Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Not A Kerala In The World

The evening of Sunday the 18th took us from cool, temperate Delhi to subtropical Kerala, a thin, long shard of a state on India’s southwestern coast. The most densely-populated state in India, Kerala boasts the country’s highest literacy rate (a reputed 100%), the lowest infant mortality rate and an especially diverse and peacefully-coexisting populace (roughly 40% Hindu, 25% Catholic and 25% Muslim).

All three statistics stem, at least in part, from Kerala’s geographic serendipity as a port of entry for Catholic missionaries and spice traders alike. The state also boasts a well-earned reputation as a friendly and laid-back vacation destination with beachside resorts, Ayurvedic spas and lush foliage serving as calling cards. Despite its strengths, Kerala suffers from one of the highest unemployment rates in India, potentially as a result of its electing a Communist government (along with West Bengal) whose platform has scared off potential employers.

Given Indian Airlines’ longstanding reputation for mediocrity, we were surprised that our 3-hour flight (which cost roughly $65 per head) went as marvelously as it did; the flight departed on time, all passengers were handed roses upon entering and exiting the plane and the onboard food service was outstanding. Only upon arrival did we learn that we were on the maiden voyage Delhi-to-Cochin non-stop flight, which just so happened to boast a certain Indian Airlines’ CEO as a passenger. Suffice it to say that our next Indian Airlines flight – sans CEO – wouldn’t go quite as flawlessly.

After touching down in Cochin’s gleaming international airport (a gateway to the Gulf Coast Countries where many young Keralans seek their fortunes and a glittering example of public-private collaboration), we were whisked two hours south to the small town of Kayamkulam. Through Kaberi’s Mejomama and Mejomaima's kindness, we were being graciously hosted in Kerala by the National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC), an Indian utility. Our hosts – Mr. Chandon, a family friend of the Mejos at NTPC headquarters in Delhi and Mr. Sood, the GM of NTPC Kerala – had arranged for us to stay at the company guesthouse with a car and driver at our disposal and a personal guide, Mr. SreeKumar, to accompany us throughout Kerala.

When we reached the guesthouse, we were struck by the lingering signs commemorating the visit of the shaggy-haired India's president, Abdul A. P. J. Kalam, a few days earlier (in a former life, Kalam mastermindeded the secret 1998 nuclear tests in the Rajasthan desert, earning him great admiration from resident and non-resident Indians alike for defying the satellite reconnaisance of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency).

The next morning took us to the town of Alleppey, a prime departure point for Kerala’s famed backwaters boat tours. Mr. SreeKumar had arranged for our reservation and even went so far as to argue on our behalf when the first boat we were shown proved unsatisfactory (Kaberi’s nose wrinkled immediately at the ubiquitous carpet stains and the stifling, musty odor). When the 30-year-old, 5-foot-10 inch boat captain started verbally abusing the 5-foot-no-inch, 44-year-old Mr. SreeKumar, 5-foot-6-inch Vik (5-foot-7 with the afro) was ready to drop the gloves, but Mr. SreeKumar held his own, giving said boat captain the Heisman and marching us back onto the pier. Minutes later, he found us a three-month old vessel with a gleaming deck and a much more respectful crew.

Our vessel was one of seemingly hundreds of wooden barges called kettu vallams, or “tied boats,” plying the backwaters. It boasted a façade of individual bamboo pieces, several of which we saw being hammered on the shoreline, that were attached without the use of nails. While our kettu vallam was a modest air-conditioned, one bedroom affair, we saw several that boasted five or more bedrooms, sundecks and lavish entertainment systems.

After setting off at noon, we were immediately beguiled by the beauty and serenity of our surroundings. Drifting along the backwaters, which comprised canals, lakes and rivers, was immediately relaxing, a welcome change from the hustle and bustle of the cities previously seen on our itinerary. As we floated in the midst of rice paddies, grasslands and tropical vegetation, we also caught a glimpse into the rural life of those who live alongside and incorporate the backwaters into a multitude of daily tasks, like bathing, clothes-washing and cooking.

Peeking into the private moments of others felt a bit voyeuristic to Kaberi, and a tad intrusive to Vik, so we contented ourselves instead with a good book and some not-quite-real-time blogging, respectively. The hours passed quickly; before we knew it, we were sipping sumptuous chai (heavy on the cardamum) while watching the sunset. As the sun faded, we docked and enjoyed the solitude of our surroundings as our crew prepared a traditional South Indian meal for us. It was a bit surreal, but still very enjoyable, to eat dinner in complete and total darkness. After turning in for the night, we were quickly coaxed to sleep by the lapping waves against our boat.

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