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Kerala Backwaters, Varkala and Kovalam

sunny 30 °C
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Sunday 11th December
I'm up early after spending a night in the nondescript town of Kottayam and agree a price for an auto-rickshaw to take me to the jetty for the ferry to Alleppey. When we get there it transpires that this jetty is no longer used, possibly because the waterway has silted up, and the new jetty is eight kilometres away. It is difficult to tell if the rickshaw wallah knew this, but as a local, surely he did, but he now has me in his power and the price rises from 50 rupees to 450. I argue and curse him under my breath but know my choice is either to accept or be abandonded in the middle,of nowhere. I decide to put it down to experience and reflect that £5 may be a lot in Indian terms it is really very little in mine. He drops me at the new ferry jetty, a canal choked with water hyacinth where a battered looking craft, which is probably older than I am, awaits. We set off and I soon forget my financial woes as the ferry chugs its way through the hyacinth, scattering the little herons that walk on the leaves searching for prey. The two and a half hour trip is a joy as we navigate narrow canals, wider rivers and a lake, making frequent but brief stops to pick up and drop off locals. Birdlfe abounds, herons, egrets, kites, cormorants, all take my attention as do the dozens of houseboats that are now part of the tourist scene. 35 years ago when I was last in this part of the world these were just rice barges with rattan roofs, but they have been converted and many new ones built as tourism in the backwaters has taken off with a vengeance. I watch, partly in envy, as rich Indians cruise past, knowing that this level of luxury is a little beyond the means of a single traveller.

The Kerala Backwaters

I intend to stay in Alleppey for just one night but having discovered that my guesthouse, the Paradise Inn, is aptly named and that Alleppey is quite an attractive town I decide to stay an extra day and do a canoe trip. At dawn I meet up with a young Canadian couple and a short rickshaw ride takes us to where our canoe, really a small boat with comfortable padded seats, is moored. We spend the day lazily drifting around the backwaters observing the birdlfe and that of the people that live by the water's edge. Occasionally we take turns to help the boatman paddle. He takes us to his home on the bank of a narrow canals and we eat fish curry from a banana leaf, surrounded by pictures of Hindu gods.

I had considered taking an eight hour ferry to Kollam, but realising that it will not arrive until late afternoon and I will still have some way to go to reach my next stop, Munroe Island, I abandon this idea and instead take a two hour bus ride. In Kollam I discover that getting to Munroe will either mean changing buses three times or taking an auto-rickshaw. I decide on the latter and negotiate a fee of 300 rupees. The driver consults with some of his mates on how to get to my destination and off we go. After a mile or so it becomes apparent that the rickshaw is struggling. We barely make it up a slight incline and the driver pulls into a side road. Gesturing that he will be back in five minutes he disappears around a corner. Fifteen minutes pass and I am beginning to think he has abandoned me but as I debate Wetherby or not to go and look for him he reappears with man carrying a small bag of tools and a new head gasket. He sets to work and quickly removes the cylinder head, gives it a scrape and polish, fits the new gasket and replaces the cylinder head and within ten minutes or so we are chugging off down the road once more.


We cross a wide river on a ferry that is little more than a metal platform fixed to a couple of boats and eventually, after a little searching, arrive at Munroe Island Homestay. This turns out to be one of the best places I have stayed at in India. The place is owned and run by a delightful Indian couple and their son Vijeesh who does all the organising in addition to taking guests on canoe trips and guided walks. My room is airy and comfortable with a hammock swinging on the porch and the food the family provides is plentiful and delicious. Vijeesh is great fun and delights in mimicking the Lancashire accents of the three girls who are also staying there. He knows the island like the back of his hand and takes us to visit a coir rope making workshop, a thread makers and a cashew nut processors where a group of women scrape the skins from each and every nut by hand. I begin to appreciate why cashew nuts are relatively expensive.

Cashew nut skinners
Vijeesh making coir rope

It would be nice to stay longer in such wonderful company, eating such amazing food but a 30 rupees train ride takes me an hour further down the coast to Varkala where perched above a beach on dramatic cliffs a small town of guesthouses, shops and restaurants has sprung up next to the original town. I meet a few other western travellers but we quickly exhaust the little we have in common. Varkala is a major stop on the "hippie" trail down the west coast of India and attracts many of those whose main interest is to live as cheaply as possible while smoking as much dope as they can. They seem to have little real interest in India and after three days I decide to cut short my visit and head further south to Kovalam where I will swap one beach for another.

I was in Kovalam in 1980 when there were a mere handful of guesthouses nestling among the palm trees fringing an unspoilt and undeveloped beach. The place is now unrecognisable. Large and small hotels, restaurants and shops crowd the shoreline and the beach is crowded with sunbeds and tourists. Despite this I grow to like the place and stay for over a week soaking up the sun, eating fairly good food and drinking the occasional beer. My last day in Kovalam is Christmas Day when the place goes mad. It has become a tradition for younger members of the fishing villages further down the coast to visit Kovalam for the day. From mid-morning dozens of fishing boats begin to arrive, outboard engines powering them into the shore where they skid to a halt and their passengers leap out onto the sand. They frolic fully clothed in the sea, impromptu football games start, beer and toddy, the local brew made from palm sap, is produced and for the next few hours Kovalam is consumed by a party.


Christmas Day on Kovalam Beach

This seems a fitting note on which to leave Kerala and on Boxing Day I catch a train to Tamil Nadu and more craziness in Madurai.

Posted by MalcolmB 15:03 Archived in India

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