Kerala backwaters: boats again

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January 22nd 2014
Published: January 30th 2014
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We left the Periya Hotel at about 0700 loading ourselves, and having our gear loaded into 7 seater Chevs. We climbed for a while in Eastern Kerala and apparently we reached something like 700 m. The landscape became lush again and opened out into tea plantations. Quite steep mountains and ravines with the high points often occupied by a church or church school - sounds a bit like Brisbane! We saw Fraciscans, Jesuits, Lutherans and Adventists. At the top of our climb we stopped at a large church that had been built by the locals, apparently more or less under conditions of slavery during the English time. Quite a simply decorated church with the symbols we have come to recognise in Southern India, for example a metal cross on top of the steeple incorporating a large fluorescent light. Climbing the stairs to the church we could see across the plantations opposite and hear the tea puckers chattering away. Somewhat strangely there was a emu grazing around the church, apparently a gift from an Australian Good Samaritan. Apparently also, the oil has semi-magical medicinal properties - like so many things. It was really quite cool up here, so we enjoyed a few more hours of crispness before descending to just below sea level in the back waters.

We stopped a couple of times to see rubber trees up close, to snack on Puris with masala, and to buy a case of Kingfisher beer for the boat trip. Intrepid dies not run trips on houseboats because it has concluded most of its clientele get bored after a few hours. They prefer a couple of boat excursions to specific places in the back waters and then home stays. We got onto a classical old wooden ferry somewhere near Allpuzah and motored southward for about an hour. This is where the cold beers came in handy. We glided at about 5 knots past villages perched on the narrow levy banks between the main stream, and the extensive paddies beyond. Villages crossed the streams in lovely stitch & seal canoes, or on rafts made from hundreds of waste plastic bottles tied together. Catherine and I found it too hot to be on the upper decks so opted for the quaint little cabin. Roger and I planned a canoe adventure on the lakes in eastern Canada near Prince George.

The group was split across three home stays within 200 m of each other, and all on the waterfront. The ferry pulled up directly beside the shore at one of many stone stairways. These are used by the villagers for all washing chores: fish cleaning to the left, clothes washing to the right. We were comfortable in our little home stay and the hostess presented a pleasant lunch. A stitch&seal long canoe came back for us. We were propelled across the river by polling and sculling. There wasn't much current and the many luxury houseboats cruised past at a leisurely pace. One of the home stay hosts - there seemed to be a Rajasthani connection - took us out for a walk around the village. He told the stories of the creation of the backwaters by land reclamation, and the original purpose of the houseboats as landlord moveable accommodation. People were very friendly but otherwise went about their business oblivious. We saw brilliant white egrets, and chipmunks, as well as several jungle orioles. Just on sunset we got back into the long boat and were polled around the narrow canals draining the paddies. We saw the villages up close. Children waved excitedly and sincerely we thought. The sunset was the rich liquid variety we have seen in south-east Asia. Small flocks of egrets looped northward. Groups of fisherman worked fixed nets. Apparently the level of the backwaters are set by a series of barrages but it is dropped a couple of times a year to help keep them clean-ish.

During the paddle home we were treated to a procession of villagers holding candles, chanting to percussive music, and holding placards. It looked spectacular in the fading light. It was all part of a celebration of the life and work of a local luminary. This continued for a while as the group gathered at one of the home stays for a local meal. Excellent, Kerala fish curry again. Some shots of Whisky added for good measure. The night was completely still and quite muggy. We left our windows open until it was absolutely clear that Mosquitos were joining us. With the ceiling fan rocking away, one couldn't tell.

23 Jan

We started the day sitting out on the verandah of the home stay looking out over the water and watching the back waters communty start its day. Local crows serenaded us. The other members of the group joined us. Catherine and Anne discussed The Vintner's Letters which the former was reading at the time. I was reading an ancient love story translated from sanskrit texts. No really! Breakfast was Dosa pancakes with a coconut chutney. The host stayed around to chat this time. Their daughter was in grade 8 and was too shy to speak English though she was likely quite proficient. The same ferry boat as yesterday pulled up near the front gate just before 9. We gathered the gear and loaded it onto the top deck. We crossed the river, which I reckon is the Periya River, to pick up the rest of the group. We then steamed slowly back upstream to Allepey. Where we finally got off the boat, the canals were two boat beam's wide and pretty choked with water hyacinth. On the way we passed literally hundreds of houseboats of various sizes, confirming DJ's comments that some 4000 boats now operate on these enclosed waterways. A short walk to the local bus terminal to catch a bus back to Fort Kochi. It was a pretty uneventful trip back to town. At some point a Tuk Tuk had caught fire, but I'm guessing that is not unusual.

It took about two not unpleasant hours with the breeze blowing freely through the bus windows. When we got to the bus terminal close to Fort Kochi DJ couldn't secure the services of three Tuk Tuks. Turns out they were on strike for better remuneration! We caught another local bus for the last three kilometers back to the Mother Teresa statue with neon highlighting, and on foot back to the Intrepid Kaliveedu Hotel. The hotel which looked a little dingy to us at the start of the trip, now appeared pristine and calm. Trip largely done. The group went out together for lunch and subsequently dinner, and it was great to recount stories of the trip and prepare for us all going our own ways. We had pooled resources for a significant tip for DJ - whose real name most of had by the end of the trip - who had really delivered above and beyond for us. For his part, he would get a half day off before starting the same trip again with another group. I could understand how people tire of that routine. G&Ts with the group before everyone hit the sack. People would be leaving for the airport at all hours of the night, and DJ intended to say farewell to each of them. I dared to look at my work email account.

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