Today marks my first full week in the south, and the Kiwis were right–it is sooooo much better than Delhi. I’m staying at a French-run cultural center, Vijnana Kalavedi (VKV), in a tiny lush village (Aranmula, Kerala) free of touts and con men. During the day, I take Keralan cooking and Hindi classes, as well as yoga and Kalarippayat, an ancient tradition of martial training and discipline. On a side note, little did I know that noone speaks Hindi here; rather, Malayalam (India has 18 official languages, and over 1600 minor languages and dialects were listed in the latest census) is the main language of the region.

When I signed up for this, I thought three vegetarian meals/day sounded like a healthy way to go (meat is forbidden in the houses where the students stay); however, after two days I felt tired and weak. Some of the other students who have been here awhile shared some (confidential) tips. A French woman, Anita, confessed she buys eggs and boils them in a little pot which heats up when plugged in. A Swiss guy, Stefan, showed me a place in the next town over where which we refer to as “the store” where they sell canned tuna fish, canned chicken, etc. The eggs are not refrigerated here and I am sans “plug in pot”, so I opted for the tuna fish, although it is “made in Thailand” and there is no “dolphin-free” seal on it, so who knows what I’m really getting.

I’ve compiled a “Top 5 cultural differences” list*, in no particular order:

1. The toilet is literally a hole in the ground. There is no toilet paper. You are supposed to wipe with your left hand.

2. It is “inconceivable” that women would show their legs/shoulders in public. My below the knee-length skirts are inappropriate, as are athletic shorts. I went running earlier in the week in WNBA-style athletic shorts, and it was the talk of the town for days.

3. Instead of nodding one’s head up and down to indicate agreement, Indians wobble their head from side to side. This motion, however, can mean “yes”, “no” or “I don’t know”. Along that line, be specific when asking questions. If you ask someone a yes or no question and they don’t know the answer, they will still say “yes” (along with an ambiguous head wobble).

4. There is no silverware. You eat with your right hand (a very important rule–remember #1 on the list).

5. Aranmula has no bar, but in Chengannur (the next town over), women are not allowed in a bar without the accompaniment of a man. Luckily, Alex from Scotland who is also a student at VKV, is usually up for a Kingfisher beer from time to time.

* Note that this list is for rural India and small villages like Aranmula. Larger cities and more populous regions tend to be more “westernized”.

Cruising the backwaters
This weekend I took a little break from such rigidity and rented a houseboat with Kate from South Africa. Cruising the backwaters is a “must-do” in Kerala. From Alleppey to Kollam we crossed palm-fringed lakes studded with Chinese fishing nets and perused shady canals where coir (coconut fiber), copra (dried coconut meat) and cashews are loaded onto boats. A one bedroom boat with AC, three delicious (non-vegetarian) meals, tea, coffee, fresh coconut, pineapple, and banana and most importantly COLD beer only set us back $50 USD each. We also got to wear our bikinis (on the top deck of the boat) and get some sun.

We returned to Aranmula to catch the end of an 8 day religious festival, Thrissur Pooram, celebrated by a festive Carnaval-esque parde with a grande finale elephant procession. The best part about the festival is that it is now over. Since I got here last Sunday, there has been literally nonstop prayer/song/mantra chanting at full blast on several loudspeakers throughout the town (at 2am, 3am, 4am, etc). Even with the volume turned up all the way on my iPOD, I could not drown out the sound. So either way–by Shakira or Hari Krishna, I am sure I’ve done some permanent damage to my ears.

Speaking of ears, I neglected to mention earlier that I did in fact go swimming in the backwaters, which was probably a mistake (I think there is still water in my ears, and compounded with the residual music headache, they are feeling kinda funky).