KAPOORS ON THE ROAD
It was hard to leave this beautiful, peaceful village by the sea, but it was time to move on. The morning we were leaving we learned that there was an ambulance down on the beach - some sort of accident had occurred. We never did learn what happened, but I took it as a sign that we had made the right decision to move on. I would not have enjoyed the beach in the same way anymore if there had been a serious incident there.
The drive was uneventful but I must say that we had a great driver for the journey to Alleppy. He is the owner of the car and has other businesses in Varkala. His driver was off on leave and he decided that things were quiet enough that he would take us himself. I remember learning from my brother David that it is always best if you are travelling with the person who owns the car. They are more likely to drive carefully and not speed. When we arrived in Alleppy he made it clear that he would help us find a great place to stay, even if it took a couple of hours. He did not need to get back to Varkala in a hurry. We went to three different guest houses - private homes that rent out rooms but did not find anything we liked. There are not a lot of mid-range hotels in Alleppy because most of the tourists who come either stay in the resorts or on the beautiful houseboats that move around the backwaters. Just as we were beginning to give up hope, a friendly rickshaw driver spoke to us and showed us a brochure for another guest house, one that is not listed in the Lonely Planet. The photos looked interesting and it was nearby - it turned out to be just what we were looking for and we checked in.
The house is within walking distance of the beach, but a little far off from the town centre. Not a problem really as we are only planning on staying two nights to take a canoe tour of the backwaters during the day. The photos I have included here do not really do the guest house justice, but it will give you an idea of what it was like. The place is managed by a group of young men who seem very westernized. They speak great English, probably from their exposure to so many foreign tourists. In the evening, they invited us to join them on the verandah as they were celebrating some good news. One of the young men had just received permission to marry a Swedish woman he had met in Varkala three months ago. I think they were interested in having us join them because we are a mixed couple and they were curious about our lives together.
We stayed up chatting with them until almost midnight, I'm not sure about the long-term prospects for the couple, she is 28 and he is only 23 and he seemed pretty inexperienced. His parents consented to the marriage without even having met the girl. He is from a Muslim family, she is from a large family in Stockholm, she has four brothers and four sisters. I certainly wish them all the best, but compared to us, it seems they have a long road ahead of them.
The next morning, we set out on the "Village Tour" that would take us through many of the tiny channels that the houseboats are too large to enter. The trip starts just after noon and is timed to finish up so that we paddle into the setting sun just as we are returning to Alleppy. I was delighted with the small canoe and happy that it had a woven roof to shade us from the sun. The temperatures have been climbing steadily in the last week and with the added humidity we find we are having to drink tons of water just to stay hydrated. Our boatman was a very slight man and I marvelled that he could row us for the next several hours while sitting outside the covering of the canoe. For the first little while, we were paddling alongside the houseboats as we crossed the open lagoon at the start of the backwaters. Before too long, we passed the home of the boatman, and his wife gave us a warm and friendly smile. He told us he would stop on the way back so that we could meet his family.
I was pleased that we were taking a canoe for this trip because the Lonely Planet encourages travellers to avoid the power boats as they are having a very negative impact on the backwater ecosystem. I read about the serious problems caused by the water hyacinths that are gradually choking the canals and small waterways. You will see them in the photos - there is one boat completely surrounded by these weeds - it is very hard to paddle through them and it makes it very difficult for the villagers who live along the canals. Once we entered the very narrow channels, the boatman signaled for me to give paddling a try. I really enjoyed the exercise and I think I surprised him by staying with it until we stopped for lunch. The meal was a disappointment, but we got it over quickly and headed back to the canoe once again. This time it was Anil's turn to paddle and he got the hang of it before long. The channels kept getting smaller and smaller and then eventually, we tied up the boat and were led along the dirt path into the village. It was here that we passed the village school and I'm afraid we distracted the hundreds of children inside. I was happy that they were still in class or we would have been swarmed - the children like to ask tourists for "school pens" or "foreign coins", neither of which we had on hand.
Village life in India is not particularly new to us, but we still enjoyed our long walk through the fields of rice and by the small village homes. At the turn-around point, we saw a lot of people carrying stainless steel flasks on handles. I was wondering what it was all about when we came upon a shop that was collecting the contents of the flasks. It was here that we learned that the farmers were bringing the fresh milk to the local dairy co-operative. They are paid 15 rupees per liter of milk; most bring about six liters of milk to sell. There were also some women purchasing milk from the shop, the owner was measuring it out and pouring it into empty coke bottles that the women had brought along with them. It was a nice to see this little slice of daily life. On the way back to our boat we stopped for a cup of hot tea just near the home of the boatman's mother-in-law. You could see that he was very proud to introduce her to us.
Back at the boat, we turned around and began our long journey back to Alleppy. I decided to paddle once more, and after some time I suddenly noticed that my watch was missing off my left wrist. I realized that I must have snagged the catch on the edge of the boat - enough so that the catch opened and the watched slipped into the water. I can't describe how dismayed I was to lose my watch - I had been wearing it every day for the past twelve years. I kept telling myself it was just another "thing" to let go of, but I think that what bothered me was that it decided to "leave" me, instead of me shedding it, as I have done with most of my other possessions in the past six months. I comforted myself by thinking that my watch chose to stay in the lovely Kerala backwaters, even though I was moving on.
As promised, we stopped at the home of the boatman to meet his wife and family. He has three sons, two are away at school but there were other children around because the neighbours are all extended family members and they came to meet us too. They don't speak English well, but smiles and a little sign language are all that is really needed. You can see from the smiles on everyone's faces, including Anil's, that it was a pleasant visit.
Anil took over for the last leg of the tour and I sat behind him enjoying the setting sun and thinking about what a beautiful day it had been. Tomorrow we will move on into the interior and cross over into the State of Tamil Nadu once again. We are looking forward to the food in Tamil Nadu, the Kerala food is tasty, but as we were by the sea, there is far too much emphasis on seafood for our palates. We miss our vegetarian thalis and look forward to finding another Ananda Bhavan once again.