Want to have southern delicacies on a floating dhaba? Head straight to kerala, says Minu Jain.
Cliches… they are irritating and overused, but so apt sometimes. As the boat glides gently over Kerala`s well-known silver backwaters fringed by the fluorescent green of the paddy fields and the deep emerald of the coconut fronds, that never-will-I-use-it phrase springs unbidden to mind–God`s own country. Two hours from Kochi at Alleppey, home to the famed Nehru boat race, is the perfect place to set up base to see the lakes, which stretch out as far as the eye can see. The expansive lagoons and the busy waterways are bustling with life under the azure skies–a group of schoolgirls rowing their canoe, a woman doing the daily washing on the banks, another casting her net to catch the daily family lunch of fresh fish and the group of boys playing on the side. Houseboats comfortably fitted with air-conditioned bedrooms, en-suite bathrooms and even televisions in some. You can enjoy all of this and more.
Eating at floating dhabas
Given the tourist traffic, waterside `dhabas` have come up on the way, offering a simple fish-rice meal. There are the small shops too, for visitors to choose from the morning catch of prawns or fish and give it to the houseboat chef to cook up. Some tender mangoes as well, which the cook chops up deftly and stir-fries for a quick pickle to go with the meal he is rustling up in the houseboat kitchen. The fresh breeze wafts in and the game of identify that exotic bird continues. Quite lovely, quite idyllic. Climbing coconut trees. Then there is B. Sabu, a former army soldier, who is boat operator, translator and ornithologist, all rolled into one. He has taught himself to identify at least some of the 180 bird species in the area and also clambers up coconut trees to show how the locals do it.
Watching palm mat weavers
Beneath the still-life loveliness of the Kerela, there are challenges that any tourist hotspot must face–the conflict between locals and outsiders. The government is trying to ensure that while tourists feel welcome, villagers don`t feel alienated. This has given birth to responsible tourism initiatives, one such being Village Life Experience (VLE) packages, where tourists pay to get a first-hand glimpse of life as it is actually lived. So, there is 52-year-old Sathi, who opens up her home for strangers and happily poses for pictures as she weaves palm fronds into mats. While this can get her up to Rs.300 per day, she is also growing green chillies, papaya and vegetables like spinach to supply resorts.
Sipping on fresh toddy
And there`s toddy tapper Kuttapan Rajesh who offers toddy fresh from the tree to any visitor intrepid enough to try it. Of the money, 70 percent goes to the community, 20 percent to the tour operator and 10 percent for operational expenses. It`s the Kerala way of life, and there can really be no better way to experience it.