We are home now, and I write this under the grey skies of Melbourne (although I realise we have missed the worst of it) and am already nostalgic for the heat of India. Our last few days in Kerala were relaxation in the extreme. The only thing we had to do was turn up for meals at the appointed hour (in fact, for the last two days the meals came to us, as they were served on the verandah of our villa). It was not Eat, Pray, Love but rather Eat, Sloth, Eat.
We had opted not to do a night on a houseboat on the backwaters. Instead we spent two nights staying at Philipkutty’s Farm (http://philipkuttysfarm.com), on a man made (or in this case, grandfather made) island smack bang in the middle of the backwaters. Rather than floating past scenes along the lakes and rivers, we sat in our lounge chairs and watched the backwater life stream past us. And the houseboats – the season doesn’t really start until mid to late October, yet the houseboats are already plying their trade. We counted about 15 puttering past us in the space of 15 minutes on Thursday afternoon.
To call Philipkutty’s a home stay, or even farm stay, is close to an insult as Anu and her mother-in-law Aniamma have created a delightful haven, where all your creature comforts have been thought of. The villas are lovely, with enormous bathrooms – and there are numerous lolling spots, all with fans above, to sit and watch life go by.
We were full of admiration for these two formidable women. The venture was the dream child of Anu’s husband, and Aniamma’s son, Matthew, but he tragically and unexpectedly died 10 years ago, leaving Anu with an 8 year old son and 2 year old daughter and I think one or maybe two completed villas. She and Aniamma were determined to carry on Matthew’s vision, and they should be very proud of what they have achieved. There are now about 6 villas, and one more is being renovated for guest use. They run cooking classes and also provide lunches for non staying guests. Anu is constantly on the phone, answering queries and organising whatever it takes to keep the enterprise going. And, they must be doing something right as most of their staff have been there since the beginning, and they have a number of longer stay repeat guests.
It is still a working farm, with the main crops being coconuts and cocoa and bananas, plus they have their own cows (for milk, and to make yoghurt) and a thriving vegetable and herb garden. Joseph, their man of all trades, takes us for a walk around the kitchen garden and dairy.
The land sits below the level of the lake so is entirely dependent on the retaining dyke, and the pumps which siphon off the monsoon rains. The farm was badly affected by floods in 2013 – the nutmeg trees were lost, as were many of the cocoa trees. Luckily the coconut trees were able to survive, and the farm is currently undergoing a re-planting regime.
Once upon a time you could walk the 8kms around the perimeter of the island, but that is difficult today as much of the pathway is very overgrown. We do manage to walk along one side of this man-made island, but then retire to our chairs to simply contemplate life, the universe and everything.
The food is both excellent and plentiful. At each meal the table and our stomachs groan with food. On our second day we enjoy a cooking demonstration by Aniamma, or Mummy as Anu and most others call her. Hopefully we can successfully recreate some of the dishes at home.
It is with some reluctance that we leave this peaceful oasis but needs must. Rajesh has the chariot awaiting to take us to our final destination, half an hour away, at Marari Beach. So, we and our bags pile into the boat and head back across the river (excuse the photographic licence as this is actually a photo of when we arrived, leaving Raj, the talker, still chatting to us as we paddled off across the waters – he’s that white speck at the water’s edge):
Again we have our own villa, this time with an outdoor shower (and in Kitta’s case, an outdoor toilet , which doesn’t thrill her too much – and when a small bat flys past me whilst on the loo in the middle of the night I understand her concern!).
Although it doesn’t seem possible we manage to do even less here as the lounge chairs on the verandah, under the fan, are just too seductive in their charms. We do venture out for a short walk in the nearby area, and along the beach to dip our toes into the Arabian Sea but that’s as far as we go – toe dipping that is. The combination of some human, or dog, excrement on the sand plus groups of local young men enjoying the cooling sea breeze work together to make the idea of baring the flesh in a bathing suit for a swim in the sea slightly less than tempting. But, the beach photographs well!
We discover a little coffee shack outside our ‘hotel’ claiming to sell Expresso coffee. Oh yes we say, but the delightful young owner pulls aside the curtain and proudly shows off his automated coffee machine and coffee grinder. So we settle in for a coffee and a chat. His family have a homestay further up the beach but this is his first venture after earning enough money in Dubai to set it up. He has only been open for a month, but already has big plans. He also advertises free WiFi – turns out he knows the password for our hotel’s WiFi, so yes it is free! He certainly is enterprising, and we wish him all success.
We had our heart set on sundowners on the verandah, watching the sunset, but alas we discover that they no longer have a liquor licence, and we ran out of Duty Free in Cochin. The Keralan Govt has a very odd approach to alcohol, the life blood of the government coffers. For some reason they decided to restrict hotel liquor licences so that now only a limited number of 5 star hotels are able to sell alcohol. A Beach Symphony at 4 villas was not considered 5 star enough so had its licence revoked. So, it was lime sodas at twilight for us.
It has been an amazing time. Tamil Nadu was a kaleidoscope of colour, sights and sounds. Such a diverse and interesting state: ancient monuments, vibrant temples, women in peacock coloured saris, the faded glory of huge mansions, monolithic rocks, dry and dusty landscapes, French colonial charm.
All of it threaded together by smiling, friendly people and wonderful food. A big thank you to Lincoln Harris from India Unbound (http://www.indiaunbound.com.au) for organising a fabulous tour that went without a hitch.