(Thanks to my traveling companion for photos - my camera broke)
The Kerala region has been trading spices west for five thousand years, since the time of Egypt’s earliest kings. Today, the Indian state of Kerala is a standout, with the highest literacy rate, the highest human development index, the highest female proportion of population, the lowest population growth and the highest life expectancy of any Indian state. And it still vigorously trades in spices.
And its people have strange ideas about roadside promotional signage. And its drivers obsess about cleanliness.
And most important, Kerala is home to the best place in India.
But more on that later.
Millennia of Arabian and European colonisations ended with independence in 1948. Kerala’s people, half Hindu, and quarters Muslim and Christian, are governed today by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), a party they’ve been electing and re-electing off and on since the 1950s.
|Father figures of Keralan politics|
Fort Kochi, a three hour flight, one hour drive south of Delhi, is an enclave yet to be spoiled by tourism surrounded by the modern city of Kochi. Like Bali, shops sell the regular Asian tourist haunt rubbish, but missing are the crowds, the in-your-face, the bars.
Kerala has few bars, and the distribution, sale and serving of alcohol is very tightly regulated. An irritant for the tourism industry, but very popular with female voters.
The old town sits on a peninsula accessed by ferry, small in area, without an actual fort, but nevertheless with plenty of character and life. Here as elsewhere in Kerala, locals are personable, less concerned with who you are, and more engaging than Indians of the crowded north.
Surprisingly good, the Oceanos restaurant serves traditional Keralan seafood in a modern setting. The moplah fish in banana leaf a treat.
Kerala enjoys two monsoons, one in June/July, and a second as we visit in October. And so we wake to streets washed clean by heavy rain, and head to Art of Bicycle, to set up for a day’s cycling, sixty kilometres south to Aleppy.
India is not my location of choice for a bike ride, with vehicles passing way too close for my liking. The kids, on the other hand, love it. And don’t die.
Bike travel is leisurely enough to read the bizarre roadside signage:
“God Bless Hair Salon”
“Drill is the cornerstone of Discipline” (according to the navy)
“Coffin work and mobile freezer” (perhaps the coffin work takes longer than anticipated)
“We are Indian Firstly and Lastly” (and perhaps inbetweenly too.)
“Mary Matha Visitation Computer Academy”
“Holy Body of Christ Engineering College for Women”
And my favourite, a door in the sky atop a metal pole, painted on it:
“Divine Door” (promoting the “Divine Door Company”, not a low hanging heavenly portal)
Everywhere, sculptures, banner, flags and posters adorned with hammer and sickle compete with garish oversized churches paid for with remittances from Keralans working overseas – a consequence of their high levels of education and longstanding foreign links, particularly to the Middle East.
We ride the coast road, between beach and the big backwater. Good, because it’s flat. Not so good because there’s only one road and all the traffic is on it. Because of the monsoons, the backwater lake is mostly fresh half the year, increasingly salty during the dry. So farmers alternate between rice paddy and fish farm depending on salinity. With all that water come mosquitos, and dengue.
On both sides of the road, waterways are plied by narrow wooden boats of various sizes, called ‘knot boats’ because they’re constructed from planks tied together, no nails. Rope and wood both traditionally sourced from coconut palms.
The ‘coir’, the fibrous inner wrapping of the coconut, is plaited into rope. It’s also turned into doormats in homemade, wooden factories. These are co-operatives, and anyone with nothing better to do can drop in and earn a few rupees. A finished doormat, a great hairy itchy thing, sells for a few dollars.
After a night in a landholder’s ancestral backwaterside home, we’re on the road again, pedaling back through Aleppy (or Aleppuzaha) and its destitute canals (constructed during the Dutch colonial era) and buildings. Beautiful in places, trashed in others, and wilfully ignored by the locals.
The Abad beach resort has the cleanest beaches I’ve seen in India, though that’s not saying much. Thousands of tiny crab-like animals in the sand and surf, and sea eagles snatching at the water. Grey water, grey sky, storm breaks over beach, a fantastic monochrome interrupted by flashes from brightly coloured fishing boat hulls. Beach, pool, food, rooms, outside bathrooms, all very nice.
Several thousand houseboats chug the network of large canals inland from Aleppy. Quality and size varies, but the majority are an over-sized variant of a typical covered riverboat, with a half cylinder of cane roofing. Popular with tourists, who cruise the waterways, and drink.
We’re far too energetic for a houseboat. Despite the incessant rain we opt for a day of kayaking, for access to the multitude of smaller waterways, to see the locals’ lives up close.For several kilometres back from the coast, the canals rise above the surrounding land. Our guide Samson says the canal system was ‘built by the British’, which is Indian for ‘built by slave labour working at the behest of the British to augment their capacity to extract even greater premiums from the colony,’ but mere detail.
No roads. Not even British ones. All access to the islands (can you call them islands if they’re below sea level?) is by boat. We paddle along, looking down into the houses lining the canal. A large high school, thousands of students, with school boats lining up outside to take them home.
Kingfishers everywhere, three varieties, large to small, and other birds, drongoes and a raptor coloured like a caricatured Manly sea-eagle, which Samson calls a Keralan kite.
In a larger waterway, dodge and weave our way through the pouring rain between the chugging houseboats, to lunch at a shack. Samson brings tourists here every day. I eat fish and prawn with a selection of traditional dishes, served on a banana leaf which the owner takes away and washes for the next customer. All very nice, and after not dying I decide the fish and prawn came straight from the farm minutes before lunch.
Back to Fort Kochi. The eldest daughter of the homestay family is soon to be married and excitedly shows us some of her clothes. ‘Oh no,’ she says, we’ve misunderstood the purpose of one of her garments, ‘That dress is for the day before I get married. This one is for the day before that’!
Heading for the mountains next morning, a half hour lost to a traffic jam before we’re rushing through rice paddies. Fexcel, our driver for the rest of the week, is obsessed with cleanliness inside the car, to the point that he won’t let us put the windows down. To open the windows, he fears, will permit the entrée of dust and dirt which may ultimately cause the interior roof to discolour.
The land starts to rise, the rainfall intermittent. We pass crazy churches, unfamiliar denominations, strange names and statues more akin to a Hindu temple than a western church, LED lighting around the altar, life-sized Jesuses in glass cases overlooking the street from metres up.
I discuss how clean and tidy a town we stop in is, with the girls’ volleyball team I make friends with there. (How did that happen? They’re now WhatsApping me streams of team photos and messages in garbled teenage English.) The girls tell me this town is a real mess and needs cleaning up. Never heard that before in India, and look at the consequence – one tidy town.
The car climbs above the tropics, the temperature and humidity drop and tea plantations displace the rubber trees and jungle. The weather is cool in the evening, warm in the day, and the near complete absence of mosquitos (unlike on the backwaters) elevates the region even higher in my estimation.
Thekaddy town is close to the headwaters of the biggest of Kerala’s many rivers, the Periyar. Here, income from spices is supplemented by mostly north Indian tourists visiting for their annual Diwali break. The break starts the day after we arrive, by which time men are roaming the streets with cardboard signs stating ‘hotel’. They could rent the cardboard box from which the sign was made this overcrowded week. The operators of our homestay feign amazement when we tell them there is no hot water in our rooms, as if it never occurred to them before and isn’t that funny when you think about it. Simultaneously working the spice and chocolate store downstairs, run off their feet by the influx of cashed-up tourists, they ferry up to us at badly coordinated junctures buckets of hot water, enormous smiles flashing before they bolt back downstairs to the multitudes demanding pink chocolate or Iranian dates or kilos of first blush tea or whatever their fancy as long as they spend.
Because it’s a tourist town servicing Hindus and Muslims, Hindus who won’t eat beef and Muslims who won’t eat pork, restaurant meat choices narrow to chicken, supplemented with the occasional mutton dish. On the coast, the wealth of fresh seafood obscured this, but in the mountains, the local pizzeria has eleven flavours, and ten of them are chicken.
A blight: a pest and global warming have devastated the cultivation of vanilla. Only one of the hundreds of spice dealers has any. Not at ‘God’s Spice Store’, but down the road at ‘The Lord’s Spice Store’, Saba is selling vanllla for around AUD1400 a kilo. A single shrivelled bean for $2. On the other hand, pepper abounds. Quayside in Kochi it’s shipping below AUD9 a kilo.
We’ve come, not for the spices, but to visit the Periyar Tiger Reserve. Park administrators insist we wear ‘sombre clothing’, so as not to alert the animals, and long sleeves and trousers, to reduce the incidence of leech attachment. After some furious late night purchases, we arrive dressed for a funeral. We’re aghast to see others turning up in all manner of fluoro garb, lurid shorts and thongs. Turns out, they’re not coming with us. Before setting off, we’re also issued ‘leech socks’, khaki-coloured Christmas stockings, great thick things that fit between boot and sock and tie off just under the knee.
Our guides are locals, tribal ‘Adivasis’. Adivasi forest settlements dot the sides of the lake around which the park is formed. Perhaps our guides are hired to discourage other tribals from ‘poaching’ – living off the forest and its produce as they previously would have. The tribal guides graciously share their knowledge of the forest, its many fruits and flavours. They strip and dive into the lake to retrieve the rafts we use to travel to remote, fluoro-free parts of the lake. Yet despite dedication stretching back decades, all continue to work for daily wages. On the other hand, the Kerala state forest guard, an outsider with a pension plan, a shotgun and a busting gut, covers his head with a sarong and plays on his mobile phone as the rest of us paddle our rafts.
We don’t see a tiger – one guide admits in the previous three years he’s seen a tiger just once – but we’re otherwise lucky: a mouse deer bolts from scrub underfoot a metre from the path, a large monitor does likewise, and from a distance we see a small herd of elephant, a samba deer, a large herd of boar, several small herd of bison. And above our heads hang giant female spiders known to eat their diminutive male mates, who perplexingly sit around in numbers at the edge of the web.
The park is clean and green, and we spend a day in nature, in the forest and on the lake, only seeing humans proximate to the boat terminal from whence we departed.
Next morning the road to Vagamon dips into tropical valleys, up and over semi-tropical highlands, through passes and onwards.
Our last stop, ‘Mavady Estate’, another ancestral landholding turned upmarket homestay. In Kerala’s Christian community, the youngest son inherits the family home (and in turn is obliged to care for the parents through their dotage). ‘Baby Mathew’ is our host at Mavady Estate: no doubt about his position in the family lineage. And for the last two weeks a proud grandfather, showing off the new baby, the first in the house for more than thirty years.
The mansion is fantastic, old and dark wood, with big windows and shutters that can be thrown wide open. The boys slide down banisters and Baby laughs because he did that when he was a boy, and out to the lawn for badminton. The meals, three times a day, each of them a feast, seven dishes perhaps spread along the banquet table.
We tour the rubber plantation. In the processing shed mats of semi-processed rubber bear the ‘BM’ (Baby Mathew) label.
Through the spice gardens of cardoman and vanilla, the rubber plantation, the mangoes, the forest of teak and mahogany, the fields of pineapples, through the teeming rain and the dripping forests. Past the house with the pet elephant, past the Toddy Bar. Deep in a ravine, hemmed in by jungle and valley walls, a rock hangs in the air. Five metres below, a deep, deep pool of water, exploding with the belly of the rain, swirling and churning. The local boys lead the way, show us what to do.
Best place in India.
Forget the pet elephant. Who can be bothered with the coconut’s Toddy liquor? Out of the water, climb the rock, leap into space again. Rest in the shallows and shadows of the cool pool below, rain falling on your face.
Sunday morning a slow and lazy departure. The sun, the blazing sun is back, to dry all our clothes before we pack and head home. The temperature rises, the humidity rises. And our spirits float on top of it all.