We were sitting on our porch at Gramam Homestay around 7:30 a.m. when we first saw him — a man wearing only a white cloth tied around...

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KERALA, India — We were sitting on our porch at Gramam Homestay around 7:30 a.m. when we first saw him — a man wearing only a white cloth tied around his waist, muscles bugling from his thin legs.


He shinnied up a coconut tree, emptied a jug mounted at the top into a pot he carried on the back of his waist, then slid back down and disappeared before we had the chance to ask him who he was or what he was doing.


“He’s the toddy man,” Jos, the owner of our homestay, explained that morning at breakfast.


Toddy men, called toddy tappers, collect the sap from the flowers of coconut buds to make toddy, a slightly alcoholic liquor that begins fermenting within an hour or two.


It’s sold in village toddy shops all over Central Kerala and usually drunk around midmorning after the tappers make the first of three daily rounds.


“Can we watch?” I asked Jos.


“Of course, but we have to wait.”



Today, I learned




All over Northern and Central India, Indians are celebrating Dawali, the start of the Hindu new year and the most important festival of the year. But here in Kerala, it’s just another day.


Hindus are about 80 percent of India’s population, but in Kerala, only about 60 percent are Hindu. The rest are Christian, mainly Roman Catholic; and Muslim.


Catholic churches and schools are everywhere, most of the time occupying the biggest, and most nicely-painted buildings. I saw a boat today that had a sign that said “The Power of Prayer,” and our taxi driver keeps a St. Francis statue on his dashboard along and a rosary hung from the mirror.


While taking a walk in a village in the backwaters the other evening, I heard Indian music. It was coming from a Roman Catholic church called St. Pius. Rubber-flips flops were piled on the steps outside, and inside, Indian men and women were sitting on the floor under a bank of ceiling fans.


Indians love bright colors and lights, so the Catholic churches go along. Surrounding a statue of St. Pius was a row of blinking lights.


Toddy tappers don’t work on an exact schedule, but the man who taps Jos’ tree usually shows up around 7:30 or 8 a.m. each day.


The next morning, we sat on Jos’ front porch and waited.


A little before 8 a.m., he came, walking fast, almost running in blue flip-flops. Strapped to his waist was the jug along with a piece of bone and a meat cleaver.


He wrapped his head in a cotton handkerchief and put on a brown cap with ear flaps — protective head gear, Jos explained, in case he might be hit with a falling coconut.


Using a piece of wood as a stepstool, he shinnied up the tree, and, working fast, he emptied the first of two ceramic pots mounted at the top where the sap had collected overnight.


Then he used his knife to cut a fresh bud, tapped it with the piece of bone to loosen the sap and put the pot over the bud to catch the next batch of toddy.


“Would we like a taste?” Jos brought a glass to the tree, and the toddy tapper poured us a little from his jug.


It had a slightly sweet taste, like a rice wine with a hint of vinegar.


Then, as quickly as he appeared, the toddy man slipped away. No time to waste. It was just past 8 a.m., and there were more trees to be tapped.



Breakfast with the prawn farmers



After the summer monsoon season ends, some of Kerala’s rice farmers turn to prawn fishing.


Our homestay host, Jos, has arranged a visit for us to his neighbor’s prawn farm, and we’re invited for breakfast.



Reading list




“The God of Small Things”: Indian screenwriter Arundhati Roy sets this novel in Kerala during the late 1960s when Communism rattled the traditional caste system.


His friend Shaji picks us up in his white Ambassador taxi. The cartoonish-looking white cars with rounded fenders and curved tops were the only kind available until the early 1990s when India began allowing foreign imports. Shaji’s car is 38 years old with roll-up tinted windows and towels for seat covers.


He drives us a couple of miles to a grassy dike in the middle of the rice paddies. We get out and walk for about a quarter mile and spot a thatched hut.


The house is made entirely from coconut wood and palm. Inside are two rooms — one, a combination kitchen and bedroom, and the other a sitting room, where a desk has been covered with a white cloth and turned into our breakfast table.


Outside is a concrete slab with a sink and a dozen or so metal jugs filled with fresh water for drinking and washing dishes.


The Neduveli family, Shani; his wife, Jose; and their son, Anu, live here.


With rice farming on the decline — a combination of low prices and not enough people for the harvest — they depend on the winter prawn farming season for their income.

Shani and a helper cast their net three times and catch a half-dozen white prawns — not a large catch, but enough to supplement the coconut and rice flour roll-ups Jose is cooking for breakfast.


He and Jose clean them, and then they’re fried in coconut oil spiced with chile and turmeric and fresh onions.


We eat the prawns with glasses of hot chai, and top the roll-ups with a dal of yellow lentils.


Up until now, I thought we had eaten our best breakfast in India at our hotel in Jaipur. But here in Kerala, things just keep getting better.


A scare about a chikunguya mosquito infestation has turned out not to be as bad as first thought.


In this part of Kerala, at least, we’ve seen few mosquitoes and repellant seems to keep them away, so we’ll go ahead with our plans for an overnight cruise on on a houseboat through the backwaters.


Jos has been like a travel agent for us on this stretch of our trip.


He’s arranged our next homestay, the houseboat and a trip into the tea plantations in the mountains where we’ll spend the night in a bungalow in a cardamom forest.


The total cost for two including the car and driver, all meals, the houseboat and all of our accommodations was $550 each. So far, so good.