After spending a few weeks in a foreign country one is sometimes tempted to believe that one has got to know it. The sense of familiarity creeps in slowly until you get the comforting feeling of knowing what to expect.
I spent four weeks in India this summer, working in Delhi, visiting the neighbouring states and doing yoga in the Himalayas. I’ve seen city life and rural life, I’ve travelled by public transport, by rickshaw, taxi and private car, by road and by rail. I’ve lived and worked with Indians, I’ve eaten in five-star establishments and basic street food outlets. The feeling of ‘been there, done that’ started to kick in.
Two months after my first trip I landed in Cochin, Kerala, and I saw a completely different India to what I had experienced before.
First of all, Cochin doesn’t look like India at all. The place has an odd colonial feel to it, almost like it is 1880 – it looks like the Portuguese colonisers have left a more lasting trace than their British counterparts did elsewhere in the country. Grand colonial mansions dominate the town, slowly falling into disrepair and being overtaken by tropical vegetation. A certain nostalgia for times long past lingers in the hot and humid air.
But the most conspicuous element of the Keralan landscape are churches. Not Hindu temples – you hardly seen any there. Christian basilicas, a spitting image of Catholic churches of Southern Europe, are omnipresent, giving Keralan cities and towns a slightly out of place look. At times one needs to remind oneself it is still India. I learn that half of the Keralan population are Christian, and they seem to be taking their religion rather seriously. Christian artefacts, crosses and portraits of Jesus and Mary can be spotted practically everywhere. On my way to a morning yoga class I passed by a church bursting at the seams – on a Thursday at 6 am. Names of saints pop up on every school building, as most schools are run by Catholic nuns, and even on cars, bearing names of saints above the windscreen. Hinduism is still present, of course, side by side with Catholicism. Our driver who took us from the mountains of Munnar back to Cochin had both a Christian cross and a statue of Ganesha displayed above his steering wheel.
What comes as a real surprise though, given the prevalence of Catholicism, are the omnipresent red flags with the hammer and sickle – Kerala has for many years been a stronghold of the Communist Party of India. Flags and posters decorate walls and shops in cities, fly on masts on top of public buildings and can even be spotted on palm trees in backwater villages. These symbols of the old regime obviously shock me as a Pole, used to associating the c-word with the worst evil – Poland banned the communist party alongside the fascist and Nazi parties years ago. But… The commies of Kerala must be doing something right. During several days there we only see one beggar and one rough sleeper. Roads are incomparably better than elsewhere in India. There is a multitude of hospitals and health centres that only charge one rupee regardless of the type of treatment, as one of our guides explains. We find out that Kerala, despite the absence of any significant industry, enjoys above-average incomes and almost double the literacy rate of other states.
In a backwater village we spot ads for free IT classes for women run by a local library. We visit a remote tribal settlement in the mountains around Munnar and we learn that all services and food supplies are provided for free to the villagers. Even in villages and working class suburbs of Cochin houses are made of brick and have toilets as well as a water supply (from wells or water tanks). We don’t see a single shantytown.
Rural Kerala is a delight. The lush green landscape is dotted with coconut and banana trees. The mountainous Munnar area offers stunning vistas of green valleys with colourful houses, tea plantations resembling a patchwork green carpet, and mist-covered hills. We spend delightful two days hiking the hilly tea and cardamon plantations. Then there is the backwaters – meandering canals enveloped in thick tropical vegetation. Small fishing boats and traditional fishing nets dot the backwaters; elderly fishermen smile toothlessly as we pass. Smaller canals cut into the vegetation revealing sleepy villages where people still make traditional coconut flower alcohol, produce rope from coconut shell fibre and fish by hand. Their produce is collected by cooperatives that then distribute the income equally among the locals.
The slogan that the Kerala Tourism Desk uses to promote the state is ‘God’s Own Country’. While I would not call Kerala heaven on Earth, I’m certainly inclined to believe that it is much closer to heaven than other places I’ve seen in India, that vast country that doesn’t cease to surprise me.