The Keralan Backwaters are made up of linked rivers, lakes and dykes whose ecosystem is pretty special with freshwater meeting salt water from the Arabian Sea. They were formed through the action of waves and shore currents building up silt into spits of land.The area was slowly colonised over hundreds of years and now villages and towns are dotted around the backwaters and act as the start and end points for houseboat cruises. There seem to be many similarities between this region and the UK's Broads National Park where I work, although it would be pretty surprising to see rice growing in the fens and coconut palms lining the rivers!
Our Keralan backwaters homestay is the Green Palms, aptly named as I find out on a wander along the riverside path. The many palms leaning towards the water at varying angles seem to narcissistically peer at their own reflections. They make for beautiful photos providing a frame for the gorgeous thatched houseboats that meander up and down the river. I spot some pretty orange dragonflies alighting on the aquatic plants floating on the surface of the water. They conveniently return to their favourite spot every few seconds so I can
get my perfect shot. I get a nosy at the islanders' houses and gardens as I carry on along the path and pass a few people on my way who smile and say hello. The children want to practice their English and ask me my name and tell me theirs. They are giggly and shy but very charming.
I pass a boat with the unfortunate name 'Pooppally' and hope this isn't a reflection on the state of the water. I learn later that the house boats are regulated and have Green Palm eco certificates awarded when they comply with pollution reduction criteria such as biological and chemical waste treatment facilities onboard or pump-out options if this isn't possible. Even with all this eco effort going on the Keralan backwaters are very polluted. The effects of tourism (pollution from the boats and over burdening of the waste treatment infrastructure) combined with untreated sewage inputs into the system from further afield is having a detrimental effect on the health of locals who have concerns about the quality of their water supply. Sadly I also see a lot of rubbish floating in the water, getting caught up in the water plants. Being
so used to our pristine Broads, where you are actually shocked to see just a single stray piece of rubbish, it is really quite depressing to see how human beings can spoil such a beautiful place as Kerala. Come on India, you really need to sort out your refuse collection and disposal system. Littering is a dreadful blight on your otherwise beautiful country.
As well as the large houseboats I also see canoes of varying sizes buzzing up and down the river, some large, wide bottomed and others smaller and thinner. Most are propelled by a motor and steered from either a standing or seated position at the stern of the boat, depending on its size. A few canoes are paddled by hand and some of the passengers hold umbrellas to shade them from the sun.
On returning to the homestay I find we are sharing it with a couple of Aussie friends who sit and chat about their Indian adventures. It's lovely to swap traveller's tales with people you meet around the world.
At 4pm we meet up with one of our homestay hosts, Thomas, who is to take us on a tour of Chennamkary Island.
We start by going on a walk to the island supermarket. Really it's just a tiny little shop selling basic essentials. When I say basics, these are obviously not the same kind of basics you'd see in our supermarkets back home. Thomas holds up a long, thin green bean known as the drumstick bean. Apparently it is rich in iron but rather than grown on plants in rows like we are used to it's grown in trees! We also see a larger bean like vegetable that is about half the height of Thomas as he's holding it up for us to see. This is the snake gourd and can grow up to 6 feet! We are also shown a large, brown root vegetable that turns out to be cassava, otherwise known as yuca or tapioca. The outside is peeled off to reveal a white inside that is cut up into chunks and boiled, like you would with potatoes.We learn that cabbage, carrots and cauliflower can't be grown in this region due to the climate. Islanders are pretty much self sufficient in food supplies, any surplus they grow is sold at island 'supermarkets' such as this. Rice is a particularly useful
crop for the islanders with 25% of the rice used in Kerala coming from here.
As we walk towards the ferry jetty Matthew tells us about the famous king snake boat races, or Vallum Kali, that take place annually in Kerala. Huge 40 metre long wooden boats are paddled by 110 men per boat with 20 boats taking part in one race. Drummers and chanters keep the paddlers in time and the whole spectacle is watched by huge crowds that go wild with excitement as the races reach their climax. Competition is fierce with each boat being named after the village or island where the paddlers come from. The Nehru Trophy is the race most want to win and it's quite an honour to come home to your island holding the trophy aloft.
Our ferry seems somewhat sedate in comparison but is pretty fun nevertheless. We crowd onto the boat along with many locals who shift up the seats to let us on. The boat zig zags from one side of the river to the other picking up and dropping off passengers as it goes. It's pretty much a life line to islanders transporting school children, families and
workers from A to B. We receive delighted smiles and waves from everyone we see, apart from one 'too cool for school' teenage lad, who of course is sporting THE on trend hair cut for lads his age, and who poses unsmiling for a photo. We learn that the river here is tidal but barriers protect the area from flooding. As in the Broads there is a toll system for boat owners with private boat owners having to pay an annual tax to be able to use their boats here. The houseboats are not predominantly hired out by foreigners as I'd assumed but 90 percent by Indian holidaymakers. The main months are December through to February, so our visit is really out of season.
We get off the ferry and make our way along the riverside path past idyllic looking village houses. What a place to live! We find out from Thomas that 1000km2
of land in this area is below sea level and despite people trying to reclaim the land for development in the past this is now banned and regulated by government to protect the lagoons and rice paddy fields. Stone walls have been built to help
protect the river banks from erosion and silt is dredged to back fill these areas. The coconut palms also help to stabilise the banks as their root system is very fibrous. We walk inland along a little inlet from the main river and the reflections in the water from the buildings and trees are beautiful. I am lining up a shot of a line of colourful washing reflected in the water when the lady of the house nearby says, 'Do you like the flowers?' thinking that's what I'm taking a photo of. 'Yes, beautiful!' I say as I snap a picture of her clothes on the line!
The central part of the island contains the rice paddy fields and that is where we walk to next. Water is pumped into the paddy fields using water wheels to regulate the levels which are lower than the water level of the rivers We learn from Thomas that the area used to have huge problems with flooding before the big barrier was put in further upstream. Once a year the barrier is opened to allow water to flush through. The salt kills off a lot of the plants but there is a
salt resistant rice species that has been developed specially for this area and this usually survives the salt incursion. It can't be doing much good for the biodiversity of the area so I'm not quite sure what the benefits of opening the barriers are. The annual monsoon season does help to flush the system with fresh water so maybe it just works. People live around the outskirts of the paddy fields but due to the constantly subsiding levels they have to rebuild pretty often. On a plus note, since nearly everyone owns land around here the caste system has broken down much quicker than in other parts of India. Working the paddy fields is done cooperatively with money pooled to hire large pieces of machinery. Rather than planting individually grown plants, here the rice is broad cast and then plants thinned out. It saves on labour costs
There is an acrid smell of smoke all around us and we see people setting fires to burn the stubble in the paddy fields. The ground near us is charred black from where the fire has already burnt away the stubble. There is a little cat sunning itself in amongst the blackened
stubble. It won't come to be stroked but does the 'eye smile' thing when I close my eyes at him. As it's so humid in the Keralan backwaters we find out there is a folk song that locals sing to welcome the breeze. Think they could do with with a Hallellujah Chorus of a breeze summoning folk song right now to get rid of the polluting stench and smoke from the stubble burning!
On the way back to the river we pass a toddy shop, decorated with red ribbons so everyone knows this is the place to stop for a snifter of freshly brewed toddy. Toddy is the spirit produced from fermenting the flowers of the toddy palm trees. We get to try toddy later that evening. It stinks to high heaven, has a slimy texture and is the most revolting alcoholic drink I've ever tasted! It's a safe bet that no-one will be taking any toddy home as a present from duty free!
Dusk is drawing in as we reach the large wooden canoe tied up on the bank of the river waiting to take us back to our homestay. I find myself right at the front
of the boat on my own, everyone else is in pairs all the way to the back of the canoe where two of Thomas' mates are paddling the canoe. He is sat at the front facing me and paddling some of the time while keeping an eye out for other boats and shining a torch to let them know we are here. It gets pitch black before we make it back and the river is so atmospheric. I mention the breeze song and Thomas starts to tap a rhythm on the side of the boat with his ringed finger and I join him. He sings the folk song with his mates at the back joining in with the refrain after each verse. It's so beautifully peaceful and sounds amazing hearing Indian folk songs sung to us in the dark of night out on the river. The second song is one we can join in with as we are taught the chorus. It's a funnier song with shrieks and hollers to accompany the chorus.
What an amazing trip. Thank you so much to Thomas and everyone at Green Palms for making us feel so welcomed into your home and onto
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