On a small island called Chennamkary deep in the Alleppey District of Kerala, Anna Zacharria, standing about five feet tall, quietly chops at her kitchen counter. Rays of sun fall through the partially shaded window. They highlight white streaks through her long black hair which is pulled back in a loose plait. A few loose curls frame her soft brown face and eyes. She wears a favourite scooped-neck house dress with short sleeves. Its flowered cotton cloth falls to the floor and covers her flip-flopped feet. A gold chain with a cross pendant shines from her neck.
Anna starts her day at six in the morning by getting up to make dosa (South Indian rice and lentil flour crepes), puttu (tubular rice and coconut cakes), idli (steamed rice and lentil cakes) or rice noodles for her family and staff’s breakfast. With the clearing of the breakfast dishes, she begins lunch prep. This is the main meal of the day here in this Keralan Backwaters island village she calls home.
Depending on the day and season, lunch means Anna is usually cooking for 30 to 36 people. Anna has owned and operated Green Palm Homes for over 30 years. Green Palm Homes offers homestays which are Kerala’s answer to a bed and breakfast. The Zacharria family were the first in the area to host homestay guests. She shared how it happened.
“It was 1987.”
“A Scandinavian tour operator approached me and my husband, Zacharria, and asked if we would consider providing shelter for two Swedish women who were interested in experiencing and understanding our way of life in the Backwaters. The operator was trying to make his client’s dream come true but it was difficult because there was no formal accommodation here.”
Anna’s three children, Thomas, Matthew and Maria, begged her and her husband to consider the proposition. “We had never seen a Westerner and were crazy for the chance to have foreigners in our home,” says Maria.
They held a family meeting and reflected on their Syrian Christian values. “My parents thought about the two travellers wanting to see where we lived but not being able to find shelter and decided that giving them refuge was the Christian thing to do,” says Thomas. “Having any company was rare in those days. Even our own family hardly visited as there were no roads or bridges. Travel to the nearest city involved three ferries and a whole day to make a visit. People just didn’t travel.”
When the day came for the visitors to arrive, the children thought they looked like blonde angels. Only they were dressed in Western clothing and smoked cigarettes which made them even more fascinating. The children took them by the hand and walked them everywhere in the village. They wanted all their friends to have the chance to meet them. “We didn’t speak any English but we had a lot of fun communicating with drawings and hand gestures,” says Matthew.
The visitors were patient and friendly and loved paddling through the waters in the family’s 200-year-old dugout canoe. They tried all of Anna’s cooking and couldn’t get enough of the local delicacies she prepared for them like duck curry, fish fry, cabbage thoran (wok fried vegetables with coconut) and payasam (condensed milk pudding). Everyone cried when the new friends had to leave but the family felt great about what they had offered and how the experience had gone for everyone.
“We were completely shocked and surprised when the tour operator showed up a few days later with money for us. We asked him what it was for and he explained the homestay model to us. He thought we knew when we agreed,” says Anna. The generous Zacharria family had opened their home solely out of kindness and goodwill and had not realized they had just participated in the development of what is now a great Keralan entrepreneurial business tradition. They were delighted with the prospect of the additional income though. It allowed the opportunity to send their children away for better schooling.
Anna is pleased that along with their 10-acre rice farm, the family has incorporated hospitality into their lives and livelihood. “We’ve met people from all over the world,” she says and then adds, “I am very lucky to have my children here. So many friends my age are lonely because their children have moved away to find work.”
On cue, three of her teenage grandchildren fly through the home. They are laughing at something they’ve discovered on YouTube. Despite some arthritis and a sore back from long hours standing in the kitchen, there’s a sparkle in Anna’s eyes as she begins to teach us a few of her family’s most treasured recipes. Look for her famous Duck Curry and Fish Fry, plus sides like Fried Buttermilk, Mezhukku (potato curry), Tomato Onion Lunch Salad, Tamarind and Ginger Coconut Curry, Banana Lassi and her secret Garam Masala in our upcoming posts.
We would like to express our heartfelt gratitude to Anna, Thomas, Maria and Matthew Zacharria for hosting us at Green Palm Homes and to the KTM Society and Travel XS for sponsoring our travel throughout South India in 2016.
All words and photos are our own and were not shared with the sponsors before publication.