Les Petits Contes

About life's little observations, which matter. About hilarious situations, which illuminate. About stories which offer immense possibilities, open endings, different interpretations and perspectives.

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Location: Singapore

A nature lover; sun-worshipper, manic book-collector, dessert-devourer and a magnet for hazards

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Janet Loh Moments in Kerala


The House Boat
I spent one day and one night on the spice boat. The trip was supposed to be after my stay at the Spice Village. But Janet Loh moment struck – there was going to be a strike on that day and it was not safe to travel four hours on the road from Coconut Lagoon to the Spice Village in the mountains. The alternative was to take the boat cruise and then stay at Marari Beach instead of Spice Village.

Luckily my colleague had warned me of the frequent strikes in Kerala (‘’they strike for the smallest or no reasons!’’ she said). Luckily the hotel group is very reputable, experienced and able to handle the situation (‘’they must have bribed the unions and paid their staff a lot more to get them back to work,’’ said the same colleague).

Tinu the main cook spoilt me with a hearty lunch. He laid the table and explained each dish as he served them, while I tried to catch the names and scribble in my book. Imagine whipping up delicious big breakfast, lunch and dinner in that little kitchen. After lunch there was payasam (dessert) too, which I could barely eat anymore. I could not stomach any coffee either, even though he offered it again a while later.

The crew of three were very hospitable and pointed out the various sights and photo opportunities as we cruised along.

Cruising along the serene lake, taking in the idyllic padi fields, reading on board, watching the sunset and sipping coffee (I could not decline Tinu’s third offer) – it was bliss, and decadent. Service was impeccable – butler-like. ‘’M’am, what time would you like dinner? Allow me to serve you… May I serve you breakfast now, if you don’t mind? What type of omelette would you like? Do you eat chicken?’’ Tinu was ever so attentive.

We stopped somewhere to buy a life tiger prawn from a fisherman. Tinu grilled it to perfection for my dinner. At one point two of the crew were busy communicating on the mobile. One of them explained,’’ the strike – so we cannot dock at Alleppey tonight – we have to park our boat here… tomorrow then we go to the village Alleppey...’’

I inspected my bedroom and bathroom – very nicely equipped indeed. I checked out a box above the room and wondered if it was the air con and how it could be turned on. It looked so sealed and there was no way you could access any buttons, even though I tried prying the cover a little.

After dinner, one of them announced they were going to ‘’prepare’’ my bed and show me how to use the remote control. ‘’Easy, just use the on and off button,’’ he said.

‘’Show me?’’ I said. So he went to the room, pointed the remote at the box I had tried to pry open and clicked; and the cover fell off.

The three men spent the next 20 minutes trying to fix the cover back. Imagine two men squeezed into the small bedroom trying to figure out the cover. The third one stood outside trying to help in whatever way he could. They tried to bring an arm chair into the room so that they could stand on it and reach the box better but the room door was so narrow! They tilted the chair this way and that way and finally, afraid I would end up with not just a cover-less air con box but also a door-less room, I told them the chair was simply too big.

Eventually they gave up and concluded that the air con could still function – ‘’it’s only the cover…’’ he said. True, I had a very comfortable sleep indeed....with or without the cover.

The next morning, we finally sailed for Alleppey while Tinu bustled in the kitchen and came up with white omelette and toasts, not to mention a lot of fruits – Kerala-style steamed banana, banana salad (very nice salad with three types of bananas and a kind of rock sugar), papaya and pineapple. This must surely be nature’s most effective laxative!

We arrived at the jetty where a car was waiting to take me to Marari Beach. John the manager of the boat house asked if Tinu had taken good care of me. ‘’Absolutely,’’ I replied. John said, ‘’you like what he cooked? Suresh (the hotel reservation manager) told me to prepare Kerala dishes for you. See, I even wrote in my notebook – fish curry, curry vegetables…’’

Dosha Festival
The buffet dinner at Marari Beach was themed ‘’Dosha Festival’’. For main course, they offered savoury ones with a wide choice of fillings such as prawns, mutton or mushroom; for desserts, they had sweet ones like banana dosha. It reminds me of the galettes and crepes of Brittany.

Friendly and helpful staff were on hand near the food area to explain, dish out items and even urge you to try or to take more. Next to the curry that accompanied the dosha, I saw a dish that looked ‘’different’’. ‘’Have some’’, said the waitress. ‘’What is it?’’ I asked. ‘’It’s pasta with spinach stuffing in white sauce,’’ she replied and put some on my plate, as I mumbled to myself – ‘’pasta… it’s Indian? Looks very Italian…’’ and walked away.

I just had to walk back, to read the label next to the dish, ‘’cannelloni florentine’’, and stood there wondering why on earth there is an Italian dish next to all the doshas, curries, avials, chutneys and pickles… A waiter saw me staring and looked curious. ‘’It’s Italian,’’ I said to him, pointing to the dish. ‘’Yes, it’s Italian!’’ he replied, jubilantly.

Chef Bilal must have a great sense of humour – to add an Italian dish amongst his doshas. Was he trying to play a trick on people like me?!

The Grand Send-off
Erin Louis, the GM of the Marari Beach resort was there to welcome me when I arrived, and there to say farewell when I left the next evening. He even enquired if I would be able to get some dinner at the airport.

In fact, three men bade me farewell. Rajeev, the most pleasant and helpful front desk staff, who had walked me to my villa on they day of arrival and who had arranged for my late check out (as late as 6.45 pm!), was there at the car porch too. With them was another man who shook my hand so warmly, and said, ‘’thank you so much and have a blessed Christmas’’ so sincerely, that I wondered if he was actually one of the owners, who would truly appreciate my patronage.

‘’Are you from the hotel too?’’ I asked, trying not to directly ask if he has a share in the property. He merely said yes and I was still curious, ‘’are you one of the owners?’’

They all chuckled loudly and the GM explained, ‘’he has been with us for more than 20 years – he was the one who found this piece of land many years ago and developed it into what it is today! He is actually our PR officer.’’

Spice Chase
During check-out, I asked Rajeev if he could request the driver to stop by a supermarket so that I could buy some masala. Contrary to Chef Bilal’s opinions, he said that the route taken would be highways and we would not pass by Cochin or any supermarkets.

I decided to try my luck anyway with the driver and asked him in the car. He agreed without hesitation and said he could take me to one.

My colleague was positive that the masala in India is different from ours, so I should try getting it, right?

He took me to the largest supermarket in town (though it did not seem to be the one Bilal mentioned), took a basket and guided me to the spice section to help me in my selection. On my way there I was distracted by some banana chips, a typical local snack. He suggested that I should get ‘’fresh’’ ones from elsewhere rather than those pre packed ones that have been on the shelf, and offered to take me there as it’s on the way, just before reaching the airport.

The supermarket was crowded, and Christmas songs blared loudly from the speakers. It was brightly decorated with Christmas trimmings, including ‘’Chinese lanterns’’; there was even a huge section selling such trimmings.

We hurried to the car after the purchase. Next, he stopped by a row of roadside stalls, and led me to a particular ‘’chip shop’’ where they fry and sell all kinds of chips. ‘’Here, m’am, you can get the banana chips – they sell by weight – how much do you want?’’ he asked. And the shop assistant gave me a handful to sample.

I wish I had more cash with me; I would have bought the other crackers and chips, as I am such an avid ‘’cruncher’’, I told the driver as we hopped back into the car. ‘’Do you buy from here too?’’ I asked. ‘’Yes, it’s fresh – you saw them frying it there in the shop?’’ he replied.

We finally made it to the airport. He shook my hand warmly and bade me good bye. I gave him a bar of Cadbury’s chocolate I bought at the supermarket. He had declined to tell me what spices he would like me to buy for him so I thought I would get a bar of chocolate for his two-year old daughter.

The Final Janet Loh Moment
Checking in was pleasant and smooth. So was the initial custom clearance. It got progressively ‘’strict’’ and sticky as we went deeper into the airport and we encountered more and more unfriendly sullen officers.

I guess it was the perfect setting for the final Janet Loh moment in Kerala. At the final custom clearance, the women had a separate entrance where there was a curtain and the body scan was more thorough.

I passed this round and went through, but realised my shopping bag was detained. ‘’M’am, this bag is yours? You cannot bring chilli powder in your hand luggage,’’ he broke into a small laugh.

‘’Why not?’’ I said weakly, totally unprepared for this – after all that effort and queue at the supermarket!

‘’It’s not allowed. Let’s see what you have: chicken masala, fish masala, chicken masala, fish masala, fish curry…’’ he read out each packet as he threw them on the table, while two Korean men looked on. I must have looked crestfallen, uttering, ‘’I just bought them!’’

‘’OK, wait, I check with my colleague,’’ said the officer as he turned to his colleague sitting behind. The latter gave me a pitiful look while I waved my ‘’V supermarket’’ plastic bag at him and said feebly, ‘’I just bought them at the supermarket on my way here!’’ and finally nodded.

‘’OK, m’am we let you take these with you. Actually you are not supposed to bring chilli powder on board, ‘’ said the officer.

I was tempted to say ‘’masala’’ has no chilli but decided not to provoke him unnecessarily and just discretely packed my masala back into the ‘’life-saver’’ bag – V supermarket plastic bag!

It was only much later that it occurred to me: a terrorist could use chilli powder to blind the passengers on board, no? But do I look like a terrorist? Would a terrorist openly carry her weapons in a supermarket plastic bag?!

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