WE are disembarking the cruise ship Seabourn Odyssey at Kochi on India’s southwest coast.
At the foot of the gangway, immigration and port officials, all crisp shirts and clipboards, do final checks of the copies of our passports, of our leave tickets and stateroom passes and, finally, convinced we are who we claim to be, we are allowed to board a minibus bound 62km south for Alappuzha (formerly Alleppey) and a houseboat tour of a tiny portion of the 900km maze of navigable lakes, canals, rivers and lagoons that form the backwaters of Kerala’s Arabian Sea coastline.
Kerala’s flamboyant landscapes are bedded with coconut palms that spread like a great feathery quilt. The state has the feel of a plantation with a lushness that couldn’t be more different to the desert states of the north.
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I have cruised several times in this part of India on a converted cargo boat, or kettuvallam, which typically would have carried sacks of rice and spices and hefts of coconuts between rural towns and Kochi in the days before a network of highways was constructed. These miracles of nautical engineering are literally “boats of knots” that contain not a single nail but are constructed joining planks of jackwood with woven and wound coir.
The carapace, with a hooped and ribbed profile that looks rather like an armadillo, is coated with a durable black resin made from boiled cashew kernels.
Ideally we would spend the night aboard but this is a short shore excursion. We recline in low cane chairs as the scenery comes to us — and a flotilla cruises past on water the colour of powdered green tea. Mostly these vessels carry Indian tourists in complicated holiday costumes. “Middle class, from Delhi . . . very demanding,” sighs guide Mohammed, hinting at digestive crises and excessive demands on his boat’s cranky ceiling fans. As I cluck in sympathy, Mohammed is keen to confirm that our boat is “certified golden category” and the driver appears to have the unlikely name of Captain Marvel.
In this universe of water and surprising industriousness, lime green parakeets swoop, fleeing ducks thrash as madly as paddleboats and white egrets stand poised like ballerinas in paddy fields. If you were doing this cruise as a day cruise in a houseboat, you’d expect a seafood lunch on board, cooked in the little rear galley. Longingly, my chap and I inspect the bedrooms and wish we could spend the night. That’s not to suggest we are not as comfortable as can be aboard Seabourn Odyssey but there is something so cosy about the little bamboo-matted cabins and the single beds — it seems like a nautical childhood cubby and I can almost taste a Kerala fish curry supper, rich with tamarind and banana blossoms.
But we cannot tarry as lunch is in store at the CGH Earth Marari Beach Resort at Mararikulam, where there’s a devilishly good coconut chutney to go with the fish buffet. If you are headed for Kerala, you need to know about this accommodation group, with its excellent green credentials and cleverly designed properties that display “minimal interference with nature or the local environment, without compromising on luxury”. Try Coconut Lagoon by Vembanad Lake in Kumarakom, where the ferry deposits you at the reception foyer and cows graze by your bungalow door, and the heritage Brunton Boatyard in Fort Cochin, the historic quarter of Kochi.
The drive back to the port at Kochi has all the usual elements of an Indian road journey and I am the only member of the group who will sit up front, head-on to the traffic. It’s a perch that suits me well as our high-haired driver is a master of the dash and weave across cow-ruled roundabouts and doesn’t use his horn any more than the 10 times a minute that he needs to.
From my perch I spy Christmas decorations at roadside stalls and Mohammed says we can stop, although he is sceptical that I should need armfuls of paper stars and sunbursts, each as big as a bus wheel. They fold nicely, however, and cost too little, so I tip the seller, who says his stall has no name but I can find him again, should I need to, next to Pinky’s Fancy Salon.
Yes, I should like to be there again before next Christmas, for more than a day, perhaps to try the new Banyan Tree, with its 59 pool villas set on an island. In Kerala, you need your overnight houseboat tour, a proper quota of Ayurvedic health treatments, much pottering around Fort Cochin, mango lassis while reading The Moor’s Last Sigh by Salman Rushdie in Brunton Boatyard’s garden and, if tailoring is required, stop by Angel Cotton Collections in Princess Street and hope that trusty seamstress Ruby is at her ancient Singer sewing machine.
As I prepare to reboard Seabourn Odyssey with my piles of festive paper hangings, the khaki-suited port official looks at me indulgently and, I suspect, with pity at my apparent lack of carpets and gemstones.
“Good shopping in Kerala?”
Well, yes, the decorations turn out to be a huge hit at home, spicing up our Aussie Christmas.
This is a post published on The Australian written by SUSAN KUROSAWA
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