A bullet through a Communist paradise • Kerala

Adam Alexander drives around Kerala on an old British Enfield motorcycle

Kerala is the India you dream of with so much natural beauty the signposts all claim it to be ‘God’s Own Country!’
Kerala is the India you dream of with so much natural beauty the signposts all claim it to be ‘God’s Own Country!’

“Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing,” it said in front of me as I sat down for dinner.

The table mat provided by the restaurant had several other inspiring quotes about travel printed on it, but after a day spent battling an old British Royal Enfield ‘Bullet’ motorcycle along 120km of urban Indian roads, before emerging finally into a landscape of pure jungle, spice gardens, rolling tea plantations, and even wild elephants and monkeys, this one seemed to be speaking directly to me. In fact, I wasn’t sure now if I’d just seen anywhere as beautiful in all my life.

Kerala is the India you dream of – without the dirt or eye-popping poverty, and with so much natural beauty the signposts all claim it, more than fairly, to be ‘God’s Own Country!’. Indeed, with so much beauty around, as much in the people as the place, you can be forgiven for thinking that Kerala is something of an Eden. A place so filled with coconut palms and lazy backwaters it looks like God sketched it in a particularly inspired moment. 

And yet with roads and houses that seem far superior to other parts of India, a one hundred per cent literacy rate (the highest in the world), and the ubiquitous presence of good, cheap doctors around every corner, some credit surely must also to go to the Communists, who’ve been controlling Kerala since 1957. With its red hammer and sickle flags fluttering along every inch of road, it reminded me of that other Communist paradise – Cuba. But this was far better than Cuba I soon realised, and I knew now why National Geographic rates Kerala as one of the top ten paradises on earth.   

The food is buttery and delicious, shops sell every kind of organic lotion and potion you can imagine
The food is buttery and delicious, shops sell every kind of organic lotion and potion you can imagine

Compared with other parts of India, Kerala is also safe, friendly, and refreshingly un-pushy. The food is buttery and delicious, shops sell every kind of organic lotion and potion you can imagine (including special Ayurvedic massage treatments for tired, stressed out Westerners). And as if all that were not enough, the whole state is full of ‘Toddy shops’, where you can get quietly sozzled for less than an English pound on surprisingly quaffable coconut poteen. So if there really is a paradise on earth, this is it. 

Driving in India is not for the faint-hearted though, especially by motorcycle, and before escaping the 40 degree heat of port Cochin for the cooler tea estates of high-up Munnar, I went to Mass, a Mosque, a Hindu temple, and even a Synagogue to cover me with just about every God going, and give me every bit of luck on the roads. Which must have worked, as it’s hard to think of any other rational explanation for having made it back in one piece.

You can tell a lot about a country by the way it drives, and Indian roads are pure chaos. It’s not aggressive like Italy or Malta though, and with the bold exception of the local bus companies who would gladly run you down if they thought it might get them to where they’re going a little faster, most other drivers use their horns incessantly in a thoughtful effort to try not to kill you. In fact, once you get used to it, you will be driving like a local yourself – wrong side of the road, overtaking on blind bends, carving up taxis – and so relaxed you won’t help but laugh like I did when amidst the chaos I saw someone painstakingly taking a driving lesson. 

Having somehow made it safely back to Cochin, where massive cruise-liners lazily plough into port, I now rejoiced at having found the perfect city in Kerala as well. The centre of Fort Cochin is a crumbling, mosquito-infested backwater. The sort of place Charles Laughton used to pop up in those 1940s films wearing a sweat-stained suit and a crooked panama. The temperature was already between 35 and 40 degrees by day and a not exactly frigid 26 at night, but by this time I was madly in love with the place, and couldn’t think of dragging myself out of this tropical commie paradise to go anywhere else in India.

Children shouted and waved, beautiful women smiled
Children shouted and waved, beautiful women smiled

Between Cochin and the backwater town of Allepey – whose hyacinth-choked canals have earned it the deserved moniker of ‘Venice of the East’ – the Enfield and I headed next down the exotic Malabar coast. The roads, filled with old Ambassador cars and even other Enfields, were shoe-laced perfectly between the warm Arabian sea on one side and the famous sublime backwaters on the other. Children shouted and waved, beautiful women smiled, and as my subconscious took over all the hard work of motorcycling, I lost myself completely in whatever thoughts I had.  

It was wonderful biking country, and as I stopped along the way to wade neck-deep into the Arabian sea to help Keralese fishermen push their traditional boats out, or to chat to some dreamy-eyed elephants by the side of the road, or purchase a kilo of dirt-cheap Tiger prawns fresh from a fisherman’s pirogue, I realised that I had probably never felt happier or freer in my life.  

Even the sense of humour here was irresistible as I discovered when I got back to Cochin. Smiling taxi drivers whom I’d never laid eyes on before pulled up next to me as I walked out for dinner and said: “Are you looking for me?” And one night as I sat in a restaurant slapping my arms against the swarms of blood-suckers that have made languid Cochin their eternal home, a man with a straight face came over to me and implored me not to kill the mosquitoes. 

“Why?” I asked. “Because it’s our national bird,” he said erupting in laughter.