India holds a magical draw for Czech couple David and Marketa Festa. On their fifth visit to Kerala they are more smitten than before

When David and Marketa from the Czech Republic visited India 20 years ago, it was nothing like what they had read. The pre-Internet age afforded them just a few dusty old volumes on oriental history, which painted dreamlike pictures of India. “I was transfixed. I had to visit this place with the “paradise” (Kashmir), elephants and the Taj Mahal,” says David Festa. It was his wife Marketa, who planted the idea in his head first, David says. “Marketa was in love with India and she wanted to see it. Of course, when we visited in 1994, we were just friends,” says David.

On their visit to Kashmir, however, the two found that reality was far from what was portrayed. Kashmir was in the midst of turmoil. “There was shooting and we had to stay on a houseboat. We were forbidden to walk around,” Marketa recounts. But something about the country held them under a spell. “You know, the trip changed our lives. For about a year after we returned to Europe, we just spoke about India.”

After Kashmir, they had also visited Varanasi, Kolkata, Bhubaneshwar, Chennai, Madurai, Thiruvananthapuram, Goa and Mumbai.

They were fascinated by the country and it has featured on their travel itinerary ever since.

“The cultural and geographical diversity the country boasts is just amazing. From the Himalayas to the jungles and the seashore to the real tropical heat, there is so much to experience,” David says.

The India chapter

On their ninth visit to India (this is their fifth visit to Kerala), the couple says so much has changed in 20 years. “It has developed a great deal, not just in terms of industry and agriculture, but in the lives of the ‘middle class’, too. The standard of life has certainly gone up,” David notes.

However, David adds he is saddened by development’s impact on the environment. “Issues of displacement, pollution and the need for conservation have become vital.” David, who was a lecturer in socio-anthropology in Czech Republic before he moved to the pharmaceutical industry, had got a scholarship to study social geography and environmental studies in the Allahabad University in 1999. “I got the opportunity to interact with different kinds of people and understand everyday life,” David says.

It was also around the time that the Narmada Bachao Aandolan was at its peak. “I was very interested in understanding the issue.”

This time, David and Marketa have brought along their children Nicolas, Simon and Andrew and a friend, Jan. “We want them to experience India and enjoy it the way we do,” Marketa says. On their visits, David and Marketa make it a point to travel in budget hotels and friends’ homes, eat at ordinary places. “We are classic backpackers. We want to experience ordinary life,” David says.

India does not “surprise” them anymore. They love the food—masala dosa and all kinds of parathas, fish curry, thaali meals. “We do not miss meat with this kind of food,” David adds. Before they leave for their country on January 6, the family has quite a few places to see in Kerala—Alappuzha, Kottayam, Varkala, Idukki, Munnar and Wayanad before they proceed to Karnataka.