Monday 29 January 2007

Varkala to Allepey by boat,

We caught the train to Kollam without a hitch and by 10 in the morning were sitting in the boat which was to take us through the Backwaters to Allepey. Kerala has a markedly more efficient tourist industry than anywhere else I have been in India. I was interested that the lifeguard stationed above the beach at Varkala to stop people straying near dangerous rocks was a KTDC employee and the boat we took was also run by the ktDC. There was an English speaking guy to answer our questions and we stopped en route at a waterside KTDC restaurant for an excellent lunch, and later at tea-time for a snack in a village (I had delicious banana fritters0. The entire eight-hour trip cost 300 rupees (less than 4 quid).

The boat was full of tourists, Indian as well as foreign, and we glided off on time down a wide channel, initially with fairly prosperous looking villas and hotels on the borders, plus a few temples and churches (which look as exotic and Indian as the temples). Occasionally we passed loudspeakers blaring music across the water, reminding me of similar loudspeakers in greek villages 40 years ago.

The Backwaters are an immense network of lakes, rivers and canals which spread oer miles of this central part of Kerala, separated from the sea by narrow strips of land. Gradually the houses near Kollam were replaced by fishermen's cottages, interspersed with rice paddy fields and the lush, lush green of palm trees and other vegetation.

Everywhere there were fishing boats, some little more than dugout canoes, others huge handsome boats with magnificent prows. The guide explained to me that they are often owned by a syndicate of perhaps 50 fishermen. They are made without nails, the planks being strapped together with coir, a cord made with coconut fibres, and then sealed with black tar. The bigs ones go out to sea, whereas the little ones fish in the backwaters. We were impressed by the huge size of the fish in our restaurants - giant barracudas, snappers, butterfish, searfish, pomphrets and of course tiger prawns.

It was incredibly peaceful going slowly upstream, lazily watching the village life unfolding on both banks. Claire and I both love boats, so we were in seventh heaven. Gradually the salt water was replaced by freshwater, identifiable because the scum increased. Up until now the main birds here and in Varkala seemed to be the ubiquitous huge 'crows', some of them with a handsome red on one side of their wings. When we reached the freshwater the birdlife suddenly became more varied in particular we spotted dozens of kingfishers! There were also white egret-like fishing birds, and flocks of little ducks (the first we had seen in India.

As everywhere in South India, our passage was greeted with smiling, waving friendly people and children running along the banks calling out "one pen. One pen."

The sun was setting as we, reluctantly, drew into Allepey, where we were to have a free pickup from the guesthouse of our choice, JohnsonsTheNest (thank you, Nick Edwareds, of the Rough Guide, whom I met on the plane and who recommended this excellent place. We had wondered how we would pick out our driver from the melee on the quay. no problem, there was a smiley young man called Jay wearing an England teeshirt and bearing two lovely red roses in his hand. The rickshaw, which belongs to Johnson, was the first one I have seen with a roofrack for rucksacks. Unfortunately it also had the usual mechanical problems, so half-way we had to transfer to another rickshaw.

Johnson's house is in a quiet middle-class suburb which reminded me of my lovely stay at Master Paying Guesthouse in Delhi two years ago. It was a gated compound, with a green garden in front and a huge verandah for the guests.

We were welcomed by Johnson an energetic man, permanently on his mobile making arrangements for various guests, who speaks excellent English, perhaps acquired during his time living in the Gulf.

We are in lovely rooms (mine is huge) in the back garden. In fact the whole compound is spacious. We ate our delicious supper with other guests in a large dining room. There are two girls, one English (grew up in a topee in a hippy community in Deven) and the other also from New Zealand. I didn't take to her at first, which goes to show one should not judge by appearances. She turns out to be intelligent, interesting, with strong views about racism (her boyfriend is a Cape COloured and his parents are not happy about him having a white girlfriend).

she too has just read Roy's book "The god of small things" - I finshed it on the boat and found it an excellent choice, given it is set in this part of Kerala.The english is more floral than that of English writers, but her use of language is skilful and powerful. She writes with passion and humour, intermingling story with political comment. It is the story of a disfunctioning middle class, formerly prosperous, brahmin family in small-town Kerala, and of a divorced woman disapproved of and stifling in the family, with her two unusual, vulnerable twin children.

The end is haunting and involves the other key character, a handsome, gifted, independent spirited Untouchable, and his relations with the woman and her children. The book shows the caste system as alive and well. This is confirmed by our newspaper reading, there was an article a few days ago reporting that Untouchables who had become Christians to escape the caste system are now being excluded from legislation aimed at positive discrimination for Hindu Untouchables - because they are no longer Untouchable, but Christian. Roy in her book talks of such Hindus, who find after conversion that they are expected to go to different churches with different ministers.

Another guest at the hotel, Mark, is Keralan born but was adopted as a child by a Swedish couple and now has Swedish nationality. He is a profesional double bass player who seems to be branching out into business in Kerala, despite not speaking Malayalam. He is here to set up some sort of tourist office in Allepey and then a place in Varakala where Swedish families can stay long-term, educating their children in the Swedish system. Mark's view is also that the caste system is alive and kicking, a view not shared by Johnson or his assistant, Jay. Johnson says that the young no longer have any time for the caste system. Hmmm

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