India: Winding down in Kerala’s backwaters

 Had they been crewing a barge on the backwaters of Kerala 20 years ago, Shreekanthan, George and Alibash would probably have been hauling rice, fish and coconut husks. This being the penultimate month of 2009, they were carrying only me.We glided past palms bent so far over the water they seemed certain to fall in; past Hindu temples and pink Catholic churches and posters bearing the image of Che Guevara (Kerala’s coalition government is comprised partly of Communists).
George and Shreekanthan took turns at the wheel, gesturing occasionally to port or starboard to alert me to the presence of a kingfisher or an egret. Alibash, in chef’s whites and butcher’s apron, busied himself in the galley, preparing for supper the giant prawns I had bought over the gunwale from a local fisherman. Meanwhile I took in the sights and sounds of riverine life, delighted to find that the backwaters were not as spoilt as I had feared.
Maze of rivers and canals
It was 20 years ago when I first read about this area of India, a maze of winding rivers, canals and lakes stretching nearly 50 miles from Quilon (Kollam) in the south to Cochin (Kochi) in the north. In those days, about 10 of the old rice boats – made of dark, oiled jackwood with canopies of palm thatch and coir – had been converted for the tourist trade. By 2007, according to the guidebook I took with me, there were about 500 plying the waters around Vembanad Lake, the largest lagoon in the area; most had been built solely to carry tourists, and the builders’ yards had waiting lists a couple of years long. By the time I arrived in Alleppey (Alappuzha) to board a boat, I was told there were between 700 and 1,000, so I was not expecting the most peaceful of experiences.
Cochin
I had been attending a conference in Cochin, a city that itself draws many tourists. Its best-known, or most often photographed, feature is its Chinese fishing nets, supported on huge arced frames and operated by levers and counterweights requiring the efforts of teams of at least four men. So conscious are those men of the celebrity of their nets that they jump up to fiddle with them every time a tourist with a camera hoves into view.
Cochin is known, too, for its well-preserved colonial architecture: Portuguese palaces, Dutch mansions, British warehouses. Brunton Boatyard, a hotel where I spent a night, could well pass for a conversion of one of the last. It’s a place of high ceilings, white walls and ecclesiastical calm. Easy to believe it has stood there for centuries – but it’s only 10 years old.
Rice barge
The rice barge I took through the backwaters was of similarly deceptive vintage, having slipped out of the boatyard only a couple of years earlier. In the bow behind the helmsman’s seat there was room for four steamer chairs side by side. Beyond that was the dining area, air-conditioned and glassed-in so that I could eat in the evening unbothered by mosquitoes. Behind that was my double bedroom, also air-conditioned, complete with television, bedside telephone and shower room with fluffy towels.
“Bewildering” is the word my guidebook used of the geography of the backwaters. It was doubly so for me. The crew had no map or chart to show me where we were going, so all I know is that we headed west from Alleppey about 1pm, moored just before dark, and returned around nine the following morning.
What’s more, while Shreekanthan and George were welcoming and attentive, it quickly became apparent that they were crew rather than guides; their English was not up to debating the concerns raised by my guidebook. Were nitrates from the rice fields clogging the canals and killing fish? Was land being reclaimed so fast that there would soon be little of the waterways left? After a few blank looks, I gave up and, like the tourists in barges fore and aft, slumped into my steamer chair.
Rural and domestic
Fellow visitors are impossible to erase from view on the backwaters, but with rare exceptions (we came across a group with a boom-box intent on a party) will be as keen as you to enjoy the peace rather than wreck it. The puttering of tourist vessels aside, the sounds are domestic and rural: the thwack of a sari being washed against a stone, the delighted shriek of a splashing child, the flat smack of an oar on water as a duck farmer shepherds his hundreds of charges from one bank to the other.
Having read of oil slicks being left by tourist boats, I was impressed, too, by the cleanliness of the water and the absence of litter.
Voyeuristic voyage.
We stopped once for a stroll. Shreekanthan took me along the red gravel path at the edge of a village, pausing here and there to name a plant or tree – papaya, tapioca, cashew-nut – and to point out a foot-long watersnake rippling alongside us – “a friend of the farmers” because it eats mosquitoes and flies. Some of those farmers were at work in the paddies, harvesting by machine the rice that they had still been collecting by hand as recently as four years ago. We said hello to a few, but that was as far as the contact between visitors and residents went; ours was essentially a voyeuristic voyage.
Hearty meal
When dusk fell and we tied up, I watched egrets come home to roost on a line of eight palms. They flapped, fussed and eventually fell silent. After that, there was nothing to do but eat and read.
Alibash, presumably unused to catering for solitary travellers, put enough on the table to feed three, and seemed pained that I wasn’t equal to it. Among the dishes were soup made with tiger prawns, moilee – a Keralan curry of fish slices simmered in coconut juice, green chillies, ginger and curry leaves – and paneer (cheese) in a sauce.
Next morning he was equally generous. Alongside an omelette filled with fiery chillies, onion and tomato, he set out a dinner plate with slices of fruit, a plate of sliced watermelon, and a croissant, four pastries and three slices each of white and brown toast. I must have acquitted myself well, for when the driver came to pick me up I saw him hesitate for a moment. This fellow, he was clearly thinking, is not only more relaxed but rounder than the one I dropped off yesterday.