Before leaving Goa, I (abe) got a message on facebook from some Atlanta friends, Will and Christine Hong. It said, and I quote, “Hey Abe! This is so last minute as well as a shot in the dark, but we are in India right now.” As it turns out, they would be in Kerala through the 11th, which was THE SAME DAY WE ARRIVED in Kerala.
(To illustrate the unlikelihood of this, imagine you lived in Cleveland, and you were traveling to San Diego for a three-day conference. Just before you left, your Japanese exchange student high school friend emailed, from Japan, to say they were going to San Diego on vacation the same weekend, on the off chance you were around.)
We couldn’t contact them by phone because there is no reception in Agonda Beach, but we didn’t want to miss such divine appointment, so when we arrived in Cochin we simply took a cab to their hotel straight away. And there was Will on the lobby couch. He looked up to see Bethany, then went back to his iPad. A moment later he looked up again and his jaw dropped. We spent the next three hours hanging out with him and Christine at the hotel, then shared a cab on the way to the bus station/airport. What an unexpected treat.
Alleppey (also known as Alleppuzha), from what we can tell, is only on the map because it offers the possibility of boating around Kerala’s backwaters. Unfair comparisons to Venice notwithstanding, this network of canals, bogs, and inland waterways make for interesting topography and truly unforgettable boat tours. For little more than the price of a cheap hotel, we (Bethraham, Nan, Kate, Sachi and Jesse) shared a houseboat for two days and two nights. The three-person crew motored us around the scenic boundary waters and parked wherever we were to prepare us fresh, coconutty Keralan meals that looked like this:
Lonely Planet describes this as “One of the top 10 travel experiences of your life”, which is a bit hyperbolic, but it was an incredibly graceful and relaxing way to tour the coastal countryside. There’s nothing to do on the boat but read, talk, or soak in the scenery, so Bethany put her hands to work and found a use for those giant banana leaves.
After the houseboat dropped us off in Alleppey, we took a bus inland to the Cardamom Hills and the tiny town of Kumily. We had never heard of Kumily, but that seems to put us in the minority because it was crawling with western tourists. As travelers, we’ve come to see this as a double-edged sword: on the one hand it means the presence of innumerable tourist knick-knack shops, each selling the same unoriginal and overpriced (relatively speaking) vishnu carvings, silver jewelry, and fabric scarves. It is impossible to walk by any of these shops without the proprietor calling out, “Hullo sir. Please come. Just look inside. Wery low prices.” But on the other hand, such touristy areas are, across the board, nicer that what one can normally expect in India.
We stayed at the Coffee Inn, a very clean, comfortable and even stylish guest house that abuts the Periyar Tiger Reserve, which is one of two main attractions in town. The other is the tea and spice gardens. We visited a big tea plantation outside of town (which was closed for Pongal) as well as Abraham’s Spice Garden and got a tour from the man himself. He seems able to get nearly anything to grow.
On our last day in town we did a jeep safari in the reserve. Our safari guide (real name: Prince) had some kind of sixth sense for spotting wildlife and was able to pick out animals in the forest long before they were visible to the rest of us. When we jokingly offered to pay him extra to show us the tigers (there are now 46 in the area), he said in his 25 years of living there he had only seen three. Prince has lived his whole life in a village inside the reserve, and now works some days as a safari guide and other days in a Cardamom plantation, for which he is paid less than $3 per day. He was a friendly fellow, fond of singing, and told us stories of his tourist encounters as a safari guide. When we asked him his impressions, he expressed what seems to be the prevailing sentiment among Indians in the tourism trade: they’d much rather interact with Western tourists than their own people. I found this interesting and relieving at the same time. It’s easy to imagine that these shop and hotel owners secretly resent you for your money (while still hoping that you spend it with them), or because you are a high-maintenance westerner who complains that the shower is too cold and the food is too hot, or simply because you look British. But this appears not to be the case, and we can understand why. We have not been impressed with most of the middle-class Indian tourists we’ve encountered. They are demanding and disrespectful toward their hosts and their children act like undisciplined brats.
All told, we really enjoyed Kerala. It’s possibly the most put-together of Indian states: the highest literacy rates, the most affluence, least corruption, best infrastructure and a strong Communist party. That’s right, Kerala is a two-party government, one of which is CPI, the Communist Party of India. Apparently (according to our cab driver), the two parties alternate terms of power, and the communists are currently in charge. Everywhere we went we saw posters like this:
Kumily, like much of southern India, has a strong Christian presence. We saw two big churches in town, one Catholic and one Orthodox. Lately I’ve been interested in eastern christian practice so we visited the latter on Sunday morning. We didn’t stay for the entire service, but from what we saw, it’s very similar to an orthodox service anywhere else in the world, except it was in Malayalam. A couple thoughts: 1) it was impressive that the church was full and all the participants stood and sang the entire liturgy from memory. I have no idea what they were singing but only one or two people in the room used a book. 2) I can see how both Catholicism and Orthodoxy have done well in India; physically they are strikingly similar to Hinduism, what with the iconography, shrines and ritualistic incense. The impulse to make fragrant offerings to a physical icon is found in both their Hindu and Christian practice. I joked that when you pass a house of worship in south India, you can only tell what faith it is by looking at the figurine inside the glass case and counting the arms. Two arms=christian; four or more arms=hindu. And it reminded us that our faith, which we learned in the west, is actually an eastern faith, and that’s probably why we don’t understand it well sometimes.