India 5 By kasy1
Most of the tourism I’ve seen in Kerala is fairly concentrated. People come to Kerala for the beaches, primarily the little strips in Kovalam and Varkala. They come for the backwaters that link the towns of Allepey, Kollam, and Kottayam. They come for a few famous ashrams – notably Amma’s ashram on the same backwaters. They come to see the European heritage and cultural displays of Fort Cochin. They visit the famous hill stations and National Parks in the Western Ghats. In other words, they miss most of Kerala. If they do see the rest of Kerala, its from their seat in the AC Chair Car, or in a whizzing taxi as they head to some temple festival.

There is nothing wrong with the hotspot, high-end tourism that has developed in Kerala. In fact, it may be the best kind of tourism for the state’s economy, bringing in a lot of money while concentrating the potentially negative impact of tourism in relatively few locales. But I suspect I’m not the only one in the IM community who has wondered – what about the rest of Kerala? What is life like there? Does the scenic beauty of the tourist hotspots extend beyond?

In August, I’ll be starting a phd in political science and natural resource management back home in the US. For the last eight months, I’ve been living in one of those places off the beaten track, doing research on agricultural development, which I hope to use for my phd. Since my research basically involves finding out what is going on in rural Kerala, and talking to farmers, I’ve had to learn how to get off the beaten tourist track. My intention here is to share that knowledge with like-minded travelers, who may be interested in seeing rural and semi-urban life in Kerala, before I go back to the US and forget how it’s done. I think my comments are particularly applicable to Kerala, but they could apply anywhere in India, or in the world for that matter.

What this Kerala Travel Guide is about

A few caveats are in order. First of all, the kind of travel that I’m going to describe here is not for everyone. Basically, here in Kerala, I live and travel more or less like a well-off local person. If you want to chill at the beach, this isn’t the Kerala travel guide you should read. If you want tourist highlights, this also isn’t meant for you. If you think the countryside near your home is boring and the people are uninteresting, you’ll probably think the same of Kerala’s countryside. I grew up in rural America, and was accustomed from an early age to mild amounts of physical discomfort and hard travelling. I’m obviously an academic, but I’m also a farmer back home, and I’m just as happy talking to someone about the kind of plow they use as I am talking about political theory or soil chemistry. I’m 26, which is to say, I’m young and resilient, and I’d rather eat the kind of Indian food that you find in little stalls and small town hotels than spaghetti. I’m also male, which probably makes travelling alone a little easier, although one of my Indian-American woman friends has travelled around rural Kerala alone a lot more than I have, so it can definitely be done.

If you want to chill at the beach, this isn’t the Kerala travel guide you should read.

Kerala drew me because of my academic interests. Since I’m a nerd, I’ll begin by recommending some books which will give you a background on Kerala. The extremely short summary of all of these books is that Kerala boasts higher indicators of development (literacy, education, health care, nutrition, population growth, poverty alleviation, etc.) than any other Indian state. At the same time, Kerala’s economic performance, until recently, was below average, and even now, is only slightly above the national average. In other words, Kerala’s quality of life indicators make Kerala look almost like a first world society, while its economic data place Kerala among the world’s poorer regions. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) is given a lot of credit in helping to create this unusual situation. 50 years ago, Kerala elected the first democratically elected communist government in the world, and the CPI(M) has continued to be very influential in Kerala society. Amartya Sen, the Nobel Prize winning economist from Bengal, uses Kerala as an example of the important role that public action can play in raising living standards even in the absence of economic growth.

Might as well begin by recommending: “India: Participation & Development,” by Jean Dreze & Amartya Sen (Oxford University Press, 2003), Sen’s most recent exploration of the Indian economic and political scene. Although Sen talks about Kerala in his other books, notably Development as Freedom, this one is the most focused on the lessons India as a whole can draw from Kerala. Patrick Heller’s 1999 “The Labor of Development” (Cornell University Press) is probably the best single volume explanation of what happened that made Kerala different. A more accessible, though less detailed and somewhat more dogmatic view is provided by Franke & Chasin’s 1994 “Kerala: Radical Reform as Development” published by Food First Books in Berkeley, California. The second two are not in print, so far as I have found, in India, but there are several good collections of articles from Kerala studies conferences in print, and available from bookstores in Cochin & Trivandrum (sorry – just shipped them back to the US, so I don’t have the titles). Oh yeah – and there’s that nice Arundhati Roy Novel – the God of Small Things – which I really enjoyed.

Learning Malayalam would be a great first step towards travelling around rural Kerala. Unfortunately it ain’t that easy. Malayalam has a reputation as one of the most difficult languages to learn, and few foreigners try. If you already speak another Dravidian language, it might be easier. Tamil is similar enough that my friend who speaks Tamil came to visit me and was able the first day to have extended conversations with rickshaw drivers. I don’t know of any language schools or classes for learning Malayalam – anywhere – although I was able to get a photocopy of a textbook written by a professor at the University of Texas in the 1980s (if you’re in the US you might be able to get it through Inter-library loan – it is by Rodney F. Moag, and titled “Malayalam: a University Course and Reference Grammar”), and I also found a nursery school teacher to tutor me. My facility with languages is not great, and my attention has been elsewhere – I still only have a very basic command of Malayalam, although I know all of the 51 letters of the alphabet, and most of the variations, so that I can read bus signs. I have also hired an assistant, to help me with my research. He is a local college graduate, and was unemployed (working on applications to study for his master’s degree abroad) when I met him. At first I was embarrassed at how little I was paying him, but I found out that his salary (approx. rs. 300/day) was actually pretty decent for a person of his age and qualifications. Sometimes using him as a translator drives me crazy – I know I miss a lot of the subtlety of conversation, the details. At the same time, I know that I see so much more precisely because I am with someone who really knows what is going on. I couldn’t do the research I’ve done without his assistance, but I almost certainly could have visited most of the places we’ve been without his help.

Transportation in Kerala

 Taxi from Dum Dum Airport 2007 By Balmandir
Okay – on to the travelling. Well, the first thing you need to find rural Kerala is transportation. Of course, you could get your hotel in Fort Cochin to hire you a taxi, and there are conditions under which this would be appropriate. But to really get around rural Kerala you will need to get used to travelling on the local busses. In Thrissur, where I have been based, there are buses leaving from one of the two private bus stands near the center of town, to just about every village in the district. The routes heading towards major towns have buses running every 5, 10, or 20 minutes. A few minor routes have buses only every half hour or hour. Out in the country, there will usually be a major route through any place with a bus at least every hour, and usually more frequent. There may also be some less regular services that may be of use. Most bus labels are written only in Malayalam – but even if you don’t read or have someone to help you, you can ask the bus conductors where your bus is. They’ll be the men yelling out some incomprehensible phrase at high speed. I can never understand bus conductors’ calls unless I already know where the bus is going. But they are incredibly helpful, as long as you know how to pronounce the name of the place you want to go to reasonably well. Even if you don’t, I’ve occasionally had a conductor seek out an English speaker to help translate (although again, if you don’t know how to properly pronounce the name, this might not help). It can help, if you can’t read and aren’t confident in your pronunciation, to have the name written out. Most people can read names written in English, and everyone can read Malayalam.

 Please Exit To The Front By Lou Wilson
If you get on the bus at its originating station, you will probably be able to get a seat, although during rush hour, this may not happen. That is a good reason to avoid travelling during rush hour – roughly 8-10 AM, and 5-8 PM. Men sit in the rear half of the bus, women sit up front, and it is generally acceptable for women to sit with their male travelmates in the back of the bus, but not vice versa. Space for luggage is very limited, so its best to travel lightly. In the evening, when there are few women passengers, men will invade the front of the bus – but are expected to give up their seats if women do appear. If you know the name of your stop, you can tell the conductor to tell you when you reach it. Just in case, you can also ask the person sitting next to/across/behind to help you out. I’ve done this dozens of times, and have never missed a stop or gotten onto the wrong bus. Bus fares are collected on the bus, and are very cheap – generally a minimum of rs. 3, and about rs. 25/hour of bus ride. If you are getting on the bus somewhere other than the bus stand, you’re not likely to find a seat immediately. Standing on busses as they speed around corners can get quite tiring. Most local routes have a lot of turnover, so if you are aggressive and hover over someone who looks about to get off, you can probably find a seat. But if you just expect a seat to materialize, the Indians who’ve been doing it their whole life will take the new seats. Then again – if you look tired, they might give up their seat to you.

Major bus routes usually have a Limited Stop and Ordinary option. Get on the limited stop if you can – it can make a big difference. Outside of major highways, even if the road is decent, the bus will only cover about 20-30 km/hr. KSRTC (state-run) busses are not that common in Thrissur, where I am, so I don’t know as much about the protocol (gender segregation is done differently there) – but they have other options such as “fast passenger” which only stop in major towns. Luxury busses are usually only available for long haul routes between major cities (and usually run overnight). I try to avoid taking bus rides longer than an hour or two at a time – simply because I find them so tiring. The worst for me is on the major highways, where the exhaust and dust from the other traffic fills up my lungs and makes me cough and cough. This isn’t so bad on rural routes, but I usually carry a dustmask, and I’ve found that wearing it makes a big difference in my health.

Best time to go to Kerala

Well... the nicest time in Kerala is the couple of months after the end of the monsoon – November, December, January. In the resorts, this is the peak season, but that won’t matter much once you get about 5 km away from the resorts. The climate is relatively cool and dry, relative being the operative word here (though I’ve heard it can actually get a little chilly – enough to require a sweatshirt or blanket – in the high ranges this time of year). It gets gradually warmer until the monsoon begins in late May, and April and May can be oppressively hot. Then again, I thought it was pretty hot in December. April and May are also the school vacation, which means that there will be more travellers on long distance routes – it can be quite difficult to find a seat on a train in Kerala at this time, and in temple towns and other places frequented by Indian tourists, this is the high season. The monsoon begins in late May or early June, and lasts till early or mid-November. In the north, most of the rain will come between June and August. In the south, there will be as much rain in October & November as there was in June and July. Most locals think the monsoon has the nicest weather, and I think I agree – it is cooler – but you have to be prepared for some really torrential downpours, and to modify travel plans that involve being outdoors accordingly. It doesn’t pour all the time, but when it does, it sure comes down hard and fast. Also, power outages are more common and extended during the rains. Bring an extra change of clothes, because you might get pretty muddy, dry your clothes under the fan, and stay up-to-date on the latest outbreaks of mosquito born viruses. During the last couple monsoons, there have been major outbreaks of Chikungunya and Dengue in parts of Kerala, particularly in the south. So far as I know, there haven’t been major outbreaks of malaria – but that could change.

What to bring on your Kerala trip

What should you bring? Kerala is hot, so you won’t need a lot of clothes. Here is my packing list for a week of travelling around rural Kerala. It will all fit into one rucksuck, plus maybe a purse type bag to carry around with me:

  • Dustmask
  • Toiletries/personal medications/a bit of clotheswashing detergent /hand sanitizer/toilet paper
  • A couple ways to purify water – something that boils and some iodine for midday crises or days when the power goes out for a long time. Bottled water may not be available...
  • A couple 1 litre water bottles
  • A bedsheet (to sleep on – unless you are up in the mountains, it will be too hot to sleep with a sheet over you)
  • A portable mosquito net &/or one of those “KnightGuard” things that vaporizes toxic chemicals to kill mosquitoes in my room at night.
  • A good book
  • An umbrella (for sun or rain)
  • A Knife (for cutting open mangoes!)
  • Small camera, extra batteries, extra memory cards
  • 2 changes of clothing (I wash my own clothes every night – I can usually dry them overnight under the fan, or during the day in the sun).

As a man, I carry slacks, a white dhoti (necessary for entering temples, and much more comfortable than pants in the heat once I got used to wearing it – note that the colorful lungis are generally not considered acceptable in formal/religious situations), and 2 or 3 short-sleeved button down shirts. If I were female, I’d probably carry a couple Salwar Kameezes (they call them Churidars in Kerala). Incidentally, I do think that dressing in a relatively formal, Indian style, helps me be treated with more respect in these rural areas. I’ve tried to imitate the dress of middle class white collar professionals.

Services, Shops, Hotels, and Restaurants in Kerala

Kerala is densely populated, and the population is still largely rural. Except in a few areas in the hills, you will come across a town or village center maybe every 10 km (20-30 minute bus ride), and little villages are quite frequent. In Thrissur, the major town near where I’ve been staying, you can get nearly any service you might require. In addition to many banks and internet cafes, you will find many upscale restaurants serving “North Indian” and “Chinese” cuisine, or at least, south Indian versions of these cuisines, and large shopping centers, including shopping centers where you can buy soy milk and peanut butter, as well as the latest fashions in gold jewelry and silk sarees. Thrissur has several decent bookstores, including a couple with large English-language selections, and I’ve seen a few books in other European languages. Unless you are in a town with a lot of tourism, you won’t find much in the way of western-style food. Thrissur doesn’t have much in the way of budget lodging, but there are many very nice and well run business hotels where you can get a non-AC room for rs. 500-700, and an AC for 700-1000. These hotels have upscale restaurants which might be your best bet if you want something like what you eat in the west, but don’t count on it.

Smaller towns will have most of these services, but fewer options. In Thrissur District, towns such as Chalakudy, Irinjalakuda, Kodungalloor, Chavvakad, Wadakancheri (not to be confused with Vadakancherry), and Guruvayoor have all the basic services – including internet, ATMs, and a variety of hotels (the sleeping kind) and hotels (the eating kind that we’d call restaurants in the US). They won’t usually have much in the way of english language books (unless you like reading computer textbooks), and you’ll be hard pressed to find any market stocking any western style food item that isn’t a normal component of the South Indian diet. Anywhere in lowland Kerala, a town with these basic services won’t be more than a half hour bus ride away – that is a product of the high density population. In the mountains, you may find yourself considerably farther from basic services.

Then there are a range of smaller villages and towns. A warning is that off main highways, in these small towns and villages, it can be difficult to find bottled “mineral” water or even other forms of bottled drinks, which is one of the many reasons I always travel with a couple of my own forms of water purification. A small town may consist of a bus stand (often just a widening on the main road) and a line of buildings, including a couple hotels (that means restaurant – not a place to sleep), vegetable stands, dry goods shops, a fruit/juice stand (your best bet for mineral water), and several clothing, metal, plastic, and other basic goods shops. You may luck out and find an ATM machine, but don’t count on it. There will also probably be a networked computer somewhere, but you may have to look in a tuition center, graphic design shop, or photo shop. There are often cheap rooms available in these towns – sometimes above the ground level shops. They don’t always have signs in English. Ask for a “lodge” or “lodging” or a “room.” This is one of those conditions where it can really help to have someone who understands Malayalam. Another possibility is to look for a marriage hall – these sometimes have attached rooms for visiting guests, that may be available. I’ll get to temple-side accommodations later.

There are numerous small village centers – at nearly every major intersection. There will be a bus waiting shelter, possibly an autorickshaw or two, a couple shops selling biscuits and soap, and maybe some vegetables. They will make you tasty lime juice sodas, but they invariably use unboiled well water, which I wouldn’t trust. Typically, there will also be a chai shop, which will sometimes also serve as a lunch hotel, and sell some simple tifins for breakfast and or dinner – but this last can’t be counted on. The lunches I’ve had in these little local hotels have been the best lunches I’ve had in India – simple, but often made with really good fresh vegetables. But this is pretty hit and miss... There are almost never lodgings in this type of village.

Speaking English in Kerala

How do you find someone who can speak English? Actually, except in very rural areas, it isn’t that difficult. A lot of people in Kerala have lived abroad or in other parts of India, and most people studied English for at least a few years in school. I’ve heard that more people in Kerala speak English than Hindi, but I’m not sure that is true. As I mentioned, I’m usually able to make myself understood, and to understand, bus conductors – the same goes for auto-drivers and clerks at most stores. In the village where I live, there is a bus conductor and a vegetable stand clerk who speak very good English – apparently because both of them lived in Dubai for some years. Children may not know more English than their parents, but are less shy about using it. When I need a little more complex conversation, I’ll look around for a white collar worker, or someone who looks like a college student. I’m often surprised to sit down on a bus next to a fellow who starts speaking to me in excellent English. Even in a small village, you may find a retired businessman who lived and worked all over India, has a college degree, and speaks English as well as you do.

Restaurants, Food, and Cuisine in Kerala

Okay – so now you’ve ridden the bus to one of these little towns with difficult to pronounce names, and found a room, and been stared at while you walked down the street. What are you going to do? First, you ought to understand where and how you can get food. Hotels will usually not have english menu cards if you’re off the beaten path, so you have to know what to ask for... Lunch, my favorite meal, is usually served around 1. If you arrive at 12:30 it might not be ready yet, and by 2 it may have run out. Lunch (or “meals”) consists of a huge pile of rice, often served on a banana leaf (and once, served on a piece of waxed paper cut to look like a banana leaf). Along with rice, you get pickles, one or two vegetables, and sambar. Usually there is also Rasam (spicy vegetable broth), Moori (spiced buttermilk), and fish curry or fish fry available. Sometimes other meats are available, and you can often ask for an omelete with your meal. You can ask for more rice, more sambar, more vegetables, more moori – but you may have to pay if you want more fish. At fancy places in larger towns, you will also get curd and payasam (pudding). Expect to pay rs. 10-15 for a simple meals in a rural hotel. Fancy city hotels may charge as much as rs. 40. Most small hotels will not have anything else available during lunch time. A large hotel might also have biryani during lunch.

At other times of day, a number of snacks are available. You can usually get idli, dosa, or appam at breakfast, but quantities may be limited – so if you want your pick, come around eight. Most will be served with sambar, but they also may be served with an egg curry, or meat, or a pea or chickpea curry. You can almost always get a non-veg hotel to make you an omelete. Most hotels stock a couple kinds of vada most of the day – both the well-known doughnut kind, and sometimes other kinds. Dosas are usually available in the evening (but they are also known as roasts), as are parottas – not the north Indian kind, but a flaky kind that I’ve not seen outside of Kerala – and sometimes chappathy. Again, they may be served with meat or with a pea curry. When I’m at a loss, I just point to something someone else is already eating. Between meals, I snack on fruits and bananas, and in the evening I buy roasted peanuts fresh and hot on the streets. Finding bananas is pretty easy, but other fruits are often only available from juice shops in larger towns, or from the mango tree in your friend’s backyard. A few places serve rice meals for dinner, but it is more typical to see people eating parotta or dosa in the evening in hotels.

Off the Beaten Path in Kerala

And what are you going to do? Well – I recommend that you walk around the countryside and try to talk to people. That is what I do, with my assistant. Midday will be viciously hot except during rainy days, so get out early, rest under the ceiling fan after 10 or 11, and go out again after four pm, when the temperature drops. Kerala’s countryside is quite beautiful, and its agriculture is unusual in many ways. You may attract a crowd, but it has been my experience that people are idly curious, but rarely aggressive or inappropriate. The few exceptional experiences I’ve had have usually involved large groups of teenaged males – which I try to avoid, in any case, back home in the US. I get stared at, and sometimes children follow me and ask “whatisyourgoodname?” It is okay to ignore the children, but it can also be fun to play with them. Unlike in touristy areas, the children are unlikely to beg, and people are much more likely to help you than to try to cheat you. In fact, I’ve made some very nice friendships with English speaking people who live in rural Kerala – they seem eager to get to know someone with different life experiences, and to share their own lives with me.

Places to see and Things to Do in Kerala

In my wanderings around Thrissur, I’ve discovered a few places worth mentioning. There are probably more in Thrissur, and certainly more in other districts of Kerala.

Temple Festivals

The first isn’t really a place but a concept – the temple festival. Particularly during the dry season, there are nearly constant temple festivals all over Kerala. I use the term “temple” loosely, as I’ve been to church and mosque festivals that were virtually undistinguishable from the festivals I’ve seen at Hindu temples. The festivals are called “Poorams,” and typically involve, at a minimum, elephants, firecrackers, big drumming orchestras, crowds of happy people, and vendors selling ice cream, dates, sugarcane juice, and cheap plastic toys. Many festivals will also feature performances if you’re willing to stay up late – music or Kathakali. The dates are fixed on the Malayalam calendar, and it can be hard to figure out in advance when one will happen – I usually found them by mistake. But if you ask around, you may find out information. The smaller temple poorams I attended were definitely a better experience than the hopelessly overcrowded Thrissur Pooram, which is famous as Kerala’s largest temple festival. Especially in Northern Kerala, you will also find Theyyams – possessed spirit dancers – at some of these festivals. The temple festivals I’ve attended have been very wonderful experiences. The problem with temple festivals is that lodging near small festival towns is inevitably all booked up – you may have to ride a packed bus in from a neighboring town...

Kodungalloor

In the Southwest corner of Thrissur District is the sleepy little town of Kodungalloor (also known as Cranganore). Until a massive flood reshaped the harbors about 700 years ago, this was Kerala’s chief port and political capital for thousands of years, shipping pepper and other spices to the Arabian peninsula and beyond. According to legend, all 3 great Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Islam, Christianity) first came to India through this port, and all have left their mark. It is still an active fishing port, the meeting point of the Periyar River and the sea. It is fairly close to Kochi, less than 30 km, and I’m told its reachable from its younger neighbor by backwater, as well as by bus, and that hotels in Fort Cochin will arrange tours to Kodungalloor, but the truth is, I’ve been there several times and never met another tourist. I was fortunate to make friends with some local fellows, who arranged to take me on evening canoe trips on the surrouding backwaters. Unfortunately, perhaps due to constant flooding and a humid climate, there really isn’t much left of the ancient capital (in fact, there is some debate about whether the current Kodungalloor really is the ancient capital). There are rundown remains of a Dutch fort along the river, but you could skip those and focus on the fascinating religious sites.

The town center is dominated by a couple temple complexes, and is famous for an annual Bharani festival, that usually occurs around late March. Unlike most Kerala temples, the temple at Kodungalloor has always been open to the lower castes, and at the Bharani festival, thousands of tribals, dalits, and hijras descend on the temple. The worship of the goddess, who I’m given to understand is some combination of Kali and the mythical Tamil heroine, Kannagi (Kannagi’s husband was wrongfully executed by the king of Madurai. In a fit of fury, Kannagi tore of her breast and flung it at the city, and all of Madurai burned to the ground), involves the use of loud noises, the singing of obscene songs, and the sacrifice of many chickens. Even when I was there, not during festival time, explosions sounded in the temple square every few minutes. I missed Bharani, but the pictures I saw included Hijras parading around the temple ground with swords, and old ladies cutting open their forehead to allow blood to drip on the altar. Near the temple are a number of cheap lodges and vegetarian restaurants aimed at serving pilgrims, and a nice grove of banyan trees.

Ernakalum

A kilometer or so down the road towards Ernakulam is the oldest mosque in India, which dates to 622 AD. Someone told me that it was the second oldest mosque in the world. It is rather unassuming, and thanks to a recent renovation of the front, looks like every other small-town mosque in Kerala. Take the time to explore, and you will find remnants of something else. Some people think it may have been a Buddhist shrine before being converted to a mosque. In any case, there is a temple tank behind it, and if you’re lucky enough to convince the authorities to let you go inside (I failed at this) I’m told there are some architectural features that make it look more Hindu than Muslim.

The road forks, the main road going towards Ernakalum, and a smaller road going off to the right to an enormous church complex along the Periyar River, which supposedly marks the spot where St. Thomas landed in 56 AD. There are some relics on display in the church, and beautiful statues of major saints, and a mural of St. Thomas landing in India. This place is often crowded with Christian pilgrims. Walk down towards the ocean, and you will reach the main fishing port.

Paradesi synagogue in Kochi

In the neighboring towns, cut up by backwaters, and some accessible only by ferry, there are a couple old synagogues, which unlike the famous Paradesi synagogue in Kochi, belonged to the “black” jews – who claim a history in Kerala dating back to the destruction of the first temple. The oldest authenticable record of this community is a gravestone that supposedly has a Hebrew date corresponding to about a thousand years ago. This gravestone is on display in front of the newly renovated Chennamangalam Synagogue (http://chensyn.com/). Finding this Synagogue isn’t very easy – my friend got lost both times he took me there – but it is worth a visit. Most of the Jews have immigrated to Israel. There is also supposed to be a synagogue in Mala, and you could easily entertain yourself for days walking and boating around the backwater edged villages.

Guruvayoor

In the Northwest corner of Thrissur is the temple town of Guruvayoor, the second largest pilgrimage center in Kerala after Sabarimala. Unfortunately, at this time non-Hindus aren’t allowed inside of the temple (sparing me the 1.5-2.5 hour queue that begins at 3 AM and lasts till 10 PM). Even if you aren’t Hindu, this is a great place to see people dressed up in their pilgrimage best, shop for handlooms and Krishna statues and bell metal lamps. 3 km away is the elephant sanctuary, Punnathor Kotta, where the 60 odd elephants who’ve been donated to the temple are kept in not extremely horrible, but not exactly free roaming, condition.

Both Guruvayoor and Kodungalloor are near beaches, but they aren’t fancy resort beaches. When I went to the beach at Kodungalloor, the entire stretch of sand was covered with tiny fish, set out to dry in the sun. As a result of the fish, there were hordes of crows and flies, and the whole place stunk. Of course, the car we borrowed to take us to the beach chose that minute to break down. Chavvakad Beach, near Guruvayoor, is better. Its a small town beach, covered with fishing boats, where locals and pilgrims come to play in the sand and waves at dusk. Aside from a few cool drink stalls, there isn’t much there, and if you try to walk around in a western-style bathing suit, you might feel extremely uncomfortable. The last time I went there, I had the priviledge of watching a massive storm blow in off the Indian Ocean – a spectacular site, and when the rain began, everyone on the beach rushed in one headlong rush back to the busstop. There are many beaches like these along the Kerala coast. They are workplaces and homes for largely impoverished fisher people, and they are places of recreation for locals. They are great fun, but if you want to lie out and get a tan and then eat a big tuna steak, you’ll need to go to Kovalam.

Thiruwalamala

My favorite place in all of Thrissur was actually in the Northeast corner, near Ottapalam, a train station. The little village of Thiruwalamala had the feel of an older, poorer, more traditional Kerala, before everyone started working in the Gulf and building massive houses home. On the top of a hilltop, overlooking the Bharatapuzha river (note that zha is a transliteration of a Malayalam letter that sounds to the uninitiated more like an r), is a beautiful Rama temple, surrounded by huge old peepal trees. The surrounding hills are mostly owned by the forest department – bare rock – while the paddies in the valleys are still intensively cultivated. The water in Thiruwalamala had a hard, chemical taste to it, like the hills were giving up their last bit of calcium before the gave in to the lowlands leading to the Arabian Sea. Initially we couldn’t find a room, so we stayed in the neighboring town of Pazhayanoor, where another temple was dominated by a huge flock of roosters, wandering around at will. Later we discovered a little pilgrim lodge right next to the Thiruwalamala temple, that would have to be one of the most beautiful places to stay I’ve seen in all of India. I didn’t have a chance to ask if they would welcome non-Hindus into that peaceful, sacred abode.

Before I sign off, I thought I should mention something about the ethics of travelling. It is not at all like rural Kerala is some untouched agrarian paradise. In fact, I’m constantly surprised to learn how rapidly the countryside here is changing, and has changed over the last century. That said, when you travel to places that see few foreigners, I think you have an obligation to be respectful of the people you are visiting. I’ve already mentioned the obvious about dress. But I’ll take it a step farther, and say – Go with an open mind, ready to learn about the people whose lives you will be invading. Behave in ways that will make them respect foreigners. Don’t teach the children to beg, don’t snap pictures of people bathing, ask permission before entering religious sites. People will stare at you out of curiosity – don’t take it as a sign of disrespect – but at the same time, don’t expose yourself to unecessary harassment. I’ve found that people in these rural areas are among the friendliest people I’ve met, and these areas are largely free from the sorts of scams you will find in tourist hubs – but remember you are travelling in a culture you don’t always understand. And above all – smile, and reach out to people.