Saturday, February 12, 2011

All the Way South in Communist Land

(Written in Kerala Backwaters -- February 8th)

It's a long, long way from Delhi to here, (almost) at the tip of the country.  India is huge (something like the 6th largest country in the world) and amazingly diverse; it feels like an entirely different world here from the north.  It's unbelievably peaceful and relaxed, and the constant chaos of traffic and horns and cow-jams on the streets has largely disappeared.  The weather's also changed; it's hot and humid, much more what I expected in India instead of the chilly nights up north.

I flew down from Goa to Kochi (also called Cochin, as every Indian city has at least two names) yesterday, in what turned out to be a marathon adventure.  Said goodbye to some of the group in Goa, as Jen, Tasha, Lauren and Roya from the UK are staying in Goa for a week or two before heading on to Thailand, and Kjersti and Maria from Norway flew to Malaysia.  They've been a lot of fun -- I wish them all loads of adventures to come as they get started on their round-the-world treks!

After a nearly two-hour trip to tiny Diabolim airport in Goa, we flew to Bangalore (a.k.a. Bengaluru) in about an hour, then sat on the plane on the tarmac for about 45 minutes before more passengers got on and we got underway for Kochi.  Another hour or so to Kochi, then a long taxi ride to our hotel, arriving at nearly 9 o'clock at night.  No time to see much of Kochi, but I did meet one of the new arrivals on our tour -- Sophie, a 22-year-old electrician from Australia on an extended wander around the world.  (What is it with all these 22-year-olds?  I'm starting to feel old.  She seems very cool, though.)

Had a short sightseeing jaunt in Kochi the next morning (today), with just enough time to to check out the huge Chinese fishing nets; these take at least 5 men to operate and are pretty amazing to watch.  (They didn't seem to catch much, though, just a few crab and some tiny fish; commercial offshore fishing has probably taken a toll here as it has most places.)  Quick visit to the "Dutch Palace" (actually called Mattancherry, but nicknamed because the Dutch renovated it in the 17th century); pretty cool but doesn't begin to compare in opulence with the palaces and forts of Rajasthan in the north.

Then a short wander through "Jewtown" (how un-politcally-correct can you get!), with the old bazaar (the shopaholics in the group were in heaven) and a gorgeous synagogue, before heading off on our tiny bus to Alleppey.  I think I'll have to spend a few more days in Kochi on my way back north to get a proper feel for the city; at first glance though, it seems lovely and much more peaceful than the cities in the north.  (But then, compared with Agra, ANYWHERE would seem peaceful.)

In Alleppey, we caught a boat to sail down the canals to our homestay; what a beautiful ride!  Palm trees fringe the banks, and everyone along the way paused in their bathing or laundering of clothes to wave at us and call out "hello".  Children seem to find us especially exciting; apparently I will be a rock star here in the south as well!

Our homestay, where I now am, is on a quiet little canal, in a tiny village surround by rice fields.  Our hosts, brothers Thomas and Matthew, are passionate about the culture and history of their part of Kerala and took us on a tour around the area.  It isn't harvest time yet for the rice, but it was green and lush as far as I could see; when the monsoons come and the waters rise, the village can be flooded.  Matthew told us that he and his sister used to fish from their dining room table, the water used to rise so high in the house!

Cruising the backwater canals
We had a leisurely canoe ride back to the house (other people did the paddling, we got to just sit back and relax), with Matthew and the boatmen singing traditional Keralan songs to entertain us as the sun set over the palm trees.  Matthew especially is very enthusiastic about keeping this vanishing part of the culture alive; women used to sing the songs as they manually harvested rice in the fields, but with the mechanized operation today the songs have largely gone silent.  It's a surreal experience, anyway, to watch the setting sun reflected on the tranquil waters of the canal, listening (and attempting to join in) to songs in Malayalam, the local language.

I think I'll like Kerala.  It seems, on short acquaintance, to be a very progressive place; there's a communist government that instituted a program of land re-distribution about 50 years ago so that every family in the area has their own plot of land to feed themselves.  The literacy rate here is the highest in India, and even to a casual observer it's apparent that the huge disparity between the richest and the poorest evident in the north doesn't exist here.  There's even a tradition of "marumakkattayam" here, a matrilineal system in which children receive their mothers' family names and daughters inherit through the maternal line.  The local royals still practice it.

At any rate, it's off to bed for me soon.  The mosquitoes are out now, as I type on the front porch gazing at the dark and silent waters beyond the house's front gate; the air is utterly still and quiet, and a heavy, languid heat still hangs in the air despite the lateness of the hour.  I think I'll sleep well tonight -- g'night, all.

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