“Oh, come on! Everyone is dead here,” shouts Sandeep Jain from Ad Voyage, a travel company, as we bus our way from Cochin to Marari. “When we were coming from Budapest to Prague, boy, didn’t our bus rock!” he adds, bringing the bus microphone close to his iPod speakers to amplify his choice of music.
“Even that trip to Warsaw rocked, remember?” says another tour operator.
“No, it wasn’t Warsaw, yaar. It was Sicily!” another agent corrects him.
A day before our trip to Kerala (courtesy Association of Domestic Tour Operators of India and Kerala Tourism) starts, I call Rajiv Verma, head of Lawrence Travels and one of the tour managers. I ask him how I would recognize the group in the airport. “It’s easy, my dear,” he says. “Look out for guys who talk the loudest. They are the travel agents.”
And so it is. A jovial bunch, who when not talking to each other, would be on cell phones talking forex, visas, air tickets, commissions, luxury resorts and lost baggage. So then in the company of a boisterous lot, I begin my journey to God’s quiet country.
As we move further on towards Marari, 14 km from Alleppey, you realise that God has really been partial to the place. Have I come here before? Never. But I have this feeling of being here. The place looks exactly like Assam from where I come. The green vegetation is a carbon copy of the Assamese landscape. Except there is no sea in Assam (there is the Brahmaputra) and not as many coconut palms (it’s the betel nut trees there).
The Marari Beach resort where we check in is a fabulous sea side property. The bathroom is an open-air ode to the body with large leaves of a banana plant providing cover. A pebbled floor below, a blue sky above, ayurvedic moisturisers for the skin. A shower later, I sit on the verandah of my cottage, a coconut palm leaf ceiling overhead, sound of waves playing on my ears, and SMS my wife: Misng U crzy as I sit by my pvt villa sipng Jasmine T. You may be in a group, but Kerala does make you feel lonely, very lonely.
And then I discover Maya. Maya Kaushal, another travel agent who specialises in tours to Bangladesh. Marari, Maya, mocktails and me – we make for an awesome foursome. Next morning we walk on the white beach, chat with the dark fishermen and look at the blue sea as they sail away in boats for the catch of the day. “Where you staying?” a fisherman asks me. “There,” I say pointing to the resort. “Very costly?” “Yes,” I say, “Rs 10,000 plus a night”. “Where you stay?” I ask him. “Nearby. I fish for family before going to office,” he smiles. “Office?” a quizzical look on my face. “Yes,” he says, “I am the branch manager of State Bank of Travencore.”
The little joys of life in Kerala come from these little chats with people like them. Or with that aging German couple I meet who come every year to stay at this resort to relax. You see, there is nothing particular to ‘see’ in Kerala. Instead, you master the fine art of doing nothing, as you sit by the sea, the lakes, the backwaters and breath in Kerala, a work of art — just like you would sit in front of a Da Vinci in Louvre, Paris. “Kerala leaves you alone. Nobody bothers you. It’s not commercial,” says Zena, an American tourist. She should know. At Varanasi, she was surrounded by a bunch of child beggars and mobbed.
If the incredibly beautiful Jet airhostess is annoyed, she doesn’t show it. Instead, she fleshes her brightest smile at Vishal…, sitting next to me. “You should never photograph a woman, sir,” she tells him, “without asking her first.” Vishal turns red, says “I was just taking a general picture of the aircraft.” She wouldn’t buy that and asks for the camera. He reluctantly hands it to her. She examines it and then presses, ‘delete’.
That’s on our flight from Kochi back to Delhi. But before that, I also suffer my share of awkward moments. We’re at Munnar. Misty mountains carpeted by light green tea bushes. “Would you be my model, please?” I tell Neeti Mehra, a trade writer in our group. “I want a nice face to go with the scenes.” She turns around, her chic retro glasses firmly on her nose, her Nikon SLR in her hands. “No, no, don’t smile, don’t smile,” I tell her, “you look better without it.” The smile disappears in an instant, but she does pose. Patiently. I try impossible acrobatics to get just the right shot. The end result? Well, let’s just say I have earned an enemy.
Munnar makes you a little disoriented, you see. How can a place be so insanely beautiful? It makes you want to do something — as if you have to earn your presence here and not simply buy your way in. I am from a tea country myself, but if the flat Assam teascape seems mature, calm and well settled like a 40-plus power woman, Munnar’s tea gardens are all about the sweet sixteen freshness (if such a thing exists anymore). And it hurts to see the tender tea leaves being chopped off for the factory. How can anyone trade on such innocence!
The Kerala story, however, would not be complete without the backwaters. So there you have Joe Peter, Director of Intersight Holidays, the leading tour operator in Kerala, dividing our 30-strong group between two house boats as per our food preference. Thus we have a Veg Boat and a Non Veg boat to sail us through the waters of Alleppy. We take our seats around a round table. Prawns, banana fries and beer do the rounds.
By some chance, our boat becomes an all male affair. Now who can stop our friends from the travel trade fraternity, as everyone competes to crack the most non-vegetarian of all jokes. “And have you heard this one?” says a 50 plus gentleman. We laugh — loud enough to shake the coconuts off the trees. I step into one of the two bedrooms of the boat. Cozy and air conditioned, I lie down on the bed and look out the window. Under the shadow of the coconut palms, houses, in shocking pink, fluroscent green and extreme purple, pass by. What’s this with colours, I wonder.
After lunch on board, we sail to a couple of properties. The Zuri, particularly, is an impressive one, complete with an award winning spa, called, Maya. Everyone now turns to the Maya in our group and pulls her leg: “Maya, give us a massage!” Maya turns pink — as much pink as one can turn on a dusky skin. Next is the Kumarakom Lake Resort. With water cannels running right through the hotel itself, it’s a place you would love to stay. Finally, we sail to Coconut Lagoon, a sea side property, and halt for the night.
We also visit Thekkady, a small town, and check into Spice Village. Something about its name throws everyone into a frenzy as they buy truckloads of cardamoms, black pepper, cloves from the shops outside the resort. Meanwhile, I check into my cottage and open the window, only to be a greeted by a view divine: Sitting on the verandah of the cottage adjacent is a young white woman, her gypsy skirt hitched all the way up her thighs, busy applying moisturiser on her oh-so-luscious legs. Some guys, I hum the Rod Stewart number, have all the luck.
But nothing can beat the view you would get if you sail your way and stay in the KTDC run property bang in the middle of Peryar lake that divides the incredibly beautiful Perivar sanctuary. As you sit outside your room sipping your morning cupa, chances are tigers, elephants and deer will give you company as they drink water on the other side of the lake. And the price for such a priceless view? Rs 26,000 a night.
“You work in a lovely place!” I tell the 20 something woman in Kerala cotton saree manning the front desk. She wrinkles her nose, says: “I would like to work in Mumbai.”
Soon we are at Kochi to fly out to Delhi. It has been a lavish holiday and I’d have spent a fortune had the travel body ADTOI not sponsored my trip. But know what, some of the most enjoyable experiences of the trip have come from doing things that cost me virtually nothing: Like a ride on the red city bus in Kochi for Rs 4, a ferry ride back to my hotel for Rs 2 and a chat with a sailor for Rs 0.
(The writer is the Managing Editor of Shubh Yatra, the inflight magazine of Air India; firstname.lastname@example.org)