The Eco Side of God’s Own Country

Sustainable and charming homestay in Kerala

A houseboat in God’s Own Country
A houseboat in God’s Own Country
19 OCT 2015
by

I must have visited Kerala more than a dozen times and each time I stayed as a guest of either a luxury resort or the famed Kerala “Kettuvalams” (house boats) in the backwaters. Never did I venture to stay in Kerala’s many authentic homestays and family owned Bungalow hospitality until my childhood friend from Cochin – Jacob Kutty urged me to try out one of Kerala’s best family owned heritage bungalow homestay accommodation.

Jacob being a native of Kerala, he knew quite a lot of homestay owners who provided discreet Kerala hospitality to the discerning international guests. From a maze of homestay accommodation, he zeroed in on the Green Apple homestay, which he reckoned was a class apart from the rest. The Green Apple homestay is run by two stalwarts in the domain of Kerala’s hospitality – Sejoe Jose and George Tharakan both of whom are great friends of Jacob. Together they have given an altogether new dimension to the Kerala homestay and bungalow accommodation scene.

While there is no dearth of luxury hotels and resorts in God’s Own Country, the Kerala homestay segment has provided a kind of shot-in-the-arm for Kerala tourism and everyone in Kerala seems to open up their courtyards and welcome the discerning world traveler in the most unique way. The ingenuity of the Keralites is to be seen to be believed – from thoughtfully prepared itineraries to an amazing array of homestay experiences like tracing family history, the unique décor, eco friendly initiatives and one-of-its-kind cultural experiences with the host community to name just a few, have compelled the new age traveler not only to embrace the homestay options but also to herald the beginning of “Responsible Tourism” in this gem of a tourist state in India.

Once my reservations for a week long homestay holiday was confirmed, I booked my air tickets and hopped into an early morning flight from Kolkata to Chennai and from Chennai to Cochin. Around 3 P.M. I reached Cochin and Jacob was there to receive me and together we drove through the meandering roads and alleyways of Cochin to be at the impressive Chittoor Palace, which was a 1.5 hour’s drive through the beautiful Kerala countryside. Out of the ten heritage properties and bungalows that is run under the brand name – “Green Apple”, my friend Jacob with expert advise from George Tharakan, one of the co-owners of the Green Apple chain decided that for someone who was new to the homestay bit in Kerala, a great way to start one’s innings was by being an honored guest of one of the most impeccably maintained royal retreat – The Chittoor Palace, which used to be the summer palace of the erstwhile Maharaja of Kochi.

The moment I steeped into this regal façade, a sense of dignified nobility engulfed me. I had been guest of some of Kerala’s most majestic “Kettuvalams” (House Boats) but nothing quite like the Chittoor Palace. This magnificent palace nestled on the banks of the shimmering Chittoor backwaters and each room was tastefully done up in the authentic Kerala-style royal architecture and was complete with all the luxuries one could ask for. The Chittoor Palace was to be my base from which I explored the other heritage homestay properties and bungalows, all under the brand of Green Apple.

Day 1 was spent leisurely with impromptu interactions with the local community and how they perceived the phenomenon of “Responsible Tourism” ushered in by the Green Apple group. A group of elderly backwater folks who live on the fringes of the Chittoor Palace in their Malayali accented English conveyed to me – “Excellent Koncepttttt… We low m very much” – indicating the pioneering role that Sejoe Jose and George Tharakan have together played in transforming the rural economy.

After lunch, which consisted of the quintessential “Chettinad Cuisine” cooked to perfection by the resident chef, Sejoe, George and myself ventured out to the adjoining hamlet, quaint as it was and would you believe! the gorgeously dressed womenfolk who were busy preparing for the Onam festival that was just a week away came out with all guns blazing – singing local Kerala hymns and folk songs as rehearsal that sounded incredibly melodious.

Given the high literacy rate in Kerala most of the village folks could speak decent English and a few of them who were particularly good at it have found employment at the Chittoor Palace welcoming discerning guests and looking after the house keeping of the Palace. In course of our leisurely stroll along the banks of the Chittoor Backwaters, George was a touch poignant when he said – “We at Green Apple go that extra mile to ensure that holidays with us is as Eco-friendly as it can possibly be. One can rest assured of world-class tourist amenities and we stringently follow the zero harmful impacts on the local environment. Even the toiletries that are supplied by us are biodegradable. The entire process of promoting Responsible Tourism has been achieved through the wholehearted co-operation of the locals and today I can proudly say that all our heritage properties and bungalows adhere to the stringent Eco-Tourism norms laid down by the World Tourism Organization (WTO)”. Undoubtedly the Green Apple brand has ushered in a revolution of sorts in Kerala’s home stay hospitality segment.

Previously, I had only heard about concepts like Zero Waste Management and Vermin Compost from my friends who live in USA and UK where such initiatives are very popular. But to experience first hand the practical side of such eco-friendly initiatives in India was indeed an eye-opener for me. Here at the majestic Chittoor Palace’s regal dining room even the food that are served to guests is organic and I was told by the resident chef that no chemical fertilizers are used in the farming process; Instead, they rely heavily on Vermin Compost that speaks highly about the philosophy of the Green Apple brand.

The best part of my stay at the Chittoor Palace was the integrated approach towards the “guest-host” interaction that has been developed thematically by a group of sociology experts, which means that guests of the Green Apple brand are offered with a once-in-a-lifetime’s opportunity to actually participate in Kerala’s rich cultural mosaic and concepts like horoscope reading, folk song and dance recital by local artists, the art of indigenous craftsmanship etc…are encouraged and there have been instances of guests from faraway countries like Australia, Sweden, Germany etc…who not only patronize local eco-friendly initiatives but also offer their expertise and skill sets in designing new age entertainment avenues for the discerning traveler.

Although a stay of 3 Nights/4 Days is the standard practice, I spent an entire week so as to be able to explore the magnificence and the charm of holidaying in some of Kerala’s best home stay options. If Mr. George Tharakan’s forecast is anything to go by, its not just the budget traveler who are embracing the Kerala home stay option; increasingly a new breed of cash rich western travelers too are opting for home stay accommodation, bored as they are with the “hotel-sightseeing and back-to-the-hotel” phenomenon. This new breed of travelers who are better educated with more disposable income and living a high standard of life is compelling the tourism industry to constantly re-invent itself with more and more innovative tourism products. One such product is the “Sustainable Home Stay Tourism”. Here the essence is on sustainability of the tourism phenomenon.

On my earlier visits to Kerala, I did cruise on the quintessential “Kettuvalams” (House Boats) but never had the good fortune to stay overnight on board. Thanks to the sheer ingenuity of the Green Apple staff, they made arrangements for a daylong cruise on the famed Alappuzha backwaters, while the night was spent marveling at the picture postcard setting and the joy of nocturnal viewing. I was provided with a “Night Vision Goggles” to explore the nocturnal joys of the backwaters. The concept of “Backwaters by Night” is becoming a rage in Kerala amongst the discerning international traveler and I must admit that the joy of viewing the nocturnal creatures by night is thrilling. There was just enough ambient light, courtesy of the moon and pretty soon things got interesting.

The expert boatman knew the backwaters by the tip of his fingers and he would often halt at the right places, by the edges of lakes and rivers. All sorts of animals: Frogs and Snakes, Fish, large aquatic Insects and other weird and wonderful things could be seen prowling in the shallows, right next to the shore. You must have a keen sense of hearing and your ears become even more important for locating and identifying the nocturnal creatures. If it is spring or summer, a nocturnal symphony of frogs may be performing.

In today’s world of high tech gadgets, a few companies now produce night vision viewing devices. Originally developed for law enforcement and military use, night vision goggles reveal the nocturnal world in a soft, greenish light and provide an entirely new dimension to nocturnal viewing after sunset. Although, nocturnal viewing is exciting, you must be confident of your skills. It is advisable not to venture alone and often the boatman has to be very knowledgeable in terms of geography and the terrain.

Having had enough of rest and siesta at the splendid Chittoor Palace, we decided to embark on a whistle-stop tour of the heritage properties and bungalows under the Green Apple brand. First on our list was the Parayil Homestead, followed by the elegant OG Beach Bungalow at Mararikulam, the Tenkasi Mayuram Eco Lodge', Kottoor House, Elamthottam Bungalow and finally the Nelpura homestay. While the Parayil Homestead is an elegant family run country home and is conspicuous by its intricate wood works and antique furniture, the OG Beach Bungalow happens to be a hideaway home and guests can marvel at the uninterrupted vistas of the turquoise blue Arabian Sea from the comfort of one’s room.

On to Tenkasi Mayuram Eco Lodge, which is set on the sylvan surroundings of a 350 acre farmland and guests are assured of breathtaking views of the impressive Western Ghat mountains. Given my penchant for wildlife safaris, we made an overnight halt at this fabulous Eco Lodge and the Lodge authorities were very kind to organize a 4 Wheel Drive that took us to the haunting wilderness of the nearby Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve. Although no Tigers were sighted, we were blessed with sights of animals like the Spotted Deer, the Nilgai and a bewildering variety of migratory birds that dwell on the favorable microclimate of the forest reserve.

Our next stop was the impeccably maintained Kottoor House, which is run by Arun Kuttoor and his family. The family takes a lot of pride in extending their warm Kerala hospitality to the discerning traveler and I especially savored the gastronomic delights prepared by the resident lady chef. On the last leg of our fact-finding mission we stopped by at the impressive Elamthottam Bungalow, which was reportedly built before India attained independence from the British rule in the year1945. This is basically an estate bungalow, very similar architecturally to the renowned colonial Tea estate bungalows of Assam and the North East. This impressive bungalow being located in close proximity to the Vagamon Mountains means that guests of the bungalow have the option of exploring the undulating tea gardens that abound in this part of the woods.

The last stop was at the graceful Nelpura Heritage Homestay, which I was told was comprehensively renovated and is ideally located adjacent to the family house of Mr. Chacko. This interesting facade offers a peek into the highly intricate and elaborate vernacular architecture of the region and the manner in which the woodcarving has been done is simply awesome. This impressive heritage homestay property is all of 150 years old and much of the structure is built of the finest variety of hardened timber. I was especially surprised to find that Mr. Sunil Gangopadhyay, a prolific Kolkata based Bengali writer was camping with his family at the Nelpura homestay. This heritage property due largely to its sylvan setting and rustic ambience is much preferred by artists and writers, many of whom have stayed as honored guests of this outstanding property.

It was truly a very rewarding experience to actually see the practical implementation of the “Eco-Tourism” norms in this southern state of India. The manner in which the quality of life of the rural folks, inclusive of women have improved along with the preservation of nature and cultural heritage of the villages was something that the mandarins of Indian Tourism industry should take note off. Hats off to the Green Apple staff, they have done a commendable job and have set a very high standard of service and ethos.

The world that we have made for ourselves is a very complex one indeed. Particularly in the Western world, where life is vastly easier and most people live longer, eat more and work less. Many live in private homes and drive to work alone in their own cars. Office workers communicate instantaneously across continents through telephone, fax and E-mail. Industries crank out new goods faster than people can buy them in ever-bigger shopping malls. All these advantages comes for a price: new kinds of health problems, many caused by dirty air and water left behind by industries, the loss of parkland as highways devour open spaces and sprawling desolate suburbs where neighbors are strangers and fear of crime isolates people behind locked doors.

If there is one thing we fear – and fear it most desperately than death itself, it is the dread of living a life without significance. This dreadfulness has become more prominent as we advance technologically in our struggle to master the external world. We chase impossible goals that turn to ashes in our own hands. Our interior world remains unexplored, uncultivated and barren. Even though we have enjoyed remarkable technological progress, the psychic cost has been great. It is like we have dangled ourselves over the edge of a rocky promontory.

Today, the jaded international traveler has the option to experience first hand the benefits of Kerala’s Sustainable Tourism, which has a much deeper meaning in that its goal is to improve the quality of human life, enhance human potential by providing goods and services that enable humans to meet the potential, support local environment and culture and use environmentally sensitive products and methods.

The security that mankind knew once is now long gone. The faith that knit our lives together slowly unraveled with the intrusion of science. The paradigm shift in the West’s worldwide view over the past century has rendered God, if not dead, at least coolly marginalized. Today it is the “eco-friendly outlook” that gives meaning to life and recognizes that our lives have meaning and that there is a purpose and a goal.

Here in God’s Own Country, the slow moving carts still ply on the village roads, the thatched hutments are still in existence, joyful village theatres are still performed by rural artists, cows and buffaloes are still being used in tilling the soil and the popular folklore is still alive even to this day in spite of the onslaught of modernity. Add to it the characteristic features of Sustainable Home Stay option and you have all the makings of an “Eden on Earth”. The entire experience reminds me of Rishi Aurobindoo’s immortal poem:

When you and I, we played together,
Who my playmate was I did not know.
Without a fear, without a shame,
Life in quiet ease did flow
”.

For further information and reservations, please feel free to contact:
The Green Apple Experience
Door No: 36/567 G, Anathapuri, P.F Road
Kaloor, Cochin – 682017
Kerala, India
Ph: +91 484 2335673
Fax: +91 484 2343474
reservations@thegreenappleexperience.com