So there you have it, we’ve actually moved. Literally “travelled” in India. By method other than direct taxi from the airport, I mean. Which finds us in Alleppey, or Allapuzha, as it has been officially renamed along with every other town in Southern India such as Mumbai (formerly Bombay), Chennai (formerly Madras) and the admittedly easier Kochi (formerly Cochin). Can be a little confusing but as they say, the names may change but the sketchy bathrooms and playful horn honking remain the same.
Alleppey is considered the “Backwater Capital of Southern India”, famous for the house boats that make it a firm favourite on every Kerala itinerary. They are known as “kettuvallams”, and they meander throughout the canals, rivers, lakes and tiny waterways that surround the city, dictating every facet of life around here. Some describe it as the “Venice of the East” but I have been to Venice and there is a reason millions of tourists flock there each year to admire its beauty (fading and endangered though it might be, although that’s another story). Anyway, I am fairly comfortable telling you that no, Alleppey is not the Venice of the East. It has canals, I’ll admit. And occasionally impressive views if you get far enough from the scrum of the city. But beyond that, not so Venice-like. Crowded, ramshackle, occasionally grimy and poorly set up for tourism considering the huge throngs of people that come here to partake in the backwater house boating trips. Most importantly, though, no pizza. You’ve a got-a to be a-joking!
Anyway, my point is that tourist-oriented restaurants are shockingly thin on the ground and, as a result, we frequented the same place for supper every night, Thaff, which is mainly a local restaurant but has great food and quick service, even if you do occasionally have to share your table with a toothless rickshaw driver or shy young couple who seem reluctant to eat with their hands in such close proximity to tourists, or maybe just lose their appetite around the lingering odour of cheap hotel soap and vinyl bus seats. And we’ve seen all the same tourists there every night as well so it seems no one else has had any more luck than us at branching out. Add in the fact that most of the better hotels are a couple kilometres out of town and that they don’t have restaurants either and the end result is that you spend much of your day either walking along a busy road under the hot sun or paying anywhere from 20 to 75 rupees for exactly the same rickshaw ride four times a day.
On the other hand, all the money, time and resources that have been saved by not opening any decent restaurants has clearly been reallocated into house boats, house boat booking agencies and house boat related industries (such as wicker lounging chairs and gigantic bowls of bananas). Wisely, too, I assume, since these wildly popular overnight trips are described as “possibly the most expensive thing you will do in India”. Quite possibly true but, if so, exciting as well because for 23 leisurely hours on the water in a large, comfortable house boat with loungers, a bedroom, a driver, a cook, all our food and water, entirely to ourselves, we paid 5,000 rupees, the equivalent of about $110. In fact, the whole thing occasionally felt a bit ridiculous, to be honest, just the two of us with this whole big boat to ourselves cruising past local villages, rice paddies, temples, fishermen, riverfront schools and greenery-choked canals. Laynni would probably say it felt “ostentatious”, since that is apparently her new word and she likes to throw it in there as often as possible, although rarely in the proper context, so on second thought maybe this wouldn’t seem like quite the right time after all. Our burgeoning feelings of elitism were only slightly tempered by the realization that our boat was one of the more basic out there, having passed many, many others with two level decks, multiple bedrooms and flat screen TVs. A few even appeared to have full banquet facilities, air conditioned viewing areas and what appeared to be 2/3 of Destiny’s Child providing background ambience. But despite this misty cloud of snobbery hanging over us we enjoyed ourselves greatly, as we tend to do when all that is required of us is to sit and watch, lie down and read, sit and read and lie down and watch, in that order. A strict regimen, but one we found quite manageable, all things considered. We mixed it up every now and again by taking a picture, having a nap or even eating an authentic Keralan meal (a bowl of vegetable curry may not make us Anthony Bourdain just yet but still…) And don’t even get us started on the all-you-can-eat bananas…
Getting a firsthand glimpse of life on the river was remarkably fascinating as well – seeing people from all walks of life fishing, doing laundry, cooking, commuting, doing dishes, bathing (the women demurely in the shadows, the guys loudly and with unseemly amounts of splashing and frolicking in the hopes that we, or she, would take the time for a closer look), dumping refuse and – or often while – brushing their teeth. At times it even started to feel a little bit wrong, like we were some creepy voyeurs wearing sleeveless jean jackets and drinking Old Milwaukee as we peered out from our floating mansion, chuckling and playing with our fly.
I already mentioned the cook and driver, which I should elaborate on. The man I’ve chosen to call our “driver” was really more Manager of the Steering Wheel, which itself was a charmingly stereotypical miniature reproduction of a proper ship’s wheel with its large spokes of polished wood and prominent place up on the prow of the boat. What he was not exactly in charge of was the motor, not in any logical sense at least. Instead of a throttle he had only a small, effeminate bell that he would ring whenever he needed the so-called cook to speed us up, slow us down, put us in reverse or just go ahead and rev the engine menacingly. Needless to say, this plan of attack resulted in more than its share of confusion and brief, but stressful, moments of miscommunication so that, on those thankfully rare occasions when it was time to park and he took his already challenging jobs of navigating, steering and frantic bell ringing and bravely added the further jobs of jumping ashore, rope tying and frowning worriedly, things tended to get a little messy. Somehow they managed to get it done each time, though, and we ended up spending a peaceful night on the water listening to the calming sounds of frogs, birds, crickets, light rain, small fish jumping and the viscous plop of an old man spitting the last of his fish curry into the river.
The following morning we were back to town by 10 am and comfortably entrenched in our new hotel, Malayalam Resort, right on the doorstep of the back waters by 11. We spent the first night in a baffling little 3 room dorm, which we had to ourselves, until the better rooms opened up the next day. Then we moved upstairs to a really nice room, all well done in some type of fancy wood (teak? mahogany? particle board?), which featured a kick-ass balcony that hung right out over the water which gave us a lusciously unimpeded view of local villagers in their canoes, public ferries packed to the rafters with shouting, waving kids and a steady stream of passing house boats. Aha, said the donkey to mule, now the basket is on the on the other ass! That’s right, suddenly the Watchers had become the Watched. Now instead of us staring out from the breezy shade of our ridiculously posh boat sating our cultural appetite with the mundane events of people’s everyday lives while occasionally sneaking in a circumspect photo or two, it became the small details of our very ordinary days that became the subject of intense scrutiny and unreasonably delighted amusement. Whatever we happened to be doing – reading, writing, clipping my toenails, having a wee snack, they were all the source of great interest to passing house boaters, most of whom were Indian tourists. And you better believe that any and all of these things were worth a photo, a wave, an enthusiastic “Hallo! Hallo!” and, once in a while – if I had my legs propped high enough up on the rail while wearing my swim trunks – a blown kiss or two. In fact, as I write this Laynni is sitting on the deck waving at passing boat load of children in a stiff and subdued manner as though she’s stuck on the second to last float in the Macy’s Day Parade next to Ted Williams milking his 14th minute of fame.
Next up: Fort Cochin and its eerie ghosts of Portuguese, Dutch and British conquerors, with just a hint of simmering Catholic mission. Should be fun.