Thursday, 6 February 2014

Canoeing the Backwaters of Kerala

We stayed in the town of Allepey, a good jumping off point to get to the backwaters. We stayed in a lovely guesthouse called Cherukara nest, an old colonial Portuguese house a stones throw away from the boat jetty to the backwaters.

Our room had some great dark wood Portugese furniture, similar to the style where we stayed in Goa, including this ridiculously comfy seat, the wooden bits sticking out are foot rests, perfect for an afternoon siesta.

We arrived in the early afternoon and had a walk around the town, which doesn't provide much for a tourist apart from being a base for tours of the backwaters. We booked a trip with one of the many travel agents in town for the next day, and as we had some time to kill decided to go to the beach. The beach was nothing like the beauty of Varkala! It was very dirty and the promenade was plain ugly, but we had some ice cream and there was a strange atmosphere emanating from a beach that could be quite beautiful but was simply being left to wash away under a sea of litter.

We came across a graveyard of funfair rides; abandoned bumper cars and banana boats which felt like something out of Zombieland! The beach was probably once a popular destination for families to spend a Saturday afternoon, it has definitely seen better days...

Reminiscent of the old Brighton pier?
There were a few of these delapidated buildings strewn across Alleppey, which are almost pretty in their own weird rustic way.

The next day we woke early to start our canoe trip. We met our guide, Rocha and headed off, first on the public boat down the large main canals and then proceeded to walk through paddy fields, over bridges and across logs and puddles to get to his house In a tiny village. The walk really put the vast size of the complex of backwaters and the lives that rely on these waterways in to perspective.

Children are taken to school via canoes and school boats, we saw several schools all along the backwaters. In Kerala every town or village is entitled to a school, hospital and post office and everywhere there was evidence of private schools, English speaking schools, state schools, universities, colleges all teaching in a variety of English and Malaylam (the language of Kerala). There was also a boat being driven around with large speakers on the back breaking the peace of the canals announcing government events such as public forums, another marker of the communist Keralan government. Even though these people are in remote areas there is a clear government effort to raise political awareness and connect the backwaters with the political life of Kerala and India.

This was one of the public boat stops.

Rocha also happened to be India's only international competitive paddle boarder. He hopes to go to the next Olympics! He proudly showed us newspaper clippings, certificates and medals of his achievements in paddle boarding and dragon boating. Pretty impressive! He had a small house where his wife, parents and two very cute children all lived. Rocha's father showed us all the herbs and food they grow and the animals they keep. In terms of food they are pretty self sufficient, only buying salt, sugar, rice and other staples from town.

Old yoghurt pots as tree decorations in their garden, I can see a pinboard on Pinterest for budding gardeners.

We had a traditional Keralan breakfast at his house. Bananas from their garden and rice flour noodles with sugar and coconut. And of course a cup of chai. Our guide also insisted on taking lots of photos of us (this is the best one of a bad bunch...)

After breakfast we got to business and finally got in the canoe, a traditional simple wooden one less than a metre wide and super wobbly but very authentic.

He also gave us these fetching hats and umbrellas to protect us from the burning sun which was at full blast now. Effective sun protection and bold fashion statement at the same time.

We went through his village, which really just consists of some houses along a small canal. Big boats do not fit down these small canals and as such using a canoe is by far the best way to really get a feel for day to day backwater life. That was one of the reasons we wanted a canoe so we could explore quiet areas of the backwaters rather than get stuck in the traffic jam of the jaw dropping number of tourist liveaboards rice barges that clog the main canals. There were so many big boats, some of which looked ridiculously luxurious fitted with TVs, air con, and hot water all possible obviously with loud generators. We decided against doing this as we had already done an overnight boat trip in Indonesia. If someone came looking for a tranquil saunter down the river on their fancy boat it wouldn't take long to realise everyone else had the same idea, it just didn't actually look that appealing.

But anyway our canoe trip was fantastic, we got a real glimpse of rural life on the backwaters, the canals providing so much for local people and their lifestyles seemed pretty different compared to the people living in Alleppey. Women all along the various canals were washing clothes and washing out pans or collecting water to cook with later on. Men were bathing and cooling off in the water, but didn't see any men washing clothes or any women bathing, the gender roles were still very prominent. One man just outside of Rocha's house was diving to the river bed to hawl up clay on to his boat, one way that our guide also makes his money to fund his sport in the off season. The clay will then be used either for pottery, local craft or reinforcing the riverbanks. The whole complex of backwaters was once a large lake, some of which are still large open spaces, that has gradually been built upon and reclaimed to form a set of canals connected by bridges, boats and still continues to be expanded upon today, however the notorious Keralan monsoon yearly puts the banks of the river under great pressure, and the land has to be constantly reinforced.

The backwaters are also gorgeous and ridiculously photogenic. The trees and plants reflect off the water perfectly and wildlife is abundant, ducks, kingfishers and watersnakes are just some of the endless species that share the backwaters.

We loved popping these plants that floated on the water which are called African moss. Down one canal we had to turn around as they were too many to get through them all.They had these air pockets in them which were so satisying like popping bubble wrap.

This African Moss is also sucking the life out of the waters and is a serious environmental problem faced by those people, animals and plants who rely on the freshness of these waters to provide nourishment. It was hard not to believe that the numerous house boats pumping out fumes couldn't have a detrimental effect on the waters.

Rocha asked if we wanted to try some local palm beer called Toddy, and we thought why not? However it smelt of vinegar and yeast and tasted vile... It ended up being donated to our guides father!

Not only the people but the palm trees have built their lives around these beautiful waters.

We came back to Rocha's house and had a delicious keralan lunch on a banana leaf.

After lunch Rocha dropped us off at the main canal to catch the public boat back.

The time we got on the boat also happened to be the time school was out. All the village kids coming back from school crammed on to the boat and they were very intrigued by us, asking us many questions and showing us their English books. The older kids played it cool shoving the little kids out the way so they could sit down. It was the Keralan equivalent of being the innocent bystander dressed inexplicably like a clown drawing all the attention on the 681 at 3.30 on a Friday afternoon and all everyone wants to know is who you are, where you come from, and if you're married. The backwaters were the life blood of a unique and intriguing way of Indian life, one that we had the privilege of getting a real glimpse of that we won't forget any time soon.

 

 

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