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Three encounters in Thalasserry, Kerala, 6th March 2018

Posted by Claire

The Indian Coffee House near the main bus stand in Thalasserry

I had already breakfasted when I came upon this Indian Coffee House, but I had to go in and have a look. It was up a flight of stairs on the first floor, and was large, airy, light and well scrubbed. There were a couple of middle aged waiters in their white suits, cummerbunds and turbans who waited the tables with the ease and informality of those long in the job, but I was surprised to see a young woman amongst the grey jacketed junior waiting staff. It was a bigger surprise to find another young and beautifully well-groomed woman sat at the front cash desk who appeared to be running the show.

This was an Indian Coffee House with a difference, not old and fusty as some of them undeniably are, but fresh and forward looking. It felt quite different. I heard one of the young junior staff address this woman at the desk as chechi, the respectful term in Malayalam for a woman older than oneself which translates as "elder sister".

In all the Indian Coffee Houses I have visited over the years, I have never encountered any female crew members, let alone managers. I sat enthralled, drinking my coffee. I wish I’d had the presence of mind to request this woman’s photograph sat at her desk, with her waiting staff coming and going collecting the bills she was issuing for the tables, all the while exuding a good natured and natural authority. One could sense that she kept a tight ship, and commanded respect. The service felt like a well-oiled machine, and there was a pleasing lightness to the place.

wooden sign on a wall
A list of Indian coffee houses, north Kerala

New Best Umbrella Mart

This little shop had already caught my eye soon after arriving in Thalasserry. I like to do a bit of a recce when arriving somewhere new to get my bearings and an initial feel for the place. I have a fondness for umbrellas, not so much for using them, but as objects in their own right. In south India umbrellas are widely used as sun shades, and are very helpful in combatting the power of the midday sun. I decided it would be a good idea to purchase one myself, and went in to the New Best Umbrella Mart which opened unusually with a sliding door.

The interior had undoubtedly seen better days, and was fitted out with old pale blue and white striped formica shelving, sparsely stocked with labelled cardboard boxes. What it lacked in stock it more than made up for with the warm and friendly greeting I received from the owner. He introduced himself as Thavudeen, and brought out a stool for me to sit on. He then proceeded to unpack a number of umbrellas for me to look at. I had assumed I would get a black one with a silver lining which are the most common here, but he persuaded me to consider colours, and I chose one in a lovely aubergine hue, still with the silver lining. The main company making umbrellas here in Kerala are Johns of Alappuzha, who have been going strong since 1954. Mr Thavudeen himself has been running his umbrella business here for 43 years he informed me proudly. We chatted as he deftly furled up the umbrellas he had unpacked for me to look at, and he made me promise to pop back to say hello before I left Thalassery.

Mr Thavudeen in his shop
Mr Thavudeen of the new best umbrella mart

Tea stall opposite the hospital on the street that leads to the fishing beach

After spending an afternoon exploring the old streets of dilapidated warehouses down by the sea, and watching a late fishing boat come in and unload its catch, I was in strong need of some liquid refreshment. There’s nothing better than a cup of hot, strong, sweet tea to revive and rejuvenate a flagging disposition, and set one happily on one’s way, ready for anything.

Some of the best conversations and exchanges happen at tea stalls. It is where the world can be put to rights, or at the very least, a place to find a companionable moment amongst strangers. For this reason I gravitate towards tea stalls a lot when I am travelling alone.

Two men seated and looking at the camera
Fellow tea shop customers

The best tea stalls are those that have a little bit of indoor (or outdoor) seating, a couple of benches and perhaps a few makeshift tables behind the tea making operations. There will often be a selection of fried snacks in a glass cabinet, some banana fritters or vadai or bhajis, and maybe some jars of biscuits and savoury nibbles such as murukku.

My tea tasted so good and it felt such a relief to sit out of the sun and rest my weary feet that I ordered a second glass. Two men sat down opposite me. One of them opened a little paper packet of roasted peanuts and gestured for me to share with them. A touching and hospitable gesture. The comings and goings of customers and the jovial atmosphere felt heavenly, as was my view onto the bustling street from the back of the teashop as the late afternoon sun cast a golden light on the proceedings outside.

Man in turban holding drinks
At the back of the tea shop
Orange and blue crates stacked
Fish crates near the beach
fishing boat and fishermen on the shore
Late afternoon catch
Man carrying crate full of fish from the shore
Bringing in the catch
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