DREAMS do come true. We arrived in the state of Kerala in Kochi(Cochin), South India. It’s like going from Detroit to West Palm Beach as Jill put it. Upon touchdown, clean air, palm trees and lush vegetation engulfed us. We stayed at the Dream Hotel in the new part of the city (5 stars vs. Heritage crap hotels) where we enjoyed VIP treatment. I took the rare opportunity to exercise at the fully equipped gym and to re-calculate my body with a massage and a 45-minute rain shower. Finally cleansed and rejuvenated, Jill and I readied for a fancy night out on the town. We picked a highly recommended rooftop bar/restaurant in which to don our Indian look but when it was 8:30 pm and we were the only two dining we questioned where the other guests were eating. To our surprise, we learned that the first of every month is payday and also a dry day because the government wants to ensure the paychecks go home and not to the bar. We are jinxed. Here we are finally in a city where they serve alcohol and it is banned in the entire state (mind you the only state in India) and we are all dressed up on a Saturday night with nothing to do but eat more. Our visions of fine wine and dancing dashed; we retired to bed by 10:30 pm.
There are 33 million people living in Kerala. It’s a Hindu state but 24 percent of the population is Muslim and 19 percent Christian. As opposed to the hustle and bustle of North India, Kerala offers serenity, scenery, romance and a more relaxed quality of life. The two main investments in Kerala are gold and land followed by spices (pepper is referred to as black gold) and tea. Think back to your history books and the discoveries when you learned about the Spice Trade. This is where it all happened. The great explorer Vasco de Gama, a Portuguese navigator, was the first to write of finding a land rich with spices and silks. Local kings greeted European colonists with enthusiasm in return for protection from their rivals.
The Portuguese were the first Europeans to explore Southern India in the early 16th Century and their influence remains in the food and architecture today. Portuguese missionaries spread Christianity (primarily Catholicism) throughout Kerala. The Dutch followed suit converting the people to Protestantism and then the British arrived around 1725 spreading the Anglican faith (Church of England) by destroying any Protestant or Catholic churches along the way. As a Catholic, I was fascinated that even amongst Christians a caste system exists. Our guide, a Latin Catholic, made a point of saying she was not allowed to marry outside her caste. The Latin Catholics were the fisherman (the coast provided a livelihood and still does today) and did not convert until much later between the 16th and 19th Century, while the Syrian Catholics maintain they were converted from the highest caste as Hindus and should retain their status in Christianity. The Syrian Catholics are also known as the Saint Thomas Christians since it is believed that St. Thomas the Apostle brought Christianity to India. They represent a mix of local Indian customs and European influence and command much power in the region. The local and official language of Kerala, Malayalam, is their native tongue.
Kochi was home to an ancient thriving Jewish community (4th Century AD) responsible for controlling the spice trade routes long before the Portuguese discovered Kerala. Once a prosperous area, “Jew Town” (their name not mine) has only eight remaining residents. Jill thought they would look Indian having intermarried by now but the residents were all Caucasian and mostly in their 90s. We had the opportunity to meet Sarah, a 90-year-old woman, who makes beautiful embroidered linen pieces and sells them to visitors. Sarah is an icon and Jewish visitors come from all over the world to visit Jew Town and meet Sarah. We also visited the Paradesi Synagogue a functioning orthodox synagogue built in 1558. It’s the oldest synagogue in existence of any British colony past or present and its ornately decorated with Belgian glass chandeliers and Chinese tiles.
The state of Kerala is 100 percent educated. It’s the only state in India where the government requires all children ages 4-14 to be schooled (even Muslim). The government schools supply free books, uniforms, instruction and food, the aided schools provide food to students and the private schools are for those whose parents can afford it. In the last few years, Kerala has imported workers from Bangladesh since there is a big shortage of workers here. The educated folks no longer wish to work in the fields and many have gone to the North and the big cities seeking better opportunities. Some men within the Muslim community work abroad in Saudi Arabia, Emirates and other Islamic countries and send money home to their families.
Kerala is a nice change of pace. The people are lovely, the roads clean, the skies blue and the sun warm and vibrant. The Arabian Sea gives way to backwaters (mini rivers and inlets) and the landscape is mountainous with rolling hills of emerald green tea leaves. There are remnants of European conquests in the faces of the people, the flavors of the food and the designs of the homes, churches, mosques and temples. We finally found fish and lots of it. Kerala is a honeymoon destination for young Indian couples and a favorite vacation spot for the rest of the country. It’s important to see the two faces of India. My impression has completely changed but the electricity goes out in Kerala too and the bathrooms haven’t improved. The food is spicier and lighter but the shopping pales in comparison. In India, you take the good and the bad and right now I am really thankful for the warmth, peacefulness and beauty that Kerala offers.