Frazzled, bone-tired and irritable, we disembarked the plane in Cochin after a flight that could only be described as ‘interesting’
. That it was pretty close to 1am and the city 18 km away didn’t help our moods any. We bedded down in a drafty, ratty room for the few remaining dark hours and awoke even more frazzled, bone-tired and irritable. India was beginning to get the better of us. The occasional heavy cough; overly sensitive nostrils; the easy onset of headaches; these were symptoms of weakening immune systems. Thirty days in, we were now beginning, in an odd sort of way, to wish the remaining three days would fly by.
Ernakulum, the big city that hosted us for the night, truly captivated our attention all the way tothe bus station. Packed in like the proverbial sardines, we rattled around, for the better part of two hours, in what used to be a bus finally emerging, shaken and stirred, in Allepey. Why Allepey? Maybe it had something to do with it being called “The Venice of the East”
or with its promise of a quite, peaceful place. Or maybe we just wanted a taste of communism. What? Communists in India?
true! You see, each state in India allows it own style of government and Kerala, in Southern India, chose communism over capitalism. If the clean streets, friendly people and noticeable absence of multitudes of street children and beggars defines communism, then maybe, just maybe, it can’t be all that bad.
But this is a travel blog and not political commentary, so back to the story.
(We seem to have, in this blog anyway, developed a penchant for metaphors. Maybe that’s another spin-off of communism. There we go again! No more politicking!) Like giant turtles we lugged our backpacks up and down the hot, dusty main street of Allepey aka Alappuzha in search of a place to stay. Someone suggested a houseboat - one of a few covered Kettuvallam idling in the single tree-lined canal that, by some stretch of the imagination, was meant to typify the waterways of Venice. Oh, “Kettuvallam” are former rice barges converted into boats with all the amenities of apartments. The idea was divine - get away from it all and cruise the backwaters of Kerala - but it would prove to be the single most extravagant expenditure in India. The average price was Rupees 6,000
per day and included all meals prepared by a personal, on-board chef, fruits, sunsets, peace and quiet and an experience like no other in all of varied India. Not bad for USD150 for two persons. In the shade of a giant tree and with the relative privacy of a score or so of anxious touts and curious onlookers
, we discussed (in Papiamento) our budget and determined that we couldn’t afford such luxury. Dejected, we crossed a nearby bridge and lumbered far away from the madding crowd and in the direction of a guesthouse. And (TA DA!!!) there she was! The cutest little houseboat. When the captain, Thomas Thomas AKA Happy, quoted a daily rate of Rupees 3,500
, our spirits soared but we had the presence of mind to maintain poker faces. We clinched the deal and at 1pm, after Thomas finished grocery shopping, we pushed out into the canal. Sham Kumar, our on-board chef, sporting a bright red tikka, delivered a fruit platter and we were officially on the way.
The canal emptied into a massive lake that then branched off into numerous tributaries. We followed the most unlikely one. It was relatively narrow and a few
cozy houses snuggled up against its banks. The villagers waved at us. Naked children jumped into the canal from makeshift docks. A wrinkled old-soul effortlessly and silently paddled a dugout in the opposite direction. A bird dove, headfirst, into the water and emerged with a small, silver fish. The houses fell away and endless acres of lush-green rice fields came into view. Smiles, as broad as the Nile, lit up our faces. We could feel the stresses of the past days easing. The soft ‘put-put’ of the engine and the occasional birdcalls were the only sounds. For hours we cruised - sometimes with paddy fields on both sides, sometimes in small canals lined with houses and sometimes in the big canals where the larger houseboats congregated. And when Sham Kumar finally served up dinner, it was a lavish, delicious feast of fish and rice and papad and stews and salads and fruits. South Indian cuisine shot right up to the top of our favorite foods’ list.
Sunset on the waters was unreal. Thomas steered the boat so that we could ogle the dying day or the birth of another day. Perspectives. We didn’t talk much. There was no need.
Shepherd is to sheep and Duckherd is to Ducks?
Just before dark, Thomas pulled up against the bank of a canal right in front of the neighbourhood bank. We’d park here for the night. And then, and totally unexpected, Thomas invited us to his house. Excited, we hastened to follow in dark. The path led thru misty rice fields and across tiny streams, over a rickety bridge and along the dark banks of another canal. After 30 minutes, we entered a modest house and eagerly wrapped our hands around the hot cups of chai. We met Mama Thomas, Thomas’ mother, his wife and three lovely children. Jimble, the eldest, was shy until the camera came out. Judin, the boy, chattered non-stop and drew flattering portraits of us. And Marya, the youngest, giggled incessantly. The family didn’t have much, by modern material standards, but the amount of love and kindness within the four walls of that home was more than enough to fill a few mansions. We left two hours later, trekked back thru the rice field to our bed in the boat and slept as deep and restful as we did under the stars and in the dunes of the Thar Desert.
The window of our cabin
opened up to the canal. We stuck our heads outside watching flotsam and jetsam and a most curious water snake glide by. We watched a camouflaged cormorant watched the water snake and we saw when the bird attacked. The snake dove hard and fast and the cormorant followed, disappearing below the surface. We were rooting for the snake and we lost
and as the cormorant flew away with its breakfast Sham Kumar laid ours out on the deck. Whether it was the sight of hundreds of ducks or the immaculate Christian church buildings along the waterside or Sham Kumar’s cooking, we can’t decide but something caused us to extend our cruise to another day. We chose different canals (there seemed to be an endless supply of canals) and lazed the day away. Shanna finished up the last chapters of the apparently emotional Kite Runner (judging by the wash of tears) while Vibert flipped thru Rushdie’s Midnight Children wondering why Shanna was crying.
In a stroke of sheer genius, Shanna ordered the boat to stop at a certain spot overlooking paddy fields and black and white birds. Following her lead, Vibert began to unload the tables and chairs and Sham
Kumar brought out the food. And there, on a dam between the water and fields, we lunched at a spot so unique, so fortuitous and pleasant that it would rate as our most memorable lunch experience. The rays of the late afternoon sun fueled the folly of youth and we jumped off the deck and into a canal and splashed around with a certain mixture of glee and fear.
When we sailed back into the main canal in front of the Allepey bus station, we felt alive, re-energized and sad that our adventures in India were almost at an end. At Thomas’ insistence, we wrote in his guestbook the first thing that came to mind: “There Is No Price Too High For Sanity Reclaimed”
With a few hours to burn before our bus back to Ernakulum, we took a 10-minute rickshaw ride to the seaside and sat in the powdery sand watching families play in the surf and people fly kites. A group of three youngsters befriended us and one dude gave Shanna the first kite she had ever flown. She was ecstatic. Another serenaded us, his voice beautiful and strong even against the sound of the waves breaking
on the shoreline. They escorted us to a waiting rickshaw and, with 45 minutes to spare, we were back at the bus station. Vibert crossed the bridge to take to Thomas Thomas printed copies of the pictures we took with his family. Shanna waited with the bag. Upon Vibert’s return, Shanna discovered that she had left her daypack in the rickshaw. We searched, frantically and in vain, for the same rickshaw amid a sea of identical three-wheelers. With 25 minutes left before the bus departed, we made the decision to risk going back to the place we took the rickshaw. It was a long shot but it paid off. The driver was on the spot and he waved at us before dipping into the back and emerging with the pack. What are the odds of losing a bag in India with iPods (spelled correctly this time), a smartphone and credit cards and finding it again, all items intact, after 30 minutes?
Just in time, we caught the bus and then the train and settled in for an overnighter all the way back to Chennai.
Without further drama, and with no particular pomp or ceremony, we boarded Tiger Airways and
thus ended our India adventure 😊
Outro: India, India, India
Reveling in Udaipur and being discriminated against in Delhi; dreaming in sand dunes in Jaisalmer and gawking in Agra; getting culture-shocked in Chennai and perfumed in Mysore; pampered in Tarkarli and surprised in Chandigarh; disappointed in Goa and impressed in Goa; educated in Nasik and wowed in Jodphur; hustled in Jaipur and reinvigorated in Kerala.
The most contrasting, confrontational place we’ve ever visited, India was for us the best of times and the worse of times. So, would we visit again? In a heartbeat!
😊 Thomas Thomas and family
😊 Sham Kumar
😊 The irrepressible people of India
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