This post is long overdue. The following is from travels in Kerala, South India from February:
As I went through security the female army officer took a look at my Nalgene bottle, which naturally, I forgot to empty out. “Drink,” she said, pointing to my bag. Complying, I put the bottle to my lips and began chugging. At the half liter mark, she let me off with the classic Indian head bobble and “Ok, Ok.” On the way out of Kochin, Kerala my mind was clearly still unpacking from the week before…
Black granite massifs, some the size of rock walls in Yosemite, backdropped infinite coconut tree studded rice paddies as we headed out of the agricultural flat lands of Tamil Nadu away from Madurai and began ascending into the rugged jungle mountains–the Western Ghats. The epic stone temples of India’s most southeastern state became ancient history as we slowly winded up the western fringe by bus. Monkeys were everywhere; near the road, on the road, in trees above the road. After some gut-wrenching close calls with other buses on the road, we peaked out.
Arriving in the border town of Kumily, I could immediately tell we were in the mountains. Big or small, mountains around the world have a particular kind of essence, and the people who live in them embody it.
Dense forest filled with teak and cardamom and the occasional elephant and tiger (which are regrettably sparse these days) dominate the landscape up to the summits of the Ghats until some of the higher summits, which to my disbelief top the elevation of my former hometown of Boulder, Colorado by nearly 1,000 feet.
Our bus hummed in low gear up narrow roads until we reached our stop for the night, Thekkady, whose name means teak forest town. About 20 minutes past town, we came to complete stop. We apparently had passed our place for the night and had to turn around. To me, the logistics of this were impossible. How does a 35 foot bus turn around on a 12 foot mountain road. Paneer, the bus driver from Madras had a plan that smoked my befuddlement. After a bit of backing up, we found a little driveway where we could make it happen.
Arriving at Carmelia Haven, a tea plantation, spice farm and lodge, we were greeted with some fresh juice. I was elated. If there is a heaven, surely it’s got at least this much tea and other delicious greenery in equal abundance. I finally met the plant I love so much flourishing, alive and in huge numbers. To see it growing so well and in such an unfathomable quantity made me extraordinarily happy. “Thank you tea,” I thought, “thank you for doing what you do.” A world without tea would not be a world for me.
After experiencing the gorgeous Western Ghats for a few days, we headed down to Kerala’s infamous backwaters. Networks of rivers go from the ocean deep into the coconut groves and tropical rice fields. Staying in houseboats here is a must. Gigantic grilled tiger prawns with meat to rival lobster and toddy or local palm wine await along with tali plates of curry and rice. Here is where I experienced some of the finest eating I ever have in my travels. My mouth waters just thinking about them. Our boat crew were just like us. Young, trying to have fun at work. Many props for good food and solid navigation is in order.
Arriving in the port city of Kochin, we saw what seemed like an Indian version of San Diego, just with more history. Chinese fishing nets line the shore, and bay side vendors sell fresh juice. The oldest synagogue in India is also here as is a museum with all of the history related to European influence in the area. Around here, Christian names like Anthony Joseph are common, and many people are converts from the days of mission work that goes back virtually to the religion’s conception. Kerala is a unique story for India and the world. At the same time, Kathakali traditional dance is still very popular, and we were able to catch a show. This is a very intricate art form that requires hours of preparation with makeup (that you can see before the performance) and moodras or hand movements and facial expressions.
Kerala is the only state in both categories to have freely elected a communist government, then vote it out, then back in, then back out several times. It also has (by a significant margin, comparatively) the highest literacy rate in India, and has some of its finest doctors and hospitals. But Kerala is more than just figures; it is a place of deep and rich culture. Like its neighbor Tamil Nadu, Kerala has Dravidian roots that go back thousands of years before the Hindi speaking Indo-European cultures of the north. This is a place where the ancient flows into the modern in a beautiful blend of traditions.