Village Life

Trip Start May 01, 2010
Trip End Jul 15, 2010

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Where I stayed
Cherkara Nest

Flag of India  , Kerala,
Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Posted by Genevieve

The sky was dark and threatening another rainstorm as we boarded ferry number A39 to Chennankary. The small backwater village was to be our home for three nights. 

We were happy to be getting out of Alleppey, our destination after leaving the beach town of Varkala.  A small but hectic backwater town, we were ready for village life.  Our one relief in Alleppey had been the lovely homestay that we stayed at, complete with pigeon house, swing, and lush jungle-filled courtyard. 

The ferry ride took 1.5 hours and cost us a steep 25 cents total.  The price is kept low as public transportation is highly subsidized by the state Communist government.  (I was under the impression that BC Ferries is "subsidized" as well, but after this experience I realise that some governments have a very different idea of what that means! Perhaps I should write a letter?)  From our wooden bench seats at the front of the boat, we got our first taste of the backwaters - busy canals that are used as local highways by ferries, pleasure boats, fisherpeople in small canoes, and a neverending stream of houseboats constructed in the local Keralan style meant to imitate the cargo boats of a past time.  The canals are lined with small ghats, or steps leading from the bank down into the water.  The ghats are used for a number of purposes, from cleaning clothes and dishes to bathing, brushing teeth, and swimming.  The loud smacking sound of clothing being struck against a stone by women standing knee-deep in the canal as they beat the soap out of the material filled the air.  Small children stood naked as their mothers scrubbed them down vigorously, and a sudden splash would lead to their older siblings appearing the middle of the canal, swimming and waving excitedly as we passed.  The canals surround the small islands that fill the backwaters area.  The people on the islands are mostly rice farmers, and the paddies, for the most part, were flooded during their fallow period during our visit, giving the villages a sensation of being extremely narrow patches of land amonst a huge expanse of water.  There are no roads or vehicles on the islands.  The dirt pathways that lead between buildings, small shops, churches and temples follow the edge of the canals.  Floating by on the boat, we observed women carrying water containers back from the communal taps, children running and playing, goats grazing on the grass lining the paths, and old men resting on the stone walls by the ghats.  In addition to the larger motorized ferries, canoes could be seen tucked under the shade of a palm tree, the driver dozing in the bottom of the boat, waiting for his next passenger - these small man-powered ferries move people, bicycles, and baggage back and forth across the canals. 

Arriving at our stop (the third Christian church on the left) just over an hour after we started out, we were quickly surrounded by small children, offering to show us to our host's house and asking for pens or gifts. Every child in this region knows how to say "One pen?  One chocolate?" if nothing else.  We have been advised by locals to not give out such items, as it just perpetuates the culture of begging.  Here, too, the standard of living is very high, and often it seemed as if the children were asking out of habit rather than need.  At any rate, we enjoyed speaking to the children, and they always seemed happy to tell us their name, where they lived, and to point out their various friends and relatives, often shy children peaking out from nearby hiding places. 

Our ferry was a little bit late, and when we arrived at the house, lunch was in full swing.  The large eating room was filled with two Germans, our host Thomas, and four energetic and adorable children.  Lalli, Thomas' wife, had us sitting and eating an incredible meal of water buffalo, spiced cabbage, green papaya cooked with coconut, sambal, rice, and papadams within minutes.  This was to be the routine of our meals during our stay: we would eat with the children (for the most part we were the only guests) and Thomas, if he was free, and the various women of the household served us the food.  Kian, of course, loved the system: I felt rather guilty, and kept offering to help the women, much to their amusement.  (They refused every offer). 

Our host, Thomas, his wife Lalli and two daughters, Anneena and Anne, live with Thomas' sister Maria.  Maria's husband is temporarily living and working in England.  They also have two daughters, Mable and Rachel.  The four girls, with their impressive English skills and their large repetoire of songs and dances in Malayalam, English, and Hindi, provided us with hours of entertainment. 

Thomas is in the process of building a new house on the family property where his family will live.  His parents and his younger brother and wife also live there.  They are rice farmers, although Thomas is the only one of his generation still farming.  Their property feels like a community in itself - in addition to family members, there are employees that work on the farm, people helping with the construction of houses, and people helping out with cooking and household duties. 

Life in the village was considerably slower than anywhere else we have experienced in India.  Days revolved around the all-important activities of cooking, eating, cleaning, visiting, playing, and resting.  Kian and I indulged ourselves in a few days of doing next to nothing.  We went paddling on the rice paddies, which was beautiful - that lasted about 30 minutes.  We took bicycles and explored some of the neighbouring islands.  We read.  We slept.  We read some more.  (Kian finished a novel in 24 hours).  We ate - far too much!  But amazing food.  And we played with the girls, who made us laugh with their renditions of Bollywood songs and an impressive version of "Barbie Girl."

One morning I took the opportunity to have a cooking lesson with the family matriarch, Amma.  (I don't remember her first name, but everyone called her Amma, which means mother, so we did too).  Amma did most of the cooking for the extended family and any guests staying in the homestay.  The family lands included mango trees, coconut trees, and a number of other fruits and spices, all of which were used in the daily meals.  As a result, most of what was cooked came from their land.  Even the oil was produced by the family - they simply took their coconuts to the local oil mill to be pressed.  I quickly learned one reason why the food tasted so good - the amount of coconut oil added to each dish was enough to make my arteries ache - but the ingredients were so fresh, and the combinations so simple, it was fun to take part.  I can't wait to have "Kerala night" when I get home and try the recipes out for myself!  The fish fry with a spicy masala marinade was a hit.  Spending time in Amma's kitchen reminded me how unneccessary so many of our western kitchen appliances really are.  She had two gas burners that she did the frying on, but the sambal (vegetable soup) and rice were cooked in pots on the wood stove.  During our cooking lesson we were interuppted by a man, stooped over with the weight of fire wood strapped to his back.  He was making the round of the village, replenishing the cooking firewood of the local kitchens.  After 45 minutes of cooking in the toasty kitchen, I was a little sticky from the heat, but soon cooled off with a chilly fresh mango juice that had been cooling in the freezer. 

To say that people were friendly towards us would be an understatement.  It was not only the children that spoke to us and followed us on the pathways, but adults were curious about us as well.  People smiling, calling out to us, asking us questions, all became a regular part of any outing that we went on.  One evening, as we cycled around another island, I stopped near a shop to wait for Kian.  Many people were standing outside the shop, visiting and gossiping.  Two men were sitting near me, and they called out to me.  At first I thought they were offering to take a picture of me with my camera.  I politely declined, but then another man, who had been watching our interaction, interupted to explain, "They are posing for you.  They are waiting for you to take their picture!".  How could I say no?  I obliged, and once the picture had been taken, they rushed over eagerly to appraise it and how they looked in it.  Once they had approved, they thanked me for taking it! 

It would have been very easy for us to slip into a routine in the village and stay for many weeks, eating and napping our way into a kind of relaxed nirvana, but we made ourselves move on. 

Everyone says that staying on a houseboat is a Kerala must.  We had been watching them for days, and decided to go for it.  Houseboats range from basic one-bedroom structures to amazing 5-star floating palaces with satellite dishes, well-stocked bars, and pools on the roof.  Generally the latter are rented out by extended north Indian families.  We, unsurprisingly, opted for a basic option, for a couple of reasons: the price was right (houseboats can be very pricey), and we are not generally extravagent people (we thought we might survive without a rooftop swimming pool for a night).  What we got was a small houseboat with one bedroom, bathroom, a driver, and a cook to prepare all our meals and serve us.  Still pretty luxurious! 

We ended up having mixed feelings about the whole experience.  It was absolutely lovely to sit back and watch the world go by as we slowly cruised through small canals, sipping on fresh coconuts and tea, and eating the food made for us by our personal chef (including fresh fish bought directly from the fisherman).  However, something about the wastefulness of it didn't sit well with us - in a place of such beauty that is being threatened by increased pollution, why were we needlessly contributing to it by aimlessly travelling around in a motorized vehicle all day?  And our chef, who was a fantastic cook, prepared us enough food to feed a large (and very hungry) family - we barely made a dent in our meals.  Yet around us, families were scrimping to make ends meet.  So, although we enjoyed it and don't regret doing it, I don't think it is something we would do again.  Truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience!

It was hard to tear ourselves away from this beautiful region, but we don't have to leave the waters and the beautiful culture created from it just yet, as we are off to Fort Kochi, at the entrance to the backwaters, for a few days.  See you there!

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Colin on

Yes, I agree it is sometimes difficult to get your head around all the wealth and wastefullness in our lives compared to the poverty of India, asia etc. My advice enjoy every day and treat everyone with kindness (which I can see you are doing). Have no regrets.
Love Colin

Angie on

Wow, this is so awesome to see life in a different way. Enjoy your hospitality.

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