Saturday, March 28, 2015

In God's Own Country

The only thing I knew about Kerala before Elise and I came here for two nights away from the kids was that it had a 99% literacy rate and was run by the Communist party.

It seems as though the Communist party has been booted out of office since the last election but you wouldn't know it by the proliferation of red flags bearing the hammer and sickle. But that's not the only thing you'll find in Kerala, a South Indian state tucked away in the southwest corner of the sub-continent. In short, it is one of the most beautiful places on the planet.

Kerala--the Backwaters to be specific--joins a short list of places on Earth that are, in my estimation, the most amazing I have ever visited: New York City, Paris, Rio. A place so unbelievably verdant, filled with the kindest, warmest souls, could only be Eden. Maybe, hence the nickname, 'God's Own Country', a moniker I may have at one time thought a bit egotistical, but now can know the place by no other name. I know the slow insinuation of Christianity, brought by early Portuguese and Dutch colonists from Europe into a predominately Hindu society, has a lot to do with the nickname, too, but the abundance of ice cold Kingfisher (which needs to be drunk quickly in the late March heat) and spicy, coconut-infused seafood sure doesn't hurt its reputation much either. 

Elise and I crawled out of bed at 4:00 in the morning to catch a 6:00 flight. I should have been surprised that Mrs. Rita had gotten up at 3:30 to get the coffee make started, but I wasn't, and when I came downstairs, tip-toeing through the darkness, two steaming mugs of java were sitting on the counter in the laundry room--each with a saucer over the top to keep them warm--waiting for Elise and I.

When we landed in Kochi, it was hard to believe we were still in India. We walked from the plane across the tarmac, careful to avoid the revving engine and luggage carts racing across the jetway, toward a squat, one-story terminal that was vaguely Polynesian in design. Other passengers took selfies on the runway. Elise and I grabbed out bags and found our ride.

We arrived at our hotel, Malabar House, early enough to enjoy a second breakfast as our airport idlys and sumbar had worn off. We were treated to what would be the first of many amazing meals on this trip, and for the first time all year, I would eat three huge lunches three days in a row.

We spent the rest of the morning wandering the old town by Fort Kochin, old Catholic churches, abandoned Dutch forts, small cemetaries holding the remains of European explorers, spice shops and the old Chinese fishing nets.

They are commonly known as "Chinese fishing nets" in India, because--as legend has it--they are sufficiently unusual in India and different from usual fishing nets. So, take that, China. Long, heavy logs hold horizontal nets. Each structure is at least two to three stories high and comprises a cantilever with an outstretched net suspended over the sea and large stones suspended from ropes as counterweights at the other end. Each installation is operated by a team of up to six, sun-darkened, weathered fishermen. (I'm paraphrasing from Wikipedia here)

The system is sufficiently balanced that the weight of a man walking along the main beam is enough to cause the net to descend into the sea. The net is left for a short time, possibly just a few minutes, before it is raised by pulling on ropes. The catch is usually modest: a few fish and crustaceans which can be sold to passers by within minutes.

If they don't catch anything, and you are a tourist looking to score a few photos of the fisherman at work, they may guilt you out of 100 rupees. It seems fair.

We headed back to our hotel for a seafood thali for lunch and a long nap. We did get up at 4:00 a.m. remember. Every meal should be a thali, served on a banana leaf, a mound of rice, a piece of spiced-rubbed fish, and ten different side dishes and sauces, including pickled something that I love, but that is not Elise's favorite. One is pieyasum, or dessert.

For dinner, we walked down to the ferry terminal. We had been given a dinner recommendation, and while the food was good, the atmosphere was stuffy. Think Kee Grill or Waterway. We would have been better off staying at our hotel; when we got back from dinner, a dozen tables ringed the plunge pool and a flautist entertained the small crowd with a floating, almost haunting melody that drifted up through the mango trees.

The next morning, after a breakfast of idlys and sambar (of course!), we drove south to the shores of Lake Vembanad, the longest lake in India. We arrived at Malabar House's sister property, aptly named Purity, where we were welcomed with a glass of juice and guided immediately to the dock. There. we had to wait a short ten minutes before we heard a steady chugging coming around a bedn in the lake--our very own houseboat for the night.

We would have our very own captain, chef and steward for an overnight cruise through the Backwaters, a watery labyrinth along the palm tree-lined banks of the lake. Our bags were lofted aboard, and we boarded the turquoise-painted boat. It soon pushed away from shore, and Elise and I proceeded to the second deck to take in the view and the breeze.

We had lunch, fish curry and naan. I had a Kingfisher. She had a glass of white wine. The lazed the afternoon away as our boat cruised. According to the internet, the houseboats started out as rice barges, and we did see rice transported from the paddies by smaller skiffs. They have since been transformed into floating hotels, originally housing royalty. Now, just housing little 'ole us, made to feel like royalty. We saw thousands of water birds and flocks of white-backed egrets flying in undulating clouds.

After a few hours, we started back across the lake to our nightime anchorage. We tied up, and Elise call and checked in on the kids. Afterwards and before dinner on deck, we walked into town, just a short stroll past brightly-painted houses hidden behind banana plantations.

As the sunset, we had dinner. You could hear the choir from the church floating through the palms. Fishermen lowered and lifted the Chinese fishing nets methodically, catching nothing. The sky gradually turned violet then indigo and small stars emerged. The scene was something I will never forget, the food was amazing. We were first served a terrine of chopped fish, chilis, coconut, peppercorns and green onions. For dessert, we had chocolate samosas on mango puree. Yes. I even burned my finger on one in my careless excitement.

This trip was the best trip I had been on since the October 2011, when Elise and I went to Rio right before Clementine was born. I haven't even gotten to the part yet where we spend the following day lounging by the infinity pool, watching the houseboats drift by as if in a dream, a jungle-green, tropical, beautiful dream. 

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