Land of spices. Part four (last one)

Between generosity and fatalism

The story of India and stereotypes in a way is also a story about Bibi, a former Irish journalist who lives here in Alleppey for six years. Alleppey is a small town settled as a narrow strip between the sea and inland waters. At one point it was the main port of Kerala, until these functions where passed on to Cochin. There’s something elusively real about this city…

Residence of Rahim, which was six years ago bought by Bibi, has been turned into a small eight room hotel. It’s located a bit aside from everything else, on the beach road. Residence was initially build by Englishmen in 1869 and then passed over to Muslim Rahim family. At that time it was well know in whole neighborhood, probably cause of the magnificent wedding hall where wedding ceremonies and other events like political discussions were held. Atypical to Indian families, Rahim family had no children, so the property is in Bibi hands now.

Little bit about Bibi.. he is a women of small stature; she uses a lot of expressive gestures when talking. I find out she has worked as a tv journalist in Ireland and London for years; at one point she was a hostess of a talk show. She was strongly appealed to Ayurveda and was dreaming perhaps some day she will have a chance to visit its homeland – Kerala, but never had the time to do it. One day, after 5 years in London, she decided to quit the job and write a book in countryside. Month later she realized writing was not her thing and decided to move back to London. But, like it happens in such moments, she got an offer from a friend to go to Kerala. She didn’t have to think for a second and accepted the offer. First impression? It was a complete disaster! She is used to and loves beautiful, well maintained roads and clean streets. She was depressed seeing the chaos around. Two or three days and everything suddenly changed, she began to feel that the place had some sort of strange magic.

The idea of a small hotel was born after a year or so. The beginning was very tough; at that time Indian law stipulated that foreigners may own only up to 51% of any local business. So I needed an Indian partner. Now the laws are more liberal, most of share capital can be redeemed. Bureaucracy in Kerela is huge and endless, so in a way she is happy having somebody to help her. And one more thing, people here are not accustomed having a women as a business partner. At first, Bibi thought they simply act very impolitely – didn’t answer my questions, didn’t greet me and simply behaved ignorantly. She was mad, how can it be that after investing so much time and money.. Thankfully everything turned out great…

Even after spending years here, she still is confused by Indian fatalism. Regardless of religion, everything here is in God’s hands. She recalls a youngster who quit job at her hotel to start his own shrimp business. When confronted about possible risk and necessity to mitigate them, he said something like: Look up in the sky, God will take care of me!

Speaking of Kerala, she reveals that life here has taught here a lot of valuable things. For example, the importance of punctuality. In India, no one is punctual; so why should I? Life in India teaches patience, here everything happens slowly and it’s useless to be angry about it. Just go with the flow.

When returned back to the US, I suddenly start to understand the true essence of the Indian peace. Although movement occurs according to its own system (probably frightening one for an American or European), this whole mess is functioning almost perfectly. Nobody is trying to outdo others, they simply need to move ahead and that’s it. Happy to cross out another point from my bucket list.

Land of spices. Part three

Traditions and modern design. Discovery

Read Land of spices. Part two here

Last year for the first time in Kerala waters appeared the first boat with an electric motor Discovery. It belongs to Malabar Escape accommodation chain owner Joerg Drezel. He is one of the most respected Europeans here and an active promoter of socially responsible tourism.

picture of discovery

Discovery is kind a combination of traditional and modern design. It was an ambitious project, 18 tons of wood costing more than $25,000 were necessary to craft the boat hull alone. It’s the only boat in Kerala with a deck; and the only moving quietly without vibration. From a local guide I hear a random fact that here, unlike neighboring Tamil Nadu village, here has been no industrial development at all. Money is spent mostly on education and health care. No wonder Discovery has no competition…

Electric engine powered boat is the fifth project of Joerg in Kerala, for the first time he arrived here 35 years ago. He tells me he have always had friends all over the world and that he has always wanted to do something different than what is traditionally accepted. Fifteen years ago he felt that the time is now. Together with wife he bought Malabar House (FYI where currently I’m staying); the Dutch build colonial style manor which had stood there empty for more than a decade. As of today, it’s the leading Kerala style accommodation in the region. It’s the first hotel in Kerala that has been awarded for tradition and culture heritage preservation.

Interior author is Joerg himself. Back in the day his professional segment was art and exhibition placement design. When creating the Malabar House, he had an idea to make it a cultural mirror of Cochin city. As a place where anyone could feel the actual life here. The interior is full of antiques such as the ancient Maharaja tables, chairs and beds. He had looked for them all across Kerala and combined with modern design. Cochin was once the oldest European city in India, outside which the realm of Maharaja began. Historically here has been peace in all times. 150 years under Portuguese ruling, another 150 under Dutch and another 150 under British.

Is Kerala the mirror of India? Asking this question to Joerg I see a small irony in his eyes; perhaps he has been asked this question for too many times. He starts telling me, that not long ago he was visited by an Italian girlfriend. One day she was looking at postcards to send to her friends back in Rome. None of them revealed what I see day to day living here… Most of tourists who travel to India are looking for ethnic India. Traditions and culture is one things, but looking at things that does not change or develop is something completely different. Last few years India has changed a lot; it’s developing very fast. Super fast. So fast, he gets scared of it. For instance, hotel room price in Banglore on average is much higher than elsewhere in the world, $275 per night. When he needs to do business there, he does not stay for the night there because it’s too expensive.

Land of spices. Part two

Floating houses

Read Land of spices. Part 1 here

One of Kerala’s most valuable assets is the inland water system: 45 rivers and 1,500 miles of interconnected lakes, lagoons and channels that are called backwater. While the direct translation of the word means still water (first associations being mostly negative e.g. cloud of mosquitos above the dirty water), actually it’s completely opposite. Backwater is an unique salt and fresh water way system that was historically created for spices and rice transportation from one village to another and is still being used an alternative water path; all of which has been surrounded by hundreds of different shades of green (no exaggeration here!!!).

kerala floating houses

Once the only mean to use this water path was special wooden boats known as local kettuvallom. When roads were build and an alternative transportation system developed, boats gave up the important role to cars. As of today, boats are used only to carry sand necessary for construction or in places cars can’t reach.

Perhaps boats would have fallen into a complete oblivion if some local tourism legend Babu Verghese would not have been struck by a genius idea: turn a random boat into a floating hotel. Traditional sails and oars were substituted with a Yamaha engine and bamboo roof. Floating house project debuted in 1993. Now, everyone who is hard working enough, have build one by himself. It’s now estimated there is around 200 floating hotels – one and two bedroom luxury accommodations – in the waters of Kerala.

People stand in long ques to have a ride with one! Sometimes the motion in the water is so intense that it gets pretty frightening; traffic lights would save the day and my nerves, too…

The surrounding scenery is so comprehensively beautiful that even the biggest cynic would become at least a bit mushy. Some mother washer her child by the shore of the canal, the boy gives me a shy look. I notice the coconuts drying in the sun next to him.. LIFE here is so transparent.. Probably because all villages are clustered around the water.

In some narrow channel our boat was slowly trying to maneuver through the water hyacinth carpet, a moment later flowers retract leaving no trace. Hyacinths are subtle: extremely magnificent on the one hand, but a sign of contamination on the other. Rice fields are generously scattered with minerals in many places, surrounding houses drain their sewerage directly in water, tourist boats have diesel engines and majority them don’t have chemical toilers. The volume of fish has considerably diminished. Moreover, the clean water in Kerala domestic channel system is significantly shrinking, leaving the government with only two options: either to open the floodgates and let ocean salt water into the system so that it could heal everything or watch pollution spreading.

Three years ago the State of Kerala issued an order to control and manage the pollution of inland water system. In reality, it’s extremely complicated task due to small official human resources and there’s too little funding to increase the capacity as well. If a couple of years You could safely swim in Vembanad lake, now it is something only a mad man would do…