Laidback and lush, glimmering all shades of vibrant green in the heat, is Kerala: ‘God’s own country’ as the locals like to refer to it, and our first port of call in India.
Kerala gently eases us into this vast, multifaceted, sometimes intense country with its own brand of Indian life, a place where bright sari-clad women light up the beach without actually swimming in the sea; and where strolling through town involves random chats with locals about your favourite cricket player and friendly selfie requests.
We spend our days in Kerala letting its cuisine pander to our tastebuds and growing bellies, soaking up its pan-continental history and culture, and cruising both by boat and on two wheels.
The eponymous fish curry and Kerala thali (set mixed lunch) are local menu heroes and the best way to get well acquainted with what’s sure to be your recurring meal here is to actually get in the kitchen. On every street corner in Kochi we seem to see signs advertising cooking classes but neither of us are the studious, patient types (more the chilling, beaching types) so the cooking demo on offer at our homestay, Green Woods Bethlehem, is the perfect bite sized session for us. Plus we already have a soft spot for our host Sheeba, who has a sweet habit of holding your hand every time she speaks to you.
Not when she’s cooking though. In the kitchen, usually serene Sheeba turns into a multitasking machine, a bright pink cyclone spinning from prep bench to cook top, sprinkling mustard seeds here and turmeric there like a curry fairy godmother creating culinary magic. She has a sixth sense for when the coconut oil is hot enough for the veg to be submerged in it, when heat should go down and when lids should go on and off. She grinds chilli and ginger with a pestle and mortar and thrusts it under our noses to take in the fresh aroma. Like a fast moving tennis match, we can barely keep up, Phil scribbling notes and me taking photos.
But before long, the kitchen is humming with the symphony of five dishes all hissing and simmering alongside each other: fish fry, fish curry, ladies fingers, cauliflower and a cabbage and carrot mix. Oh and butter rice too of course. Those last three vegetables aren’t the type I usually fantasise about in my foodie dreams, but under Sheeba’s spicy spell, they undergo a miraculous Cinderella style transformation into Bollywood belles.
Her work done, Sheeba’s husband Ashley dutifully appears to pile the dishes onto a tray to deliver them to the rooftop where Phil and I wolf away – an hour’s work consumed in mere minutes. Delicious.
From the 500 year old Chinese fishing nets that are still in use, to the many imposing churches that are a legacy of the former Portuguese establishment, to the restored colonial buildings that now house trendy cafes and restaurants, we pack plenty of culture into an afternoon stroll around the Fort Kochi area.
But it’s Kerala’s traditional Kathakali dance that is the star of the show here, and still full from Sheeba’s home made lunch, we catch one of the daily performances put on by the Kerala Kathakali Centre.
First, we watch the performers painstakingly apply their bright make up, the whole elaborate process designed to transform them physically and mentally. And fittingly so, as even in our minds, the performers change from being ordinary looking, chubby guys into a formidable hero and villain where their girth instantly feels necessary to occupy and project the character. Then, we get an intro to Kathakali and demo of the various facial and hand gestures used as no words are spoken. The performers train for six years to become proficient at this.
Then on with the show, split into three scenes: an attempted rape, the victim fleeing back to an angry husband, and the husband’s revenge on the culprit.
A different story is played out each night, designed to draw the audience’s interest out from just a one show wonder, but our time in Kochi is coming to an end, to make way for the cruising part of our Kerala time.
We arrive at Kerala’s houseboat hub, Alleppey, ready to head to the Finishing Point to investigate the boats on offer and make a deal with the lucky people who would get to whisk us away for a night to the region’s famous backwaters.
But after we settle into the Alasr Heritage guest house, admiring its high, breezy hallway and the vintage dark wood furnishings in our huge room, Riyas, whose family owns the place, is eager to show us his boat. We’re always wary of a hard sell but also not that keen to get into a haggling match down at the Finishing Point. So pretty soon we are oohing and aahing over the pictures of the traditional bamboo houseboat Riyas has on his phone, and agreeing on a price for a night on the boat plus a half day canoeing trip which includes all meals. Deal done!
And what a deal. Sun shining, calm waters, lunch on the deck, a nap on the daybed, afternoon tea. It’s a scene fit for a honeymoon! Later, we dock up amidst the lily pads next to a small village, and stretch our legs while meeting the locals before dinner. We sleep under a mosquito net with the windows open, the breeze pouring in and the sunrise waking us.
After breakfast the next morning, we board a much smaller, less luxurious boat for a canoe tour. It’s the only way to reach the smaller backwaters and see village life in action: people bathing, washing, shopping, cooking, walking, cycling, worshipping, in a blaze of colour, music and gossip.
Our group stops for lunch at villager Sanjeev’s house, cooked by his wife and entertained by his chatty, precocious teenage daughter who isn’t shy in quizzing everyone around the table on where they’re from and what they do. Lunch is a full on banana leaf, no cutlery affair, but at least there’s beer, and soap.
There’s yet another boat ride to go before we make it back to Alleppey, this time the public ferry, packed with uniformed, snack eating school children, jostling us for space.
We spend our last day in Kerala cruising on a scooter to peaceful Marari Beach, a long stretch of white sand brightened by the odd beach boat.
That evening, we board the overnight train to Mumbai, relishing in the calm before the storm of India’s most famous city sets upon us.