Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Keralan backwaters

8am the following morning the divorcees, Sam and I hopped onto a minbus for the one-hour drive towards Alleppey where we, and a handful of others, were to pick up a traditional wooden houseboat for a cruise through the Keralan backwaters.

The backwaters are a palm-fringed network of rivers, canals and lagoons. On the banks, small villages grow spices or have thriving cottage industries in rope making or lime production. The houseboat is powered by two men: one punting, one steering, and it glides peacefully along the tranquil waterways. At times we’d turn off into tiny waterways that only just fitted the boat through and we’d brush past the lush vegetation draping down from the banks. Cutting through the silence every now and then were villagers practicing dance, children splashing about in the water or women washing clothes at the water’s edge.

At lunchtime we stopped for a traditional Keralan lunch. Typically food is served on a banana leaf. Placed in the centre are bread (poori, roti, chapatti or naan) and rice then dollops of various sauces such as dahl (made from lentils), pickles and milk curd are placed around the edge. Using only your right hand, you tear off a piece of bread or round up a small handful of rice before dipping it into one or two of the sauces and attempting to eat it as daintily as possible. Inevitably, food ends up all over the show so I’ve learnt very quickly to always ensure that I have hand wipes to hand before I start eating (it is very difficult to search through your bag for them when your right hand is covered in sauce!)

After lunch, we switched our transportation method to a traditional wooden canoe. Some canoes were large seating 6-8 people, others were smaller seating only 4 or 5. Again, we were punted along through narrow waterways, passing children splashing around in the water and women busy at work. Suddenly, ripping through the silence an autorickshaw with a giant speaker attached to its roof rattling over a bridge, government propaganda blaring out. As soon as it passes, peace and quiet is instantly restored.

We stopped off briefly at a spice village where we were given a short spice tour. Our guide pointed out cinnamon as the bark of a tree, the pepper vines and the fruits that house nutmeg. This was a very similar, yet shorter version of the spice tour I did in Zanzibar.

The Keralan backwaters are undoubtedly very beautiful and probably some of the cleanest water in India (throughout the whole tour I only noticed two shoe soles floating in the water) but having been spoilt with my visit to the Okavango Delta, if I were to recommend one over the other, it would most definitely have to be the Okavango. Nonetheless, the Keralan backwaters have been very well looked after and to see so little rubbish – given the amount in the surrounding area that you drive through to get there – is remarkable and a sign that at least in some places, India has started to do something about its rubbish problem and conserve some of its landscape.

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