Kerala II Spice, spice Baby

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It’s a relief to head up into the hills of the Western Ghats, to the home of the improbably-named Baby Matthew – Vanilla County.

Matthew (I somehow cannot call a fully grown man Baby) inherited the family plantation home, as is the custom for the youngest child in a family (hence the nickname I guess). The family fortune was built on the spice trade, with the home we’re staying in built on the proceeds from pepper.

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Later the family, like almost everyone else in the area, diversified into rubber cultivation, and then (when prices for rubber dropped) into tourism too. Since Matthew is an excellent host, and wife Rani an excellent cook, Vanilla County is a fabulous place to spend a few days, and give the girls a bit of a geography/biology lesson to boot.

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It’s not everywhere where you can do a spice tour in the back garden. We find nutmeg, cinnamon bark, pepper, cocoa pods (and the girls enjoy sucking the sweet coating from around the beans) as well as lemon grass, pepper, cardamom and lots of fruit. We drink passion fruit and guava juice fresh from the garden, and eat pineapple and bananas grown on the premises. We also visited a tea plantation (close to my heart, if not the children’s).

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If it seems like all I’m talking about is food, that’s perhaps unsurprising. We ate well – as we have all the way through India. Clover and Daisy ate a lot of pasta (because Rani is kind to small children), and we all enjoyed some superb biryanis and paratha.

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Other highlights. For the children, swimming in the natural rock pools and walking along tracks lined with a type of mimosa known as a ‘touch me not’, which closes up when you stroke it (rather like the Monster Book of Monsters in Harry Potter – perhaps Rowling has been to the Ghats?), helping to tap rubber from the trees and turning it into sheets of rubber using formic acid and a really large mangle.

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Lowlights… an enforced visit to a really dull orchid farm (I’ve always hated garden centres…) and a somewhat windy, twisty journey down the mountainside back to Cochi at the end. Loved the local restaurant we visited on the way down, though, with a full meal served on a banana leaf (so much better than plates – just throw away when you’ve finished) for £3.50 for four of us.

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We left Kerala on (yet another) night train, just in time to avoid the one-day general strike that would have stranded us for 24 hours. Next stop Goa…

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Kerala I (in which we discover that God is, alas, a teetotaller)

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27 hours is a long time on a train – especially when you arrive at Mumbai station to discover that the train is already delayed by three hours. We’re heading to Kerala – God’s own country, as they call it – as immortalised by Arundhati Roy in the God of Small Things.

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Kerala is also, famously, a dry state. “But you can get alcohol” all of the guidebooks state “usually in teapots”. After 27 hours on a train (in which all of the food we ordered for breakfast arrived at lunchtime, etc etc, because we were so delayed), we could have done with a drink. Alas, despite all of the guidebook insistence, in our entire week in Kerala, we managed to get two cans of beer from the state liquor store (which required quite a bit of queuing), and even that was virtually undrinkable – the equivalent of White Lightning at home.

I’d hate you to think, though, that we spent our entire time in Kerala searching fruitlessly for alcohol.

We arrived at Ernakulum Junction station just in time for Onam, Kerala’s eight day harvest festival. Nearly as important as Christmas in the Keralan calendar, Onam is an excuse for new clothes, time off school, and lots and lots of “special promotional sales”. That might explain the queues of traffic in the middle of Ernakulum (well, that and the fact that they are digging it up for a new metro system).

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Never mind. We headed for Fort Kochi, Ernakulum’s gentler sister. Built on the water, and largely abandoned in favour of Ernakulum itself, Fort Kochi has a sleepy charm all of its own. In high season, I should imagine it is buzzing, but while we were there we had the place largely to ourselves. Fort Kochi is an excellent place for posh clothes shopping, Margarita pizzas (which would have been particularly lovely with a beer, but no matter), and watching the sunset over the harbour. We were very happy.

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And at this point I should admit that my enjoyment of the next stage of our trip was probably coloured by my reading material. Naturally I reimmersed myself in The God of Small Things – a tender, elegiac tale that has at its centre the drowning of an eight year old. I wouldn’t advise this sort of reading material when you’re taking your children to practically the spot in which this supposed drowning occurred.

Tharavadu Heritage Hotel, in Kottayam, is right on the Keralan backwaters, and is very beautiful. Unfortunately, it turns out, it is also next to a Hindu temple that does amplified chanting at 4am, and the children’s playpark appears not to have been repainted since the 1960s.

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No matter. We explored, taking a ferry across the lake and spending an afternoon at Alleppey Beach, and the children enjoyed the dilapidated playpark, if not the food and the 4am Hindu chanting. Daisy, clearly with back-to-school on her mind, informed me that she’d dreamed that her headteacher was the high priestess of the Hindu temple next door. At least she’d have kept the noise down, I guess.

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Because I’m working while we travel, my enjoyment of any place is naturally constrained by my deadlines and the functionality of the WiFi. At Tharavadu, this was only available in the office, inevitably also occupied by the bored-looking sons of the Sikh family who were the only other guests, shooting things on their mobile phone games.

The office also had some of the most uncomfortable chairs I have ever had the misfortune to sit at, which naturally didn’t help my temper. However, the night guards at the hotel got very used to the girls watching Ever After High on their tablets – and probably now understand it better than I do.

Our next stop in Kerala was Vypin Island, probably the least developed bit of the area, where our experience couldn’t have been more different. At the Silvermoon Heritage Homestay (no, I’m not just obsessed with the word Heritage, they are all called things like that), we met Daniel and his mum Jessie, trying to run the place after the death of Jessie’s husband Joe.

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They were so sweet and kind at their home on the Keralan backwaters, where the cooking was amazing and the birdwatching equally so. The girls revelled in the fact that they had a bathtub (rare luxury), and Daisy discovered she loves chickpeas for breakfast.

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On the most important day of Onam we headed out to Cherai Beach, along with the entire local community. The girls revelled in the sand and waves, and we all had our pictures taken with most of the locals, as the only non-Indian tourists on the beach. Unfortunately for me, Indian women don’t seem to wear swimming costumes to go into the sea, instead going in in all of their clothes. Which meant I had to do the same. A Punjabi suit does not double up as a great swimming costume, it turns out.

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