There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Wednesday, 9 March 2016

The Backwaters of Kerala (and some Coir): Part 14 of India's Deep South

8th of March 2016

After a restful, ant-free night and a leisurely breakfast we left our lakeside resort and set off up the coast towards Alappuzha (formerly Alleppey), the next major city north of Kollam.

A cormorant dries its wings in the morning sunshine
Fragrant Nature Resort, near Kollam
The distance was a little less than 100km, but that required two hours driving on the busy roads. We passed churches, mosques and temples, and several lorries taking elephants home after yesterday’s Maha Shivaratri festival.

Elephant going home after Maha Shivaratri
On the road from Kollam to Alaphuzza
By midday we were at a hotel in Alappuzha to pick up our boat for a backwaters cruise. While waiting I was distracted by an immaculately maintained Morris Minor. Over 1.3 million were produced between 1948 and 1971 and anyone my age either owned one or had a friend who did. The split windscreen and radiator grille indicate this beauty was built before October 1954. Morris Minors were never built in India unlike the 1959 Morris Oxford which was manufactured unchanged as the Hindustan Ambassador until 2014.

Morris Minor, Alapphuza
Along Kerala’s Malabar Coast, waves and currents created a series of low barrier islands across the mouths of the many rivers flowing down from the Western Ghats. This formed a 200km long chain of brackish ponds and lagoons running parallel to the coast from Kollam to Kochi. A 1000km of canals link the lagoons, inlets and man-made lakes into a labyrinthine waterway known as the Kerala Backwaters.

From Kollam to Alapphuza.
The Backwaters stretch from Kollam to Kochi
Backwater cruises became a tourist attraction long ago, converted rice barges gliding the comparatively well-heeled across the unruffled lakes and along the tranquil canals. Cruises have become so popular that new ‘rice barges’ are now being constructed and their effect on a unique eco-system is becoming a concern.

Alappuhza is a centre for cruising and as we set off the waterway certainly looked overcrowded.

Evidence that there might be too many cruises on the Kerala Backwaters
We enjoyed a day cruise in 2009 in a barge equipped with two bedrooms we had no cause to use. We expected a similar boat – they are all the same size – but found ourselves on a boat designed for two with a sitting area at the bow, a private dining room, a palatial bedroom with spacious bathroom and a private aft deck from which to watch the sun rise or set.

Slumming it on a converted rice barge on the Kerala Backwaters
We lost many of the other boats as we headed for a smaller, quieter canal…

Heading for a smaller, quieter canal, Kerala Backwaters
 …where we drifted past the daily life of the backwater. Women washed clothes in the canal…

Washing clothes, Kerala Backwaters
 …while a man loaded mangoes for a trip to the market.

Loading mangoes, Kerala Backwaters
We were looked after by a crew of three - two ‘captains’, we were told, and a cook. We had not seen much of the cook until just after one o'clock when we moored beside a banana grove in a wider section of canal. He emerged from the galley bearing two pearl spot fishes with masala crust, chicken curry, poppadums, parathas, lime pickle, two vegetable dishes we could not name and a mountain of rice. Out of sight he had been working hard - and working well. We felt replete before he unveiled his tapioca dessert sweetened with jaggery, and that was good, too.

Lunch on the Kerala Backwaters
While the crew cleared up the idle rich took a walk along the bank past the bananas….

Lynne strides along the bank, Kerala Backwaters
 ….to inspect the paddy fields. This is rich, fertile country producing two, sometimes three crops a year.

Paddy field, Kerala Backwaters
We moved off again. For a while a stripy headed water snake swam alongside us, but disappeared as soon as I trained my camera on him. ‘Not poisonous,’ said the captain at the helm.

'Not poisonous,' said the captain at the helm, Kerala Backwaters
 We passed working boats…

Working boat, Kerala Backwaters
 ...and a man in a canoe…

Canoe on the Kerala Backwaters
 …and crossed a corner of a larger lake where the breeze was strong enough to create some choppiness.

Choppy water on a larger lake, Kerala Backwaters
The stress was all too much for Lynne who nodded off…

Lynne just can't take it any more
 …and had to be gently woken for coffee and cakes at 4 o’clock.

Coffee and cake on the Kerala Backwaters
 The late afternoon sun beat down and the duty captain was forced to take protective measures.

The captain protects himself from the afternoon sun, Kerala Backwaters
 We moored for the night at 5.30 and after photographing a pied kingfisher on a phone line….

Pied Kingfisher, Kerala Backwaters
 …we strolled along the bank. One of the captains joined us as we passed mango trees, toddy palms and coconut palms, all with a backdrop of paddy fields.

Mango tree and paddy fields beside the Kerala Backwaters
Our meeting with the local toddy tapper was not entirely accidental. ‘Would you like some toddy?’ asked the captain. How could we not? Toddy is available only from the tapper or in ‘toddy shops’, usually the most broken down of shacks, where the poorest of the poor gather to drink – not places that welcome foreigners. ‘1 litre, 200 Rupees,’ said the captain. There was, we discovered, to be no bargaining about price or quantity, we could take it or leave it. Had we walked away then maybe the price would have dropped, but the toddy tapper was a poor man, that much was obvious, and 200 Rupees meant far more to him, even after paying the captain’s cut, than it did to us. We took it. Hands were shaken, money handed over and delivery promised later – for now he had toddy to tap.

We walked on to the toddy tapper’s hut with its canvas walls and corrugated iron roof. The sluice keeper in his day job, his scruffy bed and meagre cooking equipment shared the space with the tools he used to regulate the irrigation of the paddy fields.

Outside the toddy tapper's hut, Kerala Backwaters
The captain left us and we continued for a while. As we returned we saw the tapper pouring toddy from a bowl like the one on the steps in the foreground, while one captain holds the bottle and the other reclines on a wooden bench beneath the trees.

Returning to our boat, Kerala Backwaters
We retreated to the aft deck with our bottle of rum and watched the fish jump, the toddy man milking his buffalo and a family washing their pans in the canal. Nightfall approached and the birds forsook the telephone wires and headed for their roosts.

As darkness descended we moved to the dining room where a water bottle full of toddy and two glasses had been laid out for us. We duly pretended to have a sip while the captain took a photo…

Pretending to drink toddy
 …and had a proper mouthful once he had left. Lynne’s face describes the taste better than words, but ‘vegetal, metallic, long brutal aftertaste’ are some that came to mind. There are few things I cannot stomach, I could probably learn to like toddy if I had to, but it would be difficult and, most importantly, I do not have to.

The joy of toddy
We donated the bottle to the crew, which surprised them not at all – it was probably why they insisted we bought a litre. I fetched beer from the fridge and the cook arrived with a fish curry, chicken fry, paneer curry, okra, dahl, rice and chapattis. It was magnificent and mercifully obliterated any lingering flavour of toddy.

We retreated to our domain while the crew dined on the left overs (there had been enough food on the table for six, so they too ate well) while they watched a film on the captain's smart phone.

9th of March 2016

We were up early, but not early enough to catch the sunrise. From the aft deck the Kerala Backwaters on a warm, misty morning looked unbelievably beautiful.

The Kerala Backwaters on a warm, misty morning
We had wondered where the crew quarters were, and as we made our way to the bow we discovered them folding their blankets after a night on the dining room floor.

We strolled to a nearby dwelling,….

Living by the Kerala Backwaters
 …clocked the first worker in the paddy fields at 06.46…

At work at 06.46
 ….and saw the sun appear out of the thinning mist, already some way above the horizon.

The sun appears over the fields, Kerala Backwaters
 We returned to the boat…

Back to our boat beside the Kerala Backwaters
 …past the toddy man’s buffalo.

Passing the toddy man's buffalo, Kerala Backwaters
The crew were waiting to cast off and no sooner were we under way than breakfast arrived. The pile of toast was a sop to western preferences, but we both find Indian western-style bread remarkably resistible. The fruit, though, was sweet and sumptuous, the sambar rich and spicy, the puris delightfully crisp and with freshly blitzed watermelon juice and a cup of tea this was breakfast perfection.

Breakfast on the Kerala Backwaters
I had a zen moment where I found myself asking where in the world would I most like to be at this moment, and what would I want to be doing there. The unequivocal answer was that I would like to be on a boat gliding across the Kerala backwaters dipping this puri into this sambar while eying that very pineapple. That makes me one lucky bastard. In know I am fortunate and privileged and try to be duly grateful rather than obnoxiously smug. I sometimes fail.

Such contentment is, of its very nature, fleeting; even a ‘full English’ in a Yorkshire B&B takes only a finite time to eat (and if it didn’t, what about lunch?). Our breakfast was also affordable to most local people, and the warm, gentle morning was free to all. The crew had the leisure to enjoy it as we pottered gently along, I hoped the same was true for the fishermen with their nets.

Fishing on the Kerala Backwaters
As we neared the end of our watery sojourn the duty captain asked if the non-executive admiral wished to take the helm. Of course I would.

The Non-executive Admiral guides the craft 
‘Aim between those markers’ he said, indicating two buoys a couple of hundred metres apart. This required some ‘left hand down’. I turned the wheel and nothing happened so I turned it further, and then further again, failing to realise how long a heavy, slow moving boat takes to respond to the helm. Eventually it started to turn and it continued turning until we were aimed well outside the left hand marker. I applied some right hand down and then, as nothing happened, I applied some more. And in this way we zigzagged across the lake until the captain decided to take over for the docking.

In total control
We said goodbye to the crew whose company we had enjoyed, tipped them well and made our way into the hotel where the ever reliable Thomas was waiting for us.

The crew who looked after us so well - and a special thank you to cookie in the middle
He had some news; the coir museum we had been unable to visit two days ago was now open and was nearby. We went along with a feeling of mild curiosity rather than burning interest, but there is more to coir than meets the eye.

Coir, fibre obtained from the husks of coconuts, has been used for making ropes and rigging since ancient times but the first factory manufacturing coir carpets, Treloar and Sons, was opened in London in the 1840s. James Darragh and Henry Smail set up the first factory in India in Alleppey (now Alappuzha) in 1859.

Darragh and Smail, pioneers of Alleppey coir
Where they led many followed. Darragh Smail and Co are still in business and in 2007 the World Trade Organisation granted Geographical Indication status to Alleppey coir.

To me coir means doormats, but they proved you can make all sorts of things from coir, including models of the Eifel Tower…

Coir Eifel Tower
 …and even a house.

Coir house
But it is a rough old material and among the displays of obsolete machinery it was the weaving of coir mats…

Weaving coir mats
…and their slicing into usable sizes that predominated.

Slicing coir mats
Before going on to Marari Beach for some R&R we wanted to send the postcards we had bought in Madurai. We spotted a post office in Kalavoor a small town just north of Alappuhza. The tiny room was packed with desks, filing cabinets and people wrestling with Indian officialdom. With patience we acquired some stamps and dropped the cards into a receptacle that resembled a litter bin more than a post box. They all made it to their destination – though long after we had arrived home.

Kalavoor Post Office
 Then Thomas took us to the beach.


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