“God’s Own Country” is the tourism slogan for the southwestern state of Kerala. If there were such a thing as a god and that god were to pick a place for its very own, it may well choose Kerala. It is a gorgeous region with a little bit of everything: a long coastline with rocky ports, calm sandy beaches, and (apparently) surfing to the south; a series of connected lakes called the backwaters; mountains that include the highest peak in southern India; the perfect conditions for growing tea and every possible kind of spice; beautiful forests; dense jungles; and thrilling wildlife. What more could anyone want, god or otherwise? It was definitely all we wanted for our Diwali week break.
Kerala is a fascinating place, not only for its beauty, but also for its political history. The communist party has had a strong presence here since the 1930s and has led the region since the 50s. Between the Communist Party of India or CPI, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) or CPI(M), and the Socialist Party, they hold 19 of the 20 seats of congress, with the remaining seat going to the India National Congress Party. In the 1970s, they launched a 100% literacy campaign and have come pretty darn close with literacy in this state at 94%, as compared to 74% across India as a whole. For comparison, the US literacy rate is around 86% and goes down below 80% if we’re looking for a reading level above 5th grade. Healthcare is free in Kerala, regardless of the need, and anyone can request funds from the state to buy or build a home, ensuring no homelessness. Kerala is also plagued by strikes. We experienced the 100th strike (or hartal) of the year while we were there. In India, a strike does not mean the closure of a single business or group of supportive businesses, it means the total shut down of the region – all businesses are to be closed, people are to stay off the road, everything stops. Definitely a challenge to productivity (and tourism).
We started and ended our week on the coast, beginning in the lively port town of Kochi and ending in the beach and backwater community of Alappuzha. In between, we visited the mountainous tea plantation region of Munnar and the spice plantation region of Thekkady (see Into the Keralan Mountains), with one fabulous day in a tiger reserve. For most of our trip, we had a terrific driver named Ansu, provided by Iris Tours, although we enjoyed our first couple days at a lovely homestay, exploring on our own.