23rd Jun 2012 9:38am | By Caroline Eden
A peaceful paradise of winding backwaters and tea plantations, this southern state couldn’t be more different to the rest of India
Touching down in green and serene Kerala, after battling it out elsewhere in India, is a bit like passing through an invisible curtain to another world. Suddenly, all five senses are relieved from blasting car horns, the pungent whiff of shit and sandalwood and ever-present touts. Instead, there’s a perfect mix and match of chill-out beaches and picturesque rice paddies.
The pace of life switches down several notches and demands an exhalation of breath and a slacken of step. The difference doesn’t only lie in the scenery. In Kerala, 19 per cent of the population are Christian – many lower castes were converted by Portuguese and Dutch traders between the 16th and 19th centuries – so bright-white churches stand alongside mosques and temples. (Thanks also to its bountiful natural beauty, Kerala is known as ‘god’s own country’.) Also, few people in Kerala speak Hindi, so there’s a different language to grapple with, Malayalam – even the name of which is tongue-twistingly tricky.
With all this in mind, I’m surprised to see the roads deserted a day after I arrive. An empty street anywhere in India is a strange sight indeed. A newspaper reports a 24-hour ‘worker’s strike’ is underway and that all of India is at a standstill. Roads are blocked by protesters, and nearly all shops are closed.
I sit patiently as the hours pass, hopping to my houseboat in time for an overnight cruise on the famous backwaters – a quintessentially Keralan experience. Suddenly, Abilaish, my guide, runs towards me, waving a sheet of paper. I examine him quizzically as he tapes it to the top left of the window screen. On it reads: ‘VIP – Airport Urgent.’ Looking extremely pleased with himself, he announces: “This, madam, will do the job. Now we go!”
We zip along Highway 47 pausing only to photograph a male elephant with foot-long tusks being transported on the back of an orange pick-up by his mahout (master). Finally, and excitedly, I board the thatched houseboat from the town of Allepey. It has been built in the style of a kettuvalam, or rice barge. These were once used to transport grain, but now to carry an altogether more profitable cargo – sunbathing tourists.
We set off slowly, cruising just a small stretch of the 999km of backwaters that stream inland from the warm Arabian Sea. Lying back in the sun, I watch kingfishers fly past, fish leap out of the water, and the odd sea snake sidle by. Often compared to the American ‘bayou’, the Keralan backwaters are a maze of complex waterways that have a distinctly brackish scent and are rich with wildlife. They can also be disappointingly touristy in places.