Kerala: land of the coconut, spice and the backwaters

 

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After a 4-hour journey on a local bus, travelling 140Km and climbing 2,000 feet above sea level, for 100 rupees each (about £1), we cross the border into Kerala, into a nature reserve called Periyar. Kerala is famous for its spices and our first visit is to an organic spice plantation. Kerala, a major producer of spice for many centuries, was a key to the eastern spice trade route. The plantation we visit grow a range of spices including; vanilla, cardamom, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, turmeric, pepper, coffee and cocoa, all side by side in a hill top forest location. Our guide, Maji, is passionate about his family’s business and eagerly describes the growing and harvesting processes involved. Did you know that vanilla, the second most expensive ‘spice’ grown in the world, takes up to 7 years to fully mature? The seed pod, which is pollinated by hand, takes 9 months to grow and a further 3 months of curing before it’s ready for use. A good quality vanilla pod is oily, and should easily roll around your finger, lasting up to 4 years if stored properly. All hail the vanilla pod! The area around Periyar is particularly famous for green cardamom and 75% of the world’s supply is grown in these hills. The aroma is just divine, and I vow to cook with more cardamom in the future. Every tree and bush and tree round us seem to be capable of transforming into a spice; there’s ginger and turmeric which are roots grown in the ground, cinnamon is harvested from bark, malabar pepper and coffee robusta and aromica trees are plentiful here and their seeds and fruits drop from their branches. The seeds of the myristica fragrans tree produce both nutmeg and mace and when we finally make the shop there is some delicious dark nutmeg chocolate which is made with locally grown cocoa beans.  There seems to be multiple health benefits to be had from these spices; blood thinning turmeric, diabetic sweetening from cinnamon and tea made from ginger root which can cure an upset tummy. John goes a bit overboard in the shop. He hasn’t seen dark chocolate for 6 weeks, so he buys one of each kind, just in case!

The next day we have an early morning ‘Green Walk’ with the local rangers. Leach socks (thick cotton gators which tuck into your shoes) are dispatched and we sign a leech disclaimer form! We set out with trepidation, the early morning mist is still slowly clearing in the forest and the whoops of the marauding languar monkeys surround us. In the distance there is Indian music, most likely a temple, an early morning call to prayer. Our guide spots a white breasted kingfisher on a tree and he points out hundreds of tunnel spider webs in the dew of the grass. As we walk through a particularly boggy patch, the leaches appear. There smaller than I thought they would be (thank goodness) and move across my shoes like a slinky toy climbing down the stairs. There are tigers and leopards in these forests, but our guide assures us we are unlikely to come across them, although he does point out a fresh tiger print. Further ahead we come across a heard of Sambar deer. We finish our walk as the sun sparkles through the trees and the village children eagerly say hello as they make their way to school.

Another day and another busy local bus and then a motor boat takes us to Allepey, which is in the heart of the Kerala back waters. We are staying in a homestay tonight, a kind of bed and breakfast where the whole family are involved. It’s hot and very humid, but serenely beautiful. The backwaters are a network of interconnected canals, rivers and inlets forming more than 900 km of waterways. The land interspersing these waters was reclaimed in the 18th century by using mud and the husks and fibres of the coconut tree, which surround these waterways. Much of the land sits only a few meters above sea level. The paddy fields behind are regularly flooded by opening sluice gates, to provide 3 harvests of Kerala rice a year. Our host, Vinnie, takes us on a village walk and talks to us about the way of life in this part of Kerala. The villagers live a simple life and the only new technology to reach these parts in the last few hundred years seems to be the mobile phone. We learn that every part of the trees and bushes which grow here is used for something. All 9 parts of the coconut tree are used; the root is ground into a powder which treats gall bladder, urinary infections and kidney-related diseases, the leaves of the banyan tree is commonly used as a tongue cleaner and the trunk of the banana tree is ground up producing a drink to help with weight loss. The villagers still use large stones outside their basic homes to grind and crush spices and there is another stone by the river which has been roughened to wash their clothes.

As we make glide along the olive-green waterways the next morning, the riverbanks are fringed by hundreds of coconut trees. Cornflower blue sky smile down from above and the kooka bird calls.  We finally say our goodbyes to Kerala, land of the coconut, it has been a magical experience.

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