One Christmas Day, during a bumpy bus ride over potholed roads in a small village in the southern state of Kerala, India, our bus slowed down as it approached an agitated crowd. We’d stopped once before that week, when we witnessed a crowd forming around a dancing, trance-induced woman who, our driver told us, had been possessed by spirits. This time, on this surreal day that Saddam Hussein had been executed, protesters began pounding our windshield, as a few slapped flyers on it about American imperialism.
So many things about this trip were surreal, not least of which was that we were criss-crossing a state famous for tea and tourism but that also displayed a strange juxtaposition of extremes – mainly those of poverty and luxury. We’d crammed in a variety of sightseeing on our trip, staying in incredible resorts and guest houses sprinkled across the state, one on a cardamom plantation with lovely thatch-roofed cottages, another with a view of the famed tea plantations spread out across hills like a rolling emerald carpet, and yet another on an air-conditioned houseboat on the famed backwaters of the Malabar Coast.
Always, the landscapes were stunning, but the infrastructure of the country’s only communist state, the one with the developing world’s highest literacy rate, was a shock. We drove through much of the state, urban and rural, mountain and seaside, yet not a single one was a smooth ride. Why had I presumed high literacy corresponded with affluence? Quite the opposite – I don’t think I’ve witnessed the kind of poverty I’d seen in Kerala anywhere else. It’s said that Kerala has some of the country’s best education, health, and social services, but it was hard to tell as we visited local villages skirting the fancy resorts.
And yet this was the same state that I’d always seen – still see, in fact – on the covers of glossy travel magazines as having some of the world’s best spas. The ones combining holistic treatments that soothe mind, body, and soul, through massage, yoga, meditation, and other relaxation methods. And indeed, check out some of the options.
- The Maya Spa in Kumarakom has two wings – one dedicated to ayurvedic treatments, the other to those from Europe and other parts of Asia, such as reflexology and Shiatsu. For the ultimate in relaxation, sign up for the Cloud 9 massage, where you’ll receive a head massage as you float on an enveloping water bed. Can’t beat that, right?
- At the Taj Malabar Jiva Spa in Cochin, the Narikela scrub uses coconut, one of the state’s most abundant resources. (You’ll be hard pressed to have a meal without some form of coconut in Kerala).
- The Thapovan Heritage Home serves only pure, organic vegetarian food (in keeping with its own ayurvedic practices). At the spa, you’ll enjoy oils and powders extracted from the hotel’s herb garden. Other services (according to the hotel web site) include treatments for “various ailments like arthritis, paralysis, hemiplegia, sexual weakness, mental distress, and nervous disorders.” (Tall order?)
Regardless, I'll never forget my trip to Kerala with all its magnificent scenic wonders, but the contrast between natural beauty and economic hardship will stay with me a long time.