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Carefree in Kerala

April 2003
Carefree in Kerala

I was walking along M. G. Road in Ernakulam, after checking my e-mail at a cyber caf�, when the lights suddenly went out. In that mysterious semi-darkness, before the generators began to hum, I saw a short man gently swinging a stick to hit a tall and elegantly dressed woman. This bizarre sight would have been startling anywhere, but it was especially so in this lovely corner of India. Of course, as I should have known, it was only a salesman dusting one of his mannequins that were arrayed on the pavement like sentinels. For me, this was one of those unexpected moments that can make traveling in India such a delightful experience.

In December last year, acting on an impulse, my wife Anandhi and I made a short trip to Kerala, which we hadn?t visited before. It turned out to be the highlight of our stay in India. The train to Ernakulam was packed with pilgrims bound for Sabarimala, deep in the rainforests of Kerala. During the night, as the Sabari Express chugged along, I could faintly hear devotees chanting to the accompaniment of clanging cymbals.

When we arrived, the driver of our hired car met us near the exit and took us to Abad Atrium on M. G. Road. At this comfortable and impressively up-to-date hotel, we had a quick shower and called room service for a hot meal. Their Alleppey prawn curry with appam was delicious, and for vegetarians, I?m sure the appam with vegetable stew was just as good. The excellent service we received here showed us why Keralites are known for their hospitality and easygoing charm. They have the highest literacy rate in India, and also?from what we could tell - Kerala is one of the cleanest States. It?s quickly becoming one of the hottest tourist destinations of the subcontinent. In The Indian Express that day, I read that the Southern Naval Command was going to promote Kerala by distributing brochures, pamphlets and souvenirs in various ports around the world. Thankfully, however, there are no signs yet of excessive commercialization.

After our meal, we drove to Willingdon Island and then crossed another bridge to go to the historic districts of Fort Kochi and Mattancherry. As the commercial hub of coastal Kerala, Kochi (formerly Cochin) has a rich history that?s reflected in its eclectic blend of cultures. First, we went to the Dutch Palace in Mattancherry. Actually, it was built by the Portuguese and then presented to the Raja of Kochi in A. D. 1555. It acquired the current name more than a century later, only after the Dutch carried out extensive renovations. On the interior walls of the well-preserved palace, there are some exquisite murals, depicting scenes from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. One can also view the palanquins and royal costumes that belonged to the rajas of yore.

Next we wandered around Jew Town, browsing at curio shops and a well-stocked bookstore. The so-called White Jews of Kochi used to live in this congested area, which is still a center of the spice and pepper trade. For many centuries, India was the world?s only source of pepper, and today it remains the largest producer. In his travel memoir, Cobra Road: An Indian Journey, Trevor Fishlock writes, ?The European craving for pepper inspired advances in ship-building and ocean navigation and the founding of empires.?

The remaining Jews in Kochi continue to use the historic synagogue, which was built in A. D. 1568. We were able to slip in and get a good look before it became too crowded. India was one of the very few places where Jews did not suffer persecution. One can still see the copper plates on which the local rulers recorded their grants of privileges to Jewish settlers. The floor has meticulously hand-painted Chinese tiles, no two of which are alike.

Our next stop, in Fort Kochi, was the famous St. Francis Church, located in the northwestern part of the peninsula. Built by the Portuguese in A. D. 1510, it?s believed to be the oldest European-built church in India. Interestingly, Vasco da Gama was buried here in 1524, but later his remains were exhumed and taken back to Portugal by his son. One unusual?but very Indian?rule here is that visitors are required to remove their shoes before entering the church.

Before heading back to our hotel, we sauntered along the promenade at the northern end. There were many tourists and students, who were either walking about or sitting in small groups. At a picturesque spot, we saw the triangular Chinese fishing nets being lowered into the water to catch fish. Remarkably, this method has not changed in the last two thousand years. As the daylight dimmed, a cool yet salty breeze caressed our faces.

The following day, after breakfast, we set off in the Ambassador to Periyar in the east. Our new driver was chatty, and he kept us entertained during our five-hour trip across the State of Kerala. We saw countless neatly dressed schoolchildren in the towns and villages we passed through. Also impressive was the religious diversity on display in the form of churches, temples and mosques. Sixty percent of the people in Kerala are Hindus, while rest of the population is made up of roughly equal numbers of Christians and Muslims. As Trevor Fishlock points out in his book, ?The long contact with other cultures, Roman, Arab, Portuguese and British, made Keralans less defensive and more tolerant of different ways of life, inculcating an adaptability and aptitude for innovation that became a hallmark of the Keralan character.?

Before we started climbing in the Western Ghats, a wayside sign implored: ?Be Gentle on My Curves.? The road switched back and forth as we ascended, and soon, the mountain air was bracing. Once we reached the area known as Cardamom Hills, the beautiful scenery reminded me of my schooldays in the Nilgiris. Neatly trimmed tea bushes covered entire hillsides like gorgeously patterned carpets. We reached Cardamom County, our resort in Thekkady, just in time for a sumptuous lunch that included Malabar fish curry. South India?s largest wildlife sanctuary - covering about 485 square miles, is located close by, and it surrounds a huge artificial lake. Along with other guests at the resort, we took a boat trip that lasted an hour and a half. Although we saw many birds and other inhabitants such as sambar, bison and wild pigs, the big cats and elephants eluded us. Project Tiger was established here first (in 1973), and now several wild animals thrive in this splendid, carefully preserved sanctuary.

Later that day, we walked around in the nearby hill town of Kumili, which has numerous spice shops. Potential buyers, however, should beware of some unscrupulous merchants who operate here. According to our driver, both foreign and Indian tourists get cheated, but usually foreigners end up paying more. At the resort that evening, there was a large family of revelers, who?d inexplicably chosen this tranquil place for their raucous dance party. Despite this minor nuisance, we enjoyed our stay at Cardamom County.

Next morning we left for Alappuzha (formerly Alleppey) and reached there by noon for our backwater cruise. This is one of the most popular attractions in Kerala, and first-time visitors should not miss it. The house boats (kettuvallam) are actually converted rice boats, with humped roofs made of bamboo and wattle. They ply the fabled backwaters, which can be seen as a network of natural and man-made canals that feed into Lake Vembanad Interestingly, but not surprisingly for Kerala, our three-member crew consisted of a Christian, a Muslim and a Hindu. The boat was powered by bamboo poles and an outboard motor. Its layout, which included a private room for guests, was simple yet elegant, with ample room to stretch out and watch the passing scenery.

As the boat glided past the swaying coconut and banana trees that lined the banks, we relaxed and savored this unusual treat. There are many small houses on the shores, and one can often see people doing their daily chores. Small and big boats crisscrossed the canals, ferrying passengers. Devotional songs, in praise of Lord Ayyappan, floated soothingly from an unseen temple. This amphibious life, so fascinating to watch, is graceful and laid-back. We docked for an hour to have lunch. It consisted of avial, poriyal, beans, fried fish, sambhar and rice. Our food, prepared in a small kitchen at the other end of the boat, was tasty and very filling.

Beyond the trees, we could see the shimmering green paddy fields that stretched away in the distance. Water is the lifeblood of the residents who live on the narrow stretch of land that separates the canal from the fields. The young captain, steering the boat near us, was from this region. He had gone to Gujarat a few years ago to learn welding, and that?s where he?d picked up Hindi. However, a major earthquake there had forced him to return without completing his training. Now, as a boatman, he was continuing the family tradition. While exchanging greetings with a friend on the shore, he pointed out his brother?s house. Later in the afternoon, we had freshly made banana fritters and cardamom-flavored tea.

We continued on our leisurely cruise until the sky began to darken. Then, after dropping the anchor, the boat was tied to a tree on the shore. Power was supplied from a house nearby. The dim lights came on and the fan helped to keep away the few mosquitoes that buzzed around. Once again, in his cramped kitchen, the cook whipped up a wonderful meal in a short time. While we were eating, the power suddenly went out. A couple of kerosene lamps, dangling near the bells that tinkled in the breeze, provided the illumination we needed. Lulled by the gently rocking boat, we slept peacefully that night.

We were woken by loudly chirping birds, but by the time I got up and came out, the sun had already risen. A little boy appeared on the bank and spoke to me in Malayalam. I couldn?t understand him, but he appeared to be asking me something. Then, in a flash, he was gone. Resuming our journey, we left the narrow canal and headed for the glimmering blue expanse of Lake Vembanad. Around it there is a swampy belt that?s a perfect breeding ground for aquatic life. We reached Kumarakom, a thriving village known for its backwater resorts, late in the morning. Our crew dropped us off at Water Scapes and went on their way to pick up another couple. We spent a quiet but agreeable day at this government-owned resort, where all the guesthouses are on stilts. Kerala is renowned for Ayurveda, and the health center here came across as one of the more reputable ones.

When it became cooler, we walked to the large bird sanctuary next to the resort. Here, if the timing is right, one can spot migrant (from Europe and Siberia) and resident birds such as Cormorants, Egrets, Herons, Teals, Kingfishers and Bulbuls. At the edge of the sanctuary, near Lake Vembanad, we saw the sun beginning its descent. There was only one other person around, and to our pleasant surprise, he turned out to be an American. We chatted amiably for a few minutes. Adam told us that he was a producer with ABCNews.com in New York. He was in India as a Ford Environmental Journalism Fellow. We took pictures and stood watching the western sky, which was now bathed in glorious colors. This spectacular sunset, viewed on our last day in Kerala, brought the trip to a memorable end.

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