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Shipping the Mountain to Mohammed

Over the last twelve years my wife and I have shared a passion for the Indian subcontinent. On a trusty old BMW motorcycle we have toured the bulk of India from Kanyakumari to Khardung La and beyond. Chaos and serenity, poverty and splendour, have contrasted to create an amazing yet levelling experience. India has that unique ability to shatter your senses to the core but at the same time create a new and mindful perception, an altered perspective… reengineering courtesy of a continent.

Floodproof cottage at Friday’s Place

With these new sentiments a dream evolved. Could we at least escape the English winter and while away the time in some tropical idyll, duly supporting ourselves through some novel enterprise? What if I were to further my private pilots licence to commercial status and get a seaplane rating to boot? We could search for an ideal base in Kerala, our favourite state, and operate the only seaplane in India, running tourists to backwater resort hotels or up to the lakes high up in the tea gardens. That would definitely be O.K.! Four years on now the dream is nearly completed but at a cost I never realized the stuff of dreams was made of. My marriage has been tested to its limit through being away for long periods, and my health and humour have at times been hammered by tropical excess, and  logistical and burocratic  nightmares.

So, what is our current status? Academia together with hours of training flights brought me a very coveted commercial licence which was rewardingly eclipsed by a float plane rating carried out in Georgia, USA. I shall always remember glassy water landings, the pecan plantations, the grits, and their drawl!

Through the wonders of the internet, we found an Indian hotelier on a pristine backwater location, effectively my runway, who was happy to front an application to the Indian Ministry of Civil Aviation for permission to operate a seaplane. Through our new found friend we located a suitable waterside plot which was for sale, on which we would create our base and mooring. An Indian company was set up, nightmare one, and December two years back saw me arrive at Poovar, southern Kerala, to start building our base. This was definitely nightmare number two; my chosen plot of idyllic waterside palm garden was under water. Prior to purchase I had never considered the river levels or its moods. I had effectively bought a large and rather expensive pond. Thoroughly deflated but with a Kipling reserve, I had no option but to raise the land level.

With no road access for half a mile, over four hundred tons of clay had to be ferried down river by country punt and head carried to its final resting place. Language was certainly a major problem with local labour and although well experienced in India from a survival and travellers perspective, I had never had to deal with people in matters of building and the procurement of materials. As you may well have concluded, I, the unwitting foreigner was open to exploitation, a role reversal. Luckily I am blessed with constructional skills and could at least monitor the work to meet my completely incomprehensible and exacting standards. A godsend, however, was stumbling on a sawmill that had a modicum of ancillary machinery, an owner who spoke good English, and importantly a carpenter, dear Karthik, with whom for some strange reason I ‘bonded’. It became a relationship of great respect. Karthik who hitherto had only made furniture in precious rosewood and teak, was now faced with a crazed Englishman who wanted to make ‘Chippendale’ cottages from the same material! I developed great respect for Karthik’s skill with simple tools and very hard wood ,whilst he was quietly impressed, sometimes confused, by my design, confidence and vision.

Throughout that six month period, together we constructed the first buildings for our base, living quarters and an unusual bathroom. All the ideas and measurements were scrawled in a school note book and the timber framed assemblies were all cut, jointed, and pre-erected at the sawmill prior to disassembly and a boat journey to the site. I wanted the buildings to be cool within to minimize fan usage and so great attention to ventilation was made. Luckily we are not in a mosquito area and so our windows are a woven lattice construction, rather like an old colonial seat base. To counter any flooding or worst case scenario, the buildings are raised on granite staddle stones which were hand cut at a nearby quarry, certainly a first in India. Under a palm thatched roof with an inner lining of loomed split bamboo, all materials are natural with no concrete, masonry, or indeed plastic conduit in sight. Additionally, and with other labour, land was raised and graded, a bio electric sewage plant was constructed, and our solar electric array commissioned.

In tandem with this of course, was the flying application. It had soon become apparent that there was little support from the state tourism ministry and that I and my Indian hotelier friend (remember him?) were being stonewalled somewhere in the region of a New Delhi ministerial enclave. It was really disheartening that what we thought was a good idea to raise the tourism remit of Kerala, was met with such apathy and disinterest. An unbelievable amount of effort and octuplet  paperwork had gone into our application and the initial enthusiasm of ‘my hotelier’ was so fast on the wane that clearly, if it depended on him, this project would eclipse.

Despite all these trials and tribulations, one light shone. I was tired, under weight and stressed, and through those days had not noticed what was keeping me going. It was the place. Standing back, looking at the finished buildings with Karthik one evening, supping our flasked chai and smoking filterless Wills, I truly believe that we simultaneously  realized, that together we had made something truly beautiful on this virgin site. Thus the concept of ‘Fridays Place’ came about. Even if the flying project could never happen, at least others could enjoy the wonders of this small and quiet part of Kerala. Accordingly, with a similar aesthetic and green ethic, we have now built three more ‘cottages’, a kitchen block, and sorted out a sensible jetty arrangement. It is finished and I hope many will come to witness Karthik’s work, the incredible bird life, and rare serenity, of which we are so lucky to be custodians. Carpe Diem.

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