Our cars take us downhill from Kumily past steep pepper and coffee plantations, to lower tea plantings. We stop for a photo op at Pattumala Matha, a picture-postcard church on hilltop with disco lights illuminating a smiling Mother Mary inside, and a bizarre concrete tree under construction outside beside a perfectly decent natural one. The church displays an elaborate nativity scene, too, set in Switzerland. Neighbouring hills also sport brightly coloured churches, bearing large card Christmas stars.
At lower altitude we find rubber plantations, then cassava. Finally, we’re alongside rustic canals, thick with water hyacinths and duck farms. Large canoes are moored along the banks, where rows of bungalows lie on the thin strips of land dividing the water from rice paddies. We’re in the Kerala Backwaters.
A slow boat carries us past coconut trees, egrets, cormorants, flycatchers on the wire, schools and homestays, large houseboats, men washing in the stream and women slapping their laundry on the stones.
Were staying as only the second-ever set of guests at a lovely new build on the Pampa River, Ayana’s Homestay run by former Intrepid leader Vini and his father. The homestay runs an enlightened policy of no litter and safe water on tap. While hot water, upstairs lodgings and some fittings are yet to be completed, it’s a wonderful place to rest.
Vini led us around his village, where the locals take shared responsibility for the rice paddies. Lower than sea level, these fields produce the red, rose or fat rice unique to Kerala. I spot a pair of orioles in the palms. All the land around is reclaimed. Damming upstream prevents salt tides from the sea rushing in but is responsible for the plague of water hyacinths. The Backwaters extend for 900km, with the tightest channels explored by teak-wood canoes. On a tranquil canoe ride, we pass a floating supermarket that relocates every week and coconut trees bearing clay pots to collect the sap which will ferment into a potent brew. The peace of the Backwaters is broken only by Indian song from a festival kilometres away.