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Saturday, July 23, 2016

Cruising a Narrative in the Backwaters of Kerala


Almost lost and rendered inconspicuous in the stirring narrative of Arundhati Roy’s “The God of Small Things”, the famed backwaters of Kerala left a mark in my imagination, and eventually contributed to my fascination and obsession of visiting the country of India. After the travel Gods blessed me with a two-fold opportunity to venture into this culturally rich and often misunderstood nation, I have also – at both times, managed to witness the sultry setting of these famed backwaters – where the unforgettable characters whom Roy has created; shaped their own ‘social space’, and nurtured the bonds between each other to deepen. 

Capping off the Month-long ‘Finally India’ trip

After an arduous 27-hour train journey from Mumbai where I spent most of my time lying on the upper bunk of a three tier bed, re-reading Paul Theroux’The Great Railway Bazaar’, we arrived at the port city of Kochi almost paralyzed with fatigue and non-lateral movements. I stretched my hands and feet as the dizzying spell of endless honking and merciless street activities blitz our senses from all corners. Typical India. “We should be used to this right now” I told my friend Aileen. “Yes, Marky but aren’t you tired from that long train ride?”. It was by far, the longest train ride of my life and I’m quite sure Aileen never had a lengthier train journey during his foray to Europe a decade earlier. 

Locals shows how the simple process of 'Coir' making. (Coir ropes made from coconut fibers)
With exhaustion setting in, we took it easy that day. The next morning though, we were introduced to the backwaters of Kerala. 

The Backwaters of Kerala

Consisting of an intertwining set of brackish lakes and lagoons situated parallel to the Malabar Coast in southern India, the backwaters of the state of Kerala is made up of five major lakes connected by canals and supplied by the waters coming from 38 rivers. The collective tranquil waters then flow through almost the entire span of the state. 

A local shovels a stack of clam shells used to produce lime powder
Navigating through the countless numbers of watercourses along the backwaters will take you to innumerable small towns tucked under a blanket of thick rain-forests and leafy fields. No wonder, Roy’s characters blossomed under the appearance of this steamy paradise – thus accompanied by her immensely moving narrative, made ‘God of Small Things’ one of those memorable novels where the setting lingers on in your head long after you have read it. 

Coming from the enormously populated cities of Kolkata, Varanasi, New Delhi, Agra, Mumbai and frying at the desert landscapes of the state of Rajasthan – the tropical setting of Kerala proved to be a welcome departure to the scenery we were starting to get both accustomed to and grow weary from. 

Under a Canopy of Trees and Over a Tranquil Water – Off We Sail


Joining a dozen other tourists, we boarded a Kettuvallam a traditional Kerala houseboat characterized by shiny smooth wooden hulls and thatched roof covers. Slowly gliding over the almost steady waters, we passed through narrow waterways where the plants and flowers on both sides appear so close I could almost touch and smell it. The whole morning, we charted off over glass-still waters while the sun rays knifes through the gaps of tree branches from above. By lunchtime, an authentic Kerala meal was served to us. Eating with bare hands, I savored until the last bite, notwithstanding the spiciness that starts to burn through my mouth. The lasting memory of my first foray into the backwaters of Kerala consisted of a chill morning and the quiet humming of the birds and the stillness of the waters. A part of me wished we could have extended more time to further familiarize with the tropical setting of Kerala – but pressed with time, as we were reaching the tail-end of our month long India trip, we left the next day and boarded a plane to Kuala Lumpur.  

PART TWO

#KeralaBlogExpress: Second Time’s a Charm – Alleppey Backwaters

Exactly a year later, I found myself on a plane heading back to India for a two-week jaunt across the state of Kerala along with 28 travel bloggers from all over the world. As part of the second edition of #KeralaBlogExpress, we threaded through the whole state of Kerala for 14 days and included in our itinerary, was an overnight stay at one of the famed Kettuvallam houseboats that sails the Backwaters. 
 
Sunset over the Alleppey backwaters
Since the backwaters of Kerala stretches to a number of cities and towns, the part we explored took us from Alleppey and into its nearby towns. Composed of pockets of fishing villages along the way, our grand houseboat sailed the whole afternoon uneventfully as it took us to some of the most scenic parts, best typifying the simple living and tropical setting of Kerala. 


Once again, as I see locals from the distance carrying baskets of fish and farmers tending to their crops, I remember the lovely characters in Roy’s “The God of Small Things”. As the sun slowly faded into the reddening sky, I hear Maria declaring aloud “Oh my, the sunset is looking so beautiful”. Maria is a pretty petite girl who hails from Greece and along with Filipina beauty; Mica, the three of us completed the cast assigned to our houseboat. Our home for the night comes spaciously with a dining area, a small living room, crew’s stations and separate rooms with its own bathrooms for the three of us. 

The three of us: Mica, Maria and Me
It was more or so five days into our two-week trip and this was the first time we got to know each other. During the two-day Kerala backwater cruise, I got the chance to significantly learn more about both Maria and Mica. During meals, we engaged in lively conversations about our plans, and revealed some stories about our past romantic adventures. In-between, we hanged out - spaced out at the loveliness of our surroundings. 

The backwaters is everything for the locals; their source of livelihood, water and main thoroughfare to go to markets and neighboring towns.
If the sunset over the backwaters made Maria gleam in delight, the sunrise we awoke up to the next day was equally spectacular. Buoyed by the soft ebbing and flow of the still waters, the reflection of the rising sun created this visually pleasing glow of a fusion of colors. Striking in each, blending all to create a stunning scenery - I pointed my camera and clicked a few to frame postcard-like images.  

Similar Boathouse to ours
Hearing nothing but the low sound of the boat’s engine and the quarks and chips of the ducks and birds, I joined Maria and Mica at the front deck of our house boat; seated still, we stared ahead amidst a thousand thoughts running through my mind, all of which dominated by love, peace and light. As if on cue, the poetic motion of the place starts secreting its effect – it therefore; imbibed a romantic notion into my head and in-between stealing stares at Maria, who would smile back each time she catches my eye, a wonderful thought rested through me.

Backwater Romance? Unfortunately None

Although no romantic sparks would form between us, I felt like the three of us created a friendship stronger than I would share with the other participants of #KeralaBlogExpress – and even though this was my second time in the backwaters of Kerala, it gave me a different permanent remembrance I would forever associate it with; of a romance that never took off or may or maybe - will blossom along the way in the coming days. No one can ever tell for now.

Maria :)
It remains to be seen if the narrative that streamed through the tranquil and crystal-like waters of Kerala would usher a conclusion as lyrical as the charmed prose of Arundhati Roy’s writings. 


Thank you to Rainbow Cruises for our lovely House Boat. This trip is part of the Kerala Blog Express 2.



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