A sequestered heaven : Vayalar
A tiny village near Kochi is now a favourite among travellers looking out of the box. All thanks to local cuisine, toddy shacks and Kerala’s deep understanding of hospitality, Vayalar is now a new spot in the global tourism map for offbeat travellers
If the raaga megha mallar had a physical state, it would look like a monsoon in Kerala. As the rhythmic pitter-patter create a sonorous taal among lush foliage, and thunderous rain clouds roar in harmony – you feel that nature has put up a concert and the poet inside you listens to the perfect symphony being created outside the window.
Vayalar, a village
My time in Vayalar, Kerala, was punctuated with such unannounced heavy rain showers and yet, not for once, did it feel like a hindrance to my trip. Rather, it magnified the greenery, filled up the backwaters, and diffused in the air a petrichor exclusively intrinsic to the Kerala soil. Almost a 2-hour ride from Kochi International Airport, Vayalar is a village in the Alapuzha district of Kerala. Situated on the eastern banks of the Vembanad backwaters, Vayalar is a quiet land with modest brick houses with thatched roofs, narrow serpentine streets, a fantastic spice market, and occasional churches popping out of nowhere.
My room at the Vasudhara Sarovar Premiere offered the view of a rain-soaked harvest pool, engulfed in green with tiny birds chirping and hovering over. The room, in fact, overlooked the backwaters at a close distance and minutes after checking in, I was ready for an offbeat boat ride. I had asked the reception for a glass of Toddy, the local drink. But instead, they asked me if I would like to visit a Toddy shop and see how it's made in person. It was peculiar but too good to refuse.
Into the backwaters
There I was, on a boat, riding along the backwaters under a drizzling sky and rowing past fishermen's villages and small fishing boats. I booked the boat ride from my hotel. I saw naked kids lining up the shore for an afternoon dive, as their mothers in cotton nighties pinned washed sarees on a clothesline. I saw fishermen throwing their cast net, standing precariously at the edge of their tiny boats. Then there was this old woman sitting on a red plastic chair by the shore, as a daughter braided her silver hair, and another read out the newspaper. I understood how even in this part of the state, Kerala illustrates that it's the most literate in the country.
Shaazi, the adventure co-ordinator from the hotel, is a wonderful man. He is endearing, punctual, and a keen observer. His enthusiasm to make our trip worthwhile was electric. Shaazi had arranged a boat for us to take a tour of the backwaters and visit a shack where Toddy, a local drink favourite among generations of locals and tourists, is made. The boat ride was amazing. Green and gorgeous, Kerala is indeed God's own country. I can't thank Shaazi enough!
As the boatman tied our ride to a wooden post harboured near a nondescript shack, I wondered if it was at all safe. With my feet on land, I tried to scan the area and apart from some stacked-up nets and a middle-aged man in a blue lungi marinating the day's catch in salt and turmeric, I found the place deserted. The shack's exterior was coated with several posters of the local party. Shaazi led me inside. The dim interior with rickety wooden benches had a fair number of semi-nude locals and to my surprise, even amidst the stench of Toddy, dried fish and beef, the men stood up with their palms folded together, welcoming me in unison. It was a warm feeling. I followed my guide to the kitchen and the shack owner-cum-cook showed me how he ferments coconut water to tap their popular drink Toddy, and he also offered me a glass. It was not very strong, to be honest, but had that weird zing that gives local alcohol their cheap taste. By now, the drizzle had turned to heavy showers, and Shaazi helped me up the boat, wrapping me in a tarpaulin sheet. Kerala has always felt like home.
Exploring a houseboat
Around 1.30 in the afternoon, post the toddy exploration, I wanted to ride a houseboat, without which a backwater trip is somehow incomplete. I was guided by Vasundhara Sarovar to try out their own luxury houseboat, and so I complied. The terrace of the boat has benches to sit beside a Jacuzzi pool, which became my favourite spot for the journey. The air-conditioned bedrooms with attached washrooms seemed to be a fancy urban affair, to be better ignored during this trip. Moisture laden breeze blew by with a few light drizzles now and then making the boat-ride far pleasurable than expected. The houseboats being heavy, you hardly feel the turbulence of regular ones. Besides, the aroma of the food being cooked in the houseboat kitchen added flavour to our sailing.
Besides fishing, I learned that Vayalar earns its livelihood primarily from coir making. A visit to the International Coir Museum, coupled with a visit to a local coir factory, was a unique experience for me. The museum, featuring the history of coir industry and coir-made products, is wonderfully maintained and houses beautiful artifacts. The factory, organized by a co-operative society, beautifully shows how the workers, who should, in fact, be called craftsmen, are keeping alive the traditional handcraft, exporting coir internationally to several countries. I wasn't aware of coir except for the fibrous loofas and heavy mattresses. The factory visit was insightful and eye-opening, as I learned how a great deal of Kerala's economy depends on the cottage industry of coir weaving, a natural product made of coconut fiber.
As the dance of the showers slowed down, I decided to visit the local beach nearby. Just a 20-minute cab-ride away is the coastal village of Andhakaranazhy. The main attraction is a secluded beach there, serene and unattended. What looked mostly like a local lovers' point, Andhakaranazhy beach is a good, clean option for the tourist to spend an hour or two.
The evening rain brought with it a flute player by the hotel pool. As he serenaded the ambiance with his tunes, the hyacinth blooms looked gorgeous. The sky turned a deeper blue, but the green never faded. Vayalar charmed me in the most beguiling way. Vayalar gifted me a memory I would want to cherish forever. The people, the air, the water, and the food – everything sums up my reason for calling Kerala my happy place, my pilgrimage.