Into the Kerala

From the edge of the world, we crossed into a new state, leaving the Tamil Nadu behind us as we entered the Kerala. We have now passed the one month mark of our time in India (wow, correction: two months, where has the time gone?), and starting to get into a more or less nomadic rhythm. Nonetheless, entering the Kerala was a shock to both of our systems. Gone were the dirty streets, littered with trash, the beaches with water of a questionable odor and the incessant solicitations of locals. To the contrary, going to Kovalam was as if I had taken a return ticket back to the United States: clean beach, board walk, big beautiful hotels... too beautiful. Another observation: all the bikers wore helmets, also weird. By the night of light, I could just make out the expensive looking facades. Things didn't look much better the next day, in clear sunlight. Kovalam was clearly a paradise with its white sand beaches and clear blue waters, but it was a paradise that was only accessible to few, and those few were mostly white. Even the Indians that did frequent this beach had abandoned their saris for jeans and European brand t-shirts. I realized that I was no longer in India, at least the India that I had seen up until present. What had happened here? Remi and I asked ourselves.

Playing in Kovalam, sorry Remi!
Playing in Kovalam, sorry Remi!
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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

It wasn't until our homestay host invited us to a delicious home cooked dinner that we were able to pose our questions, getting a few answers. He had lived in Kovalam since his childhood, and he had witnessed the drastic changes that had transformed this town in the past 20 years. He recounted a different time, when rules imposed from the outside didn't dictate local life, when villagers could afford the fish that came from their ocean, a time when the village wasn't polluted by light at night, and sea turtles came by the hundreds to lay their eggs. But all that had changed as tourism to Kovalam increased over time: the more foreign tourists, the more prices had risen, as businesses (many foreign) had began charging European prices, inaccessible for a local salary. Slowly, the locals moved outwards as the tourists moved in. As we have continued to explore the Kerala, the more evident it has become that this kind of tourism is a destructive force: prices inevitably go up as foreigners with their wallets open and eyes closed spend blindly. People come from abroad, not to see India, but to recreate their own comforts and mentalities, with the superficial excitement of a 'foreign' country. With the influx of foreign currencies worth 50x the value of a roupie, these beautiful places lose their authenticity that is so little valued in this type of tourism.

Kovalam itself, in all its glory!
Kovalam itself, in all its glory!
Sea Urchin: an improvised snack on the beach (leave it to a Frenchman...) I preferred the pineapple.
Sea Urchin: an improvised snack on the beach (leave it to a Frenchman...) I preferred the pineapple.

The Kerala is stunningly beautiful, especially its countryside. The religious tourism and fervency we found in the Tamil Nadu are replaced by an awe for naturally occurring temples: the mountains, the oceans and endless skies. We moved up the coast for a short stay in Varkala, which was like a less intense version of Kovalam, more hippies, lower prices and less grandiose development (while we only experienced the shock of Kovalam once, this type of western development is far from rare, especially concentrated along the beautiful west coast beaches). It didn't take long for us to move away from the coast, up into the mountains where the cool air was a welcome relief from the oppressive heat in Cochi. The road to Munnar wound its way up the steep road for nearly five hours, as the government bus we were riding swayed dramatically back and forth. Munnar is known for its tea plantations that surround the hills of this old British mountain station. When the sun shines the fields shine a brilliant green, reminding me of the emerald palace in the Wizard of Oz. More and more recently I have been reminded of that book, the wonderful adventures of Dorothy and her gang that animated the bedtimes and consequent dreams of my childhood. It wasn't just the Wizard of Oz, but a whole series written by L.L. Baum, inherited by my mother from my grandfather and read to me with great animation. Now I realize that L.L. Baum must have been a traveler himself, because each story is a voyage, colored with incomprehensible encounters in a world far from home. Baum understood that its the search that makes the voyage the adventure. I smile to think that many of my nonsensical interactions could easily find their way into one of his volumes.

Tata Tea Empire, brilliant green tea fields of Munnar
Tata Tea Empire, brilliant green tea fields of Munnar

Tata Tea Empire, brilliant green tea fields of Munnar

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IMG_0622

A few new authors have been coloring my time here as well (lets be honest, even away from school, I can't go too long without a good book). The philosophical Michel Onfray, Theorie de Voyage (Theory of Voyage) as well as the Jain monk turned Gandhi disciple, Satish Kumar in Tu es, Donc Je suis (You Are, Therefore I Am) in its (not) original French (no, the irony does no escape me, perks of traveling with a French man?). Onfray's Theory of Voyage presents a poetry of geography, pretty words to accompany the natural beauty of the Kerala. The mountains were impressive, overwhelming even, and Onfray adeptly emphasizes this power in his poetry:

Et si des signes d'eradication des differences, de suppression du Divers se reperent evidemment, on aurait tort de confondre les mouvement fluctuants de l'histoire et la permanence de la geographie indexee sur la perennite geologqiue. A l'evidence, toutes les grandes villes de la planete se ressemblent a s'y meprendre. Mais le reel de la planete ne se reduit pas a elles seules. Penser le monde sans les ruraux et sans les paysages, voila vision et obesession d'urbains. Car le paysage dure, persiste, meme mis en peril par les hommes. Et le Divers reside en lui, dans les campagnes, visible et reperable dans les epiphanies naturelles, loin des artifices de la culture.

Making friends with a goat in Marayoor, she wanted to eat everything!
Making friends with a goat in Marayoor, she wanted to eat everything!

And if the signs of the eradication of difference, the suppression of Diversity take place evidently, we would be wrong to confound the fluctuating mouvements of history and the permanency of indexed geography with the perennial geology. All of the large cities of the planet resemble each to the point of repetition. But the real of the planet is not reduced to them alone. To think of the world without her rural areas and without her countrysides is to see the vision and obsession of urbanity. Because the countryside endures, persists, even when put in peril by men. And the Diversity resides in her, in the countryside, visible and recognizable in the natural epiphanies, far from the artifice of culture.

I was reassured. It was as if the words of Onfray were written in the mountains and the fields of tea that surrounded me as I traveled from Munnar to Marayoor: a reminder of the relative insignificance of our individual lives, and even that of our history. The world goes on, despite our attempts to get in its way. Kovalam exists in all its white glory, but (happily) so does Marayoor where traditional sugar cane production has yet to be industrialized, westernized, colonized. The beach town of Kovalam was easy prey for an invasion of western tourism, but the mountains and the wild life reserves of Marayoor seem to resist this type of takeover, maybe an inherent trait of this more rugged turrain. On our journey well taking the road to Marayoor was a symbolic shift as we went from the well-traveled and well-indicated circuit to uncharted territory. Gasp! Not in the guide book! Marayoor is a gem, 18 kilometers from Chinnar national park (giant squirrels, wild elephants, oh my!). Our mode of transport for visiting the park: motorcyle. Right at the entry to the park we met a threesome of some French biker dudes, traveling through southern india on their motorcycles. They invited us to hop on for a ride and a wild ride it was, elephants included!

Beautiful sunset over the lake in Hampi!
Beautiful sunset over the lake in Hampi!

Admist these impromptu adventures, I was devouring Kumar's work, which gave me an Indian specific perspective on foreign influence in India in his sort-of-manifesto where he reprises Descares famed “Je pense, donc je suis” (I think and therefore I am). Kumar makes a declaration of dependence (human, earth, cosmos), and he seeks to deconstruct, or at least to question Cartesian dualism aka the ruling Western mentality (philosophy) since the Enlightenment (I was admittedly into it). He gets to the point in a blunt way, asserting that: “The independence [of India] proclaimed in 1947 was not truly one. [With the assassination of Mahatma] the [Indian] government lost all imagination. It preferred to industrialize the country with the Britannic model than to put into place the measures that Gandhi had envisaged” (299). The literal British rule had ended, but in its place was a way of thinking that remained: the accepted reality that the way forward was through occidentalisation and the god of the western world, Development. The influence of the western world has all done nothing if not increase. As Kumar puts it: “That is the tragedy of this country: the flag has changed, but the system rests the same” (276). He contests the increasing loss of traditional practices and values, that are little valued in an industrial Westernized and capitalist system: displaced artisans, small scale farming, close community, spiritual enrichment. Even as a newcomer to this country, the undertones of this relationship with the Western world have been clear, especially as tourism is increasing every year. The regard in peoples eyes is polarized: either bright with admiration or dark with resentment. English is everywhere: in schools, on tv, even between Indians who come from different states and English is their only common language. Larger than life billboard ads feature only the palest of Indian woman, projecting “white” as the image of beautiful. In a capitalist system the accumulation of material goods is emphasized and annual GDP carefully calculated but, as Kumar points out, often the most basic spirituality is forgotten.

“Une societe qui se croit riche alors qu'elle souffre de pauvrete spirituelle vit dans l'illusion la plus complete” (Fritz Schumacher) 219

“A society that believes itself to be rich, although she suffers from spiritual poverty lives in the most complete illusion” (219).

While I love this idea, and the above quote that accompanies it, the reality has been admittedly a little more problematic. Arriving in the Karnatka, we visited our first Jain temple. Beautiful statues, new architecture, and... really pushy priests! The first interaction was an insistent request for donation, followed by priests in every subsequent temple almost obliging us to partake in their ceremony which culminated with an obligatory donation from our part... No thank you. Needless to say it was hard to relax and actually enjoy the visit, let alone take in and understand what we were seeing. Actually accessing the people or the spirituality of this place felt impossible; the relationship was reduced to a monetary exchange that left me feeling uncomfortable and unsatisfied. I know that the spirituality and the humanity of India exists, but up until present its not been in a temple that I have found them. The spirituality I have found has been far in the mountains, lost in a field of tea, between the sun and the soil. The humanity is in the genuine people that I have met, the family in Marayoor that invited Remi and I in for tea just before a deluge of rain hit the valley, the people who take the time to say hello, and share something of themselves: a smile, a story, an explication of some inexplicable element of India.