Kerala’s air is richly scented with lush vegetation and the breeze through the car window smells almost spiced. As I comment on this to our taxi driver he turns to me with a shrug and declares nonchalantly, “Kerala; God’s own country”. The humidity hits us hard though, and as we move from airport to homestay, sweaty backpacks in tow, we realise that we are in a completely different country. This is confirmed when I hear the Malaya language, which sounds like a series of tongue-twisters with its fast, rattling pace and alliteration. From the airport we arrive late at night in Kochi.
Kochi holds an art biennale which fills the city with galleries. In this fallow year many are still open, housing a high standard of work. The city has an old Jewish quarter we explore and there are huge shady trees with ferns growing out of every branch. Soon, longing for solitude, we quickly make plans to head South into the famous backwaters. A train takes us to Alleppey, which has a long beach of fine white sand and delicious fishy food. We turn our backs on the sea and draw facing inland at the palms and houses with a group of men playing cards. The rooms are so damp at this guesthouse our clothes begin to rot in our fluorescent pink and turquoise room.
We hop on the public ferry to Kottyam (15p each for a 3 hour journey) via countless waterways with painted houses filtering through the trees and stay for several days at a homestay right on a river. The house is far from the town and we luxuriate in isolation, watching local villagers getting on with their daily lives. Across the river they are clearing scrub and I watch women canoeing to and fro.
From here we take another train to Munroe Island. The train slows past a tiny, empty platform and we jump off with it still moving. Houses are often brightly coloured wherever you go in India, but in Kerala the saturation dials have been turned up with bright primaries and gorgeous contrasting colours. It truly is a colourist’s dream.
This particular homestay has the most delicious food of the trip thus far. At first the family of three watch as we consume every mouthful, expectantly watching us masticate and this makes us quite self-conscious. But in no time at all we are the best of friends and the son, Uni, teaches us much about his country; the ruling communist parties, the freedom of the press, local traditions and local economy.
“I am going to be married when I am 27” Uni informs me with a smile.
“Ah, so you have a girlfriend?” I ask. This is two years away.
“Not yet”, he says, “but I asked the priest when I should be married, he looked at my horoscope and informed me it should be when I’m 27.”
One day Uni takes us to his friend’s wedding where we sit near the front of the community hall watching with delight and admiring ladies saris. We are invited to eat in the third round of lunch as there are over 500 guests, “A small wedding” Uni tells us.
Another day we take a canoe trip along the waterways and see wonderful kingfishers, mangroves and various edible plants which are pointed out to us by Uni.
We are very sad to leave Uni and his family (the coconut pancakes and the huge, delicious Thalis on banana leaves) but we climb on another train and several public busses to the Cardamon Hills. The tea plantations we pass through are beautiful; softly rolling hills with the rows spiralling across them. It’s much cooler up here which is a small relief. Our new hosts tour us around the local sites including ‘Asia’s largest curved dam”. Very impressive it was too.
On one of our days here I head off alone for a day of temples and find one that I particularly love as its both decadent and dilapidated. The priest feeds me rice pudding as I draw for hours.