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While it’s brilliant that the boats are open on at least three sides – perfect for photographing village life – it also becomes quickly apparent just how busy the waterways are. At any one time, there are a whopping 2000 kettuvallams plying the backwaters. This results in an occasional watery traffic jam. To keep passengers fed and watered, women hawk raw king prawns from pink plastic buckets – that the onboard chef will cook up – and men wave Mango Munch ice lollies as they row by.

Kerala is the most educated and least corrupt state in India, but is also home to the largest number of heavy drinkers. Fittingly, the salty captain leans back from the helm and points up to a large palm tree. “Toddy tapper!” he shouts. I squint into the sun, and can just make out a man up a tree. The captain makes the universal sign for drinking and then makes a thumbs up. The man up the tree is “collecting the sap,” which will ferment into a popular head-banging palm wine, drunk in vast quantities in Kerala. Toddy is so popular, it’s got its own subdivision in the labour department, which employs a staggering 50,000 people.

That night the cook whips up an excellent grilled fish curry, and as the countryside falls black, I am distracted only by the hum of the insects forcing me to continually spray ‘Mozz-Off’ repellent liberally on to my limbs.


Munnar

The next day, in order to escape the heat of the plains, I head to the hill station of Munnar, famous for its emerald tea plantations. We’ve almost completed the uphill, five-hour drive from Allepey when I realise that at the edge of almost every hairpin bend, there is a little concrete hut with the word ‘toddy’ clearly painted in thick black letters on the wall. I consider it for a moment, then say to Saji, the driver: “Stop here, please. Ek (one) minute!”

“Madam, it is not for ladies,” Saji says, pointing at the rough rickshaw drivers queuing for a hit and some cheap grub. “I’ll be fine, back soon,” I reply. I stroll into the spit and sawdust ‘bar’, like the outlaw in a Western. The toddy-sipping men fall silent and stare. I ignore them and slip a hundred rupee note over the counter and receive a grubby glass of milky liquid in return.




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God's own country: A peaceful paradise awaits in Kerala, India
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