Amazing Kerala, India

2015-03-03

The beautiful region of Kerala has stolen my heart. They don’t call it God’s own country for nothing! The region runs just along the bottom western edge of India, as if it purposely carved itself out of the prettiest section. The hills are drenched in every shade of green.  Everything from tea and coffee plantations, peppercorns, citrus, cashew, palms heavy with coconuts, far reaching beetle nut trees, all layer deep into the distance creating a view of abundant, lush beauty.

Just when it all feels overtaking, like coming up for air,  the land separates to showcase open stretches of the greenest rice patties. Small lakes and rivers are strewn about and forest preserves expand to the perimeters. If you’re lucky you might spot exotic animals in their unspoiled, natural home. The west facing coast brings with it beautiful sunsets from sandy beaches and of course delicious seafood. Following the coast deeper south you run right into peaceful villages of the backwaters that press up against Kerala’s broad, rolling-hill tea plantations.

What’s really fascinating about this particular region is its cultural diversity. Kerala is a study in tolerance and acceptance of all people. Influences from several religious and political worlds collide here, yet it is one of most peaceful and developed regions of India. Syrian Christians are a very prevalent addition to the long list of religions. Churches are suddenly as common as temples. Communist support is made blatant. These diverse cultural influences also greatly impact the cuisine. Meats, seafood, coconut, curry leaf, pickled vegetable, and spices are staples and dishes are often served on banana leaf with rice. These different lifestyles meld and thrive in harmony in Kerala.

The Kerala hills with are a perfect retreat from the busy cities. Our very lovely host from our homestay in the little town of Kalpetta, treated us amazingly.  He shared with us amazing homemade meals and took  time one evening to show us an up close and personal tour of his small family farm. We learned about harvesting coffee and the huge variety of spices and fruit that grow abundantly throughout the area. His family’s farm even boasts a long standing biogas tank tucked behind the small cow shed. We met his father and toured their old house that had been built and kept by previous generations. It was incredible for him to take time out of his busy life to share such a personal pride with us and so telling of the kind of open, friendly people of the region. A true highlight of our experience in Kalpetta.

Although we did not see any elusive tigers, the deer, monkey, and elephant were aplenty in the popular forest preserves. Our jeep rolled along a very rocky road as our guide kept peeled eyes on the horizon ready to point out any animals blending in. It’s rather easy to overlook a giant elephant, or three. Gazing out into the landscape is like staring at a 3-D posters; all blurred dots, then suddenly the image pops out at you. The guides keen eye was impressive and appreciated. Many flora and fauna filled an entire day.

On another afternoon we found peace at a nearby lake that is a popular spot for paddle boating and ice cream treats for tourist and families. Lovers strolled the path along the lake and ruckus boys played loudly out on the water. People watching, however, took a back seat to monkey watching. Mobs of them saunter around like they own the place. Without a breath of hesitation they swoop down and steal ice cream and corn on the cob right out of the hands of those brave enough to indulge. These adorable tyrants provided endless entertainment.

The drive to the coast affords the most stunning views from extremely tightly winding, narrow roads. The driver of the bus handled the wheel with a nonchalant demeanor. He had no trouble locating his horn every several minutes as he barreled down the steep mountain side. Decorative fake flowers did little to hide the age of the bus and the rickety old thing rattled and grumbled on down at top speeds. The views and the ride itself drummed up contradictory emotions. We spent the ride nervously giggling while being thrown around inside the top-heavy metal shell.

 

Once safely at the coastal city of Kannur, a confusing, twisting, tuk-tuk ride dropped us off at the gates of paradise. Had our accommodation landed us any closer to the beach we would have been sleeping in the water. We had a sweeping ocean front view from an airy balcony. It could not have been more perfect. Golden colored sand, beating waves, tall coconut trees shading hammocks and ice cold beers. I felt like I had crashed someone’s vacation. As for the city of Kannur, I couldn’t tell you a thing about it. I didn’t bother to leave the confines of my new found heaven except to travel onward.

 

Refreshed and prepared to take on another busy city, we boarded a day long train that brought more lovely scenery. Upon arrival, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the city of Kochi, while big and busy, has lovely pockets that are anything but chaotic. Kochi is a very touristy place. It’s a great hub to venture to surrounding sights, meet other travelers, and offers quite a bit of culture itself. I thought a quick couple days and I’ll be ready to return to more tranquil territory, but I happily stayed the whole week. I’ve found Kochi has a lot to offer. Besides a booming tourist industry, fishing plays an important economical role. The arts are heavily represented,  everything from smart street graffiti to large inspired sculptural installations to a cultural center that puts on wonderful theater. So much so that I went to two nights in a row.

The space on the water is lined with huge Chinese fishing nets. The nets cast a silhouette that give Kochi it’s unmistakable skyline. A temple festival lasting several nights has kept things exciting. Massive elephants are decorated, and ridden through town with a parade of people accompanied by live music. The street vendors, store owners, and tuk-tuk drivers are relaxed and hardly aggressive. Everyone is friendly and always smiling. The young locals are hip and fun. They enjoy making friends with the fleeting travelers, if only for a day. They embrace their touristy city. Daily yoga and plans with new friends, yet to be seen art, ever changing events, and all the fresh seafood and tropical fruits make it hard to leave this place.

Alleppey, often know as the Venice of the East, is an easy enough bus ride away. It’s a popular destination and for good reason. A slow, calm boat ride though narrow, scenic waterways give insight to people living in the villages along the banks. Folks carry on with daily chores using the water off their front steps to do laundry, dishes, bathing, and fishing for their dinner as the many boats cruise by. The doors on the houses are wide open and flash sneak peeks into the rice patties on the other side where much of the community finds work. Small wooden boats replace cars and scooter parked out front. Instead of stray cattle and goat there are more ducks and geese roaming. The backwaters provide a fascinating look into a different way of life.

The friendliest people of India are found in these small towns of Kerala. Entire families of Indian tourist stopped their cars in the middle of the road to greet us. They wanted to sell nothing, expected nothing, just a friendly hello and a chat with foreigners. Some of them just simply wanted to practice their English. The children would smile huge and run after us waving when we passed. Welcoming gestures and small talk replaced the recent concern of being haggled or harassed when approached. Even in the city, and now as a solo female traveler, people are laid back and kind. I’ve definitely let down my guard here in Kerala. Sometimes I think the south of anywhere is just universally more easy going than its northern counterpart. Kerala is no exception, but I don’t think it’s that simple. This place is special. I think I’ll stay a while.

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