Aleppey & Kerala´s Backwaters
50 shades of green
Our last ride on an Indian night train brought us to Ernakulam in Kerala, the deep South of the Indian West coast. We had left Hampi for Bangalore, the famous IT-hub of India, due again to a problem with our beloved camera. This time it was little spots on the sensor, which were leaving dark grey shadows on our pictures. Respecting the never ever dare to touch the sensor rule, we so spent one entire day wandering around the Sony stores and service centres in order to find a person willing to safely remove the dots. Not to be too detailed about another camera story: we found someone in the end, the dots are gone and so far, our pictures are spotless again!
In Bangelore, a Israeli couple we met in Hampi, Adi and Ginat, had joined us again in order to do the Backwater trip together. Kerala welcame us at 6 am in the morning with humidity and oppressive heat, a heat that makes your blood boil, your limbs swell and your head being totally dizzy. From Ernakulam we took another local train South to Aleppey (Alappuzha in the local language, Malayalam), the major hub for backwater cruises.
Lying parallel to the Arabian Sea coast, Kerala’s backwaters are a network of interconnected 38 rivers and 5 lakes and both natural and manmade canals. In total it form more than 900 km of waterways. It is a landscape of uncountable shades of green, boarded by palm trees and banana plants. On the train we we´d already been told: “Ah, Kerala, many types of bananas there!” And it is true, they are surprisingly many and they all taste a little different: sweet and soft small yellow, mealy large yellow with orange pulp (they mainly use it for fried banana desert), red banana and – our favorite – the juicy green banana.
Arriving in Alappuza, our task was to pound the streets in order to arrange for a houseboat which would take us four around the backwaters. Everyone seems to have a houseboat, but prices are high and the quality of boats and the corresponding service vary considerably. So we spent some sweaty hours wandering around in the noonday heat, inquiring, negotiating and inspecting different boats. Aleppey is sometimes referred to as another Venice of the East, while we think rural Amsterdam would perhaps be a more appropriate description, as the city, as it lacks any kind of Venice-like splendor (which Udaipur has in abundance). However the city is build around the waterways and life is very much organised around boats and ferries, loud and rusty, which make their way through the small and sometimes smelly canals, abundantly covered with vegetation.
In the end we found a houseboat arranged by the owner of our homestay, which would take us for one night around the backwaters outside town. Spending a day on a houseboat is more or less like the Indian version of being on a cruise ship. Basically, one spends the day sitting or lying around on the front terrace, watching the marvelous landscape while the ship slowly glides through lakes and canals, observing people fishing, washing clothes or cooking next to the water.
We learned that the Backwaters are a unique ecosystem hosting numerous rares species of birds – among others the famous kingfisher – and later in the afternoon we could spot quite some of them. Catering is included in the service and we were served some delicious South Indian dishes of fish, spiced cabbage, long beans with coconuts bits or pineapple rice, and the best about it was: we could eat it without pain, as for once it was European level spicy.
As we spent the night on the boat, we knew the promise of experiencing the sun set in the middle of the canals, when the whole landscape was submerged in dim, magical lights, all the houseboats began to one by one dock on the shore of the rivers and step by step the sound of the ship engines was replaced by the sound of nature. One word: amazing!
If we had asked ourselves before getting on the boat, how the hell people who hire a houseboat for several days are not getting bored, when we woke up in the quietness of the beautiful sunrise on the water, we understood that it is for this magical tranquility, the light, the sounds of the water and waking up, the smell of fresh morning mist on banana leaves.
We got off what had been our boat for one day after breakfast to take a ferry to Kottayam from a local pier in the middle of nowhere, heading through the canals in the middle of men going to work, schoolchildren driving to school and women escorting their schoolchildren.