Kerala: India for beginners

India has a reputation as a colorful, crowded and chaotic country. The state of Kerala on the southern tip of the country shares those characteristics but with a decidedly more laid-back vibe. No cows block traffic (even Hindus eat beef in the area), begging is outlawed and Kerala boasts the highest levels of health and education in the country (we were told thanks to the policies of the local Communist Party). If you squint at the ubiquitous coconut palms, you might think you are on a quiet tropical island.

But when you open your eyes fully, you are still frequently reminded of the difficulty of living and traveling in India. Even before arriving, we had to fill out the lengthy and intrusive Indian online visa application, trying to avoid the numerous scam look-alike sites on the internet. On the morning of our arrival, our eyes and lungs burned from air pollution that was so thick that you could barely see a block away. Luckily, after a couple of hours the wind picked up and the pollution level decreased from dangerous to merely distressing. On the day of our departure from the glistening eco-friendly Kochi airport, a security guard seized our souvenir wooden cobra, saying it was too dangerously realistic to be allowed on the airplane. It was a nice carving, though we probably wouldn’t have even bought it if weren’t for an especially persistent hawker who followed us for 30 minutes while we explored the Kochi waterfront.

The biggest tourist draw in the area are the “backwaters” — hundreds of miles of interconnected canals, lakes and rivers that you can cruise in one of thousand or so houseboats that ply the waters. You can stay in the houseboats overnight but we just took a day trip starting from the houseboat hub of Alleppey. The backwaters mostly pass through rural areas and you can watch local people going about their business along the palm-lined banks: farming, washing clothes, bathing, fishing. Local ferries frequently passed us, further emphasizing that the backwaters are still an active part of life in Kerala, not just a tourist trap (though the houseboats are only used for tourists these days). The view is pretty and the air pleasantly clean and cool on the water away from the hustle and bustle of Kochi where we were staying. Here is a video from our ride.

The biggest attraction in Kochi is Jew Town. No, it isn’t a theme park where you can get deep-fried pastrami-filled-bagels on-a-stick (we wish!), it is the old Jewish quarter of town where thousands of Jews lived until most left for Israel. Jews are documented to have lived in Kochi for at least a thousand years and oral tradition says over two thousand years. Today only 5 aging Jews remain and the area is mostly a tourist-focused shopping district where you can find clothing, handicrafts and spices among the Portuguese colonial buildings. The centerpiece of Jew Town is the Paradesi synagogue, built in 1568. Not enough Jews remain for it to remain active as a house of worship but it is a big tourist draw. When we were there, a long line of Indian tourists queued to get in. It seems that the people of Kochi, or perhaps all of India, have a lot of interest and pride in their Jewish heritage.