Friday, February 10, 2012

In the backwaters of Kerala

We arrived at Green Palm Homestay early Sunday afternoon.  We had booked for 4 nights, and stayed for a fifth! 
The rhythm of the place:
5:30 AM—the dawn chorus begins.  One lusty bird was on a wire about 6 metres from our open window most mornings.  I finally got up and found my ear plugs.
6:30—dawn. Voices from the riverside path (about 10 m away) of people waiting for the canoe trip to cross the river.

The view of the river and the "canoe man" from our bedroom window.  He has a load of school kids in their pink shirts plus someone's bicycle.
7:00—coffee or tea available for the early risers and walkers on the verandah.
7:30—the morning guided walk departs.  This includes a Keralan breakfast at an 85 year old farmhouse, one of the few homes that still has a coconut palm thatched roof.
8:00—breakfast for those who didn’t go on the walk—it was something different every day, e.g. some kind of starch like rice noodles and coconut or a sweet pancake with a vegetable curry or hard boiled eggs in an onion curry.
11:00—guided walkers return by river ferry

11:30—cooking class on some days—Anna, the matriarch and chief cook, likes to use Kashmiri chili powder because it’s flavourful and mild.  She measures her spices in proportion to the chili, e.g. 2 large spoons of chili powder, 1 large spoon of ground coriander, 2 heaped tsp of garam masala, ½ tsp turmeric,  2 tsp of salt (or to taste).  The garam masala is her own mix of 25 g. cinnamon , 10 g. cloves, 100 g. aniseed (fennel), and 10 g. cardamom—all of which are placed out in the sun to dry for 6 – 7 hours before grinding.  Coconut oil is the preferred fat—it’s a beautiful golden colour with the aroma of coconut.  Indeed coconut is a big feature of Keralan cookery.
1:00—lunch.  The main meal of the day with rice, meat or fish, a couple of vegetable curries, a chutney, and a salad.  Dessert is banana and yogurt flavoured with vanilla, cardamom, nutmeg and sugar or fresh pineapple.
4:00—tea—black or masala—and biscuits (cookies).
5:00—the evening walk departs (sometimes by canoe to the other island across the river)
6:30—sun sets over the river

7:30 PM—evening walkers return by canoe, serenaded with Keralan folksongs by the paddlers—quite magical in the dark.   

8:00—dinner—a lighter meal with a bread (chapatti), a vegetable and a meat curry.  Dessert is a small banana, sweet with a hint of lemon.

In between is time for relaxing on the veranda under a fan—very necessary in this heat (30+ degrees) and humidity—doing a little knitting and reading…

…walking along the dikes and then inland along the rice paddies:
Lloyd walking on a main pathway through the fields.

Could have rented bicycles or canoes if felt really ambitious—Lloyd decided he didn’t want to risk dumping into the murky water.

The sounds that surround us:
·         Conversations in many languages—our hosts and their children speak Malayalam, the local language, and are also fluent in English.  Over the past four days, guests were from Australia, USA (California and Nebraska), Canada (Quebec), England, Denmark (a lovely family with two daughters), Germany, Austria and France.
·         Boats on the river—the diesel motors of the ferries and houseboats. We feel happy to be here in this place, and not in one of those noisy boats!  The ferries also sound their horns to warn other craft to get out of their way.
·         The bus horns in the distance, reminding us that there is a road across the river that would connect us to the cities and towns if we chose to go there…
·         Cocks crowing next door, and a chicken clucking as she herds her peeping chicks a few metres away from us
·         “Thwack, thwack, thwack” of someone doing laundry on the river bank—scrub, beat, rinse, repeat until clean…

·         Birds of all kinds—song birds, orioles, kingfishers, crows, woodpeckers, sparrows, swallows, egrets, herons…

The walks have been an opportunity to learn about the social and natural history of the area.  The islands are reclaimed land, and have been constantly added to by dredging the rivers and canals over the last millennium.  One of our hosts told us that the farmers are planning to increase the height of the dikes by two feet this year and will start work on this when the rice crop is harvested in April.  We stopped to watch a dredging project one morning:
There was a big dredger anchored off shore, scooping up buckets of mud which were then dumped onto the land.  There was a  crew of men then scooping the mud with shovels specially designed for the purpose and flinging it further inland.  They were preparing the foundation for a new house.

The residents are mainly Christian, their ancestors having been converted by Eastern Orthodox traders and missionaries in the late 900s, and then forcibly converted to Roman Catholicism by the Portuguese in the 1600s.  The Syrian Orthodox church has slowly re-established congregations in the area over the last 100 years—there’s one across the river from us with 100 families and a Catholic church a 5 minute walk away with 500 families. 

Many people are still earning a living by farming rice—the paddies are located inland and the houses are all along the river and canal banks.

Farm workers are weeding out the alien grasses.  The rice is starting to change colour--it will be golden by April and ready to harvest.
There are two crops of rice each year, with the fields lying fallow for two months in between when the cattle and goats are allowed out to glean.   The land is soft and thus continues to sink—the paddies are actually a few metres below sea level.  Other families still practice their traditional occupations such as canoe builder/repairer, toddy tappers, coconut harvesters, canal/river dredgers, and so on.  There is a concern in the community about its long term viability—young adults are not automatically doing what their parents and grandparents did before them, preferring to move to the cities.

Coconuts are the mainstay for every family because each tree produces a crop of nuts every 45 days. 
An obviously foreign woman in her Tilley hat and socks (very few people wear hats and socks here) standing on the dike between two newly planted coconut trees.
All parts of the coconut are used, e.g. the liquid from the young coconuts is a refreshing drink, the meat of mature nuts is chopped or ground to use in cooking or pressed for oil, the fibre is spun into yarn for rope, carpets, and boat building, the shells are carved into beautiful objects (from buttons and bangles to souvenirs for tourists) or converted into activated charcoal, the dead fronds are used as firewood (they used to be used for roofing and fencing).  The sap from the flower shoots is collected and fermented into toddy, the local spiritby the toddy tappers. And when a tree is cut down (they can live to over a hundred years), the soft wood can be impregnated with a chemical to make it suitable for building furniture. Coconut trees also help stabilize the river and canal dikes.
This wonderful path led to a home in the middle of the paddy fields.  It's lined with coconut and banana trees.
 Every home has a few banana trees too.  This soil is so fertile that the plants grow to maturity in 10 months producing one big stem of bananas. The tree is then cut down to make way for others.  And we’ve seen mango and papapa, yam and tapioca… 

Sounds like paradise, doesn’t it?!

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