on “Ordinary humans, extraordinary lives

    Stephen says:

    This was a really nice read – wish these were more personal stories like this on travel blogs these days.

    Yo, same. It was a nice change of pace. Alas, we bloggers have all been reduced to content machines.

    Ksenija Olmer says:

    Beautiful, evocative writing. I loved how you concentrated on the three people, different yet united in bringing a lovely portrait of Kerala into vivid, yet poetic light.

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