I have been waiting to comment on Kerala until I’d been here at least a week – the minimum in my experience to get a feel for a place.
People told me before I came to India that I would find South India, and Kerala in particular, like a different country than the North, where I’ve been for the previous seven weeks. And it is true: warmer, calmer, wealthier – the South has an entirely different climate, landscape, people, history, and economy. With its rice paddies, beaches, better infrastructure, embrace of technology, and vibrant commerce yet slow pace of life, Kerala feels to me closer to Southeast Asia than North India. And there’s hardly a sadhu, beggar, or holy cow to be found.
My first few days in the South were both a relief and a let-down. It felt good to relax into the warmth after so many freezing nights in Rishikesh and Varanasi, to feel my muscles loosen and my skin soak up the moisture in the air. But my senses also felt deprived of the constant stimulation of the exotic sights, sounds and smells of the North.
Kerala is more touristy than the places I’ve been until now and it’s easy enough to relax into the less chaotic pace of life here. As I wrote this, sitting on the balcony of my luxurious hotel room ($20/night!) overlooking a very blue ocean in Varkala, a dolphin surfaced nearby and I took a deep breath, inhaling a lungful of fumes from the garbage burning next door. It is still India after all.
I hadn’t had a drink or eaten meat since I arrived in India on December 1st last year but it didn’t take me long to lapse here with my first piece of Kingfish and a cold Kingfisher beer on the beach the other day. Seven weeks with no alcohol and no meat – especially no meat – was definitely a record for me. I don’t feel any different physically but I do wonder if the mental clarity I have been experiencing recently is connected to this simpler diet. Eating any meat other than fish still holds no appeal for me right now, though I am sure I will lapse further when presented with something special back home. I doubt I will ever eat meat as regularly as I once did though. One of the many small changes and living experiments that I foresee in my future, inspired by the past year of travel.
But I digress. I spent my first few days in the South in Forth Kochi, an old spice trading port on the Arabian Sea, before moving south into Kerala’s famous Backwaters. In Allepi, I rented a rice barge that had been converted to a house boat and spent a day cruising through the Backwaters – an immense system of interconnected salt water canals, rivers and lakes filled with picturesque Chinese fishing nets, waterborne commerce, and handsome white-headed fish eagles soaring over green rice paddies.
Later that evening I paddled a canoe down a narrow, lily-pad and leaf littered canal, and came to a cluster of small villages and homes where children were walking or paddling home from school, people were preparing dinner, having a bath and waving to me from the banks.
The next day I caught a public ferry going further south. About halfway through the Backwaters, on the way to Kollam, the ferry stopped at a quiet place in the river flanked by palm trees, with ocean-going fishing boats tied along the banks, and three immense, pink apartment buildings jutting incongruously out of the jungle on an otherwise remote stretch of coast. We had come to the Matha Amrithanandamyi Mission, an ashram led by ‘Amma’ Amrithanandamayi, also known as “The Hugging Mother,” one of India’s few female gurus, and from the look of her thriving compound, a very successful one.
While the ferry prepared to rejoin the river I wavered near the starboard gunwale, undecided whether to push on down river or stay at this community of “The Hugging Mother.” As the boat began to cast-off, I stepped ashore.