Why would someone living in Egypt choose another crowded, bustling country such as India for a 10-day holiday? Cairo airport provides quick access to peaceful places like the Greek islands, Sicily or even Paris. So why India? The easy answer is that not all hyper-countries are created equal. While India conjures up images of slums, the Taj Mahal, hectic traffic and Bollywood, it also happens to house a piece of paradise on Earth - a state in the south called Kerala. For 10 days, my friend and I travelled throughout the lushness of Kerala like people falling in love.
We started off in Kochi, a bunch of little tropical islands connected by bumpy bridges that we crossed in rickety rickshaws. We had arranged to be in Kochi during a large Hindu festival, the centrepiece of which was a procession of 15 elephants, according to our guide book. Arriving early on the morning of the festival, we were taken to see how the elephants were washed and decorated before the events of the day. Entering the temple grounds, we were confronted by a huge male elephant, lying on its side with eyes half closed and trunk curled around one of his tusks. It was basking while two skinny men in loin cloths splashed water on its thick skin and scrubbed away using smooth stones.
That night, the elephants paraded through the city with gold decorations on their faces and with men balancing on their backs carrying colourful parasols that glittered in the evening sun. Drummers banged their tablas and drums so loudly their muscles rippled through their dark skin. The next day we visited the oldest European church built in India, a Hindu temple and a shopping district with an old Indian synagogue called Jew Town. Our politically correct sensibilities prevented us from mouthing the name without spasms of guilt.
Afterwards we made our way through a jumble of small white buildings to a small Jain temple, peeking through swirls of incense at the small statues of deities adorned with garlands of marigold and jasmine. In one hall, we stumbled upon a family in the middle of a religious ritual. Women were sitting in a circle pouring milk from a jug sat as a group of older women read prayers. In front of them was a table filled with offerings of coconut, papaya, bananas and other fruit. We were told by a family friend that the women were performing a puja to commemorate the first year anniversary of the death of a family member. The family were so gracious to allow us to sit on the sidelines and watch them, and even allowed us to take photos. The ritual had a peaceful air, and the family seemed very united in the process, with the daughter-in-law and mother-in-law pouring the milk, and the son praying on the edges of the circle of women. The wife of the deceased then went around to all those sitting in the hall - including my friend and I - and handed us a 50 pence coin, a beautiful souvenir of something so real and unplanned and of a culture so different from my own.
From Kochi, we travelled to Allepay and the backwaters, a chain of canals, rivers and lakes spilling into the Arabian Sea. Most visitors come to spend time on houseboats, known as kettuvallams. These were once used as grain barges, transporting rice along the backwaters. With thatched roofs and indoor plumbing, they have now been converted to carry tourists on the calm rivers. On either bank women wash their laundry, children play in the water and men fish silently.
After floating down the backwaters, we made our way up to the high altitudes of Munnar to enjoy the coolness of the mountains. Up the windy roads of the hills, the coconut and banana trees gave way for tea plants and vanilla trees. Pineapples grew in fields close to the road, and peppers dried on the streets, blackening to perfection on large mats. Tea pickers dotted the miles of plantations skilfully hand-picking each leaf. The green of the leathery tea leaves shone in the afternoon and spread across the entire region, making it a mind-boggling feat to imagine the picking process.
While I revelled in the lushness of the country and the beauty and difference of the culture, I also appreciated travelling through a land of people who I had grown up with in the Emirates. People from Kerala travel far to the Gulf to work in various jobs, but being in their own country I had a new appreciation for the struggle they have to endure to work so far away from home. That while many in the Gulf may see them as simple or nameless service providers, they are in fact a people with a rich, colourful and complicated culture.
Hadeel al Shalchi is a writer for the Associated Press, based in Cairo