Freedom is riding in the open-air sleeper car through the Western Ghats. There are peacocks on the train tracks and palm tree forests planted on the city outskirts. The Sabari Express is bound for Kerala, and I with it.
The train speeds past farms and cows and thatch-roof villages that pass quickly. The mountains in the distance remain mostly the same. We pass Indian Railway workers with uniform indigo turbans, happy babies being held by their grandmothers, roadside Sadhus with painted faces, buffalos with companion egrets.
A chai man serves tea in paper cups, and I meet a nice accountant who offers to throw my trash out the window for me. “Nooooooooo…thank you!” I manage, snatching it back. “Oh,” he laughs, “That’s the cultural difference between Indians and Americans.” I launch a brief presentation on environmental conservation, and when he finishes his soda, he tucks the empty bottle in his briefcase.
A few km away are quieter stretches of sand where foreigners still fear to tread due to lack of resort facilities, and here I spend the next couple days getting equitorially sunburnt among the fishing boats and tossed about by the Arabian Sea. The fishermen’s crafts boggle the mind, from large cruisers to a floating splinter.
When not rubbing aloe on my crisp skin, my Kerala shortlist includes a glimpse of the backwaters, some temple-going, and large-animal sighting. Conveniently, I soon find myself canoeing across a saltwater lake to an island temple dedicated to Shiva.
It’s said that a thief once swam to the temple in the middle of the night to steal the eyes of Shiva, which were made of pure gold. He plucked out the statue’s eyes and pocketed them, then jumped back into the water to make his escape. Halfway there, he suddenly got very tired. He couldn’t swim a stroke farther. But he found that if he turned around, he could swim back to the island. Upon reaching shore, he tried again to leave, and again had only the strength to return to the island. His thwarted attempts finally got the best of him, and in the morning fishermen found his body floating in the lake. Shiva’s eyes were never recovered.
On a bonus excursion, I ran into “Sacred Emotion,” by Donny Osmond. It’s a river…flowing into the ocean.
The backwaters floated upon, the ocean swum in and tributaries spotted, words of warning against messing with Shiva imparted, there was one final item, after four days on the jungly coast, that I needed to check off before continuing my journey: