A world of water

The joys of a gen­tle cruise on the coast of Ker­ala

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Afloat - SU­SAN KUROSAWA

WE are dis­em­bark­ing the cruise ship Se­abourn Odyssey at Kochi on In­dia’s south­west coast.

At the foot of the gang­way, im­mi­gra­tion and port of­fi­cials, all crisp shirts and clip­boards, do fi­nal checks of the copies of our pass­ports, of our leave tick­ets and state­room passes and, fi­nally, con­vinced we are who we claim to be, we are al­lowed to board a minibus bound 62km south for Alap­puzha (for­merly Alleppey) and a house­boat tour of a tiny por­tion of the 900km maze of nav­i­ga­ble lakes, canals, rivers and la­goons that form the back­wa­ters of Ker­ala’s Ara­bian Sea coast­line.

Ker­ala’s flam­boy­ant land­scapes are bed­ded with co­conut palms that spread like a great feath­ery quilt. The state has the feel of a plan­ta­tion with a lush­ness that couldn’t be more dif­fer­ent to the desert states of the north.

I have cruised sev­eral times in this part of In­dia on a con­verted cargo boat, or ket­tuval­lam, which typ­i­cally would have car­ried sacks of rice and spices and hefts of co­conuts be­tween ru­ral towns and Kochi in the days be­fore a net­work of high­ways was con­structed. Th­ese mir­a­cles of nau­ti­cal en­gi­neer­ing are lit­er­ally ‘‘boats of knots’’ that con­tain not a sin­gle nail but are con­structed join­ing planks of jack­wood with wo­ven and wound coir.

The cara­pace, with a hooped and ribbed pro­file that looks rather like an ar­madillo, is coated with a durable black resin made from boiled cashew ker­nels.

Ide­ally we would spend the night aboard but this is a short shore ex­cur­sion. Were­cline in low cane chairs as the scenery comes to us — and a flotilla cruises past on water the colour of pow­dered green tea. Mostly th­ese ves­sels carry In­dian tourists in com­pli­cated hol­i­day cos­tumes. ‘‘Mid­dle class, from Delhi . . . very de­mand­ing,’’ sighs guide Mo­hammed, hint­ing at di­ges­tive crises and ex­ces­sive de­mands on his boat’s cranky ceil­ing fans. As I cluck in sym­pa­thy, Mo­hammed is keen to con­firm that our boat is ‘‘cer­ti­fied golden cat­e­gory’’ and the driver ap­pears to have the un­likely name of Cap­tain Marvel.

In this uni­verse of water and sur­pris­ing in­dus­tri­ous­ness, lime green para­keets swoop, flee­ing ducks thrash as madly as pad­dle­boats and white egrets stand poised like bal­leri­nas in paddy fields.

If you were do­ing this cruise as a day trip, you’d ex­pect a seafood lunch on board, cooked in the lit­tle rear gal­ley. Long­ingly, my chap and I in­spect the bed­rooms and wish we could spend the night. That’s not to sug­gest we are not as com­fort­able as can be aboard Se­abourn Odyssey but there is some­thing so cosy about the lit­tle bam­boomat­ted cab­ins and the sin­gle beds — it seems like a nau­ti­cal child­hood cubby and I can al­most taste a Ker­ala fish curry sup­per, rich with tamarind and ba­nana blos­soms.

But we can­not tarry as lunch is in store at the CGH

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above Earth Marari Beach Re­sort at Marariku­lam, where there’s a dev­il­ishly good co­conut chut­ney to go with the fish buf­fet. If you are headed for Ker­ala, you need to know about this ac­com­mo­da­tion group, with its ex­cel­lent green cre­den­tials and clev­erly de­signed prop­er­ties that dis­play ‘‘min­i­mal in­ter­fer­ence with na­ture or the lo­cal en­vi­ron­ment, with­out com­pro­mis­ing on lux­ury’’. Try Co­conut La­goon by Vem­banad Lake in Ku­marakom, where the ferry de­posits you at the re­cep­tion foyer and cows graze by your bun­ga­low door, and the her­itage Brun­ton Boat­yard in Fort Cochin, the his­toric quar­ter of Kochi.

The drive back to the port at Kochi has all the usual el­e­ments of an In­dian road jour­ney and I am the only mem­ber of the group who will sit up front, head-on to the traf­fic. It’s a perch that suits me well as our high-haired driver is a master of the dash and weave across cow-ruled round­abouts and doesn’t use his horn any more than the 10 times a minute that he needs to.

From my perch I spy Christ­mas dec­o­ra­tions at road­side stalls and Mo­hammed says we can stop, although he is scep­ti­cal that I should need arm­fuls of pa­per stars and sun­bursts, each as big as a bus wheel. They fold nicely, how­ever, and cost too lit­tle, so I tip the seller, who says his stall has no name but I can find him again, should I need to, next to Pinky’s Fancy Sa­lon.

Yes, I should like to be there again be­fore next Christ­mas, for more than a day, per­haps to try the new Banyan Tree, with its 59 pool vil­las set on an is­land. In Ker­ala, you need your overnight house­boat tour, a proper quota of Ayurvedic health treat­ments, much pot­ter­ing around Fort Cochin, mango las­sis while read­ing The Moor’s Last Sigh by Sal­man Rushdie in Brun­ton Boat­yard’s garden and, if tai­lor­ing is re­quired, stop by An­gel Cot­ton Col­lec­tions in Princess Street and hope that trusty seam­stress Ruby is at her an­cient Singer sewing ma­chine.

As I pre­pare to re­board Se­abourn Odyssey with my piles of fes­tive pa­per hang­ings, the khaki-suited port of­fi­cial looks at me in­dul­gently and, I sus­pect, with pity at my ap­par­ent lack of car­pets and gem­stones. ‘‘Good shop­ping in Ker­ala?’’ Well, yes, the dec­o­ra­tions turn out to be a huge hit at home, spic­ing up our Aussie Christ­mas.

On the back­wa­ters of the Ara­bian Sea coast

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