Day 10-11 (I think),
Moving swiftly on, we arrived in Kumarakom where we boarded the houseboat that was to be our home for the next day or two. We boarded a traditionally built, converted kettuvallam (rice barge to you), constructed of anjali (jack fruit) wood. ‘Kettu’ means knot and ‘vallom’ means boat. Our 80 foot long craft had been adapted to provide comfortable accommodation with carpeted decks of coir (coconut) matting and furniture made from locally sourced cane. With air conditioning, an enormous open deck lounge and dining area, kitchen and an attentive crew, we would cruise the lagoon and complex system of canals known as the Malabar Backwaters. In fact, a local told us that such a name no longer exists, a throwback to colonial days that was best forgotten. It was increasingly difficult to shake off our Colonial stigma. We decided to continue to call it the Malabar Backwaters just for old times’ sake. We set sail.
Our crew comprised of little more than a couple of ‘oarsmen’ and a cook but we were in safe hands as they seemed professional sorts. Traditional lanterns would light our way as the sun began to dip below the horizon and we headed across the vast lagoon, criss-crossing paths with other houseboats, all engaged in the frantic search to find the best place to anchor for the night.
Once settled somewhere other than where we had begun, couldn’t say exactly where that was, we started on our curry dinner which was very tasty but becoming a little monotonous by this time. With a sea-shanty or two and a drop of the hard stuff (nope, only water) we tucked ourselves away in our cabin and slept through the night, awoken only by the movement of the boat as she manoeuvred her way back out and into the lagoon next morning. A most enjoyable day was had exploring the lagoon and inner canals where people still live on strips of land only a few metres wide, where the waterway is their principal means of communication and trade and sacks of cashew nuts and coconuts can be seen piled high along the banks and jetties.
Quaint as it was, with people washing their clothes, washing their dishes, washing themselves and even a bit sewerage discharge here and there, it was a scary moment ordering the fresh, local catches of the day at a bank-side cafe. Frightened by the prospect of dysentery, beri-beri or even swamp fever, it took some nerve to eat a lunch of locally caught fried shrimp. As we say, ‘fortune favours the brave’ so the shrimp were gingerly eaten and washed down with a local brew of coconut moonshine that was milky in colour and tasted like armpit sweat with a twist of sock odour. At ninety per cent proof it should be kept away from naked flames and it was supposed to counteract any possibility of food poisoning. The shrimp was eaten, the hooch was drank and hey presto – no ill effects.
Note for travellers – ALWAYS EAT WHERE THE LOCALS EAT!
We passed many homes, some quite luxurious, others dilapidated but still being used. All were brightly coloured and they lined the banks shaded by swaying palm trees, shimmering rice paddy fields lay beyond where workers painstakingly planted and harvested their own and commercial rice crops. The Malabar Backwaters were a beautiful and peaceful setting, along the way we encountered some smaller, traditional boats with their huge sails and enormous, carved dragon prows. Later in the day we spent several hours sailing down the smaller tributaries in one of these boats where we silently crept up on unsuspecting locals and took their photos as they went about their daily business.
Having avoided the monsoon rains thus far, it was time for the heavens to open but life on the canals carried on – school runs, shoppers, commuters, fishing and goods being transported.
Then it really rained…
The downpour was soon over and we were, once again, sedately cruising the canals and backwaters, looking in on a simpler way of life that revolved around the waters. Migrants are often seen in these parts this time of year, gypsies by all accounts, who come with their families, circular boats literally strapped to their backs, who sleep out in the open and catch fish to eat and sell, merely existing on the fringes of society. They seemed amiable enough and we provided a pleasant distraction for them as they starred in amazement at our pale skins and the blonde hair of the young one.
Finally making landfall, we took off to the nearest village to witness the harsh realities of life in these parts; Winkle Pickers picked winkles and Coir Weavers made rope.
We wandered the villages and bridges, the strips of land between canals and the lush plantations where a work/life balance was always a dream away; work meant survival.
Our next stay was in a hostel on the canal itself, a trip in two punts to get to our room and then it was bed time after yet another delicious curry. Just when you think you can’t face another curry, a delicious meal arrives and there’s no going back. In with the fingers and get it down ya!
It would soon be time to head to our final destination. A journey South and further onwards to the tip of Southern India itself where we would look across the sea to Antarctica, although even on a clear day we would not be able to see any land itself but technically it was possible.