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Kalypura’s huts are elegant, featuring roofs made from coconut trees and banana-bark interior walls.

Anwar Ali

While Vinod calmly steers our canoe, rhythmic thumping reverberates off buffalo-skin drums somewhere in the distance, far beyond the lazy waves of Lake Vembanad in southwest India. The sounds emanate from the grounds of a temple festival, we learn, one of many held throughout the year.

As we float on, heads pop out of the water like a game of Whack-A-Mole: fisherman catching their breath while on the prowl for mussels. This is Kerala's largest lake, but there are no houseboats anywhere in sight. The hub for those sorts of excursions – easily this Indian state's biggest attraction – is the backwaters of Alleppey, further to the south.

My friend Liz and I are here on a weekend escape that's unfolding as a rustic alternative to that flourishing scene: We will spend the night on our own private island, in private huts, spoiled with our own fiefdoms. But first, some refreshments – our reward for pedalling 32 kilometres south on bikes from Fort Kochi.

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"Happy hour begins now," Rajesh, our 36-year-old guide, announces to us as we bump against the edge of an island.

We have arrived at one of the region's legendary toddy – or palm wine – bars. We grab seats on plastic stools out front, eager to devour the spoils from the sea that will soon be laid out in front of us. But we are mindful: This is to be just a snack ahead of a promised lunch.

"We don't say cheers. We don't encourage someone to drink. If we encourage someone, we will never have enough for ourselves," says Raj, flashing his boyish smile as we sample the toddy, a milky beverage made by beating sap out of coconut buds before they bloom.

We polish off as best as we can the samplings of crab, catfish, tuna – seasoned with a mouth-warming combination of tamarind and red chili – along with the pancake-like appam (made with rice batter) and tapioca.

Our appetite satiated, Vinod escorts us again by canoe to where we'll spend the night. These twin islands, collectively known as Kaylpura, which means "fisherman's island" in the state language Malayalam, are not easily available to the masses. Only Raj, a former fisherman who hails from the nearby village Vayalar, can bring you to this secluded retreat. "Practically, we're operating this by word of mouth," he says. Rainbow Voluntours, the organization that brought Liz and me to India to volunteer in an underprivileged school, organized the trip with Raj on our behalf.

The huts are elegant, with a deceivingly intricate design: The thatched roofs, made from coconut trees, are built to allow the wind to filter through from four directions and cool the room. The exterior is made from bamboo and the interior walls from banana bark.

Their creation, done with Raj's oversight, is both a business and philanthropic endeavour: He will use guest proceeds to build new homes for seven families in Vayalar. The family of Raj's sidekick, Vinod, will get the first one.

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Liz and I can't resist dipping into our small fraction of the lake, washing off the efforts of our day. I reflect about what we learned along the way.

Roughly halfway along the road to Vayalar, we stopped at a canoe workshop – one of many such post-tsunami initiatives for locals to earn money – where workers used rope made from coconut husks to band together planks of wood, either from Indian laurel or Acrocarpus trees. For the final step, they applied a neem oil varnish to make the boat waterproof. Typically, it takes seven people four days to build one canoe.

All along the route, gleeful children waved to us, and I saw numerous Che Guevara posters – a reminder that Kerala elected one of the first communist governments in the world. We paused at a beach to watch some fisherman untangle their catch from their nets.

At a tea break, we learned of Raj's unlikely trajectory and his humble beginnings: a boy "born into a rich family" whose first job at 19 was as, in effect, a scarecrow. He guarded cow dung from birds hunting for the precious worms that fertilize the soil.

As we approached Vayalar, paved roads gave way to dirt paths that tested the resilience of our hind muscles.

Later in the day, after the much-needed swim, Raj takes us on a garden tour; we gnaw on different plants, cinnamon tree bark and insulin leaves amongst them. We walk through Vayalar, home to 350 families, to find men playing "eight and 16" in a field. Players sit in a circle, toss mussel shells in the air and score points according to what colour appears face up.

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Raj, who holds a degree in physics, divulges his latest entrepreneurial vision: to create islands of crushed plastic bottles. He takes us to his thousand-strong collection, tucked away in a corner of the village at the edge of the lake, as proof.

The next morning, after a soundless sleep, I have a front-row seat on a hammock as the sun's light slowly bursts from its rounded confines. I dreamily watch water hyacinth float past while prayer chants float into the air and serenade the calm. Birds soon chime in, as do other unseen creatures that taunt the stillness with their medley.

We are summoned to attend the wedding of Raj's cousin's daughter. Vinod's wife and daughter drape Liz, an Australian, in a pink sari, earning her comparisons to Sonia Gandhi. The men wrap a lungi around my waist.

Word spreads of the rare presence of foreigners here; Liz and I are warmly welcomed, bashful with our accidental roles as the guests of honour. I leave grateful for this brief glimpse of what simplicity feels like.

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