Months in the planning, Kerala was a dream escape with Sujit after the end of my fellowship in March. We met with Christian, Taheera, and her Canadian friend in Fort Kochi, and then parted ways to explore different corners of the state. Kerala is a tropical state tucked in the very southwest of India, lauded for its 95% literacy rate, high life expectancy, and generally progressive social development. I even remember reading about Kerala in my first year university Introduction to Development textbook as a prime model of locally-led development. As a communist state it’s true that social services are well-established, from access to education and healthcare to public transit. Most parts of Kerala are historically matriarchal, which is still visible today. After traveling to rural Bihar and Saurashtra with my NGO, speaking with struggling female workers, I watched in shock as Keralite women casually pumped petrol and waved in and out trains. What a place! One of the most memorable scenarios was when Sujit and I rushed madly from the train station after realizing we were at the East, not West station. In a hurry we stopped the nearest rickshaw, only to be told by the sleepy driver to not get in, but please take the rickshaw in the front of the queue after obtaining a 1 rupee ticket and set fee for our destination. What order and calmness! People didn’t even honk their car horns. It truly was a tropical paradise vacation from Ahmedabad.
With its undeniable aura of laid-backedness, six days was nowhere near enough to explore Kerala! An attitude of relaxation is desirable, but not when it comes to the speed of public transit which unfortunately worked against our itinerary: delayed trains, delayed flight, delayed busses winding through the Thekkady hills… Our flight from Ahmedabad was so delayed we missed an entire day – but we still traversed to Fort Kochi, all the way South to the beaches of Kovalam, and far East to Periyar near the Tamil Nadu border. The backwaters were missed, and so was Munnar, but there’s always round two.
Our first stop was the thriving arts scene in Fort Kochi – we could have spent a few more days exploring all the hidden galleries and art houses. I even was lucky enough to find a photography exhibit held by my Singaporean friend’s uncle! Though Fort Kochi was comparatively ‘touristy’ it wasn’t anything like other tourist hotspots in India. Fort Kochi didn’t try too hard. Empty lofts and hidden galleries were tucked away and operated casually, showcasing local artists free of cost, without any advertising or prodding to get you inside. In fact, some of the best places we stumbled upon between the scooter-sightseeing around the city were by complete accident. The sticky-humid sunshine was exhausting, but we managed to jump from point A to B to C with lots of energy from good coffee, fresh seafood, and funky street art. We finished a full day watching the sun drop behind the massive Chinese fishing nets at the harbour, followed by a candle-lit dinner on the water for Taheera’s birthday. There’s nothing like a sea-breeze and friends to make you feel like you’re at home.
After two days we took a long local train through the monsoon rains to the southern coast and Kovalam beach. It was bumper season, and to our surprise the only other tourists we found were a plethora of middle-aged Russian ladies on mid-life crisis holidays. They were flabbergasted that a Hindu local boy and a Christian foreigner girl were sharing a room. Scandalous! But I can’t complain, I’ve had worse homestay guests. Surprisingly the beach was only mediocre. Our homestay was beautiful, but the beach was crowded, the waves pretty treacherous for swimming, and the sun absolutely scalding. Thank goodness we both like eating, and many hours were spent lounging over good food. In another two short days we were back on the train, this time in sleeper class, leaning out the windows for the best breeze, munching on dal vadas and sipping watery Indian Railways chai.
From Kottayam train station we headed directly East to the hills of Thekkady. This was the real gem of Kerala. After enduring a harrowing Kerala State Transport bus ride (nearly 3 hours delayed naturally) we stumbled into the most beautiful, humble and gracious homestay I’ve ever experienced. At Periyar Inn, Jobin, Bincy and their children were genuinely welcoming and caring, and did everything to ensure we enjoyed our stay. The guest cottage was hidden in the family’s garden and blessed with the welcoming, cooler sunlight of the mountains. Every morning Bincy prepared a local delicacy for breakfast to be enjoyed among the flowers. To be honest it was very, very hard to leave Periyar Inn!
Still, we explored by foot and motorbike, skipping the usual tourist traps and instead wandering in tea fields and spice gardens on our own. On the last night, we watched a beautiful kathakali show – a traditional Keralite folk dance. Incredibly complex and intricate, the translations were much appreciated from Sujit. Grudgingly we boarded the ancient bus for a long ride back to Ernakaluam and the airport. Thekkady was the highlight of our week and it was heartbreaking to leave after such a short amount of time. By chance, while we were in Thekkady the Arabica coffee plants were flowering, covering the whole hillside in a sweet jasmine-scent which only lasts a few days each year. The captivating scent flowed through the bus windows, calling us to come back one day.