image: Contenders battle in a Snakeboat Race at the Onam Festival.
Contenders battle in a Snakeboat Race at the Onam Festival.

Photograph © Lindsay Hebberd/CORBIS

Kerala, India
By Bill McKibben

Kerala is a very easy place to simply sit back and enjoy. The name means "land of coconuts," and the palms shade nearly the entire state from the tropical sun; many call the beach at Kovalam the best in India; visitors can spend a day riding small ferries through the backwater lagoons or watching elephants cavort in the wildlife sanctuaries; the spicy food may be the best vegetarian cuisine on the planet.

But for me, the real reason to visit Kerala, which lies at the southwestern tip of the subcontinent, is for the intellectual adventure: Kerala is a bizarre anomaly among developing nations, a place that offers real hope for the future of the Third World. Consider: This small state in India, though not much larger than Maryland, has a population as big as California's and a per capita annual income of less than $300. But its infant mortality rate is low, its literacy rate among the highest on Earth, and its birthrate below America's and falling faster. Kerala's citizens live nearly as long as Americans or Europeans. Though mostly a land of paddy-covered plains, statistically Kerala stands out as the Mount Everest of social development; there's truly no place like it.

In the mornings, from nearly anywhere in Kerala, you can hear loud music from the Hindu temples, wailing muezzins at the mosques, and church bells ringing at the cathedrals. Religious tolerance is just one reason for Kerala's success. The state government has effected sweeping land reforms and spends almost half of its budget on health and education. A heritage of female-headed households means women have always been equal participants here. Unlike almost everywhere else in Asia, women outnumber men in Kerala, suggesting that there has been no selective abortion or female infanticide.

Kerala is not a quiet spot. It has a rate of newspaper readership that is among the highest in the world and plenty of never-ending political arguments. Parades of striking bus drivers or medical students or kathakali dancers block traffic in the capital of Trivandrum almost daily. But for me, that engagement with the world is one of the best things about the place. Keralites meet you on more or less equal terms, with neither the subservience nor the rage you'll find in much of the Third World.

Kerala is a place to meander: Simply take a bus from Trivandrum or Cochin out to almost any village and spend a day wandering the dikes between the rice paddies and rubber trees, seeing how half the world still lives: men and women stooping to cut rice with sickles, or spreading coconut along the road to dry; water buffalo wallowing in the irrigation ditches; every inch of ground cultivated; every small field lined with palms; a place where little is wasted. It's also a place that works, and in poor, rural Asia, that alone would make Kerala a paradise. The breeze rustling the palm fronds is just a bonus.

The information in this story was accurate at the time it was published, but we suggest you confirm all details before making travel plans.



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