Almost anyone will advise first-time visitors to India to stick to either the north or the south, but not try to do both. I felt pulled both...

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KERALA, India — Almost anyone will advise first-time visitors to India to stick to either the north or the south, but not try to do both.


I felt pulled both ways when I began planning this trip, mostly because I felt Kerala calling from the beginning, and yet how could someone come to India for the first time and not experience Delhi and see the Taj Mahal, both in the north.


The north wins out for most first-timers, but India is so big and diverse that missing the south would be like going to only Thailand or only Japan and saying that you’ve experienced Asia.


We’re spending seven days in the tropical state of Kerala on the southwestern coast of the Arabian sea.


Europeans come here for the beaches, but culturally, Kerala is unique in India.


For whatever reasons, Kerala works.


Its socialistic communist party is freely elected.


Its Christian and Muslim populations combined are almost as big as its Hindu population.


Gramam Homestay


Rates at Gramam Homestay start at $48 a night for two, with bed and breakfast. Dinner and sightseeing are extra.

For information on it and other homestays in Central Kerala, see www.keralagramam.com.


Kerala has one of the highest literacy rates in the country, and one of the lowest infant mortality rates. Kids here ask for pens, but not money.


In Central Kerala, where we are, life is calm in the tiny island villages spread through an inland network of lakes connected by a network of canals called the backwaters.


Kerala feels like it could be somewhere in Indonesia or Sri Lanka.


Nearly all men wear the lungi, a long piece of colorful cloth worn either floor-length or folded and tied in front like an above-the-knee skirt.


Kerala was one of the first states in India to encourage homestays. For our first two nights, we’re staying at Gramam Homestay with Jos and Lyma Byju and their sons, Abel, 13 and Noel, 10.



Today, I learned …



If you have coconut trees, you have just about everything you need to survive in rural Southern India.


You can drink the milk, make liquor from the sap, use the palms and wood as building materials or brooms; eat the pulp; grind it for cooking; cook with the oil; make rope by soaking the husks in water; and burn the shells for fuel or use them to make dessert cups.


Their home fronts a lagoon in the rice and coconut farming village of Kumbalangi, about seven miles from the main town of Fort Kochi.


Surrounded by lagoons and rice paddies, the village could be reached only by boat until a bridge to the mainland was built a few years ago.


Jos’ grandfather, a coconut farmer, built the one-story stucco house 75 years ago on a plantation filled with banana and mango trees.


When prices for coconut oil plummeted several years ago, Jos, 43, remodeled two rooms and began taking in guests.


Our room has twin beds, a large wardrobe, a Western-style bathroom and a porch with high-back wicker chairs.


There’s no air conditioning, a drawback in hot and humid Kerala. The ceiling fan helps a little, and there are wooded slatted windows with screens, but sleeping really isn’t the point anyway.


We awoke at 5 a.m. to the chanting from a Muslim mosque. A half hour later, it was roosters, then music from a Hindu temple and church bells.


The Christian influence is part of the reason why Kerala’s literacy rate is high and in general, why many of the towns seem more prosperous than other parts of India.


Catholic missionaries built many of the schools, hospitals and churches, and relief organizations fund many social programs.



Kerala




Where: The state of Kerala is on the tropical Malabar coast of the Arabian sea in southwestern India below Mumbai (Bombay) and Bangalore.


Population: 30 million


What’s unique: Kerala is popular with European tourists who come for its beaches and ayurvedic spas that specialize in herbal massages, but it’s also one of India’s most socially and politically unusual states.


It’s seen a role model for developing countries, ranking near the top in education, literacy (91 percent) and health, but it also lacks industry and jobs. Most attribute the good and bad to its democratic socialist style of government. Kerala had the first freely elected Communist government in the world, elected in 1957.


Kerala is also religiously diverse. St. Thomas the Apostle (Doubting Thomas) is believed to have brought Christianity here in 52 AD. From the fifth to the sixth centuries, Syrian Christians came from the Middle East. Jews migrated to Kerala from Jerusalem around 587 B.C.


Today, about 60 percent are Hindu. Muslims and Christians account for most of the rest along with a small Jewish community centered around the port city of Kochi.


Tourism information: See www.keralatourism.org

Like most of Kerala’s Christians, the Byju family converted from Hinduism. In place of the usual incense and shrine, a picture of Jesus hangs over their doorway.


The boys attend a school funded by a Catholic charity, and the family belongs to nearby St. Joseph Catholic church.


By staying with Jos and his family, we’ve been able to combine sightseeing and shopping in Fort Kochi with some lessons in local culture.


Jos arranged for a car and driver to take us to Fort Kochi for a day.


We explored its Portuguese and Dutch historical sites, and walked through Jew Town, where 14 Jewish families still live, descendants of people who migrated from Jerusalem 500 years before the time of Christ.


Later, a group of fishermen invited us to watch them using big, Chinese-style nets that they lower and raise from the water teeter-totter style, using rocks as counterweights.


Afterward, we stopped at a beach cafe and ordered a beer. The restaurant had no license to serve alcohol, but that never seems to be a problem. The waiter brought the beer to


the table wrapped in newspaper and poured it into ceramic cream pitchers.


One of the best parts about a homestay is the chance to sample Indian home cooking, and Lyma, 36, is an excellent cook.


Our first night, we sampled fish Moilee, a Kerala specialty made with coconut milk and spices. We ate it along with okra; soft, lacy pancakes made with coconut and rice flour; and tiny, thin-skinned bananas.


After sightseeing in Kochi, we came back to our room to rest and heard a knock on the door.


Ayurvedic medicine

Ayurvedic medicine has been practiced in India for 2,000 years. Its principles are based on the use of natural ingredients to restore the balance of the mind and body. Treatments can be herbal or use minerals or metals and include specially prescribed diets, yoga, steam baths and massage.


Sitting on our porch table was a tray of tea and banana fritters. Later that evening Jos arranged to have a local man take us on a sunset ride on the lagoon in a wooden boat he rowed gondola-style with a bamboo pole.


We already feel at home in Kerala. But a good homestay involves more than meals and a nice place to stay.


Jos likes his visitors to get to know the locals.


Tomorrow, he promised, we’ll meet Toddy Man and the Prawn Farmers.