I am on the kayak in the backwaters, waiting for the sun to rise. I just kayaked for some time to reach this place which looked like open water. Even though it is December, the climate here is warm. I had actually rushed here so that I wouldn’t miss the sunrise. The foreigners in the fleet were trolling me mentioning that I am not in a race to win a medal. But I was, when it comes to any physical activity like trekking, I always see to that I am not the last in the group. When it comes to kayaking I wanted to see that I was the first to reach the destination.
After reaching the destination, only after I had confirmed that the sun is not yet out of the horizon, did I wait and look back at my fellow fleet mates. Since it was not the first time for me to row a kayak, I was better in maneuvering compared to others. Waiting for the sunrise, the leader of the fleet warned us to look out for other boats. He mentioned it rightly that the boats do not have brakes and we are in the middle of a highway for boats and we should be very careful of traffic.
That scared me. I took care that I was nowhere close to any bigger boats during the next 4 hours I had spent kayaking. After a few minutes of waiting, the sun rose beyond the trees in the horizon. This is the first time I am watching a sunrise from a kayak. This event was yet another event to be crossed or rather added to my bucket list and then to be crossed out of it.
Only after watching the sunrise for sometime did I realise how fast the place is getting heated up and it would get really hot before I finished the trip. I started rowing along with the fleet and became careful crossing the channels. After rowing in an open area for sometime, we did move towards smaller channels. It got interesting here.
I was able to watch how life revolves here around the channel. There were people taking baths in the channel, washing chicken and clothes in the channel. It felt like it is almost impossible to separate this people living here from the water channel. I was curious and asked the fleet leader if the water ever dries here like the rivers of the neighbouring state. It never dries according to him. The level of the water goes up and down, but the leader mentioned that he never remembered seeing the channel dry.
The leader of the fleet was a local in Alleppey and was able to speak a bit of English and was also happy answering my questions. He did mention about the flood situation last year and how the people living here were migrated to other places temporarily. He also showed me houses and mentioned how most of the houses were broken and now they are reconstructed.
The channel got even narrower. The channel felt like the roads, I turned from a small gully road to highway and then into residential areas. The narrower channels had homes built on its banks with small boats the size of a kayak parked in front of the houses. Behind the houses were the green fields which these people use for agriculture. Most of these houses didn’t have a way to reach there by road which is why this place is called Venice of India.
Some places had roads so narrow that cars couldn’t pass through. The geography of the place is different from anything I have ever seen. Life here happens in the river. I will tell you how important the rivers are here. There were advertising boards placed in the banks of the channel with their right direction towards the river. There were ATM sign boards and advertising billboards towards the river. That is how life is here.
After rowing sometime, we reached a small shop again facing the river bank. We stopped there for our breakfast after which we started again, leaving a few people back in the shop. I rowed again across the backwaters trying to understand life there. I was curious about camping in one such location. I enquired about it to the fleet leader and he warned about snakes and I had to drop the idea.
I also started noting yellow flags around the place. When enquired, I learned about Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana (SNDP). It was founded in 1903 with the guidance of blessings of Sree Narayana Guru. It is a charitable society working for the spiritual and educational uplift of the backward community.
I had known of Narayana Guru. I had known him when I researched about Vaigunda swamigal of Kanyakumari district. Vaigunda swamigal and Narayana guru were both leaders in Kerala who fought against the caste oppression in a spiritual way. They gave strength to the low caste to make them understand that they were ill treated.
After four hours of tiring rowing, I boarded a motor boat to get back to the backpackers hostel. After stepping out of the hostel for lunch, I made changes in plan and decided to try toddy again. After enquiring a couple of people, I took an auto to the nearby toddy shop. I did not drive my car so that I could enjoy the drink.
I entered a shop looking like a local tasmac in Tamilnadu. I was not able to find a free table. I waited for sometime to find a table which I had to share with other strangers. Even before I ordered anything, there was a banana leaf on the table and rice served. After serving the rice, the waiter asked to order. We ordered fish curry and beef fry and toddy. Drinking toddy along with rice was a difficult thing to do. Compared to yesterday’s drinking session, this was different. I think I was drinking like a local today and yesterday it was drinking like a Bangalorean. I was told by a friend that one is supposed to drink toddy while eating so that it doesn’t upset your tummy. I am not sure about it but that’s what I did here.
Toddy gives a light buzz and you can’t get high with just one. But if you are having it along with rice, I can’t have more than one. So with a little buzz walked out of the store. While waiting to fetch an auto again, I found a bust of Narayana Guru near the bus stop. I remembered what my kayak fleet leader mentioned about him. He mentioned in his simple terms, Narayana Guru was a leader who did a lot of good to the society.
Next for the day was a sudden plan to get on a ferry. I enquired a few people about the price of the house boats and it was very costly. So I decided to do what locals do there. They used government run ferry services to travel within these networks of islands. So I too decided to do the same. I was waiting for a ferry on a jetty. The government run ferries ran similar to buses. They had a time on which to be on each jetty and people were waiting to board the ferry.
The ferry was crowded, noisy and was manned by two helpers and two drivers. There were two levels in the ferry with a driver at the top level. The top level was not available for travelers. The ferry was run by an old engine which had a date engraved on it as 1981. I did enquire about the date to the driver and he mentioned that it was the year the engine was made.
The price to our destination was 19 rupees per head and the destination I discovered after entering the ferry was Kottayam. It took around 2.5 hours to reach there. So think twice before you get into the ferry. The ferry was like a local town bus. It stopped in every possible jetty with a person waving to stop the ferry or people inside who wanted to get down at some jetty. All these places looked like there were only a few houses around the jetty.
After spending some time standing, I got a seat. The engine was very noisy and one can’t hear what the person next to you had said. Slowly I moved away from the engine and got a window seat to enjoy the waterway. The channel was marked with sign boards mentioning the distance and the destination where the channel leads you just like roads on land.
There were multiple bridges across the channel which needed to be lifted for the boat to cross. The churches were decorated for Christmas and the decorations were left on them. It was interesting to watch baby Jesus and Che Guevera on either sides of a big star hanging on one of the church.
In the channels, I was also able to spot some snakes and pointed it to my fellow traveller. We reached Kottayam around 5 and the crew of the ferry took a break for around 30 minutes. It is here I did notice, probably for the first time in India a public all gender bathroom. That is again a first for me. After spending some time trying to understand how the engine is even able to pull the boat, the ferry started on its travel back to Alleppey. Here is where the whole journey started getting interesting.
There were at most 5 people in the ferry. So I had the luxury of sitting anywhere on the ferry and enjoying the whole drive back. The channel was lit with the golden rays of sunset. The trees and the silhouette of churches and the lights in the temple made the whole journey a lot memorable.
In some places the channel was covered with a green floating plant. I noticed it during the morning kayak session too. This time they had covered the whole channel and the motor of the ferry got into trouble because of it. When I was thinking that we are going to spend a lot of time on the boat because of it, one helper on the ferry jumped into the river and cleared the plants in the ferry boat and in no time we were able to continue on our journey.
The traffic on the lake had slowly died out and we were the only ones moving on the lake. This was the last trip for the ferry and by the time we reached Alleppey the place was dark and the Hindu temples there were lit with rows of oil lamps. The scene was amazing to watch from the ferry. The small restaurants and resorts along the banks had lit up stars and decorations. The view from the ferry was a beautiful sight to watch.
Our ferry slowly drifted into Alleppey cutting the darkness and I had the whole ferry to myself to enjoy the trip and call it a day. The day ended with a long walk from the place we got down from the ferry to our hostel. Just before going to sleep, I cleaned my car. This was the first time I cleaned my car after I set out on this trip seven days back. The car was dirty with all the off-roading in the drive on the beach and the ferry ride it had taken.
I met a few travelers in the hostel. Travelers from New Zealand, Philippines and Germany. There were some serious travelers who were on the road for years now. All I would do was envy their life and continue with mine. Tomorrow it’s going to be Varkala and then the trip will come to an end soon. Slowly the thought that the trip is coming to end slowly seeps in. But till then it’s going to be more fun. With that thought I get into my bed.
This post is part of a series of posts. Do check the whole series here.