Monday 14th December
Kumily to Alappuzha (Alleppey).
The Keralan backwaters.
After a restless night being chased by a giant buffalo with enormous horns whilst wading through a torrent of water it was nice to see the early morning sunshine. We slept later than intended but after a cup of organic cardamom tea and a swim in the purified water pool (now featuring a leaf covered surface!) we felt virtuous enough to opt for the full curry breakfast (and masala omelettes and home made muesli, and ginger and honey punch...). Over breakfast we spotted a purple-rumped sunbird sitting in the tree between us and the pool and watched the rhesus macaque monkeys clowning around on the steps. The hotel rain gauge was read - 29mm overnight!
After bidding an enthusiastic farewell to the staff (who lined up by the door to shake our hands), we squeezed ourselves into the car for our four hour drive to Alappuzha, to board our houseboat.
On the way we stopped for a break and some chai for the princely sum of 20 rupees (20p)!
On the way I was struck once again by the huge numbers of people out and about, even in the small villages that we drove through. The women were out shopping or washing clothes in streams, all wearing sarees or salwar kameez, all brightly coloured. About three quarters of the men were wearing cloth skirts instead of trousers. I asked Mr Binu about them, appreciating the obvious advantages of this clothing in the hot and humid climate. The coloured skirt is called a Lunghi. It is worn as a casual garment in the way that a western man would wear pyjamas or jogging pants. Men would wear them at home or when doing manual work. The white version is more formal and is called a doti. All the waiters in the hotel and other similar official men would wear them as smart dress. Men employed as guards or taxi drivers might wear one with a khaki or sand coloured shirt. Most of the formal version are worn ankle length, although many men seemed to tuck them up or fold the lower hem over the waistband to create a Gandhi-style 'nappy' garment when walking about.
As the houseboat was not licensed it was suggested that we should take our own alcohol. Mr Binu already had this matter in hand and pulled up outside a government liquor store. Outside were two orderly lines of men buying bottles of rum and brandy through an iron grille. Bill opted for two bottles of Kingfisher beer at a quarter of the usual tourist bar price.
We arrived at Alappuzha, stepped out of the car, were shaken warmly by the hand by the boat owner and within about ten minutes had set sail onto the Keralan backwaters, our bags and beer already safely stowed!
We were aboard a converted rice barge or kettuvallam. This trip is widely agreed to be one of the 'bucket list' trips that we should do and we could see why. We set off down the channel towards Lake Velambad. To either side were rafts of water hyacinth, the banks covered with vegetation and birdlife. Everywhere people went about their business, paddling along in canoes, washing clothes or pots in the waters or walking briskly along the waters edge. On the other side of the artificial bank were rice fields, lying a metre or so lower than the water level in the canal and lake.
Our boat was very comfortable. At the front sat the captain at his wheel, at the back the engine chugged along and the chef and his assistant proceeded to prepare lunch. We sat on the covered deck in comfortable wicker chairs enjoying a fresh coconut. The boat was made entirely from wood, stitched and woven together with hessian rope (no nails). The roof and walls were also woven, with large windows. Just behind the captain's seat was a cushioned area where we could lounge and ask the poor man awkward questions about the boat, the lake and the local birds (mainly pond herons, egrets, Indian darters and house martins).
Behind the front deck was our little air conditioned bedroom with full bathroom - all very impressive and comfortable.
Lunch was served on deck. Spiced and grilled 'pale spot' fish (?bream) with a selection of curried vegetables and poppadoms, followed by fresh pineapple. After that we sat and let the world drift by as we sailed across Lake Vembanad, 240 square kilometres in area, and then down a smaller canal.
The waterways were busy with other kettuvallams, ferries and small canoes. There was a small resemblance to the Norfolk Broads, although this was on a much larger scale and it was considerably warmer than the average summer day in East Anglia.
We sat and lay and read our books and watched the scenery pass by. So beautiful and so relaxing. Nothing to do for 24 hours except enjoy the amazing views. We watched the ferry travelling along the far bank, stopping at jetties placed at regular intervals. We could see people hurrying along the narrow raised paths between lake and rice field toward the equivalent of their 'bus stop'. We saw the jetty near the school, crowded with children in school uniform.
Suddenly our captain moved towards the bank, and moored alongside another house boat. 'Time to go!' We were perplexed, but followed the captain onto the adjacent boat and into a waiting motorised canoe. Unbeknown to us, this afternoon's activity was not to doze quietly in the luxury of the comfy couch on our rice boat, but to tour the smaller backwaters by canoe. An excellent idea, just rather unexpected.
We had mixed feelings about this tour. It was great to leave the main waterway, the equivalent of a major A-road, and head off down the equivalent of a footpath, away from the crowds and ferries with their bells and horns. At the same time, we felt uncomfortable puttering along looking into people's back gardens and doorways and intruding into their private world. It seemed voyeuristic.
Setting that aside for a moment, it was an incredible and unique experience to cruise along the narrow canal, just few feet wide, between the little single storey houses sitting on the narrow raised banks, surrounded by water and mud. It was beautiful - palm trees and water hyacinths, green rice fields forming a back drop to the miniature stage sets on the raised paths in front of us. Outside most houses there was someone busy working on or in the water. Some women were vigorously doing laundry, slapping and pounding the clothes on flat stones. Some women were washing piles of plates and pans. Several people were standing up to their waists in water, washing themselves, stripped to the waists, their backs to us. One man was washing a prepared chicken carcass in the water before chopping in into pieces on a stone at the waters edge. A few metres further along, a young woman was washing and rinsing her long black hair, standing, fully clothed, in the water up to her chest. We could easily see into the kitchen of one house where a relative had just arrived with some small tubs of ice cream to the great delight of several small children. We could see older school children making their way home along the narrow paths between the trees, after being dropped off by the ferry at a nearby jetty.
People puttered up and down the canal in boats. Some were tourists like us, some were local people getting on with day to day life. Some boats were laden with bundles of reeds or sacks full of something. Some waved at us very cheerfully and encouraged their children to do the same, as if it was us who were the interesting novelty. Some people kept their eyes cast down, not exactly glaring or unwelcoming, but just disinterested in the tourist traffic.
Amongst the ubiquitous rafts of water hyacinths floated empty water bottles, crisp packets and even light bulbs. The outboard motors of the boats spluttered dark grey smoke.
We took photographs of the trees, birds, rice fields and other boats. We didn't photograph the people, although plenty of other tourists did. What a strange world we live in.
Back on board, we no longer had to confront the inequalities of life in the 21st century and settled back down with our books and in particular the Indian guide to Kerala from the coffee table of the boat. This was a charming and old fashioned style of book, with snapshot style photos and longwinded and flowery descriptions of the various districts. It described Kerala 'as if having a sense of deja-vue, like missing a step that is not there'... Hmmm.
Tea time arrived in the form of two cups of masala chai served with spiced banana fritters. Excellent stuff.
At this point we crossed back over the lake and the water was getting slightly choppy. We turned down a more rural side canal and chugged along quietly, looking out over the rice fields and watching crowds of egrets take off and fly across the sky. In a particularly peaceful spot the captain moored up for the night. It was 5.30 pm and the sun was low in the sky behind a row of palm trees. A gentle breeze was blowing on through the front of the boat.
'Would you like your beer now Sir?' Well yes indeed 'Sir' would, and we spent a magical 45 minutes watching the sun go down over the rice fields, flocks of birds gathering and flying over head, and small fishing boats puttering past, their drivers and passengers shouting and waving to us and to the crew at the back of our boat.
Dinner was served on deck at 6.30 just as the last of the light faded away.
Dark clouds had been gathering and we wondered if we were in for another rain storm to match yesterday's monsoon! There were rumbles of thunder around the place, many flashes of sheet lightning and several spectacular forks. The storm lasted about an hour, but no rain fell.
Electric lights were kept to an absolute minimum to avoid attracting midges. Bill was taking no chances however, with full safari suit and socks, and deet insect repellent liberally applied to the remaining exposed areas. I was somewhat more cavalier in a sleeveless dress and flip flops, but paid the price later!
As with lunch, dinner came on a trolley, beautifully served by our three crew - we had okra, rice, dahl, chicken curry, stir fried vegetables, followed by fruit salad. Black tea with milk to follow.
All was quiet on the river by this time, and we could hear the crew chatting, laughing and larking about at the back of the boat.
We sat and chatted in the half light, making plans for the next big step in our lives - being retired and running our small holding. We have no idea what the next few months will hold, and at the moment it all feels incredibly exciting, if not a little daunting. By now the water was still and all was quiet apart from an occasional distant rumble of thunder, movements of roosting birds in the trees and an occasional splash from a paddle as a fisherman slipped quietly past.
The evening was interrupted by a series of power cuts. This continued as we decided to turn in for the night. My shower was interrupted a few times as the lights and power came and went a dozen or so times. There was much concern from the crew (and passengers) about the A/c unit. The fan worked fine but it took a while to fix the A/c. After much chatting and thumping and bumping about it did seem to start working again and we retired to bed, loving the cool air and midge free environment, the boat very gently rocking beneath us.