Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Kerala: Alleppey

            For the past four days, we have been exploring the serene coastal backwaters of central Kerala, where the main attraction is renting a houseboat and cruising around the endless rivers, canals and other waterways. Alleppey, a mid-sized, laid back town that has charitably been referred to as the “Venice of the East,” served as our hub. A preliminary warning: if you are easily upset or disturbed by photographs of palm trees, this post is not for you.
            We began our voyage from Wayanad down to Alleppey, which sits roughly midway along Kerala’s lengthy coastline, by taking the bus ride from hell. I won’t go into the details, but suffice to say that our bus had open-air windows (not in a good way), the route involved windy mountain roads that snaked along towering cliffs, and the bus driver gave no indication that he valued his own life, let alone the lives of the the helpless passengers. Hallie and I both agreed that “we’re too old for this shit.” I’d tried to make a funny story out of it, but it really wasn’t that funny, and I can say with 100% certainty that this is the last time I’ll ever take a government bus through the mountains in a developing country. It’s just not worth it.

Kerala’s “open-air” bus windows
            The bus took us from the mountains in Wayanad down to a coastal city called Kozhikode. The city was formerly known as Calicut, and most people I spoke to still referred to it as such, just as most Indians seem to continue to refer to Mumbai as Bombay, etc. From Calicut, we took a four-hour train ride down the coast to Alleppey. We had some time to kill before our train, so we tracked down a restaurant that Biju from Olives Homestay had recommended (it was also in Lonely Planet). The place was known for its fish dishes and “legendary chicken Biryani.” I opted for a fish curry with mango. Fishing is one of Kerala’s primary industries and naturally the region is known for its seafood cuisine, but this dish was pretty disappointing, and had nothing on some of the fish dishes I had at Olives.
            A few days prior to this voyage, we had made a last-minute switch up in our itinerary (more days in less places), and I had somewhat hastily arranged for us to stay at another home stay in Alleppey. Actually, it wasn’t in Alleppey proper, but instead was in a small village about 15km southeast of town, deep inside Kerala’s famous “backwaters.” Given the experience we just had at Olives, I was a bit nervous that we’d be overly dependent on our hosts, but thought it was worth the gamble so that we could get out of the city and have an “authentic” experience. 
It had just turned dark when we arrived in Alleppey, and I was praying that a kind man with a smile would be waiting for us at the station. Sure enough, as soon as we stepped out of the station, a plump man with a mustache sauntered up and revealed a crumbled piece of paper adorned with my name. We both smiled, and we were our way.
The homestay -- called Nelpura Heritage Homestay -- was run by a middle-aged man named Chacko, who works as a professor of pharmacology at the local university and runs his homestay on the side. In our email correspondence, he told me that the price included transport to his property by canoe, which I thought was a nice touch. However, the sun had long since set and a steady rain was coming down, so I assumed that we’d skip the romantic canoe ride and make the whole trip by “dug dug,” the comical term Chacko used for tuk tuks, and one that Hallie and I have since adopted. My assumption about the canoe ride was dead wrong. After about 20 minutes on the main road, our driver took us down a narrow lane to the water’s edge, where two men with a motorized canoe awaited our arrival. One of the men, a chipper middle-aged guy named Kumar, turned out to be Nelpura’s permanent “caretaker” (butler?), and I believe the other guy was just a local boatman. Kumar handed us each an umbrella and instructed us to sit on some towel-lined lawn chairs that had been positioned inside the canoe. And off we went. The boat ride had most definitely not been cancelled.
When we finally arrived at Nelpura, we were both pretty wet, but neither of us really cared. By the time we had finally settled down in our room, however, I was overcome by a growing sense that I had not picked the right place to stay. The austere, cabin-like room had low ceilings and only a single window. Perhaps the extensive use of dark wood was designed to create a "heritage" vibe, but it wasn’t exactly the kind of place you want to hang out in. As Hallie put it, it felt like you were in a sarcophagus. When Kumar informed me that “breakfast is at 9, lunch at 1, tea at 4, and dinner at 7,” an anxiety came over me. I began to feel trapped, a feeling that only grew when Chacko casually lamented that the village had been flooded for the past two weeks, rendering many of the walkways unusable. In fact, he had been unable to use his car for the past several days, meaning the only way back to Alleppey was by boat. Oh, and the internet was broken. Trapped indeed.
That night, Hallie and I had a pow-wow and decided that we needed to relocate the following morning. I was nervous about breaking this news to Chacko. I’m not really sure why I was nervous, but I think it was because he was such a kind, gregarious guy and I didn’t want to hurt his feelings. The night we arrived, his wife cooked us a delicious home-cooked meal, and I didn’t want him to think we were ungrateful.
The next morning, I rose early to break the news so that we could arrange our return to civilization. When I told him, his eyes lit up and he responded: “I’m so relieved you’re saying this! I was just trying to figure out how to explain this to you at breakfast, but I don’t think this is the right time for you to be staying here.” We were on the same page.
I’m not sure why Chacko didn’t come to this conclusion prior to accepting our invitation, but it didn’t matter because staying there for one night ended up being a worthwhile experience. After I told Chacko we wanted to leave, he helped us find a suitable place to stay back in town and arranged for our transport (including the canoe trip again). We had some time to kill, so Chacko encouraged us to go for a walk around his village despite the flooded pathways.
I really enjoyed this walk. Armed with nothing more than a pair of flip-flops, we trudged through the flooded terrain alongside the village’s pedestrian commuters. After about 10 minutes, we reached dry land once again and wandered around the local village, which carried on as usual despite the high water levels. It was still early, and many local residents were brushing their teeth or bathing in the canals (a practice whose health benefits I find dubious, given the various things we saw floating around in the water L). Old men squatted along the edge of the river, patiently waiting to catch a fish with homemade fishing rods. And at each turn, cheerful children approached us to say hello. Out of respect, we didn’t take any pictures of people, unless it was clear they wanted us to.

A Christian dug dug powering through the deluge

A devout cat.
After our walk, we took another canoe ride back to the main road, only this time we could see where we were going and the sun was shining.

            The place Chacko had found for us had a vague “motel” vibe, but we were happy to take it as the staff was friendly and the room was clean, which increasingly are the only things I really care about! It was located in a neighborhood called Finishing Point, which earned this title because it is near the finishing point of Alleppey’s famous Snake Boat Race. Each year, the race attracts throngs of Keralans from all over the state who come to watch the race. Each boat is over 100 feet long and is powered by over 100 rowers. We actually missed the race by only a few weeks, but I had read it is nearly impossible to find a place to stay in Alleppey when the race is on, and had also read about people getting injured in human stampedes because of the large crowds, so I figured it was ok that we missed it. It is worth a google image search to check out what the boats look like though.  
We had previously arranged to go on a day-long kayaking trip the following day, and our new hotel helped us arrange for a houseboat trip for the day after that. That left a whole day open for us to wander around Alleppey. We got lunch at a local joint, which served bottomless thalis (sample platters) for roughly 75 cents per person. The food down here is exquisite. Everything is cooked in coconut oil instead of ghee, the dominant ingredients are veggies like beets, carrots, cabbage, and okra, and the typical flavors include mustard seeds, curry leaf, ginger, cardamom, and of course, more coconut. Interestingly, and much to our disappointment, many of the restaurants only serve this Keralan-style food at lunch, and at night the menus become restricted to more typical north Indian dishes.
            After lunch, we treated ourselves to “full body” Ayurvedic massages, an experience I will never forget but have no intention of reliving any time soon. The details, in all their naked glory, are perhaps best left omitted, but let’s just say that experience involved the powerful hands of a man who identified himself only as “Shiva,” a tight-fitting mesh loincloth, and copious -- dare I say absurd -- amounts of Ayurvedic massage oil. If you've never had an authentic ayurvedic massage before, I recommend trying it out, but it's definitely not for everyone. 
            I don’t have much else to report from that day, except that while walking around at night we came upon a strange performance at a local outdoor bandstand-type facility. I have no idea who organized this event, what its purpose was, or who the performers were. Bizarrely, other than five men sitting in the front row who were going absolutely crazy with enthusiasm, almost all of the chairs in the audience were empty. The rest of the crowd lined the perimeter, presumably because they too were just passing by and decided to check out what was going on. Here are a few short videos.

            Also, there is a strong communist presence in Kerala. I don’t know much else about this phenomenon, but it’s interesting to be in a country where communism hasn’t been utterly demonized and can function as a legitimate political party alongside more mainstream parties. I also think it's kind of cool that they continue to use the hammer and sickle. How old school. 

            The next day, we went kayaking on the backwaters. I found the kayaking to be physically strenuous but quite rewarding. The trip was cool because we were able to go down many of the narrow waterways that are inaccessible by the larger houseboats. Fortunately, the guys who organized the trip for us knew that not everyone has diesel biceps, and they split up each phase of kayaking with relaxing breaks on the motorized support boat. They also took us to great place for lunch, which wasn’t more than a little shack on the side of a river. In addition to delicious veg sides, I finally got a taste of the locally famous Keralan fried fish. It did not disappoint. We shared the trip with a nice British woman named Ruth, and it was fun to exchange travel stories and advice. Here are a few pictures from the kayaking trip. Unfortunately, I don’t have any pictures of the narrow canals  because they were only accessible when in the kayak, meaning I couldn’t take any pictures.

Lunch (pre rice avalanche).
Abandoned House Boat
Palm Trees
More Palm Trees
            But my favorite experience in Kerala was definitely renting a houseboat for an overnight trip. The original houseboats were converted rice barges, but I think now they are made from scratch. There are over 1,000 boats in operation, and they range from small, humble vessels to double decker boats with 5 bedrooms. Ours was somewhere in the middle. It had two bedrooms, which I couldn't believe actually had air conditioning, although we were only permitted to use it after 9pm. Except for sleeping, however, we spent 97% of our time out in the open-air front of the boat, which had a dining table, a soda, and two comfortable captain's chairs. 
         Admittedly, it was a bit touristy, but nothing beats cruising through the backwaters at an unrushed pace and eating authentic Keralan food at each meal. Our boat had a crew of three men, who provided incredible service and made sure we were comfortable. There was Sonny, who cooked the food and also seemed to be the unofficial captain, Sugu, who steered the boat, and Ashik, who helped out Sonny with the cooking and was also “in charge of the engine.” They were all super friendly and Sonny even let us check out the kitchen at the back of the boat and explained to us what ingredients went into each dish.
            I think I found being on the boat so relaxing because there was no pressure to do anything other than sit back and enjoy the scenery. You are essentially forced into relaxing, which sometimes can be hard to do when there is always so much to see and do. The only downside to the trip was that the fumes from the engine would sometimes waft to the front of the boat. In fact, the houseboat industry surely must be taking an environmental toll on the region, a reality that made me feel a bit guilty. 
            After cruising around for the afternoon, we docked next to a small village at about 5:30 pm and stayed there for the night. Unfortunately, there were other boats parked very closed to ours, but our neighbors weren’t too loud and I don’t know why I thought we’d have the whole village to ourselves. The next morning, we rose early and the boat made the return trip back to Alleppey. 
          We are now in Fort Cochin, a famous colonial enclave, which also happens to be our last destination in India. I'll end this post with a bunch of pictures from the houseboat trip. 

Our dining area and lounge!
Our captain
Our boat! 
Captain and Chef
Sonny the Chef's amazing lunch spread

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