The Backwaters of Kerala

I am back in Fort Cochin after a brief and ill-advised stay in Ernakulam. I took a ferry across the harbor into Ernakulam Friday morning with the intention of buying a train ticket to Mangalore for Saturday.

I brought all my bags so it would be easier, just get up and catch an autorickshaw to the train station. I found a rundown hotel that had reasonable rates and decent rooms, dumped my bags and headed to the train station. Unfortunately first class was already booked for the Saturday train and the particular train I needed doesn’t run on Sundays so I bought a ticket for Monday and went walking around Ernakulam thinking that perhaps it would reveal something cool.

You Never Had To Go Anywhere

Ernakulam IndiaUnfortunately that just wasn’t the case. Ernakulam is a large city with large city problems, pollution, garbage, traffic, unfriendly people, confusion, noise, touts, etc. If I wanted to go to New Jersey I would have gone to New Jersey. But I had already paid for the room so I stuck it out for the night.

I have no doubt that Ernakulam does have some good things in it, just like New Jersey does, but they aren’t things that a tourist gets to see. Cities are private things held in the minds of the people that inhabit them; you can never know anything about a city until you live there. So this one remains a city like any other, and the next morning I high tailed it back to fort Cochin and got a room.

With some time to kill before my Monday train I figured I might as well take the fabled backwater tour of Kerala. If you’ve never been to India or even looked at it in any detail this might bear some explanation. Kerala is one of the Southern states of India and lies on west coast just below the state of Karnataka (whose capital is Bangalore, which most of you have probably heard of— it’s where your calls to tech support get routed to). Anyway the main draw of the Kochi area of Kerala is the “backwater” area where the numerous lakes and rivers in the region come together and meet the Arabian Sea to form a massive area of lagoons and canals. Most guidebooks say that a tour of this backwater area will be the “highlight of your Kerala stay,” so I figured I might as well sign up for a tour.

Before I left on this trip I wrote a piece about travel blogs on the net and travel writing in general and swore up and down that I would not resort to the “crazy bus ride” or “cabbie from hell” or “eccentric local doesn’t know much but his simple wisdom has showed me the key to life” clichés when writing for luxagraf. I bring this up mainly because I never actually published that piece (because it wasn’t that good). If you dig into the world of travel writing you will find that these plots occur over and over again and have become terrible clichés, but seem to be what editors want. I wanted to point this out because though this story could go that direction it does not, because I am not trying to sell this to Conde Nast. In fact the bus was destroyed before it got to me, the cabbie was a very good driver and I did not get any morsels of wisdom from the locals, just a coconut.

The Way We Get By

Those that know me well know that if I had known the tour started at 8 AM before I paid, I would have booked a different tour. But I did not know that until the money had changed hands and the transaction seemed too concluded to back out. So I set my alarm for seven and got downstairs at just about eight. Just as I walked outside there was a bus leaving, which I must say did not seem to encouraging. I asked the hotel manager if anyone had asked for me and he said no, but then when he realized I booked a tour through someone other than him, he became decidedly less helpful. So I sat down and smoked a cigarette and waited. And waited. Eventually a guy on a motorcycle came up and asked if I was waiting for a tour bus. I said yes, but generally ignored him since I figured he was trying to con me into a different “better” tour. Finally he convinced me that he was in fact with the tour company I booked through and that the bus had been destroyed in an accident. He said he would take me to where the rest of the people were (apparently everyone else was from one hotel and I was the oddball stop). So I hopped on the back of his motorcycle and we went about 2km to another hotel where the rest of the tour was staying.

I waited around with two couples from Belgium while the man and another tour rep tried to find us some transportation. After about 20 minutes they told us a cab was on its way. So the six of us (including) driver piled into a fairly compact automobile, though by Indian standards this was far from crowded. The drive took about 45 minutes and we had to make several stops for our very nice, but understandably confused, driver to ask for directions. Eventually we got to the dock where about 15 other people were waiting. Everyone piled into a large thatched roof boat and we were finally underway. There was a large family from Bombay, another couple and their two kids from Delhi, an Iranian couple that now lives in London, the Belgians and myself.

We cruised around the islands for about forty minutes watching people on the shore and men out in canoes fishing. Eventually we stopped on one island to tour a factory. fishermenI believe that during the week you get to stop off at places where you can see native workers doing their thing, making fishing nets, weaving rope, etc, but because it was a Sunday we got to go to a Calcium Hydroxide factory. Which was better because it certainly wasn’t a show being put on to entertain the tourists. This is how the island dwellers really survive. They turn shells into calcium hydroxide and sell the results to cement companies. Except that in this case apparently a new buyer has come in the last six months, yes that’s right everybody’s favorite, hey look at us we help third world economies, Sandoz Pharmaceuticals. Apparently various pills are made from calcium hydroxide (that is, the actual stuff you want is suspended in calcium hydroxide). It was an interesting portrait of the changes rural India is undergoing.

Mixing Up The Medicine

The after a short walk through the jungle we came to one of the worker’s houses where our guide went through the front garden and showed us all the plants and what they were used for. As we approached the front yard of the workers house, to an untrained eye such as mine, the plants looked random, like parts of the jungle that hadn’t been cleared because they gave shade, but in fact they weren’t random, they were carefully cultivated.

The guide showed us Tamarind trees, coconut palms, lemon trees, vanilla vine, plantain trees and countless other shrubs and bushes whose names I have forgotten. plantsNearly all of them had some medicinal use not just in their leaves and fruit, but also the roots and bark, and most of them had four different uses depending on which part of the plant you wanted to use. The most fascinating was a plant that produces a fruit something like a miniature mango that contains cyanide and which, according to our guide, is cultivated mainly to commit suicide with, though cyanide does have other uses.

After getting about an hour’s worth of botanical information we got back on the boat and headed back to the launch area for lunch. We were served a meal typical of Kerala, which was more or less the same thing a waiter gave me two days before when I asked for some typical Kerala cuisine, boiled rice, vegetable curry, and various slaws of carrots or beans or cabbage. With the exception of the rice, which I find tastes just like overcooked white rice, I enjoy Kerala cuisine although it is very different from what gets served as Indian food in the States or Europe.

Sittin In A Rag Top Soaking Wet

At this point we hopped back in cab and drove to a second wharf area where we got aboard smaller boats that could navigate the narrower canals. Similar to dugout canoes, but not dugout, these boats were piloted by two men, one on each end using long poles to push off the bottom. Sort of like rowing, but less effective.

As my guidebook says of the longboat tours: “along the way are settlements where people live on narrow spits of land only a few meters wide.” The thing it fails to mention is that you are more or less traveling through people’s backyards, which felt sort of invasive to me. Women were doing laundry or taking a bath only a meter or so from our boat, which felt decidedly intrusive, though I suppose the people that live in these areas must be used to it by now.

One of the strangest things I saw was a fairly large lizard on a lily pad floating several meters from shore, which, if you’re a lizard, is quite a ways even if you can swim. We also saw some sort of water snake (which the guides said was not poisonous), numerous Kingfishers, and from a distance an elephant walking down the road.

At one point we stopped and some of the guides climbed up a palm tree and retrieved coconuts which were first cracked and drank and then split open and eaten. I’ve never been all that fond of coconut so after drinking the juice I sort of wandered back to boat, hoping perhaps the elephant would return and watching the sky to the north turn so dark it looked like night.coconut

Then it was back in the boats and onward. It started to rain a little bit, but not too hard at first and I thought we might make it back without getting soaked. But then with no warning the sky just opened up and a deluge of water poured down on us. Luckily I had learned couple of days previous that you really shouldn’t go anywhere in southern India without an umbrella so I had one in my bag. Of course it’s still about 85 degrees and even the rain is warm so getting wet wasn’t that big of deal, but digital camera’s react poorly to water, so I kept the umbrella mainly over my bag and partly over the older India man who sat next to me.

riverboatWe stopped the boats and everyone piled out and went up on the porch of someone’s house where we waited for while. But the rain showed no signs of letting up and after half an hour our taxi and everyone else bus were summoned to come and pick us up. Driving back to Fort Cochin our taxi was kicking up a roaster tail of water higher than the car itself and our driver had to turn around several times where streets became impassible, but eventually we made it back.

And there you have it, the backwater tour extraordinaire. Later this evening I will be boarding an overnight train for Mangalore and then switch to another train that should get me to Goa by late Tuesday evening. The picture gallery has been updated.


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