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The Charisma Of Kerala
Witness the purity of nature in the backwaters of kerala, also known as gods own country.
Imagine sitting in office in soggy mind and spirit when youre tapped on the shoulder and told youre going to Kerala. Your soul will do a mean tango with your heart. As did mine, all the way to Kochi, that sinfully fertile and green city, that no high gloss brochure or ad does justice to.

They dont tell you that Kochi rustles with memories. The ride to Oberois Trident Hilton on Willingdon Island brings back memories of childhood vacations in virgin territories minus Cola ads on every spare inch of surface area. The only advertisements here are queerly worded, rickety hoardings that dont even obscure the one-storey houses with sloping red roofs nestled among towering palms.

Past perfect
Its only right that Kochi has this ability to transport you back in time. It is the keeper of memories for many cultures. As a centre of the spice trade, Kochi pulled in waves of immigrants and traders, century after century. The early Phoenicians, Jewish settlers from the time of Solomon and later, the Greeks, the Romans, the Chinese and finally the colonial powers, touched these Malabar shores and were entranced by the heady aroma of distilled exotica. The spell woven by the spices and the people themselves, with dazzling smiles and ebony bodies adorned with gold, remains. Even today, Kochis supermarkets have shelves overflowing with spices, whole, ground, mixed, in every variation, while the goldsmiths still weave gossamer-light designs from 21 carat gold, studded with stones, a feat that Tanishq found impossible to repeat since they found gold of this purity "too soft" to work with.

Joyce, our guide, immerses us in these stories, egged on by tremendous props. Like the gently swaying, gigantic cantilever "Chinese nets," suspended over the waters edge, built by traders from China, which are still used to draw in tasty morsels from the sea. Behind the nets stands St. Francis Church, once the resting place of Vasco Da Gama before his remains were transported to Portugal. The empty tomb is not the only eerie memento mori. The preserved punkhas in white swing silently from the ceiling, remembering more hectic times when slaves pulled at them furiously to fan their Christian masters.

Despite its quiet and imposing facade, the church has none of the mystique of Old Jew town. Behind the Pepper Stock Exchange, the "town" is now just a street with 14 Jewish people and curio shops that sell the faded remains of Jewish families that have migrated.

A figure with an odd rolling gait passes by "That is Miss Hallegua, the only unmarried Jewish girl on the street," Joyce whispers. Miss Hallegua is obviously used to the stares and whispers, since she darts just one venomous look in our direction before disappearing into the synagogue with a huge clock tower. Following her is out of the question since its a Saturday and the synagogue is closed. So abandoning her story, we pursue our own.

The art of lazing
For some, holidays mean backpacking expeditions where the aim is to frolic in the muddy lap of nature and feel the wind in uncomfortable places. The logic escapes me. Premium vacations, like the Oberois cruise package, while on the steep side, mean you can dissolve into a loose jelly and let strangers take care of you, with nothing more pressing on your mind than deciding which Ayurvedic massage you want and whether you want your prawns cooked in a cheesy sauce or in coconut milk.

I decided on a coconut milk curry and a full body massage at the Tridents Ayurveda Centre. While the curry is excellent, the massage is more interesting. Im told Ill have to strip-all the way. The only consolation is a strip of white cloth around my nether regions, which is really no consolation since it leaves my butt bare. I settle down on a flat wooden table. The female masseuse is professional and her speech consists of mainly "Thank yous", so she is quickly blanked out. Only the pressure of her strong hands remains, relaxing muscles from head to ticklish toe. Just as I am about to fall asleep I am ushered into a steam closet. A thousand warm steam hands emerge and it feels like Im being given multiple warm hugs. I emerge eventually for a fragrant herbal bath. All in all, despite the embarrassment quotient, the pleasure factor wins hands down.

Taste the sea
But the real decadence begins the next morning after were transported to Vernbanad Lake Jetty, where the largest ship on the backwaters welcomes us. The Oberoi MV Vrinda with its eight airconditioned cabins, an AC dining room, a sun deck and an open air seating area with a spectacular view, is to be our home for two days. A brahmini kite, the earthly counterpart of Garuda, Vishnus mode of transport, swims lazily across the surface of the water, and dips its wings once in welcome, before flying into the distance. Seized by an urge to follow, I ask Prajod, the executive chef, if he could please give me a ride on the little speedboat anchored to the ship. Djini that he is, he has it arranged and I am taken to a deserted island and back. But he demonstrates his true magic at mealtime, where he whips up the choicest morsels. Gigantic Kochi prawns drenched in butter sauce, little mountains of espresso cheesecakes that dissolve softly into your mouth and spicy chicken niblets. If its true Keralite cuisine you prefer, the ship has a complete selection, from pathiris (rice pancakes), rice appams, dishes infused with fresh spices, coconut, yoghurt and odd combinations of banana and pumpkins and a payasam made from what else, rice flakes. But to truly delve into the delicious, try the creme brulee flavoured with Kerala vanilla pods.

The food served onboard is divinely fresh-the fish, the prawns, are cooked the day theyre caught, as I realise later when I have my First oysters. They are brought to the table on ice the second day, with little slivers of lemon. I squeeze a few drops and rain a little salt on the surface...then I dive in. Its like having the smell of the sea swirl lightly in my mouth. Prajod explains later that the smell is distinctive of any fish cut open the day its been caught. "The second day, there will be no smell and on the third, the fishy odour will emerge."

Row your boat
I could chat about food the rest of the trip, but there is exploring to be done. We are taken out on a smaller houseboat, called kettuvalam, a descendant of the original spice boats that later became rice boats and still later metamorphosised into houseboats. Joyce tells us how you could buy a houseboat for just a few thousands earlier, but now a deluxe houseboat with air conditioning costs a good Rs 20 lakhs. To spend a night in a houseboat is less expensive, costing from Rs 6,000 to Rs 15,000, depending on amenities.

On board the Oberoi ship, we are treated to Kathakali and Mohiniattam recitals on consecutive evenings. The Kathakali evening is more enjoyable, with the dancer explaining the nine basic emotions with just facial gestures. Obviously there are more muscles in our faces than we imagine!

But there arent enough to express the holtowness I feel when the third days sun arises. It signals the end of the dream. No iced teas nudging my elbow, no swish-swoosh of water right) outside my cabin windows. In short, back to Mumbai. Then an old acquaintance sweeps into view. Garuda dips his russet wings in a small wave. I nod. Kerala never says goodbye. It just asks when youll visit next.
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Posted on : 3/11/2005
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