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We have always found traveling in India revealing, rejuvenating and rewarding. This trip, we added “relaxing.” In a vast country offering a tantalizing luxury of experience, we decided to visit south western India, a world away from the monuments of the Golden Triangle, the spirituality of the Ganges plain or the stark beauty of the Himalaya range. More tropical, with an abundance of sunshine warming its fields and estuaries, the rhythm of life here allowed us to slow down, be present in the moment and enjoy the delights of wide beaches, “backwater” canals and historic hill stations.

Kerala, India

Kerala, India

Kerala (emphasis on the first syllable) is a relatively narrow strip of land stretching south of Goa towards the Indian Ocean on the western side of the Indian peninsula. It is bathed by the Arabian Sea and well-watered by a network of canals fed by a plethora of rivers flowing from the country’s mountainous backbone, the Western Ghats. Barely north of the equator, its days are warm and its nights are sumptuous. Lifestyle is tropical and the pace is serene. Not really reflective of our prior trips to India, this southern state indeed seemed to have been kissed by God, offering a naturally relaxed but exciting experience of a rich culture with welcoming people living thousands of years of tradition.

Kerala’s geography created a land watered by over forty rivers and crisscrossed by connecting canals and estuaries which, combined, provided the main arteries of transportation for thousands of years. Before the time of Christ, spices grown in the high mountain air of the Western Ghats came to port on the backs of elephants and in the holds of riverboats. Rice grown in Kerala’s fields both fed boatmen’s families and itself came to market on rice boats of distinctive local design. Today, spices and rice remain important segments of the Keralan economy, but delivery systems have changed, putting elephants out of work and leaving boatmen to reinvent their livelihood. But the rivers and canals remain, and life on these backwaters has evolved to add a tourist component to daily life in the form of rice boats converted to houseboats for those seeking a laidback trip through Kerala’s waterways. We signed on for this experience, and were glad we did so.

Houseboating

Often houseboat cruises begin in Alleppey. For many, the experience is a day trip around Vembanadu Lake. However, we wanted to overnight to drink in the full experience of the backwaters, including an evening away and a sunrise that would give us an authentic experience of Kerala. We had our travel planner select a boat and captain that could take us to the small canals along which Kerala’s farmers and their families live and work. Our boat would accommodate eight, perfect for our party of three couples and our guide. When we arrived at the embarkation point, we found our houseboat ready—a fully provisioned galley and neatly made up bedrooms perfectly tucked inside the fully re-appointed frame of an historic riverboat. While we sipped a glass of white wine, the crew whisked our luggage and gear aboard, and we were off

What we noticed immediately, and it couldn’t have been more welcome, was the quiet. There is a magical, intimate ambiance on a small boat slowly slipping through tropical lowlands, and we all felt a deep relaxation in our bones and in our souls. We found the promise of a few days in Kerala fulfilled in the warming sun and cooling breezes, as we rocked ever so gently through the blue-green water.

Fishing

No photographer willingly misses the dawn’s early light, and so I quietly dressed in the dark, grabbed my tripod and wide angle rig, joined the captain and another shooter for a short walk around a point where we had docked for the night, fully expecting an exuberant sunrise over east facing rice paddies. Not to be—not this morning. Instead, we found ourselves enveloped in a low lying, soft mist that muted the sunrise, but gave an ethereal, otherworldly look to the waterway and the mollusk fishermen out raking in their catches. Disappointed by a lost sunrise, but enchanted by the magical feel of early morning on the backwaters, we returned to our houseboat and cast off for a morning’s cruise to the “heritage” hotel that would become our forward base of operations.

At dawn, in a mist on the backwaters, there is a very spiritual quality to the morning. All around us were fishermen, manning a fleet of canoes, harvesting mollusks from the shallow waters of the lake we were crossing. A rake, a net full of mud and shellfish barely bigger than your thumb and a blend of remarkable balance and effort, would yield a boat bottom full of treasure. As we slid silently toward our noon destination, the harvest process was repeated time and time again. Our captain knew some of the men, and a couple of times we stopped briefly to say hello and watch the day’s work begin. Smiles and gently warm words were the order of the morning, reinforcing the spirituality of the experience. Time and place hardly mattered in this meditative moment. Indeed, Kerala’s backwaters provide a powerful lesson in the language of quiet and the serenity of simple living.

Canals

An hour or so from Alleppey—time hardly mattered—we hugged the south shore, fifty meters from the berm that separated the waterway from apparently endless rice paddies. Rice that feeds the nation is planted and harvested twice a year here, and the fields were already spring green. Occasionally, small homes punctuated the view, canoe in front, bicycle leaning against a porch or palm tree. We had a late lunch, fresh fish, of course, local vegetables and curried rice, and sunk into the couches under the boat’s front canopy, or lounged on the deck. Our pace and pulse slowed, our breathing deepened. Locals threw nets into the waters from canoes. Birds circled overhead or screeched from palms on either side. A mother walked two kids in school uniforms and daypacks along the pathway on our left. Bucolic, indeed. And restorative at a primal level.

Back on the main waterway, light faded, a deep orange sun pasted in a darkening sky, descending over a fringe of silhouetted palm trees. We chatted, enjoyed a cold beer and shared experiences from the day as the crew set the table for dinner. Unlike some other cuisines in India, the Keralan palette includes both fish and meat, as well as a range of vegetable casseroles, many heated with cardamom, turmeric and curry or sweetened with vanilla beans, cinnamon or coconut. In a ridiculously small galley (I hesitate to say kitchen) tacked on the rear of our houseboat, the chef managed to turn out a range of dinner choices that would have kept a discriminating and demanding foodie engaged and enchanted. I am not such a foodie, and in fact struggle a bit with very heavily spiced or exotic foods, so I was pleased to find all the needs on my food pyramid satisfied with flavors and textures that happily complemented our day. And then there was dessert, tea, a firm bed and very sound sleep.

Sometime later, the captain eased us to a stop and we transferred to two small canoes. From the main waterway, we headed into a smallish canal—perhaps 15 feet wide—a local “road” in this complex of canals and estuaries. Surprisingly, life was not so languid or quiet here. Houses lined both sides of the canal, each with steps to the water and the ubiquitous canoe. Clothes and dishes were washed. Kids swam or bathed. Animals and birds chattered. People stopped conversations to smile and wave. Canoes poled by (on our left, the reverse of passing on roads!). Realistically, we were only a short distance from the high rise hotels of Kerala’s beaches, but in our beings, we were in the heart of Kerala, feeling the warmth of the land and the people, soaking up a luxurious experience that would make this trip stand out from so many others in its simplicity and essential authenticity.

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The Coconut Lagoon

A warm welcome from our magnanimous host greeted us as we docked in Kumarakam at the Coconut Lagoon hotel, one of India’s four dozen or so “Heritage Hotels” designated by the Ministry of Tourism. As you might expect in a country with a patrimony which includes the British Raj, a property doesn’t just become a “heritage” hotel. There are rules—pages and pages of guidelines. True to our experience, this “heritage” hotel met the guideline requirements: “The facade, architectural features and general construction should have the distinctive qualities and ambience in keeping with the traditional way of life of the area. The architecture of the property … should not normally be interfered with. Any extension, improvement, renovation, change in the existing structures should be in keeping with the traditional architectural styles and constructional techniques harmonising (sic) the new with the old.” (from Ministry of Tourism Heritage Hotel Guidelines)

Such a property beautifully fit our desired Kerala discovery program and complemented our backwater tour. At the Coconut Lagoon, buildings were relocated from local sources and skillfully reconstructed to reflect current tastes of discriminating travelers. Hotel processes were well harmonized with sound ecological principles and there was a sustaining symbiosis with the adjacent village which provided food stuffs, local arts and crafts and of course, workers for the hotel. Each of these features on this “heritage” property contributed to our very satisfying sampling of Keralan life.

After lunch, we took a small boat around the hotel’s butterfly garden and bird sanctuary to the village adjacent to the hotel. It was plain enough to see how agriculture and local crafts central to village life integrated with the hotels “heritage” features. With smiles, broken English, hand gestures and some help from our guide, we were able to gain perspective, such as understanding how elementally important the coconut was, beyond the obvious uses of the meat and milk, to this village and to Kerala generally.

Coconuts

There was another discovery awaiting us about Kerala’s coconuts: sap from the coconut tree itself could be tapped, harvested and fermented into a light alcoholic beverage called kallu or generically, palm wine. Kallu is roughly analogous to a Beaujolais nouveau in the sense it is to be consumed when made, except kallu is harvested daily, year round in this tropical climate. And consumed daily. To demonstrate the local technique, the village “toddy tapper” was kind enough to climb a convenient coconut tree and provide us a small libation, well preparing us for the dinner and dance still to come. Pleasant to the taste when consumed promptly, and, we were told, very effective too, this coconut byproduct is regulated (and taxed) by the government.

Kera, from which the name Kerala derives, actually means “coconut” in Mayalayum, the local language. Husks or “hair” from the coconut’s shell, was pulled off and “spun” into strong strands of string by a young village mother skillfully rubbing her palms together. Strands could then be woven together to create “coconut cables” with a multitude of uses. Add a little automation, and this traditional process became an efficient and sustaining home industry. Similarly, at a home a short walk from that where ropes were made, leaves in coconut fronds were dexterously interwoven (and ends bound off) to provide mats, fences, wind breaks and roofs. The lady making these mats spoke only Mayalayum, but her young daughter (11 years old), when she overcame her shyness, spoke English easily and surprising well. (Literacy in Kerala is the highest in all of India (over 93%) making travel here relatively easy.) And the girl was possessed of a smile to die for, which, with her language skills and study, spoke well for the future of India, Kerala and this little girl.

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Mohiniyattam (The Dance)

Later that evening, we enjoyed another local art form—mohiniyattam, a sixteenth century Keralan classical dance. Traditionally, the dance is performed by a woman dancing solo, telling the story, for example, of Lord Vishnu, disguised as an enchantress (mohini) whose sensual movement (aattam) lures the demons away from the nectar of immortality. This evening, there were two dancers who performed various stories to the spare accompaniment of a drum and finger cymbals. I am not sure about how the demons were affected, but each dancer definitely captivated the audience with sumptuous costume, elegantly sculpted movement and refined gesture.

Kerala

Measured in statute miles, Kerala is half a world away from our home. In its traditions and daily rituals, it is farther than that. But when given an opportunity to experience not only the natural warmth of this tropical paradise, but the warmth of its people—uncommon in our thirty years of traveling—we found ourselves very close to and in touch with the Kerala experience. The beauty and quiet simplicity of life on the backwaters, the earthiness of village life, the spirituality of a fabled dance, the aromas and tastes of spices and herbs beyond our common palette, the color and visual arrangement of elements of everyday routine, though each a world apart, seemed easily accessible, deeply enjoyable, and wonderfully real.

If You Go

Travel Like a Maharaja!

Travel in India generally and in Kerala is neither difficult nor dangerous, but it can be inefficient and frustrating. We finessed this challenge by engaging a professional travel planner that provided both local accessibility for us and on-the-ground resources at the destination. Matching our travel objectives with local short cuts, comfortable trains, and guides that were both knowledgeable and helpful made our trip memorable for what we did, not what was done to us. For India, and for Kerala especially, we recommend using The Travel Planners. In thirty years of globetrotting, we’ve traveled like royalty and schlepped like peons. We like the former much better—it’s good to be the king. The Travel Planners maximized the value of our time and our trip. We felt we were traveling like a Maharaja.