Life played out along sleepy waterways, colourful homes camouflaged by swooping foliage, wooden boats punting silently past – the Kerala Backwaters are India, but not as you know it.
By most accounts a daytrip to the Kerala Backwaters from Cochin is not enough. If you are short on time, however, it’s long enough to give you a taste of what goes on beyond the crazy roads of the city.
Being short of time myself, I had arranged via email with the highly efficient Mr Walton of Walton’s homestay to be booked on the daytrip for the morning after my late night arrival. After a quick breakfast of fresh fruit, toast and eggs we were loaded up with more plantain and water by the motherly Mrs Walton and picked up a by mini bus outside the house.
I had expected road chaos in Mumbai but it was even worse than I could have imagined in Cochin. Winding roads, potholes the size of moon craters and drivers constantly dicing with death. Our minivan swerved from one side of the road to the other, avoiding holes but not oncoming traffic. At one point we were caught out by an unexpected barrier, stuck on the wrong side of the road, heading straight into oncoming lorries. On the hard shoulder were a group of school girls, clean and starched uniforms, identical pig tails, the driver made a quick decision between the lorry and the children and swerved violently towards the girls. Thankfully they heard us coming and dived into the bushes. I put my hand in my mouth to prevent a scream. They dusted themselves off and carried on their journey non-plussed. I decided to close my eyes for the remainder of the drive but it was estimated by the rest of the group that we almost killed 12 people that day. Standard commute in India apparently.
Arriving in the Backwaters it’s a different story. After the roar of the road, settling into a wicker seat on a traditional wooden boat is bliss. No motors are allowed on the vehicles that traverse the backwaters, surprisingly agile old men use giant sticks to push the boats along instead.
Our first stop of the day was to meet some women rope makers. With water soaked coconut shells and simple tools these women produce surprisingly strong rope. After that we punted along to a shell factory where it looked like the men were working in a snow storm. We passed men with rudimentary equipment diving for sand and depositing it into a boat, I’m not sure for what purpose but it sure looked like hard work.
Stopping at a lonely shack on a tiny island, a traditional Keralan lunch was served to us on a leaf. Curries, pickles, popadoms and dosas just kept coming from the kitchen hidden somewhere within the hut.
Bellies full we were then transferred from the larger houseboat to a narrow row boat to easier navigate the smaller canals. After the early start it was tempting to have a snooze! To close your eyes, however, would be to miss out.
Miss out on schoolchildren swinging their lunch boxes as they skipped along the riverbank on their way home. Miss seeing women washing themselves in the stream, fully clothed, a bar of soap the only product. Slapping their thick, black, wet hair over their shoulders to continue with laundry using the same soap and murky water.
I think of the products in my bathroom, how I wince and moan if the water changes temperature even slightly, what a chore it is to simply load the washing machine. The boatman points out a skinny snake sneaking along the riverbank, I recoil from the edge of the boat, the ladies carry on washing regardless. Talk about getting some perspective.
Our last stop is to a spice plantation. I reflect on a similar trip I took in the Amazon jungle, there we tasted exotic fruits, here we nibble on pepper and cinnamon. The fun is momentarily interrupted by a curious Indian member of our tour who goes to take a closer look at the plantation owner’s dog. It seems the dog was tied up and hidden for a reason – after a prod from our inquisitive friend, the animal lashes out and sinks his teeth into the fleshy part of the man’s arm. The owner rushes over and convinces the dog to let go. I expect to see flesh left hanging from the dog’s mouth but luckily the victim is just left with a few bloody holes. He and his family separate from the group to seek first aid, I overhear the mother muttering about rabies vaccinations.
The dog incident aside the day in the Backwaters is one of my most peaceful experiences in India. Like Brahma himself India has many faces and the tranquil backwaters are one you will definitely enjoy seeing.