Backwater cruising

Trip Start May 01, 2010
Trip End Apr 30, 2011

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Where I stayed
Urindahavanam Guesthouse

Flag of India  , Kerala,
Monday, January 24, 2011

We are in Kerala, a state in southern India squeezed between the Arabian Sea and the Western Ghats mountain range.  One of India’s most affluent states, Kerala is a good starting point to hopefully ease us gently into the chaos of India. Interestingly Kerala’s government is a freely elected communist one (there are lots of posters around with hammers and sickles!) and the state has good figures on health, education and equitable income distribution.

We flew from Bangkok to Mumbai and then caught a domestic India Airways flight to Trivandrum, Kerala’s capital near the southern tip of India. Although not a huge distance from South-East Asia, India feels very different. It didn’t take long to notice a few cultural quirks like the charming head wobble. We have also noticed that there is a kind of separation between men and women. You are more likely to see groups of men or groups of women rather than mixed groups and the bus stand in Trivandrum had a separate waiting area for men and women! In South-East Asia we noticed that men are quite affectionate to each other but that seems to be even more the case here, with guys often walking around with their arms around each other’s shoulders which looks quite strange! On the other hand, physical demonstrations of affection between men and women are a bit of a no no.

Trivandrum is a busy but pleasant enough place and we stayed for a couple of nights visiting the impressive zoological gardens which were a nice shady retreat from the heat and noise of the town. In the evening we discovered that alcohol is not easy to come by in Kerala. It only seems to be available in expensive hotels or a few seedy looking bars. It is not for sale in cheap budget guesthouses and not in shops. It’s probably no bad thing though as we could do with a detox!

From Trivandrum we caught our first Indian train up the coast to Alleppey. It was only a three hour journey so we bought cheap sleeper class tickets. The train was very punctual and left at exactly 9.50am. It wasn’t luxury but it was cleanish and the ride was smooth (not like the bumpy and very grubby trains we took in Burma). The landscape here is overwhelmingly green with emerald rice paddies and thousands of palm trees. We arrived in Alleppey at lunch time and grabbed a rickshaw to a little guesthouse called Urindhavanam. The friendly guesthouse consisted of a low stone building surrounding a plant filled garden which was lit by hundreds of fairy lights at night. Unfortunately the gardens were also home to large numbers of voracious mosquitoes!

We had come to Alleppey for one reason, to explore Kerala’s famous backwaters, a network of rivers, canals and lakes that run parallel to the coast. We decided to spend one day on a small oar powered boat which could go into the smaller channels and the next day on a larger traditional rice boat that you spend the night on. Unfortunately the night before we were due to go on the small boat Tom became very ill. He was throwing up repeatedly for several hours and then his hands, feet and mouth became numb which was scary. At this point we decided to go to hospital so I woke the young guesthouse owner who was very kind and ran to get his car. We arrived at the hospital at some point in the early hours and Tom was given three injections and put on a drip to rehydrate him. Luckily recovery was swift and we left the next morning. We knew we wouldn’t be able to spend ten weeks in India without some food poisoning but didn’t expect it after just three days!

We spent the rest of that day resting and went to bed early in preparation for our second attempt at going out on the backwaters!

The next morning we woke early and got down to the water’s edge by 6am where we met our boat man, Lal. We spent the next six wonderful hours lying back on comfy cushions while Lal rowed us along the meandering waterways. In the early morning light we saw plenty of birds including herons, kingfishers, cormorants, eagles and egrets. We stopped at a little place for a yummy breakfast of curry and idlis (spongy rice cakes). The restaurant owner had a pet eagle which happily perched on our shoulders. Around mid-morning we clambered out of the boat and went for a walk alongside the canal and through a small village passing women washing dishes, clothes or themselves in the water and men climbing up palm trees to collect palm toddy (palm beer) from the coconut palms. Then it was back in the boat for more soporific rowing back to our starting point.

The next day we started later, reaching the boat jetty by 11.30am where we boarded our beautiful houseboat.  The boat is built in the style of a traditional rice boat and had a large bedroom, a bathroom, a large back deck with table and chairs and a smaller sun deck upstairs. For just the two of us, we had a staff of three including our own chef who created mouth-watering traditional Keralan curries and breads. We spent the afternoon drifting along the coconut lined canals gazing out at a timeless landscape where life continues here much as it has for centuries. We moored up at 6pm and sat on the sun deck drinking cold Kingfisher beers as the sun went down. In the reeds below us we spotted a beautiful water snake swimming about. We also had a giant fruit bat land in the palm tree next to us and saw a woodpecker walking up a nearby branch.

We set off at 7.45 the next morning, chugging along slowly in the early morning cool, reaching the jetty by 9am. We were more than reluctant to leave our wonderful boat. We have only been in India for a few days but I’m sure this will be a highlight for us during our time here.

On a less positive note, we have since read that the booming houseboat tourism industry in Kerala is putting an immense amount of pressure on the backwaters environment in terms of pollution. The authorities have introduced an eco-friendly accreditation system for boat operators and hopefully this will go some way to reducing the problems. Ultimately though I think there needs to be limits placed on the number of boats allowed if the backwaters are to survive in their current state and a way of life that has persisted for hundreds of years is allowed to continue.

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