Backwaters

Day 749 – 19 March 2017

A short train from Varkala pushed us back further north into the backwaters of Kerala. Alleppey sits on the coast with a wide flat beach, but the true draw is the network of canals that link rural life to the sea. I gingerly carried my pack on an aching shoulder and shuffled along the dusty road as my pink flip flops turned a dingy brown. Jill and Mel lagged behind.

We had prearranged a hostel that appeared to be deserted when we arrived. It was the cleanest and most modern hostel we had stayed at in India so far, but oddly, there were no patrons, nor staff. The open air restaurant in the front at least provided some shade. The menu of banana, mango, pineapple, and pomegranate lassis was just taunting us as we waited for someone to appear. Finally, a short, gregarious gentleman bounded down the stairs and without taking our names, led us around to a dorm room in the back. For the first time since Mumbai, we were finally sleeping in a traditional hostel, meaning that we each had our own bed. No other bags littered the floor and the shoe rack outside was empty, save for our three pairs of dirty sandals. It was obvious we were the only people staying here.

I was ravenous so I stowed my bag and went back out to order one of those lassis. I ordered pomegranate, being the first time I had seen one on a menu. The man bobbled his head, “Sorry, we don’t have pomegranate today.” Of course. I wasn’t surprised. Not just in India, but lots of places have optimistic menus that can’t be accommodated.

“That’s ok,” I said. “I’ll take mango then.” Again, he bobbled his head. “Banana?”

“No, ma’am. So sorry”

I chuckled, knowing the answer, but I tried anyway, “Pineapple?”

“Not today. Maybe tomorrow.” No wonder this place was so clean.

Jill and Mel planned to go for a walk toward the beach and seeing as I was still hungry, I opted to join them. Today was Mel’s last day in India before she was due to fly home to New York. They were both making a big to-do out of it and, in fairness, I could definitely be accused of caring too little. I did like Mel and she was kind of an innocent bystander in the tension between Jill and I, but I had said so many goodbyes over the previous two years. It was draining and way too easy to sort of get used to it. A common flaw in way too many nomads like me, we are notoriously self-insulated from the inevitable separation, a heart not easily penetrated by such things as emotional goodbyes.

We ambled toward the beach, a wide stretch of eroded sand full of food stalls and gangly teenagers. As the only three westerners on the beach, we drew our fair share of attention. Women, men, children, and babies, unabashedly staring with wide eyes and slack jaws. I was still quite hungry as I trailed behind Jill and Mel. The smell of spit-fire corn was particularly enticing, yet we kept walking. It was sweltering outside and after walking a good distance down the beach, I decided to turn around. I couldn’t ignore the aroma of that sweet-smelling sustenance any longer.

Before I could make my way back toward the blackened corn, I ducked inside of a restaurant to buy a bottle of water. The restaurant was completely empty save for four staff members who jumped to attention the minute I opened the door. The bottle of water was ice cold, a luxury that is not easy to describe. As I flipped through my wallet to hand over ten rupees (15 cents) for the 2 liter bottle, one of the servers turned on the big commercial fan directly in front of me. And with that, I immediately pulled out a chair, sat down and asked for a menu. Ice water AND a fan? I completely forgot about the corn. Since I was the only patron, the service was bordering on obsessive. “Do you need anything, ma’am?” “Is everything all right for you, ma’am?” It was almost like service in America, overbearing, attentive, and a little bit desperate. At one point, they even moved two more fans in my direction that created somewhat of a tornado immediately over my table. I had to pinch my napkin between my thighs or it would have been whipping in a circle over my head. Through the open door, I saw Jill and Mel approaching on the sidewalk. Looking back, I’m ashamed to admit that I put my head down in my Kindle and hoped they wouldn’t see me as they passed.

Jill and Mel went to dinner that night to celebrate her last night in India. I didn’t not go because I was trying to be a jerk. I just wasn’t hungry after my late afternoon meal. Of course, this was not the right decision because it wasn’t about the meal – it was about saying farewell. However, it seemed whatever good will I could capture at that point would be fleeting so I selfishly chose to revel in the silence of a room to myself for a few hours. When the girls came back, I was just laying down for bed at our usual bedtime of 8pm. I tried to say the appropriate number of goodbyes, but we all knew the ship had sailed. I was an asshole.

Mel’s alarm buzzed early in the morning. Jill and I dragged ourselves out of bed once again to send her off in the morning dawn. Almost immediately after Mel stepped into an Uber and whizzed away, a vacuum of sour feelings filled the air. Jill and I went back to our room, only speaking when necessary. We were polite to each other, but it was obvious our buffer had gone.

We gathered ourselves to be ready for our day on the backwater canals. This was the whole reason to be here. Tourists usually rent a houseboat and spend a couple of days touring up and down the rural communities, but we had opted to take the more budget-friendly man-powered canoes. With Mel gone, I really wanted to make more of an effort with Jill. We had two more nights left with each other and there was no reason to ruin it by a bad attitude. Throughout the morning, we slowly warmed up to each other and it truly felt like we might actually end on good terms.

An auto rickshaw dropped us in a huge mass of other foreigners that were being herded around as if we were cattle. Jill and I were assigned to a “group leader” with a few other people while we were then sent off with other groups toward one of several large ferries. There was no explanation as to what we were doing, but we all followed our leaders obediently while he kept checking to make sure we were still there and yelling something if we started to stray. The ferries didn’t resemble canoes in any way so it was difficult to be sure we were even in the right place as we faithfully handed over some rupees to pay for our tickets. The ferry was definitely over capacity, lilting starboard, as we cruised through several wide rivers; occasionally one of the “wranglers” would get off, bark incomprehensible orders at his bewildered “cattle,” and they would disappear as the rest of us cruised on. Jill and I kept watchful eyes on our guy to see when it was our turn to disembark as if we would somehow miss the commotion. The river seemed to be a superhighway of ferries and houseboats, chartered by Europeans with aspirations of seeing authentic India from the comfort of a deck chair. Eventually, in perpetually organized chaos, our guy somehow located all 12 of us that were scattered throughout the boat, gesturing to follow him at the next port.

Three lounging boatmen were waiting for us. They had slender muscular arms that looked like they had been born rowing. Our boatman wore a paisley button-down shirt with the traditional South Indian masculine sarong, presumably to let the hot humid air circulate freely down there. He didn’t speak any English and communicated with us by pointing, grunting, and the occasional smile. The canoe was painted green with a yellow awning that would protect us fair folk from the sun’s rays. Four photo-snapping tourists were loaded into each.

Within moments of setting off, we had meandered into more narrow canals. Naked children splashed in the water. Women squatted while scrubbing their laundry. Cows stared. Other canoes cruised by carrying barrels of petrol or fish destined for market. Sometimes a motor-powered canoe would interrupt the placid channel and the melody of the oars pushing through the water. A gentle breeze from our slow pace was just enough to keep the mosquitoes at bay and to keep the sweat in a state of suspension. It was perfection.

Our cruise lasted about two hours, followed by lunch hosted at the home of a local family. Their teenage daughter, speaking perfect English, entertained us with well-timed humor and gentle mocking of those red-faced and sunburnt. She was assertive and seemed to relish the audience. She planned to become a doctor and move to America. Her mother quietly moved around the table serving us thali on banana leaf place settings, never speaking a word.

Our tour ended back at the main ferry terminal and Jill and I decided to walk back toward town. It was only a couple of miles and there’s no better way to get a taste for a place after all. I was in a good mood and seemed she was as well. I was due to fly to Delhi in two days and Jill would be on her way to Nepal so we talked about future plans and how much both of us had loved the south, omitting any reference to our animosity.

Later that evening at the hostel, I had heard from our friend, Donal, that he was arriving in Alleppey that day. Donal found our sad lonely hostel and immediately decided to stay across the street at a place with a much more vibrant atmosphere. But meanwhile, he came to hang out in our dorm room and catch up. We hadn’t seem him in two weeks so he told us about how he had stayed in Hampi long enough to celebrate Holi, the Hindu spring festival commonly referred to as the Color Festival, and I told him about how much we had loved Varkala. Meanwhile, Jill had lain down in her bed and closed her eyes without even greeting him. He tried to ask me what was wrong, but I could only shrug.