After spending an entire day cooped up in the airport in Mumbai, I was excited to finally be on a plane to Kerala, India. Kerala state is on the Southwest or Malabar coast of India bordering the Arabian Sea. Kerala has a very long history, and was a very important place for European sailors in the 15th and 16th centuries because of the fragrant spices that grow here. Explorers from all over Europe sailed to India to buy spices and sell them back in the old world at a tremendous profit. Although we take these spices for granted today, cinnamon, cardamom and pepper were once rare, exotic, expensive, and reserved for Europe's very rich. In fact, the Malabar Coast is what Christopher Columbus was looking for when he accidentally "discovered" America, incorrectly referring to the Native American population as "Indians."
When I got off the plane in Kerala's airport, I was immediately struck by how beautiful the women looked in their traditional Indian saris, long, flowing dresses made from incandescent Indian cloth. I felt like a dull gray pigeon caught among a flock of rainbow-hued tropical birds. The language spoken here is called Malayalam, a gentle language that sounds like water bubbling up from a spring. Malayali script is beautiful too, with dips, loops and whorls that remind one of a roller-coaster. On arrival I took a taxi to Fort Cochin, whose busy port hosts everything from India's huge navy battleships to traditional fishing boats that bring in the day's catch to be auctioned on the wharf. It's a great town to walk in, with an interesting waterfront, colonial buildings, spice markets, and plenty of churches, temples and mosques. As I strolled around Fort Cochin the following day, I marveled at what a diverse place Kerala was. Hindu girls with sandalwood paste on their forehead walked home from school giggling with Muslim girls wearing head scarves. In contrast to other parts of India, which is mostly Hindu, Kerala has large communities of Christians, Muslims, and Jews, and everyone seems to get along very well. The Indians that I have met here are very tolerant of others and proud of their pluralistic country. Where else would I see a red-flagged rally for the Indian Communist Party and a religious procession to honor Mary, Blessed Mother of Jesus on the same street on the same day?