God’s Own Country – Kerala, India (Album)

The hardest part about writing about something more than a year after you did it is that the details have all begun to blur. The timelines fade, and events blend together. I couldn’t begin to tell you why this trip never made it to the blog until now – or why I haven’t posted in over a year, but as is our tradition here at The Roaming Pilot – I’m going to promise to not let it happen again. Until the next time. SO, the date on this post reads as May 28, 2016 however I’m writing it May 28, 2017. Just so we’re clear, this happened last year.

India has always been a land of mystery and intrigue. The Dutch, the Portuguese and famously the British have all colonized the area at one point or another. Vivid, dense, rich ecosystems flourish there to this day, yet modern India has a reputation for being a technological hub, and one of the most densely populated countries in the world. So what was the draw for me to go to India? Was it the nature? The History? The exotic location? The tantalizing and delicious curries that are available? Although each of those are compelling reasons to go to India, the reason for my trip is far more personal than any of that. I had been invited to attend the wedding of a dear friend and coworker, along with a handful of the other pilots and staff from Life Flight Kuwait, and we weren’t going to miss it!

This one is a long read, there’s a quicker way to enjoy the whole trip – I filmed the entire time (despite the jokes made by my companions) and now we have an awesome trip video – read more to get to the video, or read the rest. 

TLDR: Skip to the end of the article for the album of images and youtube video. 

The trip started off with a few of the guys flying in early, and then the wives started showing up from the USA too – this was going to be a big group trip. All in there were 8 of us and the first stop on this adventure wasn’t even out of Kuwait. The night before we all flew out we decided to indulge a bit – and some of the guys had their wives fly in early so they could show them around Kuwait where we’d all been living and working for the past year – so we went to the Al Boom Restaurant. The Al Boom is a seafood and steak restaurant attached to the Radisson Blu and inside of a, now permanently, grounded ship. It’s a very unique dining experience with great food. The ship itself is a recreation of the traditional sailing vessels the Kuwaitis used generations ago.

Before our reservation, and while we waited for everyone to arrive we went up to the Sky Lounge on top of the Radisson Blu to have a drink and take in the Arabian Gulf from the rooftop bar (non-alcoholic drinks in Kuwait of course). We had a great time, and it was an exceptional way to kick off what was going to be an excellent trip.

Flying on Emirates the next afternoon we boarded a flight to get into Dubai early enough to spend some time being tourists. Of all the pilots I was the only one that had taken any time to really explore Dubai, so I played the role of tour guide as best I could. We purchased some bottles for the hotel room in duty free on the way out of the airport, and set off into the city. Dubai is one of my favorite destinations to spend a few days in, as you’ve seen from previous posts here. We enjoyed a few drinks, and toasted our adventure before setting out into the city to meet up with a dear friend of mine, Giane, who lives in Dubai. We hit the Marina for dinner outside at an Italian restaurant and then head to an open air beach club called Barasti – located just down the beach from the Burj al Arab it was an awesome night, and since the last time I had been to Dubai had either been solo or with family – going with friends was a great “new” way to see the city.

The next day we set out to tour around the city a bit, having lunch at The Claw (a crab shack with a great brunch) before going to the top observation level of the Burj Khalifa. The rest of the day was spent fairly easily leading up to our final dinner in Dubai at one of my favorite steakhouse, and one of the best in the city – Gaucho. We had an extremely early morning flight to Cochin Airport in Kerala, India – so we set back to the hotel to get a little bit of sleep, after eating far too much food; delicious as it may have been.

Another Emirates flight later and we were deplaning at Cochin Airport, the first airport in the world to be powered entirely by solar power. We’d been asked to each buy two bottles (the limit) of liquor from the duty free on our way out so as to stock the bar at the wedding reception – and were happy to oblige. Arms laden with luggage and bags from duty free we stepped out of the air conditioned airport and were blasted with a warm, humid air. Crowds of people clung to the bannisters calling for their loved ones – and in the distance, down the line, our friend Munna and his brother Arun were waiting to meet us.

The fact the Munna had been allowed out of his home so close to the day of his wedding was a big deal, and his brother was directly responsible for getting him to and from the airport unharmed and in a timely manner. After a round of photos, hugs, and some brief jokes Munna loaded us up into a private van, the driver already briefed on our itinerary would be with us the entire trip, and said farewell as he was rushed back off to his family home to continue preparing for the ceremony. “If you need anything, just give me a text.” he said, while stepping back out of the van.

The greeting seemed to fly by and before we knew it we were on the road, stopping briefly at a nearby hotel for a breakfast of boiled eggs and toast – the driver weaved in and out of traffic at break neck speeds with the precision of a fighter pilot rolling through a mach loop. It is best to not get too hung up on the near death experiences in Indian traffic – otherwise you would never get anywhere. Munna had gone to great lengths to make sure that we would have a great time in his homeland, and had seen to all the arrangements and details himself. Our schedule was timed down to the minute.

Our first stop was at a resort on the Kerala river, small two unit bungalows dotted the grounds, a beautiful blue pool lined with elephant fountains was inviting, and the banks of the river gave way to spectacular views. The resort was tranquil and world class, we were only scheduled to spend one night there, but I know that all of us would have been content adding a few more nights onto that stay.

The next morning our driver was back with us, and we loaded all of our luggage into the van and took off again, further into the backcountry of Kerala. We were setting out to our second “hotel”. Munna had arranged a back water river cruise for us in a large traditional style house boat. The boat would take us all around the area, while we ate fresh seafood for lunch and dinner. That evening we tied up along the banks of the river and a second boat joined us so that we would have enough rooms for everyone. The crews ties us into shore power and we decided to wander the small forest lined street a bit before the sun went down. We stumbled across a backyard pickup game of cricket and stayed to watch for a while, although none of us knew what was going on we cheered for the players as they scored what we thought were points. After we had seen enough cricket we decided to wander further down the trail and in doing so found ourselves invited into some temple grounds by some locals we met on the street. They showed us the grounds, and then asked for no less than a dozen photos with our group – the Indian women were particularly interested in photos with the girls. After snapping a dozen photos we got back on the trail to where our boats were tied up to end the night with drinks and cigars.

The next morning came quick and we were back in our van, roaring up into the mountains to our home for the remainder of the trip, the wedding, and the after party. A small retreat called Mannaass Vedu. This retreat, we later found out, was a place for spiritual cleansing, small portions of food with barely any rice, teas, ancient traditional massage, all were meant to cleanse the spirit and align the energy. Being the off season we had the entire place to ourselves. We also found out later (after the wedding) that Munna had instructed the host to feed us normal portions and that we weren’t there for the retreat, but for his wedding. All of that aside, our host had several activities lined up for us during our stay including trips to a mirror factory, and a Hindu temple. I opted out of the mirror factory in favor of going to the temple. One of the largest in the region it was also one of the only ones where we as non-hindus would be allowed inside during the time of prayer.

When we got there we removed our shoes and left them in the van, as we got nearer to the doors the men were instructed to remove their shirts, before entering. We had a very quiet walk through the grounds and took in the ancient architecture while our host from the retreat explained the history of the place to us. We then went into the inner temple area, and waited as people began to arrive to pray. The doors to a small antechamber were opened from within and the priests inside had been, and continued to light, candles. We couldn’t, and didn’t, take any photos inside the temple – but it was very interesting experience to say the least. After we got back to the retreat we settled in for the night, tomorrow was the big day for Munna.

Once more to the van, we clambered, though this time we were dressed for the event. All of us guys had been given traditional formal shirts for the wedding by Munna, Darren, Brandon, and Toby’s wives had all brought dresses with them for the wedding – and we as a group looked pretty sharp. Our van ducked and weaved through traffic, even in the mountains we dodged other larger vans, busses, and trucks – never totally escaping flow of vehicles. We were running late, in no way our fault, just simply a matter of driving in India – but all the same that was a big deal. The priests conducting the wedding had decided the time the ceremony would happen, and it had to happen precisely then.

Fortunately we arrived with time to spare, joined by our good Kuwaiti friend Yousef, who had gotten in that morning and taken a taxi into the mountains to the wedding hall. As we stepped out of the van we were swarmed with the family and friends of the young couple – they guided us into the open courtyard where we finally again met up with Munna. We didn’t have long for greetings as the wedding had begun. I couldn’t exactly see through the crowd but it looked as though Munna had his feet cleaned before he entered the wedding hall. We followed inside behind him, dozen of cameras were in the air documenting the moment – and two drones – as we went through the doors. Each of us was handed a lemon, a gift and thank you from the family, and then we made our way upstairs.

We had no interest in being disruptive to the wedding, the hall was already filled with hundreds of people it felt like, and they’d clearly already been sitting and waiting. As we walked in Munna with his family cleared the entire front row of seats for us, wanting us as close to the ceremony as possible. There was no arguing with him, no reasoning, no offering to sit or stand at the back. This was what he wanted, and where he wanted us.

The wedding ceremony was full of rituals and practices, and we watched with pride as Munna and his wife said their vows and were married. Honored and humbled to be there celebrating one of the most important days of our friends life. Afterwards we made our way down to a huge banquet hall that had been set up for the meal. Banana leaves were placed in front of us (a meal presentation style we’d grown fast accustomed to over the last few days) and dollops of rice and different curries were portioned out by women walking amongst the tables with large pots of the assorted foods. As the meal wrapped up we were led back to our van and carted away back to the retreat. The wedding had come and gone, was beautiful and exciting to be a part of and easily hundreds of photos were taken of us while we were there. I’d be interested to see what ever became of those photos.

The next day our plan was to go visit an elephant sanctuary, and to help bath some elephants. Our hosted joined us in the van and took us further up into the mountains, lush green jungle sprawled on either side of the roadway. We eventually pulled over in a non-descript and un-assuming area of a village and the host from the retreat led us out of the van and down a small trail toward the river. Prepared for this, we waded in water just below our knees until we rounded a corner and found several elephant handlers bathing and scrubbing two elephants in the river! For this you’ve got to see the video – we had an awesome time with the elephants, helped to clean them, and then fed them entire bundles of bananas and other snacks we had bought for them on the way. After they were done rinsing off it was time to walk with them all the way back to the sanctuary, where we toured the grounds a bit, saw some baby elephants, and read up on the history of poaching and the ivory trade in the region.

That evening, and breaking with all tradition, we were hosting a big celebration for Munna, his wife, and their families at the retreat. We had begged and pleaded with Munna while we were in Kuwait to make it happen, we had wanted to spend as much time with him in India as we could and he had petitioned his families for permission and they had, somewhat reluctantly, agreed to a reception. This entire trip we’d only seen him twice, at the airport when we had landed, and at his wedding. The retreat put up a large tent and filled it with food (a much needed break from the starvation portions we’d been served the rest of the time we’d been there) and set up a small bar that we stocked with all the bottles of liquor we’d been asked to snag from the duty free.

Munna and his wife showed up with the two families and we spent time meeting and greeting everyone before the rest of the extended family showed up. The party went well into the night and we had an appropriately American send off for the new couple. The whirlwind trip was coming to an end, and that next morning we were going to be back in our van once more for the long winding drive back to Cochin. The entire experience was out of this world, and one of a kind – the unique personal attention we received from our friend having carefully and meticulously planned every detail of our time in his home country was golden. Some of us flew home to America from Dubai, the rest of us headed back to Kuwait – back to work.

The pictures, and the video, do a great job of capturing our time here in India – I hope you enjoy them.

http://imgur.com/a/lv6pg

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