People have told us, “if you want to experience India-light, then make sure you visit the south”. Starting off our trip we had no idea what that meant. After spending almost two and half weeks in the north we had arrived in the state of Kerala and were on our way down to the little town of Fort Kochi, nestled on the tip of the Indian Ocean. Stepping out of the airport and onto the streets of Kerala, we immediately noticed how clean everything was. It was quite shocking not to see any garbage on the floor, and I think we slowly started to catch on to the phrase ‘India-light”. We rolled down the windows and stuck our heads out of the car, like eager dogs, taking in deep breaths of fresh air. This was the first time (if you are counting Manali as fresh air, rather than the quarantine that it really was) we breathed pollution-free air. It was exhilarating and we hadn’t even made it to the mountains. Driving over the bridge which brings you into Fort Kochi, you are welcomed by the salty smell of the ocean and all the smiling faces of the locals. Upon arrival to our cozy homestay, we eagerly dropped off our backpacks and headed out to walk the quiet streets and delve right into the fish and coconut curries we had so been looking forward to.
The name of the game in the south was relaxation. We woke up every morning relatively late (and by late I mean 8). We enjoyed the delicious spread of tropical fruits, coconut rice cake-like pancakes called appam, coconut curries, fresh mango juice and chai provided by our host. If there was ever a bigger fan of coconut, that would be me. I absolutely love anything and everything that has to do with the fruit, and being in Kerala, well, let's just say I had it easily at my disposal. We strolled the small streets of Fort Kochi filled with small boutiques, cafes, and the Jewish neighborhood housing the famous Paradesi Synagogue. We actually went shopping for souvenirs since one of our close friends just had a baby. We try to stay away from purchasing different knick-knacks and instead send out those forgotten things we call postcards. Coincidentally, as we were shopping we happened to walk into a store that Prince Charles and Camilla had recently made a visit and apparently bought their current dining set of embroidered fabrics from the owner. Yea, just try getting yourself out of that sale! After several stories and pictures of the royal family and what they had purchased, we went home with a handmade embroidered dress for our niece (I hope you know you are now royal Cecilia). For lunch, we bought fresh fish from the street vendors and handed it over to one of the street taverns to grill it for us. Of course, being monsoon season, we would sometimes sit in coffee shops and peacefully watch the heavy rain come down. A couple of days later we hopped on a bus and made our way up to tea plantation heaven; Munnar.
As we slowly made our way up to the hill stations of Munnar, the scenery began to change. It was as if we had landed in a scene from the movie Jurassic Park, expecting to turn around and see a t-rex chasing us down the highway. After a couple of hours and a pit stop on the side of the road for some fresh pineapple & mangos topped with chili powder, the jungle-y covered roads turned into hills coated in OCD-lined rows of tea and spices. On the top of the hill station, sitting at 1800 meters, we jumped into a vintage jeep and bumped our way into towards the Kaivalyam Retreat set amidst a picture perfect landscape of mountains, tea gardens, and springs. For the next couple of days, we would be staying up above the spice gardens and overlooking the rolling hills, in our very own treehouse. I feel like as an adult, you seem to appreciate the treehouse more, rather than when you were a child. Sure, you formed the first neighborhood Babysitters Club or aimed slingshots at your friends walking below. But as an adult, you seem to appreciate the peace and quiet of the house. What could be better than being nestled among the tree branches? So as you might have guessed, the next few days at our little paradise went a little something like this. Early wake-up calls around 5am for sun salutation Yoga, breakfast on the courtyard overlooking the family's tea plantation, afternoon walks with the family through the spice plantation, followed by a little napping, tea tastings, a hike through tea plantations overlooking a waterfall, delicious vegetarian dinners, and some light reading before turning off our lights and gazing out at the stars from our cozy bed. Yes. It was very hard to leave this place.
But lucky enough, we left one paradise for another when we arrived at Emerald Isle, located on the backwaters of Alleppey. We came in by boat and were greeted by Vinod, one of the family members and owners of the homestay. The house and land that Emerald Isle is located on, dates back 150 years when Vinod's great grandfather lived and worked on the land. It was like we had landed in a lush secret garden surrounded by coconut trees, banana trees, exotic wildflowers, rice paddies, and of course the little backwaters of the river. We were staying in the tropical paradise I had always dreamed about. If the place itself wasn't enough already, the food just put us over the edge. We enjoyed true southern Indian cuisine at Vinod's outdoor dining table. From fresh caught Kerala fish baked in banana leaves to coconut and chicken curries, to our favorite Thali platter served on a banana leaf with an explosion of tropical tastes, to fresh fruits, pickled mangos, green beans with coconut shavings, and rice crackers.
The next couple of days we made sure to wake up early every morning to enjoy quite walks on the back waters and through the small villages, we made friends with the locals (speaking in sign language of course), we watched men gather during a monsoon to play marbles for hours, we hopped on some bicycles and rode through the rice fields, we read our books on hammocks stretched under coconut trees, and took a small snake boat through the backwaters enjoying the sunset and the daily life of the village all revolving around the river.
Of course our relaxation game would not be complete without an Ayurvedic massage. Since Marco and I had never had one previously we had no idea what to expect. We were greeted by a man and a woman masseuse and we each veered off into different rooms separated by a thin wall. We were both instructed to get completely naked and climb up on a pleather massage bed. Okay, so far very weird. The woman then lathered me with different Ayurvedic oils and began massaging me, including my breasts. WOW! Wait a second here. Is this really part of the massage? Not only am I naked on this massage bed with no towel or nothing covering my exposed body, drenched in oils, and sliding around like a wet noodle, but my breasts are tended to? Apparently, I was better off than Marco, who was also completely naked and swishing around next door, as the man massaged him and would nonchalantly rub up against his private areas as he moved from his legs to his stomach. And the winner for amazing yet strange massage goes to... We both awkwardly walked away and shared our stories while shivering underneath a warm shower. Just kidding. We laughed so hard and spent the next hour trying to scrub off the oils in our magnificent outdoor shower.
On our final morning we enjoyed a last little boat ride on the magical backwaters, and bid farewell to our host and friend Vinod. As we made our way towards the airport we felt a strange feeling in our stomaches. It wasn't our nerves about flying, but instead a sadness for having to leave this colorful country behind. There is no one who could have described this feeling better than Azar Nafisi. "You get a strange feeling when you're about to leave a place... like you'll not only miss the people you love but you'll miss the person you are now at this time and this place because you'll never be this way ever again".