Journal -- Day 9

December 27th
Kerala Backwaters

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Before leaving the hills, we pause to visit a spice garden. Kerala is on the famed Malabar coast, a source of spices such as pepper, nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves, and cardamom since 500 BC. Now tea and coffee add to the fragrant and profitable produce of the state. The spice gardens give us a chance to see all these plants in situ - pepper vines, cinnamon trees, and so on. The leaves of the cinnamon tree taste like the spice, a surprise to me. It's a delightful hour of tastes and scents. I now have large bags of various lovely spices to bring home. Hopefully they won't explode in my duffel, as I somehow doubt my clothes will be improved by a light application of cinnamon.

Our drive takes us on a slow descent to the coast. The hills are covered in coffee trees and tea bushes, large plantations that produce Nilgiri tea. The climate is clearly wetter on this side of the Ghats, and by the time we approach the shore it also much warmer.

We end our journey near Alleppey, where we board our ketuvellams, houseboats of two bedrooms and a deck. They are roofed with woven matting and are based on the barges that used to ply these waters for trade. These days the boats all seem to be covered and used for touring, but perhaps that's only in this area.

This part of Kerala clearly is centered on the waterways rather than roads. Houses, schools, churches all front on the water. Small ferries and thin bridges allow easy access to neighbors. Boats of all shapes and descriptions, including 2-man kayaks, race by. As we meander along we stop to eat, to view a church, to watch a cricket match. It's hot and humid, a good day to sit and let the world drift by.

There are many churches in Kerala of many denominations. This is the most religiously diverse part of India, being roughly 50% Hindu, 25% Muslim, and 25% various sects of Christianity. These include Syrian Christians who date themselves back to St. Thomas, Catholics from the Portugese period, Protestants from the Dutch period, Anglicans from the English period, and more recent evangelicals. All kinds of Muslims, Sufis, Parsis, Jains, Hindus of various types, and even an ancient Jewish settlement live alongside each other in harmony. The first Jews arrived in ancient times escaping the collapse of King Solomon, and further waves arrived through 1700 fleeing the inquisition. One mark of local favor is the oldest synagogue in Asia, settled right next to the maharaja's palace. Today Kerala remains tolerant, although the Jewish community is almost gone, most to Israel. It also has the world's first elected communist government, almost universal literacy, free and compulsory education through age 15, and is one of the richest states in India. The differences between Kerala and Tamil Nadu are clear from the development standpoint. The houses and temples are much more prosperous, and running water and electricity seem much more common.

In the evening we watch the moon rise over the water and meet the roughly 1 million mosquitoes of Kerala, apparently also tolerated by this free and equitable people. Incense, DEET, and mosquito netting do what they can, but it is still a hot and somewhat uncomfortable night. Steve never has trouble with mosquitoes while I'm around - apparently he's a paltry meal when compared to the succulent repast I present. More fireworks tonight. Apparently any evening is a good night for explosives.

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