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Published: March 20th 2015
We were leaving Thekkady and heading west to Kerala Backwaters
. We woke early and grabbed a chai
(tea) at a local coffee shop (Coffee Day), before checking out and jumping into a minibus at 8am. We had a four and a half bus trip and a one and half hour boat trip ahead of us – we were heading to River Side Retreat Homestay in Karumady (Ambalapuzha).
We slowly wound our way downwards out of Thekkady through tea and coffee plantations, stopping at the slightly bizarre Pattumala Matha Pilgrim Shrine at 9am before continuing our downward journey on the narrow winding roads of the Silk Mountains. This was a breathtaking trip, as we occasionally met public buses driving at breakneck speeds on hairpin corners with sheer drops off the roadside with no guard rails. We stopped at the Mariya Family Restaurant for chai
and Kerala paratha
(layered flat bread), and it was a welcome reprieve. We picked up a few snacks and continued our journey downward past rubber and pineapple plantations, and as we descended the heat and humidity rose exponentially.
We eventually arrived at our jetty in Nadimidu in the Kerala Backwaters at 12.30pm. After I was
mobbed by a group of Christian Missionaries who had congregated outside the public toilet, we boarded our motorised boat, climbed onto the top deck and set out towards Karumady along the Pompa River.
It was an incredibly relaxing trip, drifting past small villages and under small bridges before reaching the River Side Retreat Homestay at 2pm. We quickly showered and sat down to a lunch of long bean curry, dry beetroot and coconut curry, tomato curry, elephant yam, mango chutney, salad (tomato, carrot and cucumber) and rice at 2.30pm. We finished with fresh pineapple and relaxed outside our rooms on the riverbank. At 4pm we stepped into a pole boat and drifted across the Pompa River to begin a walking tour of the Vaishyam Bhagom village, which was directly opposite our homestay on the other side of the river. We walked along the edges of rice fields for two hours as the sun slowly turned burning orange as it slipped below the horizon.
We drifted back across the river to freshen up, and then returned by the same pole boat at 7pm for dinner at Ayana’s Homestay. We were served Kerala red rice, dahl, bean and pumpkin curry,
beetroot fry in coconut oil, chicken masala curry, egg curry and chapathis
(unleavened whole wheat flour flat bread, cooked on a dry skillet). It was fantastic! We finished the meal with vermicelli payasam
(vermicelli pudding with brown molasses, coconut milk, spices, cashews and raisins) and ginger lemon tea (with a decent dash of whisky).
At around 9pm we climbed into our pole boat and drifted back across the river in pitch darkness. We sat outside our rooms and had a few drinks on the riverbank before retiring at 10pm. We had four hours of travel by boat, public bus and auto rickshaw to Kochi in the morning, so we needed to rest. SHE SAID...
When planning our southern Indian trip, it was the Backwaters of Kerala
that excited me the most. And even though it meant that our time in the south was coming to an end, I was very much looking forward to the homestay we were heading to.
We left Thekkady and Periyar National Park after a quick chai
(tea) at a small shop near the hotel. We were in a minibus, and we had another long day of driving ahead. The road
was winding and narrow, with spectacular drops and no guard rails in sight. We shared the downhill drive with big busses, motorbikes, wandering livestock and kids in school uniforms. We passed waterfalls, rubber plantations and tea terraces.
We stopped briefly at the imposing Pattumala Matha Pilgrim Shrine which sat atop a small hill in the midst of tea plantations. There were many steps to the top, and the view was beautiful. After looking at the grey stone (almost medieval) architecture of the exterior of the church, I was quite taken aback by the very colourful altar which was covered in very bright LED lights, giving the room the unfortunate air of a slightly odd disco. I suppose Catholicism in India wasn’t immune to the love of colour and movement in Indian decor, and nor should it be. I was seeing things through my own filtered preconceptions of how a Catholic Church should look, and I had to remind myself of that. I also noticed that quite oddly, the church didn't have any pews inside. I could only guess that this was because it was a place of pilgrimage and needed to accommodate large crowds.
There was a refreshment
stop at a roadside cafe which served fantastic chai
(tea) and Kerala paratha
(layered flat bread). We sat on the balcony at the back of the cafe which had 180 degree views of the surrounding hills and valleys. I stocked up on snacks for the drive – Kurkure has turned out to be the favourite brand of chips (crisps to you Europeans and Americans), and my favourite flavour is ‘green chutney Rajasthani style’. I tried ‘naughty tomato’ too, and I can only describe it as crispy tomato ketchup (and peculiarly, it eventually grew on me).
We had one more quick stop at a rubber plantation, but by now the day was getting hotter and my concentration span was near zero. So I can only tell you that the tapping of rubber sap seems to work the same way in all Asian countries.
As we drove along, the roadside scenery changed from dense trees and shrubbery to lush rice fields and vegetable gardens, and eventually the landscape started becoming decidedly coastal – coconut trees bent by the wind and meandering waterways.
After four hours or so, we turned off the main road and into a rough unsealed road
which led to a rather seedy looking settlement next to the river. The sun felt hotter at water level and the humidity shrouded us like a heavy, wet and slightly itchy blanket. I would really hate to be here in the high humidity season.
We boarded our boat for a one hour journey down the river. The lower deck, although shady, was stiflingly sticky and hot, so I joined Andrew on the roof of the boat. Even though the sun was harsh, the breeze was a very welcome antidote to the humidity as we cruised along.
The waterway felt like being on any busy highway – in fact, there were ‘road’ signs along the riverbank, and ferry stops like bus stops from which to hail passing ferryboats. We were told that there were about 300 islands in the Backwaters, many of which were on reclaimed land. We saw men at work strengthening and rebuilding the stone walls along the riverbank. With climate change, the rising tides and monsoon floods are having a serious effect here. Behind the retaining walls were rice fields growing the famous Kerala red rice. On the narrow ledges of land between the rice fields
and the waterways, there were cottages with steps leading down to the water. Women were washing clothes in the river, and a canoe pulled up to one set of steps to offload its cargo – a brand new fridge. The gardens of the cottages were full of fruit trees and vegetables. The waters were busy with fishing boats and passenger vessels. The kids had a local school boat instead of a school bus.
The section of water near us ended in a dam which prevented the sea and fresh water mingling as they once did, which is good for irrigation, but not so good for flushing out the water weeds which have become a pest along the river. However, the large clumps of water hyacinths had pretty purple flowers and provided floating platforms for cormorants and cranes to fish from.
We eventually arrived at an intersection with a smaller canal, and pulled in at a small jetty in front of an old style house. We were staying at the Riverside Retreat Homestay in a small village of Karumady for the night (12km from Alleppey). The group was spread between two different houses which were across the river from
each other. Our house took in the four couples, and we were housed in a row of bungalows with fans and ensuites – all facing the lovely garden which led down to the river. The owner Jiji and his wife Vishy lived in the old house behind our rooms. They welcomed us with a very generous and delicious lunch at a communal table set up on the terrace. We had four curries – elephant yam, long beans, tomato, and beetroot with coconut – served with fat grains of white Kerala rice, sides of homemade mango chutney, and a fresh salad of carrot, tomato and cucumber. We all ate until we could eat no more, and then had slices of very sweet pineapple for dessert. It was beautiful traditional Kerala home cooking, but they had clearly gone easy on the spices.
Kim and I found a quiet vantage point at the bottom of the garden to watch river life from. There seemed to be a private local ferry that taxied people from one bank to another, houseboats were plying the water with lounging tourists waving at us, a man was diving for mussels in the middle of the river, and
across the river from us there seemed to be four or five people engaged in washing clothes under a tree. We went for a walk through the village behind our homestay and got a bit carried away, missing afternoon tea and only just making it back in time to catch our Pole Boat transfer to join the ‘other side group’ for a walking tour of the village. A Pole Boat is exactly as it sounds – a canoe-like boat punted with a long bamboo pole. I was surprised that we all managed to board and disembark the boat without capsizing it!
We met Vinit (a former Intrepid Travel guide whose family runs one of the homestays) who took us for a walking tour. We walked single file along a path that hugged the river, from which coconut trees leaned down to graze the water. We ducked under low hanging branches along the rice fields, grazed our arms on overgrown bougainvillea draped on fences, and crisscrossed over smaller offshoot canals. Vinit pointed out things about typical village life, such as the use of a 'grinding stone' – a flat thick slab of black granite which was grooved in the centre
from decades of use. In the groove rested a stone rolling pin of sorts. Whole spices and herbs are placed in the centre with freshly grated coconut or chopped onions, and ground together with the rolling pin to make a paste. A blender would be faster and less messy, but (apparently) where’s the romance in that? Besides, like a seasoned wok, I think the stone added to the flavour.
We found out about the different varieties of coconut trees and the multiple uses for every part of those trees. Vinit explained the intricacies of growing and harvesting bananas, described the irrigation methods used by local farmers to grow rice, and gave a detailed account of how the islands were built (with diagrams drawn in the mud). The islands were constructed in the 15th-17th Centuries by conscripted labour. Palm trees were split and their sections sunk into the mud, and another set of trunk sections were sunk adjacent to the first and the space was secured with palm fronds. Then men called ‘mud diggers’ dived to the bottom of the river and collected mud on their chest which they brought to the surface. The mud was used to fill the
void between the palm tree walls, and a water dike was constructed (I think...). The explanation had gone on for about ten minutes beyond my concentration span.
As we had observed from our earlier boat vantage point, the people here lived very much in and around the water. We could observe all the comings-and-goings of the people around us by just walking around the canals. We were on the edge of three villages, and everyone knew everyone.
At the end of the walk, a large Pole Boat was waiting in one of the smaller canals to take us back to our homestays. We watched a gorgeous sun set on the watery horizon as we slowly made our way back. Those of us in the Riverside Retreat Homestay had 30 minutes to freshen up for dinner and make our way back to the other side of the river.
Dinner included dahl, chicken curry, egg curry, bean and pumpkin curry, beetroot fried in coconut oil, Kerala red rice and chapathis
(unleavened whole wheat flour flat bread, cooked on a dry skillet). Dessert was payasam
(pudding with brown molasses, coconut milk, spices, cashews and raisins). However, unlike the rice versions
we’d had before, this one was made of vermicelli.
After dinner we drifted back to our homestay in the Pole Boat. It was very eerie being paddled across a pitch black river, with the only sound being the pole hitting the water and our quiet conversation. But it also felt very special...I had that tingling feeling of being somewhere exotic, and experiencing something that I have never experienced before.
After a lovely nightcap in the garden with Andrew, Kim, Anja and Francis, we had a relatively early night. I caught up on some writing that night and thought I heard thunder as I was drifting off to sleep. That distant rumble of thunder turned into a full blown thunder storm that woke us up in the early hours of the morning when the power went off and the fan stopped.
Life is wonderfully slower and quieter on the Backwaters...a welcome antidote to the mass of humanity that rushes through the day in the bigger cities. At night the sound of distant traditional music echoed across the still landscape and quiet waterways, and faint lights from the houses lining the river blinked at me in the darkness. I
was beginning to understand why Gandhi was so obsessed with building an India that had the village at its core.
Next we travel north to Fort Kochi on the west coast of Kerala - for our final night of the southern Indian trip.
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