Kerala

Kerala is a small state in India’s extreme southwest hugging the 30 kilometers between the Arabian Sea and the Western Ghats. It is known for fantastic beaches, lush palm-lined backwaters, and tiger reserves. In many ways, Kerala is very different from the rest of India.

In Kerala, inheritence is passed through the woman, so women in Kerala are more equal to men than the rest of India. Kerala is also the most educated state in India with literacy rates of 95% for men and about 88% for women. As a result, the people in Kerala are generally richer and more relaxed than the rest of the country. I noticed that the people here were much calmer, honked less, spoke better English and didn’t try to rip me off as much. In fact, only once did I have to argue the price with a rickshaw driver. I also noticed a lot more religious diversity in Kerala. While Tamil Nadu was overwhelmingly Hindu, Kerala had lots of mosques and churches in addition to the many Hindu temples.

The Kerala Art Museum in a house deigned by Robert Chisholm
The Kerala Art Museum in a house deigned by Robert Chisholm

To get to Kerala, I took a 3-hour bus from Kanayakumari, the southern tip of India. As I was walking to the bus station, a random bus pulled up and yelled Trivandrum, the colonial name for the captial of Kerala. I flagged it down and got in. It turned out to be a “party bus” rented out by a family for a pilgrimage trip to the temple at Kanyakumari. They had extra room and drove around town looking for people to fill the bus. I happened to be at the right place at the right time. As we drove along the coast listening to traditional Indian music, we passed by a mountain that marked the end of the Western Ghats and suddenly we were out of the rain shadow and into a tropical paradise. Rather than a dusty prairie, there were palm trees everywhere. I was definitely due for a change of scenery.

 

Typical Kerala backwater
Typical Kerala backwater

Eventually, they dropped me off at the train station. I insisted on paying for my fare, so I tipped the driver 100 rupees ($1.60) and went on my way. It was very late and after about 30 minutes of walking around, I found a cheap hotel and went to bed.

The next day, I decided to see Trivandrum. Well, technically its name was changed to Thiruvananthapuram, but since the name was so long, people still called it by the colonial name. Trivandrum was known for 2 things, the temple and the zoo.

Exhibit in the zoo
Loris exhibit in the zoo

The temple, which was strictly off limits to non-Hindus, did not look all that impressive. However, for tax purposes, the government had to inspect the temple and found about $1 trillion (not a typo) worth of gold, statues, and monumental items dating all the way back 2,000 years. That made this temple the richest religious entity in the world. Security was therefore tight and everyone I met said it wasn’t worth it for me to go since I wouldn’t get to see anything except a metal detector.

Instead, I went to the zoo. While most zoos in India have a pitiful reputation, the Trivandrum Zoo was actually nice. It was set in the middle of a large garden. The zoo was considered the inspiration for the book/movie Life of Pi. With (ironically) the exception of the tiger, all the animals were in large shaded outdoor exhibits. There was also a nice river flowing through the park that wasn’t full of human waste! Three strange things about the zoo. The first was that the zoo was one large path. Everybody had to walk through every exhibit, which while more efficient, felt more controlling. The second was that the people did not respect the animals at all. People kept trying to get the animals attention by clapping, yelling or throwing things. Luckily the pens were large enough that the animals could hide. The third thing was that the reptile house was mobbed with people. People were pushing like crazy to see the reptiles but were relatively peaceful at all the other exhibits. Perhaps it is because snakes are considered auspicious in Hinduism.

Checking out the birds
Checking out the birds

Having seen all I wanted to see in Trivandrum, I decided to take the bus to Varkala, a beach town 45 km away and spent 2 nights there. Lonely Planet recommended two beach towns near Trivandrum and I struggled to decide which one to go to. Their description of Varkala said that it was a popular backpacker place and since I had been away from other backpackers for awhile, so I decided to go to Varkala. As the bus pulled into Varkala, a strong 15-minute rainstorm struck. As I fumbled through my bag for my rain gear, I discovered that I had lost my rain coat somewhere along the way. So far, my packing had been perfect and I had yet to lose anything, so I was somewhat upset at myself. Luckily, the rain jacket wasn’t a make-or-break item and was very replaceable.

Varkala was unique to Kerala in that the town was actually at the top of a cliff above the beach which was gone since its the monsoon. I got in around 6:30 pm and was hoping for a cool sunset over the ocean, but it was too cloudy. I then got dinner at one of the many clifftop restaurants. Right in the middle of my meal, another rainstorm struck. Since I had no idea how long the rain would last, I asked the waiter if he knew of any hotels that had rooms. He called over the manager from the hotel next door and he showed me a cliffside bungalow for $15- which was normally $45 but discounted because of the monsoon. This was by far the nicest place I have seen in India so I decided to take the room. I paid him in cash for 2 nights then returned back to the restaurant to finish my dinner.

Varkala Cliffs
Varkala Cliffs

The next morning the weather cleared up and I was able to walk around the town. The town was one giant paved footpath along the cliff littered with hotels, restaurants (called hotels in India) and shops (mainly Tibetan for some reason). However, because of the monsoon- 90% of everything was closed. Varkala had a backpacker vibe. The restaurants, where most people were hanging out, played reggae music, served food that was not exclusively Indian, had wifi, and charged prices that were triple what you would pay in a normal Indian restaurant (about $5 for a meal). The best part about these places was the opportunity to meet other travelers and I certainly met the coolest people here at a beach town in the monsoon. Most of the people had been traveling around India for about 5 months and were all experts. I called them the hardcore drifters.

My favorite person in Varkala was a guy named Milton from Brazil. He was (and probably still is) on a trip of indefinite length. At this point he had been in India for 5 months and had one month left on his visa. His plan was to spend 2 months in Borneo while he applied for another Indian visa. He had been traveling for about 2 1/2 years now. When I asked him how he was able to travel for this long and not run out of money, he said that traveling “right” is actually really cheap. While people can spend money to stay in fancy places, the best way to see and area is to couchsurf, live cheaply, and go with the flow. As a result, Milton spent only $3,500 is all his travels last year. Milton told me about his time in Bangalore, where he spent 45 days. He stayed with a IT worker who helped him learn the language, make local friends, and experience life as an Indian. Sometimes, he would go to the bar and spend $15 in a night with his host, but because his lodging and most meals were free, he was fine.

The bottom of the Varkala cliffs. There's normally a beach here.
The bottom of the Varkala cliffs. There’s normally a beach here.
But Milton also said that living cheaply is not always easy. Sometimes you had to work hard to penny pinch. He asked me where to find a cheap lunch and I told him that I saw a cheap place by the bus station about a 45 minute walk from the restaurant. We decided to walk over there instead of going to the backpackery places on the cliff. Just before reaching the restaurant, we saw a large banquet hall with people eating. The place clearly did not look like a restaurant, but some men ushered us in an sat us down. It turned out to be a monthly free meal for people visiting the town’s temple and we happened to show up at the right time. The free all-you-can-eat meal was delicious and we were able to talk with the locals. One man was talking about how his son is a laborer in Abu Dhabi. While the living conditions there were apparently horrendous (and the Indians were treated like slaves), he was able to bring in 3 times the income he could earn in India. That made it worth it for him. Apparently millions of Indians were working in the Middle East.
After lunch, I decided to go back to the bungalow and read/sleep/relax for the remainder of the day. After 2 days in Kerala, I was fed up with the rain and ready to move on. I would definitely recommend Kerala to any India traveler, but the monsoon is probably not the best time to go.

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