It’s after 6 pm in the evening but the heat still hits me when I step over the plane’s threshold. Whoah…the jumper that has been my loving companion for the last four weeks suddenly feels claggy and stultifying.
My taxi driver, Joy, is efficient in getting me loaded into his waiting Ambassador. We’re almost ready to go but he notices me fossicking around.
‘Seatbelt?’ he asks pleasantly.
‘Yes,’ I look up at him, ‘you have one?’
He shakes his head and smiles as if this is his little joke.
My stomach lurches. I have no memory at all of never wearing a seatbelt. I feel like I’m naked and vulnerable sitting here in the statistical hot seat in this rattly old car in India. Shee-it. I spend the next 30km trying to be very ‘zen’.
Joy looks concerned at my rattling unproductive cough. ‘You need medicine?’ he asks.
‘No thanks, I’m on the mend now. One month in Kerala is my medicine,’ I tell him.
He looks very pleased at this answer. ‘Kerala is God’s own country!’ he exclaims, giving me a flash of his white teeth.
I have actually heard this theory and I’m really looking forward to testing its merits.
Keenly looking around, I’m already observing so many differences with the places I’ve just departed. The people are darker skinned and smaller in stature (alas those handsome Rajputs..!) and the men are wearing sarong-like skirts. The speech sounds more bubbly and loopy and the script is also more full of loops without the continual bar across the top, as with Hindi. The political billboards here are promoting the CPI (Communist Party India) and there isn’t a cow in sight; nor is there any discernible pollution above what I’d call normal at home. The streetscape is very clean and modern-looking.
Kerala is quite a standout state in many respects when you look at the statistics. It has a literacy rate other states (and many other countries) can only dream of – 98%. This has partly been attributed to the state’s traditional leaning towards communism and socialist policies (it elected the country’s first communist government in 1957), but it also goes back further than that to the matriarchal structures and enlightened education policies of the hereditary rulers of Travancore. As a result, Kerala has some of the lowest rates of poverty and women here have a higher profile and relatively more freedoms than elsewhere in India, with some of the villages still exhibiting matriarchal structures. Another side effect comes from the fact that there are not many employment opportunities in Kerala, as many of its educated masses have to find work elsewhere in India and overseas in the gulf states. This results in a strong income stream coming back into the families of Kerala from their peripatetic family members.
Just this very evening a charming lady struck up conversation with me while she was waiting for some photocopying to be done at the Internet shop. She had her young daughter with her and she was proudly telling me about her studies. The daughter is in her first year of biomedical engineering and intends to do post graduate studies overseas. The mother is obviously no slouch in the role model department either, as she works as a financial planner at the Bank of India. It’s always nice to see the reality behind the statistics.
And for the first time since I’ve been here in India, Jesus has suddenly joined the pantheon of gods on offer. When I heave my bag into the Paulson Park Hotel and plonk it down in front of the reception desk, I notice a large cross in the corner. Then, when I’ve finally settled into my room, I find not a copy of the Gita, but a Bible.
I mosey down into the restaurant to check out their offerings. The predominance of fish has me salivating and I can’t wait to try a homegrown dosai.
Having forgotten to bring my own trusty mosquito net that hasn’t done a day’s work since Africa ten years ago, I am silently blessing Alice for bequeathing me with a few extras she didn’t want to lug home, such as her net and some Bushman’s Spray. The mozzies are rampant and I can see I will go through my own supply of repellent very quickly.
The next morning I walk over a little bridge into a false garden that leads to the door of the restaurant. It’s almost 10 am but there’s still a quiet couple on one side and a businessman in the corner. The ambience is enhanced by a crackly Indian Vera Lynn wailing out some songs over the speakers in the corner.
A tall thin lad comes to take my order. ‘Could I have poached eggs on toast please, and is the coffee Nescafe?’
‘No madam, is brewed.’
‘Really?! Well I’ll have some of that, please.’
I wait quite some time watching various waiters come in and out of the kitchen with items for the other tables. Eventually I am served an omelette with chillies in it. When this gets sent back it takes some time for another waiter to come out to speak with me.
‘Madam, we don’t do poached eggs.’
‘Oh. Okay, well make it a cheese omelette then.’
‘I’m sorry, but we don’t have cheese.’
‘Mushrooms?’ (he shakes his head)
‘ANY vegetables?’ (it appears not)
‘Well how about a plain omelette then?’
The lad smiles and nods and off he goes to the kitchen. If he comes back in 20 minutes and tells me there are no more eggs, this copy of Monty Python’s Cheese Shop skit will be just about complete.
The omelette finally does arrive though, as does my ‘brewed’ Nescafe. It’s nice to know some things are the same India-over.