Chapter 3, Part 3
“If you go to India you have to visit Kerala!”
“Because it’s God’s Own Country.”
Back in 2011 a business consultant from Kochi who worked in Jakarta said that to me over lunch with an evident sense of pride. She might have quoted Kerala’s own tourism slogan, but she might as well have been inspired by the uniqueness of her home state. Four years later, I find myself on a plane from Bangalore descending towards Cochin International Airport amid endless verdant hills and pastures of Kerala.
Upon arrival, a large billboard claims the airport to be the first in the world to be fully powered by solar energy. Revolutionary, I thought. Then come the ground staff who are all female, the only airport where all the ground staff are women as far as I can remember. Unlike other places in India which I have been to, cows are conspicuously absent from most of Kerala’s streets. This is presumably because of the high consumption of beef among the Christians and Muslims who together constitute up to 45% of the state’s population.
Kerala is also known as one of the most progressive states in India. In the latest nationwide census the state has the highest Human Development Index, the highest literacy rate, and the highest life expectancy of all states in the country. Another intriguing thing one will notice from the streets across Kerala is the ubiquitous hammer and sickle symbol, a global emblem of communism and a very stigmatized graphic identity in several countries including Indonesia.
Communism in Kerala, however, has evolved from the one practiced in the Soviet Union or China during the Cold War as it doesn’t alienate religion, among other things. A Muslim woman wearing hijab who is a member of the communist party and running for the state legislative election particularly catches my attention. Her posters vie for space on walls and fences all over the state with other candidates from a multitude of political parties – some bearing easy to recognize logos: a sewing machine, a television, an LPG canister, a faucet, a clock, a pair of glasses, a ladder, and many other mundane things.
In Kumarakom, more than 50 km away south of Kochi, our backwaters exploration begins. A combination of centuries of monsoon rains in the Western Ghats, the constant beating of the Indian Ocean, and human interference created the brackish backwaters which is now emblematic to Kerala. Tranquil ambiance with bucolic setting, occasionally peppered with old churches and colorful Hindu temples, is what I imagined before I came and it is exactly what I see and feel as our small boat glides through the calm water. With a short stopover at a modest food stall to have a sip of toddy, the experience is a much-needed respite after having to deal with aggressive rickshaw drivers in Fort Kochi a few days earlier.
More than 130 km to the northeast of Kumarakom is Anachal where James and I find ourselves in an even more quiet place to stay as our basic accommodation is surrounded by the lush foliage of Kerala’s hill stations. The town is located a little over 10 km away from Munnar, a popular hill station from which tourists usually start exploring the tea plantations spread all over the hills, and we decide to spend two nights in a hut, far from the crowds. Our proprietor, his wife and daughter, an American solo traveler, two dogs and a playful kitten are the only souls around.
In God’s own country our experience ends in both extremes. From the infuriating shopkeepers in Kochi who ask us questions as if we were criminals, not customers, to a dishonest rickshaw driver who is very insistent on taking us to places we don’t want to see, Kerala is downright disappointing. But the genuine hospitality of our host in Fort Kochi, the best meals I have in India, and the captivating performance of Kathakali restore my faith in the future of tourism in the southern Indian state.
~ End of Chapter 3 ~
Click here for the full list of stories from the Spice Odyssey series.