Wednesday 31 January 2007

Allepey : houseboat trip

This was the day for the start of our trip in a houseboat on the Backwaters. Johnson's boat had been fully booked up when we arrived but we persuaded him to ask people if they would mind two extra people (and thus a reduction in the cost). He had arranged that we would share the boat with a Canadian couple.

After the habitual delay (over an hour...) we were driven to the houseboat where we met the Canadians, Doug and Jules. They turned out to be delightful - similar outlook on life to us, and with a great sense of humour. Sharing with them definitely added to the pleasure of the trip and not just because they came so well equipped - anti-mosquito candles and the makings of some excellent Mojitos. We have learnt that it is a clever thing to buy a bottle of white rum for adding to those innocuous looking fruit juices we drink all the time!

The boat was a delight. I think we had all been attracted by the sheer beauty of these 'kettu vallams'. Originally designed for wealthy Keralan grandees to entertain, they fell into disuse until some years ago when someone had the bright idea that it would be a good wheeze to use them for tourist trips. There are now several thousand of these which have been restored or newly built and a thriving boat building industry.

They are built in jackwood, the local handsome hardwood (no I cant tell you if they are replanting and how long it takes to grow them, but I must ask Johnson)and the planks are bound together with coir and then tarred, like the fishing boats. They are extremely palatial; ours had a huge front deck with sofa and armchairs, a round dining table and continuous seating along the two sides. Behind this was the single large bedroom with en suite (Claire and I would be sleeping on the deck) and aft was the kitchen quarters. The roof and walls were covered by the attractive, curved coir matting - I cant wait to put up a photo as they are so beautiful.

Jay helped us on board, where we were met by the three crew members with garlands of pungent smelling jasmine and coconuts complete with straws. We sat drinking, big grins on our faces, wallowing for this brief experience of the ambience of colonial opulence. As we glided away from our moorings we passed the same scenes of village life as the previous day, but in a more intimate way, as we were closer to the water and travelling slowly.

You do get the feeling of more prosperity here: even the cottages beside the water, separated by a towpath which has a continuous traffic of people on foot and bicycle. Occasionally there were glimpses of further stretches of water beyond the houses and towpaths, and rice paddy fields lower than the level of the water, reminding us that the Netherlands, this is reclaimed land, potentially vulnerable to flooding.

There were regular refreshments of delicious masala tea and at one stage we stopped for a bizarre (but picturesque) walk through a village and paddy fields to a catholic church enclosing the house of some important 19th century local priest. One of the three nuns who live there took us on a tour of church and house - a weird experience, given the agnosticism of all four of us, it is so difficult to understand the intense devoutness of others. The 200-year-old house was interesting as it gave us some idea of how Keralans lived in the past. A significant part of it was used for food storage, the rooms had predictably low entrances, but surprisingly high roofs, indicating the relative prosperity of the priest's family.

This is obviously a regular stop for the tourist boats, and we were rather baffled as to why this and not, for example, a local temple. In fact we were struck by how much we were part of the tourist process: the boats seem to follow more or less the same itinerary. This didnt bother us as much as it should because it was all the same a beautiful experience and we have learned to cope with the embarrassment of snapping photos like any other trippers, and of children running along towpaths calling out "one pen, one pen".

A major part of the enjoyment of the trip was also the food - a delicious lunch and dinner, and of course Doug and Jules' Mojitos... ... We drank these as we watched the sun setting slowly over the palms, turning the water into a rosy hue. The birdlife increased at dusk, with kingfishers and various fish-catching bird. We also passed a huge group of ducks - a duck farm.

As it grew darker, the crew prepared Claire's and my mattresses on the deck and set up the mosquito nets. ACtually there was some confusion, not helped by a lack of mutual language, and initially they expected us to share a rather skimpy double mattress and seemed perplexed when they were asked to give us a second mattress, and we had to supply the second mosquito net! There were also not enough sheets on board and Claire and I were distinctly cold during the night.

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