holiday in kerala

In more than thirty years of visiting India I am ashamed to say I have never really explored the south, so now I have decided to rectify this. Prodded on by my keen explorer friend and intrepid travel companion Monica, I am trying out a vacation in Kerala (both time off and Kerala are new to me!). In Dharamsala though, on my second to last day, I get a shock. My trusted 24-70mm nikkor lens, designed for the full frame D3, falls apart – the mount screws have somehow come loose, and no amount of my fiddling can put this egg back together again. I realize I have left my 60mm back home, and a slow burn panic sets in. Three cheers for my good old friend photograher Raghu Rai for saving the day, he arranged for his trusted supplier to sell me a top condition second hand 24-85 (older lens but works ok for full frame D3) in Delhi. I am a bit wary of this older model lens, as it does have a reputation its helicoid slipping as it ages but so far so good. And Raghu, who is certaily one of the most brilliant photogs I have ever known, insists that he has taken most of his best shots with this lens. Hmm ok, if its good enough for Raghu it should be good enough for me – but could I just borrow his eyes too for a while???? Raghu’s loyal helper Nanden, who has been working for him for years delivers it to me at the guest house. Nanden has a motorbike, looks well fed and prospering – here he is at 40!nanden.jpg . A 3 hour plane ride down from Delhi brings me into Cochin (Kochi), and on the way I am again, for the umpteenth time, struck by the sheer physicality of the vastness of India. dsc_9305.jpgMonica comes in from Singapore direct on Silk Air. As Raghu Rai exclaimed over the phone when he heard this: “Isn’t India incredible now: you can fly anywhere from anywhere!” In fact many in India are prospering, as is evidenced by the number of middle class Indian tourists travelling abroad and througho9ut their own country. But the Kerala seems to be doing especially well. With a 100% literacy rate amongst Keralans and a reasonably healthy economy, hats off to the communist governments of Kerala of the past decades. But of course local travel agents and other tourist industry operators are holding their breath to see what happens with the world financial melt down. And as always in India, the contrasts can be startling – between the billboard dreams and reality,dsc_9354.jpg and the luxuries of 5 star resorts like the ex-colonial Burnton Boatyard in Cochin.dsc_9359.jpg

dsc_9424.jpgHere we go a little over budget and splurge on a couple of nights of waterfront luxury, fishing boats go by our window, and the staff are just dying to serve us. Dangerously addictive. Anyhow Cochin overflows with its colonial past, ghosts of Dutch, Portuguese and English competition for control of the spice trade, and their subsequent Christian legacy is felt everywhere here. But there are also Syrian Orthodox churches, Muslims, (Hindus of course) and the odd Jew – apparently only 4 families left in the old Jewish quarter of Cochin. Cochin is certainly a melting pot. Rev P.J. Jacob, vicar of St Francis Church in Fort Cochin oversees a flock of some 200 families, and tends to the registrars in a church which is the oldest standing Christian church here. _d3b8560.jpgVasco da Gama was buried here for a decade or so before being disinterred and returned to Europe. (looking at the rather small grave site, a guide wrily remarks that da Gama was “quite a short man, barely 5 ft”). On Sunday churches are all overflowing. Our driver Raj Kumar, a portly Keralan who looks like pirate but is extremely considerate and a great driver/guide, tries to sound bland as he remarks that “Sunday mass is compulsory. If don’t go to mass, then later difficult to get married in church. !” But color is everywhere, bright and rich.dsc_9569.jpg dsc_9602.jpgThere is no fear of going overboard. One slightly lonely Durga temple, where the goddess is being dressed up by a Brahmin, reminds me we are still in Hindu India.That and a slightly touristy daily Kathakali show we catch in a nearly empty airconditioned theater. Next morning we head off to the hills, we will do a final tour of Cochin on our way back._d3b8639.jpg For now it is up to the hills to Munar, around 5000 feet above sea level and most definitely tea country. There are masses of domestic tourists about, many down from booming Bangalore (though Kerala aspires to compete in the internatonal IT biz, now might not be the time?) all enjoying themselves immensely._d3b9103.jpg In the tea plantations it is mainly Tamil workers, apparently Keralans aren’t interested in the low wage scale. So the Tamils have migrated here for generations, some have married into local families. _d3b9098.jpgMeanwhile on the roadsides one sees fantasy mansions built with money earned by Keralans who have gone to the gulf states to find their fortunes (and they did!), so everyone seems to be happy. But it is a tiny state in India, and doesn’t necessarily reflect the whole picture, I am sure.

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