Sunday, March 16, 2008

The Best of ABBA and Other Travelers Tales

Let me tell you a little story about the morning I woke up on a Tempo Traveler bus bound for the edge of India with nothing but ABBA on the stereo...

Being a long time groupie is hard sometimes. Years go by and they're all a bit on the fuzzy side. The shocks on the bus are worn, the black velour upholstery has lost some of it's plushness and the air con coughs out occasionally lukewarm sweaty freshness. The good ole' days of rock'n roll, fame and certain fortune just ain't what they used to be. Somewhere along the line we picked up SIX children and they seem to think that "hair of the dog" means something entirely different! Plus, the whole...three meals a day, plus snacks (and they don't mean Bloody Marys!) regular bedtimes and an appalling tendency to actually GET OUT OF BED at 6 am. WTF???!!! Add in the fact that they need to stop and pee every 27 minutes and you can see how that might be ruining my cool...

HOOOOONNNNNNKKKKKK! I'm jerked awake by the sharp veer of bus from motorbike weighed down by chickens and the jarring sounds of "Dancing Queen". Whaaaat? Where am I? I'm awake I think, so how is it that I'm still dreaming? For a minute there I thought I was in India...

And so we are. In India. Kerala, to be exact. But I'm not kidding about the bus, the six kids or the ABBA. I'm not sure if our driver has a thing for it or if someone, somewhere, informed him that it was "de rigeur" traveling music for all crazy Americans. Now, I must admit, I am something of an ABBA fan. It reminds me of college parties or our post college...hang out with our college friends parties...parties in which the ABBA might make it out around 2 am for all my foxy post-college friends and I to do a little dance-a-thon (and have another glass of wine! Because that's such a good idea! The kids are at Grandma's!)

Still, it was a long, surreal bus ride, with no wine and no dance-a-thon to temper the loud and continuous ABBA...

At this point, you're probably wondering what and why. Our friends, The "WacMillers", are leaving India in April to return to the U.S. and wanted to take a trip. They invited both "The Loud Americans" and us to join them on a trip to Kerala with the thought that we could drive the western coast from the tip, near Trivvandurum up to Cochin. This is an ambitious plan. I am not sure why all ambitious plans sound so reasonably easy here. They just do. Maybe it's because we are daily witnesses to the inexplicable... Have one bicycle, one wife and 3 children and a need to visit family on the other side of town? No problem. 50 live chickens to move from village to city market? No reason you can't tie all of them upside down by their little chicken feet to your motorbike. All the previously never considered possibility in the world has become normalized. Driving the coast of Kerala in 3 days with 2 six year olds, 2 four year olds and 2 three year olds doesn't even register on the radar of things you might want to think twice about.
Saturday we flew from Bangalore to hour and a half on a nice Kingfisher plane. Arriving, we were introduced to our "luxury" Tempo Traveler and driven another hour and a half to our first night's hotel with the plan to then drive to the "tip" of India and spend the day on the beach. Our hotel was nothing special but it was situated on a nice, mostly clean, mildly crowded section of beach, with a pool facing the ocean. I am sure that it entered more than just a few adult minds that this would be a fiiiiiinnnnnne place to spend the day. Especially when our driver informed us that the beach at the tip was an unexpected 3 hour drive from our hotel. We are an undeterred lot and despite the fact that the wee ones were bouncing off the proverbial walls and had been struck deaf to all parental direction, it was unanimously declared reasonable to continue onward.... To The Tip Of Indiaaaaaaa.

We were well prepared with snacks for this trip (having learned a thing or two from our Hassan weekend) and Tom and Tracy had brought a cooler with cheese and smoked chicken and German sausage (no, you can't get that here...unless you tap your German expat friends as they travel home and back). The parents were a little crabby, the air conditioning wasn't working, and the kids loved the ability to jump from seat to seat without those pesky seatbelts holding them in line (which is what it is, except for the frequency of near common that I'm afraid when I drive again someday, I'll have a real problem identifying danger on the road.)
We arrived at our long awaited "beach" to find that... There. Wasn't. One. and pretty much nothing for 6 kids to do. Lots of rocks, howling rough seas and wind and luckily, a beautiful view of oceans converging...this is the place where the Bay of Bengal, the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea all meet. We climbed to the top of the observation tower and Grayce's beloved hat blew over the edge provoking a tearful screeching they may still be talking about. I can't really blame her, though...that hat has done as much traveling as she has and it belonged to her great-grandmother. Daddy was a hero and braved the rocks to actually find the hat and save the vacation! (Literally...that girl can carry a grudge.)

30 minutes later we were back in the TT, crabbier still and headed back to our hotel...3 hours away. We did arrive back in time for cocktails, a dip in the ocean for the kids and some dinner.
Things were looking up the next morning as we managed to get our whole group checked out and on the bus in time for....a 3 hour car ride :-)!!! Coffee improved the group outlook and the promise of a relaxing afternoon cruising the backwaters in Allepey, Kerala went a long way towards preventing a mutiny. Given a break from ABBA, we were "treated" to the special sounds of Brian Adams and The Back Street Boys" followed by James Bond's "Dr. No" on the video monitor... Our Allepey resort was situated on the backwaters and it was quite nice...traditional Kerala style cottages...and a bit more space for the kids to play. Our boat was waiting when we arrived, so we stowed our luggage and hopped aboard. Tom and Tracy had brought two life jackets so the youngest of the bunch (Owen and Billy) wouldn't drown...which is good, considering that "child-proofing" is a concept yet to reach the subcontinent in any meaningful way. Our captain was kind enough to place a bit of worn trellis type fencing at one of the "I wonder who will fall in first?" locations on the boat. The kids promptly took this to mean that they should lean all over it. Luckily, 6 grown-ups are useful for strategic chair placement and all was well.

The day was and humid but shaded under the thatch of the boat...Everyone was thankful to be out of the car, the wine and beer were flowing and the boat cooked lunch was wonderful. Hot and spicy fish and a chicken curry, varied vegetable dishes, Kerala rice (a softer, double boiled rice...harvested all along the paddies near the back waters) and dahl. The kids were happy to munch on the coconut fried chicken nuggets, specially prepared for them. We ended the meal with delicious friend bananas and tea (and more wine, which is, at least, an intersting combo).

The backwaters are gorgeous. Floating along, we had a view of lush greenery, rice paddies, and village life along the rivers. Tracy and Angela and I climbed off the boat to negotiate the price of fresh prawns to bring back for dinner. "Prawns" seems a bit of a misnomer since they were as big as small lobsters. Grayce took a mighty exception to the presence of these evil monsters on our boat but I'm pretty sure the rest of us were thinking about drawn butter and the inevitable conversation with the chef about the preferred absence of masala...

During the cruise, Grayce was hard at work in her plan "to make Jimmy fall in love with me." Prior to our departure from Bangalore there were multiple secret discussions with both Owen (because he's such a ladies man?) and her good friend, Lucia, about the best way to ensure "true love." While we nixed plans to bring Owen's guitar for a serenade, it was reported that "holding hands and running together on a boat" was a sure-fire bet. I'm not sure poor Jimmy knew what he was in for but the two of them did look cute sitting side-by-side!

Five hours later, we returned to our resort. Bob and Angela took off to scout out wine for dinner (the resort had only the ubiquitious Kingfisher) and the rest of us enjoyed the pool. It is the off-season in Kerala so there was only one poor couple sharing the "peace and quiet" with us and I am sure they were extremely delighted to meet us all. Really. Especially at dinner time. Which isn't till 8:00 pm. With six children under 7. And no naps.

But we had giant prawns!

Our third morning was more relaxed...and we were able to lounge around, unhurried. It was Bob's birthday and I had a great deal of fun smashing cake into Bob's face ( an Indian tradition that's especially great marital therapy) thanks to the resort manager procuring a cake on very short notice.
Climbing back into our now trusted TT bus, we all enjoyed a short drive to our next stop, the eco-resort, "Marari Beach" on the ocean side of Allepey... With a real Beach. And a giant pool. And tons of run around space. And an Ayurvedic Spa. A very nice place to be. (Traveling in India tip: move from low to high in all things.) We spent the day swimming, playing, taking turns going to the spa and pointedly ignoring the throat clearing of the childless.

Bob really enjoyed his birthday Ayurvedic massage. A river of oil. a Wooden chair. Two male masseuses and a loincloth are something every man should experience on his birthday...shouldn't they? I'm not sure it was quite what he had in mind when he signed up for the "revitalizing" massage...
I knowingly settled for the Ayurvedic facial...

Later in the day it was decided that we would try and get some babysitters (via the resort) for the kids and try and enjoy an adults-only dinner. We fed the kids on the outdoor lawn tables (Jimmy and Grayce sharing a "date"...I'm not sure that true love has been established but Marari Beach does have a romantic feel. Perhaps they can honeymoon here in 2028?)

Rounding the kid clan up in the Murphy's villa, we hurriedly left the ONE unsuspecting babysitter (noting that she was only about a head taller than Grayce) with all six of them. Caden was obligingly sound asleep. Jimmy and Grayce and Owen and Billy and Kay-Kay were awake and ready to party... As it turned out, our babysitter's supervisor had to come and lend her a hand. Apparently, our children were a bit rambunctious. It's good to pay people well. Really well.
You know the ABBA song, "SOS?" Wade was pretty certain it fit the bus scenario but the babysitter might think othewise.
Oblivious to all of this, the adults settled into the seaside grill and enjoyed multiple bottles of wine, accompanied by seafood platters... It really was the best meal I've enjoyed since we moved here. And no one was glaring at us (tolerance by other travelers, of the quirks of childhood is progressively less as you move up the resort star chain)

Proving that preschoolers have the stamina of gorillas, Kay-Kay and Billy were still jumping on the beds when we returned and the rest of the bunch had just passed out cold. Bed and villa shuffling commenced and we were all soon slumbering.

In the morning, Angela and I joined the yoga class on the beach. The yogi was over 60, looked 40 and seemed to think that there was nothing amiss in instructing us to take it easy while doing the "floating lotus" (an advanced yoga pose in which you essentially hold your cross legged body off the ground with your two hands...) It's good to have goals, isn't it? I won't bore you with pictures of our trials because I think it's enough to just assume we are incredibly flexible and strong...

After a good breakfast, a group swim and some pack-up time we checked out and headed for Cochin and the airport and finally home to Bangalore...

I dont' know why, but I can't seem to stop humming "Mama Mia."
Thank you for the music...and check out our our friends blogs and for more commentary and pics of our trip.
The Fischers
Traveling Troubadours