Backpacking in Kerala II: four-buck ferries in Alleppey
The internet as it stands, weaves a huge maze of information, and at no point does it show any emotion of sensitivity towards the technologically challenged community. Quite simply, the world wide web is one big mind fuck. As I scoured for an inexpensive abode in Alappuzha (also Alleppey), alternating between Hostelworld and Booking.com, the unending scroll of options left me spoilt for choice. As it stood, it seemed Alleppey was just a labyrinth of homestays. Sixty minutes later, smoke cleared away from the battlefield, and I zoned in on Peaceful Lake Homestay. Because anywhere else, I’d be settling for bedding in the midst of repugnant vocal orgies.
It was a Monday morning when I entered Alleppey, and the town was abuzz with the din of daily operations. The sun was basking in all its glory, but the locals were all hidden under their black umbrellas, a smart move that Delhites will never be able to execute. The roads were narrow and were part of a network of parallel lanes, each separated by water canals and connected via bridges. Research told me Alappuzha (pronounced Alappurha in Malayalam) was going to be a thunderstorm of tourist activity, but instead, I was just manoeuvring through heavily tanned human traffic. Each bridge worked as a four-way junction and had a red light manned by two coppers. The police in Kerala is one of the more effective ones in India, and not even a cyclist dares to jump lights here. Fruit stalls lined the streets at intervals, and the vendors had tacitly crafted their stalls to look aesthetically pleasing so as to attract customers. Bananas are deep-rooted in the hearts of Malayalis, and Kerala boasts at least twenty species of banana; my permutations suggest each of these could produce fifty unique dishes. But otherwise, the apples were bland, the grapes sour, the oranges one hour away from extinction, and papayas were still a few lightyears away. Either this was all factual information, or the stall I bought from was a misleading example of Kerala’s fruit game.
Alleppey Beach was a bit of a disappointment as well, and I was hopeful that I was getting done with the bad apples before the ripe ones came along. The beach stretched across nearly three kilometres, and was infested with couples burrowed under umbrellas every twenty-odd metres; I was one of the three people swimming in the ocean, each of us standalone pieces of art that these locals couldn’t get enough of. On one lazy evening, I made acquaintance with Anthony Benett, a twenty-one-year-old local fresh out of college, and on his way to Deloitte in Bangalore. He unfurled his frustration and anger about Alleppey’s conservative environment as we rode across town on his bike. Beaches were the only place couples sought for hand-holding, and the cuddle culture was a far-fetched paradisiac fantasy if the girl and boy didn’t share the tenets of religious faith. I listened to him and sympathised for a while, but when he started complaining about the pollution and traffic in Alleppey, it was time to make new friends.
The star attraction in this town are the backwaters it is ensconced in. Spanning over a 900-km-long network of canals, lakes, rivers, and inlets, the backwaters facilitate much of the life here. From the start of the day to the end, houseboats, canoes, fishing boats, ferries, and the odd kayak hijack the waters and paint a rather impressive canvas under the sun. To the best of my knowledge, no oceanic or fluvial sight was a match for the vistas the backwaters had to offer.
My homestay was snuggled on a narrow stretch of land flanked by the backwaters on either side, and to get here, the choice was between an INR 200 auto or an INR 4 ferry. Waiting for the ferry at the edge of the main town, I realised how easy it was for the locals here to completely isolate road transport from their lives. These ferries connect Alleppey to all nearby towns and villages, and each ride cost roughly five peanuts. And they’re not one bit like the buses in the city. Commuters here just hop from one ferry stand to another (nothing is too far here, really), and the frequency is rather high. Hence, no ferry at any point was ‘too crowded’. I always opted to sit on one of the entry steps, an unusual choice of seating that let me freely record with my GoPro, and save me from any source of social interaction.
Peaceful Lake Homestay, just a short walk from Zero Jetty, had views for which I would tip nature every day. The sun rose over the backwaters on the northern side, where all the human activity took place. It set over the southern side; the porch of my backwater-facing room was a beautiful vantage point to observe this panorama. To wake up and open the door to an unspoiled body of water graced by ducks and swans was like an orchestral performance I would never sleep through. For outsiders, life comes to a standstill and tranquillity truly finds new meaning here. The accommodation was run by Xavi and Deepu, two twenty-somethings who complemented the setting with their humour and welcoming personalities. There were just four rooms here, and my immediate neighbours were Rita, a Russian, and Ellie, her three-year-old daughter. Ellie’s wailing would keep me up for a fraction of the night, but it was all part of a grand scene.
A Czech couple travelling on a bike and an SUV from London also shared space with us. While Pavel rode his Honda bike, Sarka drove the Suzuki SUV and they rendezvoused from time to time through the day. In the time it took me to come home and publish this piece, the Czechs travelled from Alleppey to Bombay, up to Ladakh, and back to Delhi.
Alleppey is a good town to unwind and do nothing, and still not feel bored. A swim in the backwaters was probably the most interesting event in the day, but there was really no urge to challenge the body to a physical task. My days were punctuated by rain, which was mostly reduced to a soft drizzle. The post-rain sunsets were arresting enough to stay in, and we ended our days with a few games of post-dinner carom, which Xavi would win without batting an eyelid. So would anyone, if they played night after night with people who hadn’t flicked a striker in decades.
On one of the afternoons, I went down to Kuttanad with Akash, a young cyclist who I’d befriended in a bike shop in Bangalore. Kuttanad is a famous farming region with the lowest altitude in India, where the rice fields sit 3 metres below sea level, a standout feature which attracts quite a few geographically inclined tourists. We took the ferry down to Kankeri, a sixty-buck journey on a ferry that treated the passengers to little pockets of islandic greenery. Toddy shops-cum-restaurants are very common in this part of Kerala, and Akash led us to a hole-in-the-wall shop, where we gorged on a feast that cost peanuts. Toddy is the choice of drink in Kerala, and each distributor doubles up the store as a restaurant (at least that’s what they like to call it). Sometimes the distributors also climb up coconut and date palms to collect the sap, just because they can. We hogged on fish eggs, an entire fried fish, fish curry, sambar, rice, and a tapioca salad, all served on a rather healthy looking banana leaf. In about INR 600, we’d gobbled down food enough for three days, relished in the company of houseboat employees who just were here to get drunk on toddy on their day off.
I celebrated my twenty-third birthday in the pristine land home to the backwaters, swimming, eating all kinds of local delicacies, and enjoying a ten-kilometre walk, an unconventional birthday celebration I would’ve never followed up on had I stayed back in Delhi. Towards the end of the day, I got myself a ticket to Varkala and promised the guy at the ticket counter I’d come visit again, even though he seemed to have the most negligible amount of interest in an Anokhi-wearing boy strutting around the station with a raggedy old rucksack one rain shower away from oblivion.