Monday, January 5, 2009

Queen of the Arabian Sea

We’ve discovered India’s most charming state: Kerala. Shaped like a miniature version of the South American nation of Chile, the state of Kerala runs lengthwise down the coast of southwestern India. Its lowland coastal areas are brimming with narrow waterways framed by palm trees and tropical bushes. Floating down these backwaters on a canoe or houseboat is remarkable.

Kerala is the richest state in India, with the country’s lowest infant mortality and highest life expectancy rates. It (officially) has a 100 percent adult literacy rate. Its electricity is on at least 23 hours per day. It has sidewalks in some areas, and is beginning construction of at least one overpass.

Kerala was ruled by the Portugese, then the Dutch, followed by the British, before coming under India’s command in the 1950’s. As a result, Kerala’s buildings are the first we’ve seen in India that have any semblence of architectural style. Most homes in India are rectuangular concrete boxes. The homes in Kerala have architecture – curves and frills and tiles and archways resembling a hodgepodge of different genres and cultures. Some of the homes even have a fresh coat of exterior paint. I haven’t seen fresh exterior house paint in 4 months.

Kerala is officially the cleanest state in India. The streets here are littered – they perpetually resemble the morning after a street carnival – but they lack the knee-high mounds of trash that characterize other Indian cities. Yes, people still burn trash in open sewers. But the size of these trash fires are smaller than India’s norm, and the occasions are less frequent. People boast with pride that Kerala is as clean as Mexico City.

Kerala is a communist state, and although its citizens are educated, they lack local job opportunities. As a result, the sons of Kerala find jobs in the Middle East, and send oil money home to their wives and daughters. The women of Kerala spend their newfound wealth on silk sarees and gold jewelry found in upscale department stores. (We spent an afternoon browsing in one extravagant department store where sales associates carry silver platters of complimentary cups of coffee.) Across Kerala, thousands of jewelry advertisements and home-furnishings billboards list their company branch locations “across the Gulf.”

We arrived in Kochi on New Years Eve after an 11-hour bus ride involving 4 transfers, and we fell asleep before midnight. We’ve been traveling around so much in the past several months that we’ve decided to stay put in Kochi for a full week.

Plus, this is the first place in India where we’ve found good donuts and milkshakes.

Kochi is a small fishing town on the Keralan coast, with a cosmopolitan core – movie theatres, department stores – that grew from its legacy as a trading post. We’re living on Press Club Road, where the journalists congregate, and our street has more English-language bookstores than I can count on both hands. Our room is the cheapest in the city, a major plus. Our favorite neighborhood breakfast nook is on our street corner. We commute around town on boats – Kochi’s alternative to buses.

Each day we catch the ferry across the lake to Fort Kochi, a once-obscure fishing village that became the first European settlement in India. The water over its main square is covered with Chinese fishing nets. It takes four men to lower and raise the nets, with are supported by teak wood and bamboo poles.

The buildings, restaurants and general ambiance is Portugese-Dutch-British inspired, with flourishes of Indian and Arab influence. It has a Jewish quarter with a Kashmiri workforce. You’re as likely to meet a Christian or a Muslim as you are to meet a Hindu. The Italian traveler Nicolas Conti, who visited Kochi in the 1400’s, said: “If China is where you make your money, then Kochi surely is the place to spend it.” Though the town still feels like an obscure fishing village, its known as the “Queen of the Arabian Sea.”

We spend our days floating on the backwaters, strolling through the architecturally-interesting neighborhoods, and chasing the perfect donut.