Kerala (Part 2): The Floating World

… Living only for the moment, turning our full attention to the pleasures of the moon, the snow, the cherry blossoms and the maple leaves; singing songs, drinking wine, diverting ourselves in just floating, floating; … refusing to be disheartened, like a gourd floating along with the river current: this is what we call the floating world…  (Asai Ryōi)

Believe it or not, I was already familiar with the Japanese concept of ukiyo (‘floating world’) thanks to my enthusiasm for 70′s prog-fusion-world pioneers Jade Warrior, who made an album called ‘Floating World’ back in 1974.  You see where listening to all this stuff gets you?  Anyway, chugging round the Kerala backwaters on a kettuvalam rice boat certainly constitutes a particularly luxurious way of living for the moment….no cherry blossoms or snow or maple leaves, mind you…

 A ‘double-decker’ kettuvalam with ostentatious upper balcony

 We’d booked our boat via the Raheem Residency, something that spared us the necessity of schlepping down to the main jetty in Alleppey and fighting off the touts.  In keeping with their policy of catering for the ‘top end’ of the market, the Raheem has gone into partnership with Lakelands Cruises, who unashamedly describe themselves as ‘The First Ever Luxury Houseboat Operators of Kerala’.  Shrewdly, they avoid the lunacy of the main jetty by operating from an out-of-town site to the south-east of Alleppey,  just by Pallathuruthy Bridge, have an on-shore showroom with leather sofas and a marble floor and freely talk of ‘Luxury’ and ‘Super De Luxe’ packages. 

As with the Raheem, the whole process is designed to insulate you from the madness…. thus no touts and no hassle.  Somewhere along the line, I’m vaguely uncomfortable with this ‘sanitised’ way of visiting India, but on the other hand, India is changing fast and no-one is dishing out medals for haggling with touts, so maybe ‘authenticity’ is an over-rated factor.  Anyway, all of this super de luxe treatment comes at a price, which seems to vary according to how long you want the air-conditioning for.  24 hour a/c is clearly a severe and expensive drain on generators, so most people settle for a package where you get a/c in your cabin from 9 at night to 6 the next morning.  This is what we did and for four people on a two-night cruise, it worked out at about £50 per person per night.  Of course, when considering the price, you have to bear in mind that this is a full-board arrangement, so you don’t have to pay anything extra for consumables unless you want beer (we did) or huge local ‘prawns’ (more like small lobsters) and crab (again, we did). 

The ‘double -decker boat’ was opulent, the cabins perfectly acceptable and clean with en suite bathrooms (never did manage to get any hot water out of the shower, though) and the three-man crew extremely friendly.  They were headed up by our guide/interpreter/chef Bradish (not sure of spelling) who was unfailingly courteous and helpful throughout.  Once aboard, we were soon under away, chugging northwards along a waterway/river that would lead us into the wide-open reaches of the huge Vembanad Lake, which is nearly 9 miles across at its widest point and stretches north to Kochi, where it finally feeds into the ocean.

One of the first things you are likely to notice about the waterways is the presence of large floating mats of ‘weed’, some of them as big as a tennis court, that drift with the prevailing current where there is one, otherwise gathering in small inlets and ‘bays’.   This is  a species of  water hyacinth, originally a native of the Amazon basin and one of the fastest growing plants on the planet.  If left unchecked, it can completely carpet entire waterways and lakes, destroying most light-dependent life below the surface.

 Houseboat & floating mat of water hyacinth on Vembanad Lake

Doesn’t sound ideal really, but there are a few hidden benefits to these patches of floating green carpet.  Water Hyacinth is, apparently, very good at absorbing all kinds of metallic and oil-based nasties from water, something that is a concern as pollution from kettuvalam is an increasing problem in the backwaters.  Having said that, fish like to munch on the dangling roots of the plant, so it’s getting into the food chain anyway….

Oh well, time to forget the ecological conundrums and soak up the scenery… which was extraordinary.  Out on Vembanad Lake, there is big water and big sky with rows of palm trees delineating huge rectangular areas that seem to have been earmarked for polder-style reclamation.  There is already a great deal of rice being grown in this area and many of the paddies are several feet lower than the water level of the adjacent lake.

 Main channel in the foreground, area for drainage beyond the palm trees

 Like other areas where you have low-lying land, lots of water and huge skies – England’s  Fen Country, for example - the southern end of Vembanad has a slightly Ballardian and other-worldly quality about it.  You couldn’t call it bleak – it’s too hot and steamy for that – just a little empty in a landscape that is usually crowded and lush.  Talking of climate issues, we had arrived at the very tail end of monsoon season and though we had rain, it usually obliged us by falling when we were safely tucked up in bed.  No rain as we travelled slowly along a dead-straight waterway under silvery-grey skies between rectangular, semi-drained lagoons which may well be fields within a few years.  Even out here in what appeared to be a landscape of water and sky, there was  life and plenty of it.  People had built houses on the artificial median strips between the main channel and the semi-drained polders.  In the middle of a watery landscape, someone had built an elaborate -looking church. Groups of dogs trotted along on their afternoon constitutionals, long boats loaded with rice and small fishing craft headed for Alleppey – and that was the odd thing; for all that we had been aboard and under way for several hours, we were still only a few miles outside the town.  However, it looked and felt like a different world.

 Eventually, we turned away from the lake and into the labyrinth of waterways that lie to the east of Alleppey.  Here the channels narrowed and it became easier to gain some insights into the way people live along the busy banks of these rivers and canals.  In fact, at times, it almost felt a little intrusive; perched up on our ‘observation deck’ we could look down and into people’s back yards, so exercising a modicum of discretion with the camera was only fair, really.  To be honest, most people seemed reasonably relaxed about the presence of boatloads of gawking foreigners ploughing up and down their ‘main street’; in fact many – especially kids - smiled and waved if you caught their eye.

Whilst we were up top looking at the passing scenery, Bradish had been busy in the kitchen and duly produced the first in a series of cracking meals that made the best of Kerala’s abundant produce.  Most of the time, he would have produced at least three (and sometimes more) different curries, using fish, shellfish or chicken for the main dish and two contrasting vegetarian side-dishes, along with plump Kerala rice,  delicious palappam (rice pancakes) and poppadoms.  We let Bradish know that we were reasonably well-used to spicy food, so I think he felt that he had a fairly free hand.  Keralan curries aren’t usually that hot in terms of chillies, but they inevitably reflect the produce of the state; thus mangoes, cardamoms, cashew nuts, coconut and the ubiquitous and wondrous curry leaf all feature heavily.  If Bradish opened a restaurant in London or Manchester he would surely make a fortune – that’s how impressive his cooking was.  This was in stark contrast to my first visit to northern India 22 years ago, where in a stay of about a month, I didn’t experience one single meal that could remotely be classed as memorable.  In Kerala, every mealtime seemed to usher in a riot of new flavours. 

 Spoiled for choice; a whole fish on a plate and four vegetable curries on a banana leaf – less washing up, anyway…

 To be honest, I travelled to Kerala fully expecting to have some of my long-cherished 22 year old myths about India torpedoed and the generally excellent quality of the food  we ate was perhaps the first of those to bite the dust.  There would be others.

Meanwhile, the endlessly-changing landscape of the backwaters unravelled slowly through the lazy afternoon until we moored up around 6 pm; travelling the waterways after dark would be both dangerous and pointless as you wouldn’t be able to see anything – and more to the point, neither would the crew.  After another tremendous dinner of huge local prawns and delicious crab, we settled down to a serious card school.  Young Rob had somehow managed to arrive at the age of 23 without picking up any card-playing skills, so we assembled around the dining table on the lower deck and introduced him to the mysteries of gin rummy.  This required the use of an overhead light which, as you might expect, acted as a magnet for what seemed like every insect for miles around.  Well, not every insect….

Officially, Kerala is now supposed to be malaria-free, but there is speculation that this is not totally accurate.  Some have suggested that the State Government’s assertion that malaria has been eradicated  is a politically expedient statement designed to encourage tourism and investment.  Maybe so, but we were warned by guidebooks and websites like Trip Advisor to expect massive amounts of mosquitoes; malarial or otherwise.  So, we arrived in Kochi essentially loaded for bear – we had wristbands, sprays, wipes, roll-on lotions, rub-in creams, after-bite lotions and, of course, mosquito coils.   We amused ourselves with visions of clouds of Keralan mozzies packing their bags and heading for Bangkok once they saw us coming with our arsenal of DEET products.

On the boat, a crewman appeared with a couple of smouldering coils as the dusk began to gather.     As we settled down to our card school, the insects began to arrive in their droves, drawn as much by the overhead light as anything else.  Our principal assailant seemed to be a small aphid-like green insect rather like a greenfly with a harder exterior shell.  These little blighters hopped and dropped and sprang, got entangled in our hair and seemed dazed but not damaged by our repertoire of sprays and coils.  The bonus was that they didn’t bite.  Post-trip research would indicate that these are a species of plant hoppers introduced  to the backwaters to control the water hyacinth.  Apparently, they bite into the stems and simply suck the juice and the life out of the plants.  For a while we were completely bombarded by them, but as the evening progressed they seemed to diminish in numbers.  What we didn’t get, in any appreciable quantity, was mosquitos.  There may have been the odd one that got in under the radar – certainly we all had a few bites before we left, but we acquired most of those after we’d left the backwaters behind.  As the monsoon season had barely ended, this was something of a surprise – but a pleasant one for all that.

The following morning dawned bright and sunny and as we sat down to breakfast on coffee or chai, fresh fruit, omelettes and palappam with a mild vegetable curry, the crew got us under way again.  Day 2 of our cruise took us deeper into the backwaters, past schools and temples, churches and shops.  Talking of shops, we saw one red & white checked barge-like vessel that is apparently a floating supermarket.  We had one main stop on our second day, involving a visit to a large Syrian Orthodox Church at Champakulam, featuring a highly-decorated interior and a bizarre external ‘grotto’ dedicated to the Virgin Mary and looking like a giant lump of blue plasticene someone had dumped in the churchyard. 

There’s plenty of wildlife around on the backwaters, though it’s often hard to pick out and harder to capture on camera.  The most visible and numerous species of bird is the ubiquitous crow. For an Englishman, it’s a rather startling experience to visit the seaside in southern India and to see no gulls at all. Huge flocks of crows have completely superseded most other species except for the soaring fish eagles that spiral overhead on thermals – and even they are frequently mobbed by groups of crows. 

These noisy, sociable birds are present in huge numbers on the backwaters as well, gathering in squabbling groups in the palm trees before suddenly taking off en masse as if in response to some silent signal.  In the rice paddies to either side of the waterway, it is often possible to pick out snowy-white egrets, who stalk through the rice in search of frogs and insects but rarely venture on to the main channels.  Other species that we didn’t see would include otters and civets, but they are hardly likely to venture on to the busy main waterways.  Other than crows and egrets, we also saw cormorants diving for fish out on Vembanad Lake and eagles swooping down to try and snag an unwary fish from the surface waters.  That was about it, really, but most of the backwaters we travelled through were so busy with human activity that seeing the rarer and shyer inhabitants of the area was always unlikely.

As we pulled in to moor on our second night, we became involved in  a comical interlude involving another kettuvalam .  We overtook this boat shortly before reaching our mooring and  from the abuse being shouted in Malayali between the crews, it was clear that we had nipped in and nicked a prime spot just ahead of the other boat.  After much gesticulating and head-waggling, the crew of our pursuers seemed to accept that they would have to moor about 50 yards astern of us in a somewhat less ideal spot, all of which would have been fine but for the passengers on the other boat.  This turned out to be a large and vociferous Indian family with several noisy kids and a crying baby.  They also had the boat’s TV blasting out Hindi cartoons at high volume and we all rapidly realised without any need for further discussion that if we moored here, the hitherto tranquil mood of our backwaters idyll was going to take a severe mauling.  After a word with Bradish, we left them to it and headed off to a quieter spot.

 The following morning, it was time to head back to ‘home base’ and move on to the third and final phase of our trip.  Our backwaters cruise had been idyllic and relaxing, though if I were to wax hyper-critical,  I would have to say that I would have liked to have got  ‘off the beaten track’  a bit more and on to some of the quieter stretches.  Probably not an option in the time we had and on a boat of that size and draught.  The standard of service offered by the crew and the quality of the food were both first-rate, the boat was comfortable and roomy and it had been an altogether enjoyable voyage.  In India, paying a premium price is sometimes the best way to go.

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