In God’s Own Country, the Roads are Made of Water, and Mountains Smell Like Tea

I didn’t make up the tagline—the southwestern state of Kerala itself clams the divine’s exclusive favor, all over road signs and tourist materials. It’s actually somewhat apt, given the strength of four major religions here, and their relatively peaceful coexistence. Less literally, Kerala is quite the tropical paradise, and might rank second only to the Taj Majal in the number of visitors it attracts within India, both domestically and from abroad.

That’s partly why the state appears astonishingly prosperous, with a notable absence of slums in the urban cores and along the highways. It’s not the only reason, though. A lot of the money flowing through Kerala comes from overseas: Somewhere down the line, the state became a leader in the number of young folks it sends to the Gulf states, where they work on oil tankers or as domestic servants. It’s also got the highest literacy rate in the country, creating a strong educated class that contributes to the skilled Indian population in America and Europe. All the while, they’re sending money back, or coming home to retire (the banks have signs that say “welcome back NRIs!” or non-resident Indians).

Without having really planned it, I ended up doing the Kerala grand tour: Boat ride through the backwaters, tooling around the old colonial port city of Kochi (née Cochin), and a trip up to the misty mountains. A few notes.

Marsh society, as viewed from a large steel-bottomed, reed-roofed floating house, seems rather idyllic. You have your modest but well-made and colorfully painted house on a dyke, with some rice paddies in the back and a broad canal outside your front door. Public transportation arrives in the form of a floating bus, which might take a dad to work in the city, and kids to school. Entertainment and recreation rows by in the afternoon, with strapping young men racing snake boats alongside an entourage of coaches and hangers-on. Crops are taken directly from the fields onto boats and to market, and for most other transportation needs, you just walk, using a well-established set of pedestrian bridges to cross man-made tributary canals—no cars necessary.

Then, to the city! Parts of Fort Kochi are suffocatingly touristy, with every other house offering homestays. In down season, handicraft hawkers pounce on the few obvious foreigners like sharks in a feeding frenzy. But it’s no post-colonial Disneyland. There’s still quite an active spice trade, with small merchants bringing in loads on ships and noting their trades in paper ledgers. And the rest of Kochi, which tourists rarely reach, takes another beautiful urban form: Megablocks created by main arterials, subdivided by smaller streets, and veined with capillary alleys that lead to front doors of houses that might be entirely cut off from vehicular traffic. Again—no cars necessary.

Finally, I took a bumpy bus up impossibly steep switchbacks to Munnar, where many a South Indian marriage has been consummated (the dominant visitor demographics were honeymooners and groups of dudes on holiday). It’s also the heart of tea country, and the way the bushes grow, the plantations make even those wild hillsides look like manicured English gardens. Company towns pool in the valleys, with women fanning out across vast acreages to harvest bags of tea leaves, which trucks then deposit at the estate’s processing plant. (A big player here is Tata Industries, which has branches in nearly every part of the Indian economy, from IT consulting to jewelry).

The odd part, to me, was the apparent lack of much actual outdoor activity in the tourism scene. As amazing as the terrain is, it’s actually quite difficult to just go hiking. There are no trailheads. Most of the land is private. Even the national parks, while featuring visitors centers that try hard to instill a reverence for their surroundings, don’t allow people just to walk around without supervision (I tried to walk back from the terminus of a mandatory bus ride in Eravikulam, and was eventually told I couldn’t, though officials clearly hadn’t encountered anyone before who’d tried).

I don’t know what it is in a society that produces outdoorsiness, of the sort that might give rise to an REI or EMS franchise. Whatever it is—to broadly generalize from one small experience—India seems so far to have missed out.

Tiptoeing through the paddies.

Morning on the backwaters.

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Just, you know, a scooter ride away.

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I think tea actually just grows like that.

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Horseback rides for city kids.

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Kochi beach family.

Note: All photos from iPhone, since I’ve (hopefully temporarily) lost the capability to upload from my camera…

UPDATED August 6, with new photos and video.

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