The Keralan Backwaters

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August 4th 2015
Published: August 4th 2015
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Me and My BoatMe and My BoatMe and My Boat

Alleppey backwaters
Dear All

Hello and greetings from Kerala, wonderful Kerala! Indeed, the Lonely Planet was right, Kerala is a whole different kind of India. It is still India, with its people, climate and rickshaws. But it does feel different. I noticed it as soon as my train crossed the state border from Tamil Nadu into Kerala on Saturday. The landscape changed from being open-plan, rice paddies and agriculture, to a more intimately close feel being generally in the thick of palm trees in all directions. It also took me a while to realise, but I have seen almost no beggars since being here, and no-one seemingly living and sleeping on the streets. In my Geography teaching days, Kerala was often taught as being the exception of India and a model by which the rest of the country ought to follow. I believe it has had a communist local government (the first democratically-elected one in the world, apparently!) for most of its post-independence days, and invests well in education and equality. The communism is quite evident with ubiquitous hammer and sickle signs all around, apparently not the taboo symbol it has become in the west in the anti-communism drive there. The education and equality seem to come through from its lack of apparent poverty, and I have yet to see a decrepit shack or hut dwelled in by the poor. I do not know the actual statistics, but from what it seems, housing, education and welfare seem much better around here, and I can now understand why Kerala is often used as a Geography case study in Development.

Tourism also seems more developed here, although I have still encountered fewer westerners than I remember there being in the north of India. And what a beautiful place this is! I have really enjoyed my last few days here, and still have a few more left. I will relate.

So last off I believe I was singing the praises of Kanyakumari, and revelling in the wonderful experience I had in its main Temple. I failed to mention the not-so-great hotel I stayed in. Well, it wasn’t too bad, it had a lovely balcony view towards the ocean and was fairly quiet. There was just one of its porters who left a really bad taste in my mouth. He seemed to take an instant dislike to me as soon as he saw me, and I’m not really sure what I did to rattle his cage... Whenever he saw me he would just stare and snarl. He reminded me of a scene in the fantastic Tom Hanks film “The ‘Burbs”, when Tom and his friends visited their dodgy neighbours, and he spent the whole time being given the evil eye by the short hunchback. This guy really gave me the evil eye, and one time a two-storey trip in the lift with him seemed to last a lifetime – I could see him in the lift mirror eyeballing me from behind. I was most relieved to get out on my floor. It is funny to look back on it now, but it did give me the shivers at the time, which is why I saved writing on it till now.

Anyway, Saturday morning I took a wonderful 2AC carriage train north from Kanyakumari into Kerala, my first stop being a place called Kollam. 2AC means that it’s an air-conditioned sleeper/seated carriage, with double bunk beds down the carriage. 3AC is similar, but with triple bunk beds. Then there is Sleeper class, which is non-AC and triple bunks all the way down. Finally there
Giving it a go...!Giving it a go...!Giving it a go...!

Munroe Island backwaters
is 2nd class, which is seating all the way, no beds. There are also a few other classes, such as First on a few trains, with private 2- and 4-bed compartments, as well as an AC Chair Car on day journeys. It is all quite complicated, but makes for an absolutely fascinating system of railways in the country. There are trains to just about every corner of India, running with surprising regularity and punctuality. And the booking system is just amazing, I don’t know how India does it. I could find some facts and figures on the Internet if need be, but I have no doubt in stating for now that India’s rail system must be one of, if not the, largest in the world. Anyway, I digress. It was a wonderful journey, so very peaceful. It seems the higher you go in class, the less people there are, and my 2AC carriage was practically empty. I know some people enjoy travel as it is done by the locals, and indeed I met a French family in Chennai who had taken a 28-hour train there from Calcutta by 2nd class seater coach to really experience it as the locals do.
The Bangalore ExpressThe Bangalore ExpressThe Bangalore Express

My transport from Kanyakumari to Kollam
Moi, I opt for the comfort, and enjoyed the journey much more in my air-conditioned cosy, curtained-off seat/bed gazing out at the changing landscape as we journeyed from Tamil Nadu and into Kerala.

Four hours later the train arrived, and I was picked up at the station by the very helpful owner of a stunningly beautiful villa accommodation right on the edge of the Ashtamudi Lake, just outside Kollam. Indeed, the whole coastal region of Kerala is covered with lakes, canals and inland waterways. It is what makes the state famous for tourists, and many book long-term stays on “House Boats” which ply up and down the Keralan backwaters. My accommodation was stunning, and I thoroughly enjoyed my first Kingfisher (strong!) beer in India at the water’s edge, listening to the sounds of the water along with the calls of the abundant Keralan birdlife as they nestled in for the evening. Bliss.

The next day I did my first tour of the Keralan backwaters. This was done in a wooden canoe, powered by a very friendly little man using a bamboo pole as a punt. A lovely, tranquil cruise through a place called Munroe Island, in the middle of Ashtamudi Lake. The trip also included two thorough monsoon downpours, sheltering first under a bridge and second in a little chai stall. I guess it’s what makes Kerala so green. The ferry to the island was rather unusual though, made of two smaller canoes fastened together by a huge sheet of metal, upon which the ferry could transport vehicles as large as cars and minibuses. I did spend the ferry journey wondering how the thing managed to stay afloat, with huge amounts of vehicular tonnage in tow. Still, it worked and got us all safely to the other side and back again.

After this, I joined two lovely Italian travellers, Francesco and Marina, staying nextdoor to my villa, on a tour to a nearby British-built lighthouse, affording excellent views over the sea, town and backwaters, and stopping off at Kollam’s beach on the way back. The beach was not safe for swimming, with huge waves, rip tides and 3-metre deep waters just off the shoreline, but it was still a very popular place for locals to spend their evenings chatting, eating, kite-flying and inspecting the fishermen’s catch of the day the moment it pulled up on shore.

Ahstamudi Lake, Kollam

And finally, a two-hour AC bus ride northwards to here, another Keralan backwater destination called Alleppey. Checked into the most wonderful of heritage houses, the Sona Heritage Home, ticking the box of my favourite type of travel accommodation: the faded grandeur type! This wonderful house was built around 1912, with superb hardwood furniture throughout, four-poster beds and cosy terraces upon which to relax amidst the noises of surrounding bird- and animal-life. Indeed, last night after a downpour, the garden was just alive with croaking frogs – wonderful! And I am also the only guest here. I do feel sorry for the owners in this circumstance, but it is a lovely find for myself, and a great place to just chill in between touristing.

So after arriving and chilling for a bit, I decided to do a reccy of the town. After about 20 minutes, I decided not to. Despite having a couple of fairly photogenic canals through the town centre, my short walk there reminded me that people really visit for what is outside of the urban area – the beautiful backwaters. Alleppey itself is a hectic place with very little room for walking along the road which one shares with huge dilapidated buses and scores of motorbikes. It is also pretty chocca with local touts who want to sell you boat tours or get you to travel in their rickshaw with them. I encountered on two separate occasions guys who would start to innocently walk a little behind me, and then casually strike up a conversation about getting into some form of vehicle with them in exchange for a lot of rupees. Another rickshaw driver just drove straight in front of me, blocking my path so that I would either have to get into his rickshaw, or cross the hectic road to the other side. Unfortunately this is the downsider to travel in India, and I do remember this got particularly wearing (not Waring!) last time I was here. Still, it was an experience, and I feel better able to deal with it this time than last – patience is key. It does seem to be more difficult dealing with them when you’re alone though, as you have no option but to listen to them, and try to ignore them. Anyway, rant over.

My stroll did include a happening upon preparations and warm-ups for the annual Nehru
Canoe TripCanoe TripCanoe Trip

Munroe Island backwaters
Trophy Boat Race, which takes place in Alleppey every second Saturday of August, which happens to be next Saturday. Unfortunately I miss this one, but I did catch a glimpse of one of the teams warming up on a 100-man boat for the occasion. The event is hugely popular, and was founded by the first post-independence Indian President Jawaharlal Nehru in 1952. After watching the boat beat by, I made my way to a wonderful Ayurvedic Massage centre not far from my guesthouse, and spent a fantastic 60-minutes being massaged the traditional Indian way. The Ayurvedic method is designed to loosen muscles so as to improve the circulation. I felt most refreshed afterwards, and squeaky clean. And following this, dinner at the seventh-floor restaurant of the Ramada Hotel, a stone’s throw away from my guesthouse. This is also perfection for me: along with a faded grandeur hotel, a swanky four/five-star hotel nearby with an equally swanky restaurant at a fraction of the cost of what it would be back home.

Which brings me on to today, and this morning. My second Keralan backwater tour, this time out of Alleppey, and this time on a larger motorised boat with a
Canoe PunterCanoe PunterCanoe Punter

Munroe Island backwaters
really nice guy called James. He took me on a three-hour cruise through lush green canals, peaceful lakes, local villages and across the “Houseboat Highway” – my own name given to a channel which seemed to cater for houseboat upon houseboat as they plied the backwaters in both directions carrying tourists. Some of them looked amazing, with at least four bedrooms and fantastic viewing decks. Alas, three hours on the water was enough for me, and here I am now back on dry land, spending a lovely, peaceful afternoon in my hardwood-filled room, air-conditioning on full blast and relating my experiences once again here on my Travel Blog.

So, I spend one more night here in Alleppey, before moving on to the ex-colonial town of Fort Cochin, or Kochi, further north tomorrow. After Kochi, my final destination in Kerala, it’ll be a hop back to Tamil Nadu for me as I head up towards the former colonial hill station of Udhagamandalam (or Ooty for short). I’m really excited about this place, as it was a TV documentary on it about a year ago, and its toy-train you can take to get up there, which inspired this trip to South India in the first place. The very reason why I am here right now…!

So, until the next time. Thanks very much for reading this, and I look forward to writing again soon, most likely from high up in the cool hill-station hills of Tamil Nadu.

All the best


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5th August 2015

Kerala as a model
I read a paper that attributed the better living conditions in Kerala to the education of rural women, which inevitably reduced the population size. The canals look so green and lush, but hot! :)
5th August 2015

Yes, that was one of the main points on the Geography Case Study of Kerala. Very interesting. Not so hot here as in Tamil Nadu. Did you make it to Kerala yourselves?
6th August 2015

Our Southern Indian trip...
Our time was divided almost equally between Kerala and Tamil Nadu with a few days in Mysore. We loved the Backwaters, but it was probably our most humid stop on the entire southern trip (we were there in January).
6th August 2015

Ok. Pretty similar to my trip then. I look forward to reading your blog entries properly when I'm back :-)

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