Welcome to Kumarakom, Kerala, South India
Famous for its backwater tourism and lulling sounds of the birdlife near the lakes and the swaying motions of the houseboats, Kumarakom is an extremely popular tourist destination in South India.
The coastal areas of Kerala are famous for their networks of waterways, inlets from the sea, and estuaries of rivers, lakes and natural canals connecting coastal towns. Besides tourism, fishing is one of the main sources of income via the use of small boats called vallams and nets.
Ketuvallams are now used for respite from the rigours of daily life and is a heaven for honeymooners and ayurvedic fans who practice yoga on the banks of the largest freshwater Lake Vembanad.
Another source of pride, besides the swaying coconuts, is the agriculture of fruits like buttery yellow, unblemished bananas and young light green mangos (definitely unlike their darkened South African counterparts). Huge, heavy jackfruit destined to tantalise any palate and fragrant pineapples are much in demand. It was a great learning curve when I noted that cocoa and coffee were cultivated under the coconut groves and cultivated routinely by the local women, their fingers proficient and fast.
Smaller canals are lined with light pink hibiscus plants and mango trees whilst the river current at night, brings out the water hyacinths, carpets of green with pale lilac flowers. Come morning, they have been washed downstream and the canals are jammed once again with the houseboats and teeming fish, caught by the fisherman who begin their fishing before dawn.
Ramesh, the local guide, was effusive in his joy and enthusiastic knowledge of Kerala and all things south indian as he provided bottled water for the tourists.
He said that “home has a balanced tropical climate throughout the year”. Indeed, days are balmy without the SA humidity and the nights cool without being extremely cold, perfect for long walks and happy exchanges with the villagers. Whilst Malayam is the common language, a smile and a willing nod was the standard acceptance in their world. He announced proudly, that the, grandly decorated elephant is the state animal of Kerala, used for the processions and displays associated with the festivals celebrated all around Kerala. He beamed as the elephant at the temple whisked away a hundred rupees and blessed me with his trunk on my head. I stood there, transfixed.
The locals are proud of their houseboats and couples and groups of celebratory parties hire out these magnificently shaped boats to allow one to absorb the ambience. Once on board, typically, tourists are welcome with refreshments, especially chai (tea). My crew consists of a driver, cook and a cleaner. Our driver, Ganesh, had a cunning way to summon the help, five revs of the engine! Lunch was freshly fried whole fish, dhall and rice, not basmati thankfully. Cabbage, carrots, coconut were braised in mustard seeds and one can be forgiven for imagining Reza, King of Spice, magically appear to pronounce this dish, as his very own.
Reclining away, guests were surprised when a head popped out over across the boat. Imagine our surprise to find a vendor proudly displaying his shop (a little boat) selling ice-creams, refreshments and snacks on water, all carefully cooled in a refrigerator!
Thankfully a distance away, another visitor, a long black snake sinuously sliced his way through the emerald water.
As the boats moved further into the lakes, women were seen dotting the banks of the lakes, little sticks in hand with just about a metre and half of string, reeling in the fish for supper, one accomplished woman had three in under ten minutes. The children returned from school and took dips in the lake, splashing along whilst nearby, no Dhobi Ghat it is, but laundry being washed, cleaned and dried at leisure at three in the afternoon. No rigid washing days here, all were relaxed.
The waiter served chai with onion chilli bites. Before the sun set, the houseboat docked near land and the crew scurried off to visit their families and returned smiling. It seemed the norm for all the boats to park adjacent to each other, much like our local taxi rank. It brought out the other tourists and happily, guests were invited to visit the villages where women excelled at making coir mats. Warmly welcomed into simple homes, the little ones faces beamed with joy at being treated with rupees for sweetmeats. Back at the kettuvallam, supper was served at eight, murgi (chicken) curry, fried okra, roti (hand made bread conjured up sans butter by the driver) and pickles. Fabulous, memorable moments that I penned into my diary to share with my grandchildren!
What was unappealing though, were the dozens of the busy lizards waiting to devour the insects which were plentiful. Makhis (bugs) buzzing away. Even the insect repellents did not seem effective in keeping them at bay. Sleeping on deck was not an option and this citified tourist returned to the air-conditioned room! Yes, air-conditioning on a boat!
The cuisine of Kerala consisted of both vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes prepared using fish, poultry and meat. Fluffy white grains of rice were a dominant staple for idli (black lentils and rice) accompanied by chutneys, curries, fries and sambar (a stew of vegetables (bindi, carrots, pumpkins, brinjals, potatoes, shallots and onions) , salt, tumeric powder with generous dollops of tamarind water. Their bhaji (herbs) and potato curries were cooked with a hint of ayurvedic tumeric was flavorsome.
The natives of Kerala are well known for their boat races and we were fortunate to see the practice sessions that began six months in advance for their August racing event.
Long winding promenades of coconut groves ushers one to the deep lake that houses delicious aquatic life, in particular the Lake Song, Music of the Lake, situated at the edge of the lake.
Guests were greeted graciously, served refreshing orange juice and escorted to their rooms for a siesta until the complimentary boat cruise at five that afternoon. The waters were too choppy for a few novices, a group from Norway, so they opted instead to enjoy the benefits of the inviting swimming pools. Dinner time was a buffet, a great way of observing the local food. Standard issue fish and chips (similar to the anorexic ones served at our local McDonalds) looked dismal. Until one tasted the fish, which was fresh line fish that were delivered daily to the many retreats. Soft, delicious, boneless and deep fried in basic spices, scrumptious.
Manicured gardens revealed couples dining and being serenaded by candlelight. The moon blazed silver across the lake and all too soon, the magic of the lake was hidden once the sanctuary of the villas were reached. It was a home away from home, thick luxurious towels, wide nozzled shower heads and fragrant shower gels. Wide, flat screen televisions revealed the standard indian channels. I shared my evening having “Koffee with Karan” and enjoyed his charisma and wit.
The mornings were serenity itself, warm and calm. Geese roamed freely and guests were advised not to feed the ducks. I could not resist though and discovered then that the ducks were hesitant to brave the mini canals which teemed with busy, greedy fish, all vying and winning the battle for the treats. Another amazing thing India possesses squirrels, which, if watched long enough scampered into view and openly foraging for food.
Kumarakom was declared a Special Tourism Zone by the Kerala State Government and won the Golden City Gate award for their Great Backwaters print campaign. “God’s own country” as it is known is a slice of paradise. It beckoned and enthralled and lived up to its name. Definitely a bucket list destination!