Arriving in Alleppey I think we were both just about done. Whilst we’ve been without bikes for a few months now we’ve been surrounded by friends who have helped us get around considerably. I think we’d thought that our mind-set shift had happened already with minimal pain but in reality it couldn’t happen properly until we were travelling independently again.
Train station troubles
We’re sat in the train station waiting for the train that is already 40 minutes late. The taxi ride here was terrible, with the guy texting whilst driving and braking hard at the very last minute at every clearly labelled obstacle, before accelerating way past what he needed to again. He’d almost taken out a scooter at one point. Now we’re sat on the platform and everyone walking past is staring and stone faced. It doesn’t usually bother me, but today I’m getting sick of it.
“Just ignore it” says Mickey, “they stare at me too, but I don’t let it get to me”.
“I can’t ignore it” I snap back at him “don’t you understand? Unlike you, my whole life has taught me to be aware of who’s looking at me and how, my safety depends on it. And now you want me to switch it all off, just like that?”
“And anyway” I say, warming to the subject now “why the hell should I ignore it? It’s not OK for guys to look at me like I’m a piece of meat or something. If they want to smile at me or chat then great, but just gawping with a creepy smirk on their face, makes me uncomfortable and I don’t have to be OK with it!”
I know I’m picking a fight with the wrong person, the hurt look on his face confirms it, but I can’t help myself. As so often happens when I’m tired and fed-up, the micro-inequities of the world become macro.
“We should have just gone home already” I say, voicing what we’re both thinking, “but now we’re stuck”.
Going round in circles
We talk it through again, reasserting once more to each other that we’re not stuck, we still have a choice, even if that choice means losing a heap more money. And again we end up in the same place: we haven’t given it enough of a go yet. Let’s just get to the next place and take it from there. We’ve been through this cycle several times in the last few days.
By the time the train arrives, an hour late, I’ve taken to pulling silly faces at the staring men, waggling my fingers at them in front of my nose…it’s effective in achieving my goal of stopping their looks. Far more effective than staring back or getting angry. And I feel much better for it, laughing instead of shouting at their shocked faces which quickly turn away.
We’ve resolved to look into leaving India from Alleppey if things don’t improve. I joke to Mickey “On the bright side…never has a place had to do so little to impress us, so we’ll no doubt end up loving it” He rolls his eyes at me, mutely telling me this is small comfort.
Boarding the train, we find that the website I’ve found holds accurate information. Walking from carriage to carriage on Indian trains isn’t possible and they’re huge long things, so finding out in advance where your carriage is, is a very handy thing that takes a little of the stress out of the journey.
As we move from the city through the countryside deeper into Kerala, the countryside becomes lush with palms and banana trees. Something inside me settles a little and a small spark of hope fires deep within…maybe…
We arrive in Alleppey station and head out to the prepay auto queue. The homestay owner directs the auto driver by phone and we pull up outside. It’s a pristine place at the edge of a lake, looking out over the backwaters. House boats made of wicker or woven palm leaves drift by serenely as the sun sets over the lake. We have a roof terrace from which to watch the sunset and we both feel calmer for being near the water.
We head out to find food and spy a tiny eatery a little further up the road from our guesthouse. We’re not sure they’re open but the man inside assures us he is with a welcoming smile. We order from the battered old menu: dal fry, paneer butter masala and some chapathis. He delivers the order to a young chef who disappears behind a curtain to busy himself while we take in our surroundings. The table is smeared and the walls are dirty. The whole place looks like it could do with a good clean but I’m reasonably certain that we’ll get delicious food for only a few pounds and remain healthy to boot. And if not? Well, either you resign yourself to that or you don’t eat.
This time though, our instincts are correct and we leave sated and only £3 lighter. Even better though, we’re back on Indian food, as the locals eat it, cooked and served by locals. It’s funny how this is what lifts our spirits the most. We’re back in our comfort zone, which is to say, out of it. That twinge of exciting discovery, of unfamiliarity is back in the right place.
We walk up into town, boat owners line the front, each one touting. By the end of our 5 days here it’s wearing again but for now we’re feeling content. I make the discovery that if Mickey walks ahead of me they only bother him. Conversely, if I walk ahead and say no, we both get hassled. We giggle together somewhat maniacally at this and take great pleasure in grinning at them all, knowing the secret that they don’t. They’re asking the wrong person. I carry the money and usually, it would be me who stops spontaneously to pursue options like that. Fine. Let them lose business for their assumptions. It gives me a perverse pleasure.
A little further up, we find a lovely little canal-side coffee shop and stop for a lassi and coffee. Amazing, strong, machined and large serving-sized coffee! A rare thing of beauty it is, as it delivers echoes from home. After savouring it greatly, and enjoying the laid-back, friendly service we move a few doors up to find a tour office, which coincidentally is owned by the same guy – Antony. He speaks to us both (instead of just Mickey) and supplies us with the information about his tours that we ask for. He has an easy openness about him that I like. And later he helps us reduce the cost of our train station transfer by booking an auto for us. His cheapest tour is a full day on a man-powered, covered canoe relaxing on the backwaters and exploring the smaller routes that the big houseboats can’t get down. I like the eco-friendly nature of it and it’s a snip at 1000 Rs each, including breakfast and lunch. We book for the following day and go home happy with a successful day.
Heading out on the water
The next day we’re up early to get to the boats and we breakfast at Antony’s café before hitching an auto he’s arranged down to the landing point. We’re joined by one other in our boat – Anna, a Romanian tour guide who spends her off season travelling – and a Russian couple, Vasili and Seera on another boat. Our guide Anil is a smiling man who chats freely for the first half an hour before lapsing into a comfortable silence and leaving us to immerse ourselves in the beauty of the backwaters.
As we clamber in and make ourselves comfortable we glide out for a different perspective on Alleppey. Rounding the corner of our tiny side canal to join the main drag we’re met with a view of breath-taking beauty. Palm-lined shores and the hazy morning light reflected off the huge canal dotted by strangely shaped houseboats. They remind me of Chinese fishing boats, beautifully constructed examples of artisanal craft, they really are floating houses, complete with sash windows and grand dining furniture.
I prefer my vantage point down here though. Our boat is a hollowed out wooden canoe with a shade over it and cushion seats that allow us to recline. I can’t think of a time when I’ve been happier. The combination of the quiet, the water, the natural beauty and the backdrop of the last few weeks make me grateful we decided to see our journey through, and I let go of the tension I’ve been carrying for too long.
The backwaters are stunning. A network of canals ranging from ones a football field or more, wide to tiny little ones you can barely get two canoes down. And houses and villages line them all. Women and men wash their clothes at the water’s edge, some with concrete steps built into the banks, some with a pool lined with rocks. We pass a group of men dredging the canal by hand with dishes, flinging the dense muck up onto the canal bank. Later, long after they’ve finished for the day and we pass again, another man clears the dirt from the path onto the soil behind.
We drift, lazily pointing out sights of birds hunting or drying their spread wings on tree tops. We pass a group of boys throwing rocks at a mango tree to dislodge fruit, laughing, fighting then retrieving a stone to throw again. A woman wades out into the water to clear the vegetation from her steps, presumably to better enable her to wash. She wears the long dresses that have become more common the further south we’ve gone and her long hair grazes the surface of the water as she turns this way and that sweeping her arms in circular motions around her body, pushing against the green mat of leaves. As is so often the case, the water adds an almost magical air to everything as we glide silently by the lives of these people, touching them briefly with a smile, a wave and then onwards.
Floating carpets of water hyacinth provide ecosystems for wildlife and our canoe carves a path through the vegetation as we go. Our lack of engine means we get much closer to the avian hunters occupying the carpets before they take to the air. Kingfishers with brilliant blue, green and red plumage, eagles, storks and egrets are abundant here and there are no shortage of sightings.
Blight on the landscape
The only blot on the landscape is India’s inescapable rubbish problem. The Kerala backwaters are not untouched by it. Huge heaps of rubbish lined the canal we stayed on, a product of the houseboats moored along its banks. At least in Bangalore, the dirt and grime of the city seemed to welcome in the rubbish and almost blend it out of view. Here, the contrast of natural beauty and man’s effect on it is disgustingly striking.
We stop at a waterside café for tea and a south Indian breakfast of idly and sambar before returning to the water and when lunchtime arrives we go to Anil’s canal-side house for a Kerala meal. I sit on the porch as there’s not enough room at the table, giving me a better chance to interact with the family. Served on a banana leaf, we eat coconut curry, fried fish, poppadum, rice, and several other delicious things followed by tea. We chat to his wife Janeddy and meet his children. She teaches me a little Malayalam and asks about our lives back home.
I play for a while with their granddaughter (or possibly their daughter – translating family terms from Indian languages into English is not always straightforward!), enjoying the lack of language differences and just communicating the way that all 2 year olds do. She babbles away happily to me and then their son comes and sits. He speaks a little more English and tells me he needs a battery for his boat made out of a polystyrene. I show him an alternative way to power it with an elastic band and a propeller and he looks a little bemused. He translates a little of what I say and a little of what the young girl is saying so that we can communicate more directly. After a pleasant hour or so, we head off again to be dropped off at the starting point and make our way home.
Peaks and troughs
The following day, the touts were back in full force with redoubled efforts and the drivers on the roads appeared to have it in for us. So despite the relaxation of the previous day we found breakfast and a cash run was the most we could stomach. For breakfast we tried a little Indian family restaurant. We took the menu and began to order. The first 3 items we tried weren’t available. This is not unusual and brought to mind a pleasant memory of a smiling friend in Bangalore saying, “Let’s start by you telling me what you’ve got and then I’ll decide”.
But it transpired that they didn’t have a great deal – it was a little late for breakfast and a little early for lunch – so we settled for a coffee and a lassi. Across from us two young girls sat starting their meal. Something wasn’t quite right with their food, one of them hadn’t wanted rice and rice had been given. The other girl spoke to the waiter to resolve the problem. But ‘spoke’ is too nice a word for the way she addressed him. She raised her voice with much pointing, whilst she demanded, patronised and demeaned him. For several minutes she continued to berate him while he stood there meekly and took it. I was deeply disturbed to be witness to his dehumanisation, he seemed to shrink as each word hit him. When he came back, a minute or two later, no word of thanks was given and the girls continued on with their meal and conversation as if the impact of their behaviour on this man’s life and dignity was of no consequence at all. I can well imagine that the man who has to endure this demeaning treatment all day long goes out to pay it along and exert what power he has over those beneath him. I can see no way that treating others with such arrogant superiority contributes to a better society, but I can see many ways in which it would help worsen it. And all for an order of rice.
Easing in to a new way of being?
After clearing the bitter taste from my mouth and thanking the waiter – a man in his 50’s or 60’s – we went in search of cash. A cash run here frequently takes hunting down and trying out 3 or 4 ATMs. Often they don’t have cash, or don’t take foreign cards or are just out of action. There will still be a security guard sat outside and if you’re lucky, he’ll tell you that there’s no cash in it. But, more likely, he won’t inform you. He just watches as you waste 5 minutes of your life finding that out for yourselves. But demonetisation prepared us well, so we patiently plodded the streets, asking after ATMs and getting the usual vague directions which makes the whole thing a kind of adventure, if you look at it the right way.
On our way back, we pass a chai-waller and suddenly I have a strong need for milk tea. Since leaving Chaya, I’ve let my tea habit drop with no-one to enjoy it with and this man with his tea urn strapped to his rickety bicycle was too good an opportunity to pass up.
We sit and drink it gazing across the canal. Never were 10 Rs (around 12 p) so well spent. We spy a young backpacking couple laden with bags. They’re arguing, with arms waving, they’re obviously agitated with a situation and taking it out on each other, a familiar story for us. They’re just as obviously exhausted. One makes to walk, then stops, and then they switch roles. We watch sympathetically, I can’t quite bring myself to find entertainment in it, having a fair idea of the feelings flowing through them at the moment.
We chuckle quietly to each other as we relate to their situation and feel a small surge of gratitude that we are, for the time being, content.
“What you need to do in that situation” says Mickey “is get those bags off”
“…and get off the street” I finish.
It seems we’ve become old hands, if slightly reluctantly, at this backpacking business…