Friday 2 February 2007

Allepey. Now a canoe trip

I couldn't resist it. I signed up for a second boat trip, this time a different experience, a six hour canoe trip exploring the smaller channels. It's costing less than 1000 rupees (12 quid).

The rickshaw with my canoe man, Shaji, came for me soon after 5am (!) and we past through the still dark and deserted streets to where his boat was moored. It is about the size of a Thames rowing boat, with two seats facing each other in the middle and a third seat in front. Shaji paddles behind. The seating area is covered by an attractive coconut mat roof, but this made my entrance onto the boat rather clumsy and inelegant! On occasions like this I carry my stick, not only to balance against in tight corners, but as a message that I'm not very agile. It works.

Shaji is a delightful cheery chap with enough English for a reasonable commentary. He loves talking - and cracking jokes about non-existent crocodiles etc. We glided off silently and shaji pointed out a coconut oil processing factory. He said that a few years ago there were many more factories in this area, but that they were all now closed. He blamed it on the government but could not explain why - he just said "politicians". I get the feeling he's not keen on the communists.

The canal was full of green weed - as are many of the canals in the backwaters (my guidebooks says one of the reasons is the fertilizer used in the rice fields). Shaji said that the government cleared lots of the canals two years ago, but will have to do so again.

At about six we passed a mosque, with the loudspeakers blaring away, calling people to prayer. Shaji is a moslem and says taht 30% of the people in Indias are moslem, 30% christian and 40% hindu. I reckon these must be the figures for Kerala rather than India, as I'm sure there are not that high a number of christians overall. Anyhow he confirms what others say, that in south India the different religions co-exist peacefully. Later we passed a bible class and an arabic school, and then the moslem loudspeakers were replaced by ones blaring out hindu prayers.

As dawn broke signs of life increased. Each house has its own set of steps in the river bank giving access to what is clearly an extension of their homes. There were the usual scenes of men bathing vigorously in the river (later Shaji pointed out a bathing hut beside the water which he said was used by the women. There was lots of teeth cleaning going on as well, and all the usual scenes of clothese being banged on the rocks and cooking pots scrubbed. All this washing activity continues at a gentler pace throughout the day.

The houses line the canals or channels on either side, separated from the water by a towpath which has a constant stream of people. In the morning there are lots of schoolchildren, neat in uniforms, with satchels on their backs, making their way to various schools, which also line the river banks. Traffic on the river stepped up also, as men travelled to their work. You get the feeling that everybody has a boat of some sort - you really have to when living on what is essentially a series of islands, with very few bridges connecting them. At one stage we passed a house which Shaji says is the home of an English couple, who live like Indians (bathe in the river) and give English coaching classes to children. We also passed his home - he has one five-year-old son.

At 7.30 we stopped for breakfast in a little cafe shack beside the river. When I said I didn't want iddly I was offered tea and porota and was taken to the kitchen to see it being made. The kitchen was a dark place with huge cauldrons on a wood fire and a man banging out dough - the porota, which I think is made of maize flour. Anyhow it was good - much better than iddly, rice cakes which I find simply too heavy. It was served with a delicious chickpea sauce containing chilli (not too much) and coriander.

In India you wash your hands before and after eating and even the most humble place has a sink somewhere for this. Shaji showed me the sign 'water' in Mallayalam, so that I could locate it in future. Fat chance, I find it hard to memorise the look of the beautiful script. We were placed in a little room off the main room, but later I got to greet (and take a photo of) the villagers in the main room. Shaji then took me to a neighbouring house to use their toilet. Pity I hadnt brought my torch: the look was a dark, dark shed at the back and impossible to see anything once I closed the door... Returning to the canoe, we met a man who - as usual - asked Shaji all about me and then, through him, said his son was working in Norway for two years as a theatre nurse. I wonder what language he is using.

I asked Shaji about the large black plastic tanks I saw from time to time and he said they were indeed drinking water, supplied by the government. I couldnt work out whether it was supplied free or not.

Shaji bought me some bananas which were small and delicious. Illogically I felt it wrong to chuck the skins overboard, but Shaji assured me "Bananas good. Plastic bad." I do get the feeling that Keralans are much more aware of the disasterous impact of plastic on their environment. Indeed the streets do seem much cleaner than in other parts of India.

More river traffic: the river buses were increasing. These are river versions of the land buses, ie wooden bench seats crammed with people, and barred openings rather than windows. There were also canoes carrying building materials, one carrying a stack of plastic chairs, a mango seller and later in the day several fish sellers, who have a distinctive cry to bring out the housewives.

Shaji was for ever helping me identify the different trees, to distinguish between palm trees and coconut trees, mango, pawpaw, betel nut and cashew nut trees, flowers used for Ayurvedic medicines. We saw many more birds than on the previous boat trip, particularly when we turned up one very beautiful, very peaceful, heavily weeded canal. I got a really close up view of kingfishers, very satisfying.

Mid-morning we stopped at a coconut stall, where I was given the usual coconut with straw and after I had drunk quite a lot, they took the coconut away and returned it with the top neatly off and a bit of husk to spoon out the coconut. Its the first time I am conscious of eating the soft almost liquid layer before you get to what I think of as coconut. One of the men at the stall had a huge bow and arrow, which Saji said he used to catch fish. The fisherman was too happy to demonstrate: first he banged the water, then looked for signs of movement and pulled the bow. I think he was a little crestfallen when he was unable to demonstrate a successful catch.

As we entered the canal for the end of the trip we passed what looked like a kettu vallam and river bus graveyard. But beyond it was a gigantic boatyard and Shaji said that all these vessels would be rescued from the water and rebuilt.

AT last it was time to end this magical tour. In many ways it was far more satisfying than the first one because we explored the inner life of this area. But I'm glad I also had the more palatial experience.

No comments: