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An idyllic meal in the backwaters of Kerala

The first time felt like going back to when we were kids, playing spies and government agents.

Earlier in the day we were told to walk down to the water where we would find a boat waiting for us. We got ready in our room, wondering what the next couple of hours would bring and at the designated time we closed the door behind us, walked toward the restaurant with all the lights on, the smell of spices and cooking meat mixed with the perpetual odor of coconut reaching our noses in small tendrils, but that night it wasn’t our destination.

With the noise of the restaurant customers behind us, we descended the small steps from the swimming pool area to the water of the lagoon and, between the trees that marked the boundaries where earth and water meet, we saw a small light going on and off a few times against a pitch black background.

Only when we got to within a few feet could we see a human silhouette behind it and we were greeted by the single word question: “Stephen’s?” in the wonderful accented English we were already comfortable with.

After we confirmed that yes, we were looking for “Stephen’s”, he helped us to get in the long, slim boat he was standing in. We quickly found our seats on one of the two planks of wood crossing it from side to side and the man pushed the boat away with one swift motion of his long pole.

Our destination emerged slowly from the night’s darkness, first as an outline of small lights, then as a more real place, shaped like a letter H on its side, a two stories high closed central section with a balcony at either side on the top floor, a narrow staircase leading from the base, all supported by five boats similar to the one we were in.

We were greeted by a big smile and led to the balcony at the front of the restaurant, facing the ocean, where a dozen small tables were arranged in a semi casual way; only one other couple was there, absorbed in quiet conversation.

Red and white cloths covered the tables, each with one or two candles shimmering on them. The only other sources of light were the light bulbs on the rails of the balcony which enhanced the whole surroundings, a clear sky with an almost full moon reflectin in the dark water of the sea, stars arranged in unfamiliar manner and to mirror them, a string of lights on the surface of the water, one for each of the fishing boats that during the day rest on the thin strip of sand between the Backwaters and the Arabian Sea.

When the house special, cooked in incandescent Kadai, reached our table with fish and spices and exotic sauce still sizzling, we instantly knew Stephen’s would become a regular feature of our Keralan nights.

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