Maneesha Panicker


Industrial Engineer, Islander and Hotelier

Kochi, Kerala

Maneesha and I first spoke in early 2014 when she was living between New York and Kochi when she was getting ready to launch a four-bedroom boutique resort on an island in the backwaters of Kerala. Since then Maneesha and I have shared a rowboat out to the island, explored the last edition of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, eaten a wonderful lunch at the Edible Archives, learning about indigenous varieties of rice and discovered local fashion designers. Once a high-powered industrial engineer in the USA, Maneesha returned home to Kerala and brings the same passion and energy to her travel projects and is a true pioneer of slow travel in India. Kayal skyrocketed to fame at the end of 2016 when National Geographic included the island in their ‘Best 24 Hours on Earth’ feature where the editor in chief fell in love with Kayal, the “land of coconuts” as he paddled across the backwaters at dusk. Since then many of my private clients have enjoyed discovering the slow rhythms of the island.

Our conversation takes place In July 2020 during the Covid-19 Pandemic.

What were you just thinking of?
Right now I am thinking about how nature, art and objects of beauty can make your day and your space so much better. Beautifully designed spaces and collaborations with artists always bring me joy. Besides that, lately my brain has been on fire - learning new things, reading, watching foreign films, writing, and organiszing.

What are you doing for the rest of today?
This afternoon, I’ll head to the island in the backwaters, to our hotel Kayal Island Retreat. My team comes in every other day to clean up and water the plants. Being a hotel that was full everyday of the year, we are thinking of new ways to keep ourselves engaged. We are planting fruiting trees, learning new recipes and just connecting with each other. Every time I take the boat to the island, I am grateful for what I have. The vast backwaters, the lush island, the friendly islanders, the slow pace, all instantly put me at ease. I am also grateful for living in nature. This lock down, my mother and I shared my apartment in the backwaters. It’s a beautiful home with the vast backwaters on three sides. It’s also a quick 10-minute car ride and a 5-minute boat ride to our hotel, so I can’t possibly ask for a better commute. Many years ago, while working and living out of New York City, I had made a conscious decision to give up the city life and live in nature. Now, more than ever, that decision has paid off.

How ‘real’ does the threat of the virus feel? Do you know any one personally who has contracted the virus?
Personally, I am not afraid of contracting the virus or getting sick from it. I see it as any other disease you could get and recover from. The human body has an innate capacity to heal. Also, I don’t know anyone that has contracted the virus within my circles. But, for the safety of my loved ones and the community, I am happy to socially distance and follow all Covid protocols.

Professionally, it's a different story. Most of our travellers are global, primarily from France, Germany, UK and America. In India, the lockdown was imposed mid-March. It’s early July, and international flights are still grounded. The contagion hasn’t peaked in many countries and people are talking of a second wave. Several countries have imposed travel restrictions. We haven’t seen a single client in over four months. If things continue like this, the travel sector could have no business for many months to come. As a hotel with infrastructure costs, fixed expenses and a team to support, the economic impact of the virus is very real and debilitating. The longer it takes for people to travel, the harder it will be for us to bounce back. We are seeing many iconic hotels and restaurants across the globe shut down, and it hits very close to home.

If your own health and that of your family/friends is ok; then what is the greatest impact on your life (and on your work) of the pandemic?
I am a compulsive doer. As creators we never allow ourselves time to rest. I was going non-stop, for the last decade, building the hotel and the business. The pandemic allowed me the space to embrace slowness and uncertainty. I got to nap, meditate, do yoga and go swimming. I’m catching up on films and writing more. I got to spend a lot of quality time with my team and my mother. I’m reaching out to many of our past clients and getting to know them better. I have plenty of uninterrupted time to myself, to dream new and create new. We are reimagining slow travel and reinventing our menu. We want to launch a new website and put in booking and accounting systems, so when things pick up again, we are able to spend more time serving our clients.The downtime has been so refreshing that we are working towards building a month of downtime into our yearly routine.

What are you looking forward to post pandemic?
When the dust settles, I think there will be loads of people travelling again. We anticipate a shift towards slower, more conscious, more meaningful travel, and Kayal is perfect for that. With just four rooms on a remote island, we are ideal for a post-Covid socially distanced travel. We hope to see more demand for our well being tours, too.

Has there been anything positive from the pandemic?
With all this time on hand, I have been taking online courses. You can learn anything from the world’s best, sitting anywhere. Recently, I enjoyed Copy Cure - a writing course for entrepreneurs, and 10 Ways to Think About Gratitude by mindfulness coach Sheena Dabholkar. I just saw registrations for an online version of an in-person 15-day acting workshop based on Koodiyattam (a form of sacred theatre traditionally performed in Hindu temples). It’s taught in a remote village in Thrissur, not too far from where I live. I can’t think of taking an acting class on Zoom, so I’ll wait for a brighter post-Covid world to take this workshop in-person.

Is there an innovation (service, product, science, media) that you have been impressed with?
Since I have taken so many courses and we have a very robust well being offering at Kayal, I’ve created an island-inspired online well being course that will be delivered straight to people’s inbox. As a hotel, this is our first experiment in digital products. I am quite curious to know how it does in the market.

What does your personal future of travel look like? When and where will you go first? What are you dreaming of?
I can’t wait to travel again. Just before the lock-down in India, I was in Northern Karnataka exploring Hassan, Hampi and in Northern Kerala, Neeleshwar. I was looking forward to watching a Theyyam ritual dance, when the lock down was declared. Kerala has done an amazing job containing the virus, and we have freedom to travel within our state. But when things really open up within India, I want to do a road trip from Hyderabad to Gulbarga. I love architecture, and on that route, you can see Persian forts blend with Dravidian palaces.

What are you finding inspiring now?
When building Kayal, I discovered Malayalam rap through my interaction with the village kids. Then I realized it’s an underground movement across Kerala, and a way of dissent through lyrics and rhythm. I’m moved by this trending rap song Voice of the Voiceless by Vedan. It talks about how people who use words to protest are being branded as anti-nationals and people who use swords are being elected to places of power. I think that rings true across the world, from India to America.

I love the movies. I am someone who goes to both commercial and offbeat movie screenings anywhere near me. When I lived in New York, I used to make it a point to go to any film festival I could find in the city. In Kerala, every year I spend a week at the Trivandrum Film Festival catching up on over 30 foreign films in 7 days, and I love it. For me, the hardest part of Covid is not being able to go to the theatres. I discovered MUBI now. It’s like Netflix, but for cult, classic, and independent films. You get 30 handpicked movies a month.

What has made you laugh out loud most recently?
I am blown away by the amount of live-stream content available now. Your true voice matters, and I am learning to speak to camera, and we are sharing behind-the-scenes footage from Kayal.We recently got on Zoom live-stream and watching our recording just made us fall out of our chairs laughing. You know how beautiful Kayal is, but when you are on a boat in the middle of the backwaters with limited internet, what a Zoom viewer sees is patchy, dark, and frozen images. It’s really hard to fathom Kayal’s beauty over a live stream. You really have to be on our waters to understand how beautiful it is.

If a reader would like to make a contribution, can you recommend a specific organisation/initiative that could do with the support?
I recommend you reach out to a small business, restaurant or hotel in your neighbourhood, one that you really loved, and find out if there is anything you could do that may help them in these difficult times. It can be something very small, like booking a lunch for two when things open up, that could spark some hope in their difficult times.

Contact
Website: kayalislandretreat.com
Instagram: instagram.com/kayalislandretreat/
Facebook: facebook.com/KayalIslandRetreat

Kayal Island is now open and ready to welcome guests from within Kerala and, hopefully not before too long, from other states in India and visitors from abroad. Bookings can be done directly on the website or I am happy to help you plan a fuller India itinerary through the Love Travel Journey Service.

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