Monday Morning. Waking up in a completely white, spacious, ceiling-less hotel room. Nothing but palm trees and green mountain peaks as far as the eye can see through the windows and from the small wooden porch. Freshly made omelettes, ripe papaya and black coffee for breakfast. We’re alone in the restaurant as it’s low-season. Alone by the infinity pool too. And in the lobby, where we settle down, after a few laps in the pool and a shower, with India Today and the Hindu Times. Ahh – it’s holiday! Our first real holiday together, actually!
Elephant Ride. First point on S’s dad’s, I’ll call him Acha from now on, itinerary for the day is a walk through a plantation … on the back of an elephant. 20 years ago I would have thought of that as a wildly exotic activity reserved for fairytales; a romanticised filter that has faded a bit since. In an attempt to counter cruel practices and brutal exploitation of wild animals by the tourism industry, the travel company that I work for has recently decided to ban ticket sale to attractions that allow contact with said creatures. With that in mind, as well as horrific images of giant commercial machines traumatising captive, endangered animals through violent training, I approach the activity with some caution. The venue turns out to seem quite all right though. It’s a small, quiet cardamom plantation, and the five female elephants born here seem to love their lives – they are well fed, watered and washed by the mahouts who respect and love them and communicate as well with them, so they say, as they do with their human children. The cheerful elderly guy who takes us for a ride on the back of a 25-year-old lady doesn’t touch the animal with his walking stick one single time – he directs her up the winding paths in the plantation with a wave of his head or small noises. Sometimes, he’ll beat the stick against the ground, but he only touches the animal with his hands, gently padding her rough grey side as she trots along slowly. I decide to just relax and enjoy the exotic ride – and as we move up between the greenery, I spot an ad for my company hanging amongst the lush, fragrant plants…
Mixed Spice Plantation. Next point is a tour of a giant mixed spices plantation – our private guide leads us through wild labyrinths of cardamom, different varieties of pepper, peppermint, nutmeg, cinnamon… etc, etc.
Ambani Lunch. As it starts raining around noon, we take off from the plantation, driving through small tribal villages, where, our driver claims, tourists don’t normally go. We exchange friendly, curious looks with beautiful little children with glowing skin and hair and colourful clothes playing among the huts. Back in town, we stop at a small hotel off the main road for a hearty lunch of tandoori chicken, prawn salad and basmati rice steamed with cumin seeds. As we eat, slowly in attempt to make the meal last until the rain stops, we overhear a couple at the neighbouring table having a discussion about how they seem to find themselves moving at pendulum speed between horrible situations that they wish they could change for the better and wonderful situations that they more or less consciously keep on sabotaging. The bleak paradox keeps hanging in the air as the power disappears and returns again and again, leaving the restaurant in total, gloomy darkness for minutes at a time.
Chilling in the Rain. Peering at the rain that keeps cascading down the window glass beside our table, we finish our meal with a cup of tea, wait for a while, and then decide to walk back to the hotel despite the continuing downpour – it’s kind of fun and liberating trotting through the shower without a care in the world, completely alone in the world too, it seems. Back at the hotel, our driver shouts out to us from his spot in the car park – why didn’t we message him?? Well, guess we could have – but we didn’t even consider it, and the short walk was rather refreshing – the perfect way to start an afternoon spent napping, reading and lazily drifting back and forth in the pool.
Exotic Evening. As the rain finally subsides, we go out to buy spices from a wholesale shop across the street; supposedly the best place in town to stock up on the local goodies. The owner, a friend of Acha’s, serves up steaming cups of masala coffee spiced with cardamom, fennel and cumin as we select our bags of cardamom sticks, black pepper, garam masala, curry mixes and masala tea, lemongrass oil and a wooden mortar. Walking down the road afterwards, we’re stopped by a rug seller, who lures us into his shop with the promise of kahwah (green tea with cardamom, cinnamon and saffron) as he shows off his exquisite stock of handwoven rugs. I’ve always wanted to experience this – the deeply enthusiastic, incredibly well-structured sales pitch of a real Persian rug seller. He moves eloquently back and forth between catalogues of shiny USPs and bouts of reversed psychology – ‘I know I’d make a lot of money if I sold you this massive, pompous rug, but I want to be practical and considerate of your needs; I want you to think about the size of your house realistically; maybe you just need this elegant medium-sized rug instead – while cleverly getting his very eager and attentive assistant to supply him with all kinds of convincing tricks – a large pair of iron scissors which he scrapes back and forth across the fabric to demonstrate its endurance, a rolling movement to show how the colour schemes change depending on the viewing angles, how easily foldable all of the rugs are, etc. We leave promising that we’ll think about it and return tomorrow. Buy a cushion cover in vibrant green and pink colours as a modest thank you for the show. Continue down the road to the Spice Village, our special place, where we enjoy a dinner as good as the one we had the previous night. The air is full of lightning bugs as we stroll home afterwards.
Scenic Tea Country Route. Leaving early on Tuesday, we spend a good portion of the day driving through winding, almost deserted mountain roads on our way further north to Munnar. We stop now and then, for fresh coconut water, for overly ripe plantains, to stroll through a few of the tea plantations, to simply stand in the roadside and breathe in the fresh, fragrant air and take in the views.
Anayirankal Dam. One of the stops is at a big reservoir in a valley among the plantations, named after the wild elephants that live in the forests sloping down towards the northern edge of the water and come out daily for a drink of water and a bath. We don’t see any though, only cows and kingfishers, as we go sailing in a small circular rowing boat made of blue tarpaulin and braided reed. Our oarsman tells us that we’re his only customers today. As the young boy twirls the boat around and around, we lean back against the primitive sides and practice my Malayalam vocabulary:
- Acha – dad
- Amma – mum
- Ana – elephant
- Maya – rain
- Enaparajenu – how is it going? (less formal)
- Sukamano – how are you? (more formal)
- Kundi – butt
- Poahm – let’s go
- Nani – thank you (but no one actually says it, it seems; they just wiggle their heads)
- Vernum – yes
- Vernda – no
- Kapi – coffee
- Chaia – tea
- Chor – rice
- Punkhat – mild breeze
Camelot. Near dusk, we continue up through almost vertically rising, narrow mountain roads, winding in through cloud forests and tea plantations with slim eucalyptus planted here and there for shade, reaching paradise in the shape of colorful, quaint, well-maintained, wifiless Camelot, a wonderful small cottage resort set in a big, neatly manicured garden and, of course, tea plantation. Our room, decorated with brightly coloured and polished wooden furniture, opens up to a balcony with a spectacular view of the pink sunset skies above a range of misty mountain peaks. We order a cup of coffee and curl up in the wicker chairs on the balcony to watch huge foggy clouds creep in as the skies turn crimson and finally black – it’s like a fairytale. Pure idyll. S’s uncle, aunt and two cousins from New Jersey arrive after dark, and we all enjoy a lovely dinner of local comfort food in the idyllic small restaurant building at the foot of the steeply rising resort grounds. We’re the only guests here – the American husband of one of the cousins remarks how strange it is to be in India and not be surrounded by masses of people. We sit for a while and chat while watching the clear starry evening sky through the panorama window of the restaurant, but everyone goes to bed quite early. The air feels blissfully cool and thin as we stroll back up the hill to our rooms. Next day, S and I decide to stay put at the resort while the others go exploring. Small walk up the winding garden paths – there’s dew on all of the plants and flowers. Baby blue hydrangea (my favourite flower) and citrus fruits. Small wooden pagodas with benches and tables. Men fertilising the plantations and women picking the leaves. Breakfast – chickpea curry, couscous salad, fresh papaya and guava, freshly pressed pineapple juice. Serene relaxation all morning – hiking among the tea bushes, reading in the shade of one of the pagodas, simply gazing across all of the bright and dusty shades of green. At noon, the resort manager seeks us out to ask what we want for lunch and when. What a luxury! We order veggie curry and plain steamed rice. After the meal, our driver pulls up the car in front of the cottage and we wave goodbye to the staff as we drive the four-five hours home to Kottayam in pouring rain. I sleep across the backseat on most of the trip. Ahh.
Masala Dosa. The heaviness, spiciness, oiliness or simply the bacteria-combination of the food we eat this week gets the better of S (I’m fine!), and when we return to his parents’ house late in the afternoon, he has to stay in his room, and his mum stays home with him, while his dad takes me out for dinner. Again, at a very local little venue – he wants me to try masala dosa, a large thin pancake cone wrapped around a chunky potato stew and served with three different chutneys, a coconut creamy one, a tangy veggie one and a very spicy red one. M-m-m. Fresh tomato soup on the side. Black tea. The feast meal comes to S$3 in total!
Athreya Ayurvedic Centre. Next morning, S and I drive through the lush outskirts of Kottayam, past small shabby shops and eateries, creatively designed churches, men selling steaming tea off the back of their bicycles, buffalos grassing in light green meadows… to a beautiful Ayurvedic resort village, where cows and their calves roam freely among wooden cottages and flowery gardens. Watching S disappear with two men down one path, I follow two smiling girls dressed in long dark yellow tunics down another, to a small white-walled room. Closing the door to the green garden and asking me to strip down to nothing, the girls then tie a thin, completely transparent linen loin cloth around my waist and invite me to lay down on the polished wooden table at the centre of the room. Pouring generous amounts of hemp oil over me, they then massage me synchronously, one from each side, first down the front, then back, then each side of the body, and lastly in my face. Next step – I sit up and they massage my scalp, neck and back thoroughly. Finally – they make me sit in a wooden box with only my head peeping out and heat up a kettle with steam at the bottom of the box. 15 minutes of intensive steam bath – now with the doors to the garden wide open. I look out for a bit, but then close my eyes and dwell on the almost unbearable heat for the remainder of the time. After a cold shower, I’m led by the arm back to the lobby at the entrance, where S is waiting, looking as blissfully relaxed and serene as I feel. What an experience! Definitely the best massage I’ve ever had, but one that really takes for you to be comfortable with your body – or comfortably indifferent to total exposure of your body to complete strangers.
Food. Having only eaten a bit of fresh mango for breakfast given that we needed our stomachs to be empty for the massage, we have an early lunch when we return to the house. Amma and Acha have the food ready – lentil stew, spinach from the garden mixed with small pieces of chili and ginger, fried green banana slices and strips of raw tender coconut to soak up with rice and crispy pappadam… yum.
Backwaters Boating. In the afternoon, the four of us go sailing in a long, wooden motorboat in the backwaters. Lagoons and canals framed with coconut trees and betel nut trees, with pretty little houses peeping out from all of the greenery here and there. Open waters with enormous Chinese fishing nets, heavily loaded banana boats and snake birds soaring above. So peaceful, fresh and … tropical. We chat happily about what we see and hear. Sing a song. Tell a story. Laugh. Stop at a small island to wander through dense rainforest vegetation and pick wonderfully smelling but very tart and astringent cashew apples. Hear children playing and chuckling on the edge of the water now and then. But for the most part, we just drift along in complete, blissful silence. Rocking across gentle waves. Watching the sun moving further and further down and the light growing increasingly orange.
Local Pub Grub w/ Palm Wine. Driving back home at dusk, we stop at another local pub for a spread of fish curry, duck curry, prawn paste, rice pancakes and tapioca stew with shredded coconut. The same ingredients in new interpretations, over and over again – it would take me much longer than a week to grow tired of them. Everything is so well-prepared and umami-filled.
Introduction to Kerala Studies. Spend a good portion of Friday morning in the garden alone, with a giant glossy book on all aspects of Kerala, from food and clothing to religion and politics to flora and fauna, beautifully illustrated as well, edited by Acha, who also contributed with a few entries himself. I ask if I can buy a copy, and I don’t know who of us is happier when he tells me to please keep this one;) Amma provides me with steaming cups of strong, black coffee as I read a paragraph here and there, creating my own overview of the massive treasure chest, occasionally stopping to just gaze across the garden and river.
Puttu. Breakfast consists of compact balls of ground, steamed rice, topped with coconut, pomegranate, plantain and a thick stew of dark, al dente-cooked chickpeas.
Socialising. After my alone time on the terrace, I’m ready for another bout of socialising – lovely conversation with the one of the cousins who studied in Copenhagen, on how the Danish education system focuses very much on creativity and encouraging students to form their own opinion and voice their take on things, which she really liked. She studied economics, but chose to also do courses on Danish politics and immigration, just to get to know a bit more about the country she was in, and I find that admirable. Initially, the themes of our chat revolve around socialism, liberalism and cultural differences, but then we move on to cover favourite foods and holiday destinations, just to balance it out a bit. Then Amma takes me and S on a wander down the streets to call on some of the sweet neighbours, beaming at us and offering us dried jackfruit and baked cashews while they ask politely about the state of affairs in Singapore and Europe, and then the driver takes me and Amma to pick up my three beautiful dresses, one of which I put on for my visit to Acha’s office, where I get to meet his staff, three sweet girls, and discuss all of the questions I have about Kerala with them, gaining some valuable insider information on everything from arranged marriages to…, well, we mostly talk about arranged marriages. They all live in them, and they all have only positive things to say about them: they trust their parents’ matchmaking skills, and first comes marriage, then comes love. S and Amma meet us all for a cheap and cheerful lunch at a place where everyone is served a circular steel plate full of small bowls of curries and chutneys to eat with … rice and pappadam. The girls then take me back to the office, where one of them hands me a box of bindi stickers and another creates a beautiful flowery henna tattoo on my left palm, meticulously pressing the brown liquid out from a paper cone as if she were icing a cake. We exchange Facebook and WhatsApp contact info and bear hugs, all happy to have made new friends.
Amma & Cam Time. Sneaking in a second blissful Ayurvedic treatment, I come back home near the end of the afternoon to have some quality time with Amma while S is spending some time with his dad at the village farm. She shows me all of her many beautiful silk and cotton saris, and we sit on the porch with coffee and sweet round cardamom cakes, chatting for a while, before she takes me back into the house, to give me a bunch of gifts – a ceramics spice jar, a big bottle of organic coconut oil and a bag of masala coffee. Apart from my own parents and grandparents, I don’t think anyone has ever spoilt me this much – with their time, interest and generosity. Once I’ve stuffed the goodies into my bag, we have a spontaneous little yoga session in the living room, going through all of each of our favourite poses, a bonding experience that’s very much in line with the pampering theme of the afternoon/week.
Hindu Lamps. When the men return at dusk, we light a couple of stately brass Hindu lamps on the front and back porch. Turn on some beautiful Hindu music as well. Sit still and enjoy the atmosphere for a while. And then Amma and Acha of course urge us to take home one of the lamps. Which we agree to do.
Family Dinner. That night, Amma and Acha are hosting a big farewell dinner for the family visiting from the States – and us. As delicious as anything we’ve eaten all week, and with red wine from Australia this time. When everyone has left around 10pm, S and I curl up on the sofa to relax and digest the week, the most authentic and warm introduction to a country that I – anyone? – could ever wish for.
Last homemade Indian breakfast for now: aval, beaten rice flakes toasted sweet and crunchy with a light drizzle of raw cane sugar, served with the ominpresent plantains, pomegranate seeds and many cups of yummy masala coffee with cumin and cardamom. When everyone is full, S and I pack our bags and load them into the car – Amma and Acha are coming with us to enjoy a full day in Cochin before we head back to Singapore at 10pm.
- Princess Street – strolling down this vibrant cobbled street, which is full of small cafes, souvenir and antique shops and quirky street art.
- Fish Market – very vibrant, very smelly, very picturesquely located on the banks of the turquoise ocean.
- Saffron – lunch at this organic restaurant, where the food is excellent, very healthy and full of flavour, service is impeccable, management has an admirable philosophy of sourcing all ingredients from local farms that care about sustainability, organic methods and animal welfare and the decor is memorable – beautiful paintings hang on each of the white walls, the space is very clean and uncluttered and there’s a nice little pool in the backyard.
- Kochi-Muziris Biennale – we wander around the various galleries of the largest art exhibition space in South Asia and admire the very experimental pieces, and then take a coffee break in the small cafe facing the water.
- Tuk tuk to Jew Town – fun little ride, everyone squeezing in and holding on tightly as we whizz down the narrow, busy streets.
- Books – The White Tiger, The Namesake, Lion – picked up in small, cheap bookshops. The latter, I almost finish on the flight home. It’s like a reversed, compressed, less theatrical version of Shantaram. Equally as touching, though. If not more so. And now a major Hollywood film as well!
- Tour of the Dutch Palace – such impressive murals!
- Emotional farewells outside the terminal building – it’s been so wonderful getting to know each other. S and I check in, and then take a seat at a bar counter facing the runways in the Earth Lounge, have dinner – and a drink (vodka, soda, lime) to celebrate that we’ve known each other for 9 months today.
Morning Landing. Four hours later, we land in Singapore – at 7am on Sunday morning. Despite being sleep-deprived after a rather bumpy ride, I feel more refreshed, refuelled and rejuvenated than I have in a long time. It’s really been an amazing vacation, with a perfect balance between activities and experiences and then complete relaxation and so much love. I’m ready to go back to work tomorrow, but for now, I’m very pleased it’s Sunday. This is what we do: go home, have breakfast, take a nap, unpack, read for a bit, take another nap, pick up coffees at the bakery, take a leisurely stroll, curl up in the Warehouse lobby for a bit of writing, reading and drinking of fresh lime soda, meet up with a friend to tell about our trip and, finally, go back home for dinner and a very early sleep.