Land of Coconuts | 2802-050317

About Singagon & Me.

City Sundown. Good company is great; also when it comes in the inanimate shapes of a thrilling book and a comfy sofa on a Monday night after weeks of constant socialising. My boyfriend is in Manila this week, and our lodger is running errands all evening. I walk straight home from work, eating a spinach wrap with kale, pumpkin, hot-smoked salmon and fresh lemon juice from Saladstop on the way, and watch the sunset while finishing some work on the balcony. As the sun disappears from view, I then curl up on the sofa with a cup of herbal tea, candles lit on the side table and my immense brick of a pageturner, Shantaram. I’m going to India on Friday, and while this wildly dramatic, action-packed yet super descriptive auto-biography mainly set in Mumbai doesn’t appear on the comprehensive list of novels about the country that my boyfriend’s dad has sent me (and which I do intend to get through – maybe by reading one a month, which will see me through to the next time we’re going, at Christmas), so many people have recommended reading it that I picked it up. Last week I spoke with a colleague from Mumbai, who said that living conditions in the city are much less … extreme than described in the book, and that one day she’ll take me there so see how pleasant and wonderful it really is. For now, I’m in the grip of Gregory David Roberts engaging depiction of the slums.

Fort Canning Park Yoga. On Tuesday night, I was supposed to go for a yoga class in Fort Canning Park, but due to rain cascading down heavily all day, it’s not happening. I’m actually quite happy with the raincheck – I do barre every day so I don’t need the class, and it means I can go straight home and curl up with my book again. I used to read so much – a few years back, I’d have finished Shantaram in less than a week; now I hardly ever take time to really immerse myself in books. For a long time I’ve been wanting to change that; it feels good to actually do so. I still wanted to mention the yoga event here, though, as I thought it was a lovely, idyllic idea.

Hot Core Yoga & 40 Hands Morning. And there’s hot yoga the morning after, anyway. It’s still raining at 6:50am so I sprint as quickly as I can up through the mews to the hip studio in Yong Siak Street. I love, love, love, love these dark and early classes with a friend by my side – so hot; so hard; so satisfying; such a stimulating start to the day. And then there’s eggs cocotte soaked in truffle oil, Common Man Coffee Roasters coffee and freshly pressed carrot/orange juice at the cafe across the street from the studio afterwards. With another friend, who just came back from a trip to Kyoto and Tokyo, about which she’s telling enthusiastically as we enjoy our breakfast. Mmm.

New Shophouse on the Block. There’s a big street party going on around the corner from my walk-up, and the organisers have erected this Peranakan shophouse in the midst of it, breaking up the minimalist white art deco of the area with some vibrant knickknack:

Skyline Pot Luck. After an evening barre class on Wednesday, I take a taxi straight to the Skyline Residences down by Keppel Bay – pot luck tapas/snacks, white wine, red wine, sparkling wine, coffee-infused tequila, fun, deep and loving quality time with my two closest girlfriends in town… bliss.

Clean Start to the Day. It’s way past midnight when the girls and I kiss each other goodnight, but I wake up by myself and feel fresh for a 7:30am barre class, the perfect way to sweat out alcohol and prepare body and mind for the day ahead. I also always feel so clean and fresh in that happy place. This is a picture of the changing room sink, so fine with its pretty blue tiles, exposed copper pipes, Ashley & Co soap and tiny glossy succulent:

Little India. After work on Thursday, I jump on a bus to Little India Arcade, sitting on the backseat and enjoying the view that never ceases to impress me – the clean and sparkling splendour of the Fullington Hotel, Marina Bay Sands, the bridges crossing the bay, the Esplanade Theatres, the experimental architecture popping up all over Bugis. After picking up a pair of plain white leggings (to go with the pink tunic dress I bought there a few weeks back, my, hopefully appropriate, church outfit for Saturday in Kerala), I decide to walk home to Tiong Bahru.

SOTA. As always when meandering around Bugis, or any area, in any city, I guess, I spot something astonishing I’ve never noticed before – the monumental School of the Arts. Wow, creative kids in this city have a fancy playground – so grand; so elegant; such a neat integration of nature – gigantic lush trees blending in with the facade and the internal structure as well. Check it out, if you’re ever in the neighbourhood! It’s so sunny and fresh in the air as I continue through Fort Canning Park and across the river…

Burn to the Beat. Friday morning I have the last formal barre class in over a week (I’ll do a few of the exercises on my own in India), and it’s a particularly hard and good one, with an awesome playlist: Sweet Dreams (Beyonce), Halo (cover by Lotte Kestner), Jenny from the Block (J-Lo), Worth It (Fifth Harmony), We Are Young (feat. Janelle Monáe, reminding me so of the good old days in London), Donatella (Lady Gaga), Blah Blah Blah (Kesha), Shake Ya Tailfeather (Murphy Lee), Problem (Ariana Grande), Bang Bang (Jessie J), Yeah! (Usher), Right Thurr (Chingy), Temperature (Sean Paul)…. and other oldies and goodies.

Turmeric Toast. Both home early on Friday afternoon, my boyfriend and I each wrap up the last bit of work, pack our bags and down a holiday celebratory glass of powdered turmeric and fresh lemon juice stirred into soda, before heading to Kerala, the relatively prosperous and green southwestern corner of India, which literally, in Malayalam, means ‘land of coconuts’, but which is also referred to as the Spice Garden of India and God’s Own Country.

Arrival in Kottayam. Landing in Cochin just before midnight, we’re met by a dry and spicily fragrant, slightly cool night air and are picked up by my boyfriend’s, wait, from now on, I’ll refer to him as ‘S’, so, we’re picked up by S’s dad’s driver, who takes us to S’s parents’ home in Kottayam, a two-hour drive, on which S and I are leaning towards each other on the backseat, snoozing. Now and then, he speaks with the driver, in the local language, Malayalam. Born in Nigeria to Indian parents who went on to leave Africa for the US, he only lived in Kerala between the ages of 2 and 8 (with his mum until she was able to follow his dad to New Jersey, and otherwise at boarding school) and speaks English with nothing but a thick American accent. I have asked him a bunch of times if he remembers any of his mother tongue or to please say this or that in Malayalam, but he’s always just replied very modestly, sort of waving it off, made it seem as if he only knows a few random phrases. Well, it turns out that he speaks it perfectly fluently. I love it – so soft and melodic, and with that characteristic wiggle of his head for emphasis, of, seemingly, every affirmative sentence. One example of many to come on this trip of getting to know more about his background. His parents live in a gated community by a small river, full of beautiful, well-kept white villas, all with the same elegant shell, but with individually designed gardens and interiors. Among locals, apparently, it’s generally most desirable to live close to the road, but having returned from 20 years in the land of the free, they prefer facing wide green expanses, so they’ve picked the house in the far corner of the community, overlooking the river, green fields and coconut trees, with a line of green hills in the horizon. They are up to greet us, at 2am, and after a warm, welcoming embrace, we chat for a bit, exchanging pleasantries, in the stately cream-coloured livingroom. They ask how our flight was, how my parent are and if I can sing a song in Danish so they can hear the tone of the language… I break into a cheerful nursery rhyme, and that breaks the ice. Smiles and laughter. They show me around their beautiful home, full of elegantly arranged artifacts from all over the world. We stop for a bit by the fridge, whose one wall is covered with kitsch magnets from each and every country S has ever travelled to (a lot). Sweet. We’re then showed up to our bedrooms, mine a spacious and brightly painted one, with a painting of a yacht over the bed, photographs of child-versions of S and his brother across from the bed, flowery bed linen and a wonderful panorama of the river from the windows – I fall asleep looking forward to waking up and being able to see that view.

Morning. So, the first thing I do when I wake up is opening the windows and smiling at all of those shades of misty green that are facing me. I pop out onto the balcony for a natural hot yoga session with S, who then takes me downstairs for a stroll around the neat little garden framing the house, full of carefully manicured flower beds and cute sculptures of frogs and birds, and to enjoy his mum’s hearty breakfast of ripe mango, pomegranate seeds, plantains and kallappam, fluffy rice pancakes, used to soak up coconut curry and wrap around pieces of hardboiled eggs. Strong unsweetened masala tea. Milling around and serving everyone else, she’s wearing a beautiful green silk sari. I hope they aren’t just being polite and secretly find it inappropriate when they nod and smile at my new pink dress and leggings from Little India. It’s such an unfamiliar feeling to not know whether my outfit is smart.

Cousins. As we’re getting ready to go, S’s dad’s brother and his wife and their two daughters come over to join us. Living in New Jersey, they’re just here for the week, staying at a villa down the road. The cousins are super sweet and easy to chat to. When one of them did an exchange semester at Copenhagen Business School about a decade ago, she lived in the same street as me, Store Kongensgade. The world is so full of curious coincidences like that; I’ll start a list sometime. We talk about the different cultures coming together under this roof today, and then we head off…

Drive to Nerricadu. The drive to the small village outside of Kottayam where S’s dad is from reminds me of Bali – the roads are narrow and in pretty poor shape, traffic is mad, every driver, including S’s dad, is greeting oncoming drivers/cyclists/pedestrians/cows with a honk or five, ranging from cheerful to angry, houses are colourful and shabby, roadside shops are shabbier still, facades plastered full of ads, and we pass beautiful paddy fields and banana trees. They’ve put me in the front seat to give me a stellar view of it all.

Memorial Service. The family belongs to the circa 20 % of Kerala’s population who are Catholic, and the purpose of the outing is to commemorate S’s paternal grandfather who passed away 10 years ago, incidentally, the day before the 9 year anniversary of my maternal grandad’s journey to paradise, making it the perfect occasion for me to send loving thoughts to him as well, in the beautiful white village church. S’s grandfather was a prominent and well-liked figure in the village of Nerricadu, taking several important initiatives to support the community, and so the church is full of not only around 150 family members but also old friends and acquaintances showing their respect and gratitude.  Shoes off! Men on the left side! Women on the right! I don’t understand much of what’s going on, but it’s all very beautiful, and I’m surprised to hear that the (Bollywood-movie-sundtrack-sounding, to my untrained ear) music between the many prayers is played on an electric piano and not an organ, and to see that a lot of the ornaments surrounding the altar consist of brightly shining neon lights – so fancy! When the service is over, and we’ve been out to see the grave, decorated with beautiful pink flower petals for the occasion, I’m introduced to all of the aunts, uncles and cousins, one of which asks S, in Malayalam, what the name of ‘the gentle zephyr is’. I’m a gentle zephyr! Such a sweet compliment! Only a few speak English, but everyone is so kind and welcoming, hugging and kissing me and smiling lovingly. One of the aunties gives us a big bag of freshly ground turmeric, and S’s old nanny, who’d come see him at boarding school and give him snacks and do his laundry, has brought a spoon for me – in case I don’t want/know how to eat lunch with my fingers.

Banana Leaf Lunch. The whole extended family meander over to the big, brightly coloured function hall next to the church, which is filled with four long, slim tables, with chairs on one side only and food being served from the other side – multiple vegetarian (because of Lent) curries, chutneys and dried fruits laid out on big banana leaves serving as plates. We wash our hands at sinks along one wall. One of S’s dad’s employees (he runs the nonprofit IISAC, which organises study abroad programs for American college students) takes me by the arm and places me next to her, making sure I’m only being served dairy free food items and teaching me how to scoop up all of the colourful sauces with pappadum and rice with the fingers of my right hand, keeping the palm dry and clean. After 10 minutes of concentrated eating, everyone folds their now-empty banana leaves together and stands up to meander around the room and chat. After washing their hands again. Total separation of eating and socialising – I’ve never experienced that before!

Tour of the Land. As we walk up the road later, now only joined by the immediate family members, S points out his primary school, a grassy patch where he’d play cricket as a child (sometimes the ball would fall into the cemetery) and other similar landmarks, until we get to his grandad’s old house, which is now owned by his youngest uncle, who lives in the US, for which reason it’s maintained by local caretakers. While most of the party settle down on the porch, S shows me the slightly musty little room where he and his brother would stay during school holidays. The dark polished wooden furniture is full of stickers that he placed there, his favourite being a rainbow, and on the top shelf of a bookcase is a row of shiny trophies that he won at public speaking contests as a teenager in New Jersey. Flipping through old family albums, he tells me sweet anecdotes about his grandparents before we join the others on the porch, sipping the juice of tender coconuts which someone has chopped down from a tree in the front yard. S’s dad then takes us on a tour of the expansive back yard, which is full of cassava roots and tall mango, coconut, jackfruit and teak trees, and of the family farm a bit further up the road, which is owned by the three older brothers. At the centre of the land is a small one-room house, just big enough for a slim bed, pantry and writer’s desk. An outdoor staircase takes us to its flat roof, where we sit down for a bit to take in the stunning, completely green view of the cassava fields and the small organic garden below.

Tailor Made. In the afternoon they take me to S’s mum’s favourite tailor in Kottayam, because they want to give me a traditional churidar – a long tunic-like dress, admitting that the one I got from Little India is a bit too coarse and loose-fitting. Faced with two floors of rows and rows of fat rolls of beautiful, soft silk and cotton, we (S, his mum and I, that is; his dad is smiling patiently from a bench) end up choosing three beautiful design and fabric combinations. Two smiling girls take my measurements, collectively giggling at the broadness of my shoulders, and tell us to come back the following Thursday for a fitting. I’m so excited – as far as I remember it’s the first time I’ve ever had custom-made clothes made.

Local Food. Last stop of the day is at a very local, grotto-like restaurant. They don’t have a menu; the waiters just come around to the tables and present today’s fresh catch. I like that concept. We share a range of delicious dishes – fish fried in a sticky, spicy onion marinade, boiled cassava mashed with grated coconut, tangy prawn gravy to go with the yellow mash and a super spicy duck curry that we scoop up with small pieces of palappam, a type of rice bread that’s lacy at the edges and fluffy in the middle. So yum! To drink we have just-tapped palm wine, which I really like – a refreshing contrast to the oily food.

Sunday Morning. Crickets and birds chirping in the air, water lilies and fishermen chilling in the river, sounds of laughter and clothes being beaten/washed on the banks of the river, gazing down on the ginger lilies and birds of paradise in the garden and green fields and hills in the distance while doing sun salutations on the balcony – we’re ready for a new day of adventures.

Breakfast. First adventure happens downstairs, where S’s mum has prepared fluffy cakes of rice steamed with shredded coconut and a spicy chickpea curry. I eat a small portion of that, mixed with fresh pomegranate seeds, and then a lot of fresh deeply orange-coloured mango that’s soooo full of flavour.

Road Trip. With a detailed itinerary made by S’s dad and his kind and cheerful driver behind the wheel, S and I set out on a 3-day roadtrip in the highlands, first headed for Kumily, the spice paradise of Kerala, where all sorts of tea, pepper, cardamom, vanilla, saffron, cinnamon and curry mixes fill the rolling fields, air and shops. We stop at several beautiful spots on the way, for a breathtakingly beautiful hike among tea plantations and reddish rock formations, to check out a spectacular church, to buy tender coconuts, to simply take in the sweeping views…  We can’t help but laughing and hugging joyfully again and again; all we have to do is relax, enjoy, observe and absorb.

Tree Top. Arriving in Kumily mid-afternoon, we check into a nice small resort off the main road, sitting for a while on the porch of our white cottage, drinking fresh pineapple juice and gazing upon our closest neighbour, a lush rainforest, before we check out a few places down the road – a cool little art gallery, where S buys me a cute terra-cotta cow, a cafe set in a beautiful garden, where we enjoy a cup of coffee while gazing a bit more upon the rainforest, a stretch of spice shops with wonderful displays of colourful, fragrant goods.

Show Time. At dusk, we get front row tickets for a two-part performance at the local martial arts and kathakali centre, the first one almost too thrilling – men flying through rings of fire, bending over backwards to reach flower buds lying on the floor behind them and fighting with very sharp-looking weapons – and the second one a wildly impressive display of body control, costumes, makeup and musicality.

The Spice Village. After the show, S takes me to his favourite restaurant in town, charmingly set in the lush garden of an idyllic resort. Outdoor seating. Outdoor open wooden kitchen. An old white-bearded guy sitting cross-legged across from the kitchen drumming on a set of chubby little tablas. Petroleum lamps on the white-clothed tables. Locally sourced, mostly organic food. Delicious beetroot patties stuffed with crushed peanut, chili, ginger and tapioca on a bed of tangy salsa and fresh herbs, followed by tender chicken in a spicy curry sauce over steamed millet. Sipping Sula – Indian wine – which is actually decent, fruity but still with some body and strength. Mint-flavoured mocktails (as part of an attempt to market Kerala as a family (holiday) destination, the government has banned hard liquor across the state) and playing Chinese checkers (which I haven’t played since I was very young) in the colonial clubhouse-style bar after dinner. Walking home to our cottage in the chilly 10:30pm mountain air. Flicking through pictures in bed to process the fantastic weekend:

This Week’s Specials:

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