Travelers Catch Their Breath on Coast of Kerala in India

By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 22, 2009

We had been to the Taj Mahal. We had traipsed through the grand palaces of the Rajput kings. We had survived nerve-wracking days on twisty Himalayan roads with a driver who would chat on a cellphone while navigating dangerous curves at high speeds. My children and I had briefly succumbed to high fevers in Jaipur. And we had gorged on rich North Indian food.

It was time to step into a slower lane and begin to recuperate. It was time to go to South India.

When my wife, Cindy, and I began planning a three-week family trip to India, South India was not really on our radar screen. But then Rama Lakshmi, one of The Post's correspondents in New Delhi, made an emphatic point: We would not have a complete picture of the true India unless we made it to the south.

It turned out to be great advice. When we arrived in Kerala, one of the South India states, a four-hour flight from Delhi, we immediately felt we had traveled to a different country. The pace was more leisurely, the food was completely different and the people were friendlier. The language, the clothes (men more routinely in sarong-like dhotis, women in natural-color saris), the lush landscape: Nothing was the same. It was a real revelation, and it gave our family a new boost of enthusiasm to tackle the last week of a sometimes-arduous adventure.

South India somehow gets lost in the overall concept of "India" as many visiting Americans make a beeline to Delhi, to the towering Moghul masterpieces and the harsh beauty of the Rajasthan desert, all in the north. The dishes served in Indian restaurants in the United States are mostly North Indian: the ever-present tandoori ovens and food cooked in ghee, or clarified butter. South India cuisine, by contrast, is not nearly as filling and uses copious amounts of coconut milk, making it much closer in taste and appearance to Southeast Asian cooking, such as Thai and Malaysian curries.

Of course, South India itself is made up of many parts. But we decided to focus on Kerala, a coastal state that stretches almost to the southwestern tip of the country, rich in colonial tradition and home to a unique dance form known as kathakali.

Terrorism in India is an issue: Bombs went off in various cities almost every day during our first week in India and, of course, the Mumbai attack last December is fresh in people's minds. But as far as I can tell, there has never been a terrorist incident in Kerala. In fact, Kerala is so peaceful that it was major news in India when some youths who had been born in Kerala were rounded up in a plot in Kashmir, 2,000 miles away.

Kerala is famous for its backwaters, a massive network of meandering, palm-tree-fretted canals that intersect rice fields and farms, fed by the 60-mile-long Vembanad Lake, one of India's largest. The backwaters are the setting for the haunting international bestseller "The God of Small Things," by Arundhati Roy.

We decided to spend four days in the backwaters area and then three days in the old colonial city of Kochi (also known as Cochin). I especially was excited about the prospect of spending a night on a converted rice barge navigating the backwaters under a brilliant, star-studded sky.

* * *

Our driver, Maxi, meets us at the airport with an enormously cheerful face. He shakes his head from side to side when he agrees with us, which turns out to be a South Indian habit. He drives carefully and slowly -- even, to our shock, stopping the car on the side of the road to answer his cellphone. Once we were running late and he apologetically asked if he could speed up. "Drive like a Northerner," I declared, earning a huge laugh -- and a modestly higher speed.

Kerala, which has long been controlled by the Indian Communist party, has India's highest literacy rate (more than 90 percent) and is one of its wealthiest states. It has a booming tourist trade, particularly with Europeans who flock to the swank resorts on the backwaters lakes and revel in Kerala's famed ayurvedic massage treatments, which involve heated oils and steam baths.

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