Friday, February 27, 2009

Waterways of Kerala

Tadashi & I went to Kollam for a tour of the Kerala backwaters; we elected to go by using a dugout canoe. Apparently all the day-trip tours go the same island. Sadly, this tour felt like a ride at a theme park. You know the ride where you’re in a car, and you can pretend to drive while the car goes through different parts of the city/county/world, but really the car is just on a single track that automatically pulls you through the ride? Well, that’s what this tour felt like, except we were in a boat.
Sure, we saw some wildlife;

we saw some locals;
and we saw some beautiful scenery.
But it still felt like that ride. Nearly all of the locals actively ignored us, and I felt like we were in their living room – uninvited. No, resented.
We had heard reports from people that this was the “must do” in Kerala. I can see that this trip could have been great a long time ago, before the locals got so jaded and tired. Either that, or some tourists have a different idea of “seeing the local culture” (some people on our ride that it was great). Culture this was not. Zoo, yes. But not culture – not in the context that I define it to be, and certainly not in the sense that I expected it to be. Worse yet, we had come to Kollam to do this tour since it was supposed to be less touristy than the more popular location. At least we, unlike some others on the ride, had not come all the way to Kollam for one day, specifically for this sad little ride.
A lot of people we talked to also recommended the houseboats that go through the backwaters. But after the dug-out experience, we decided to give that a pass. We didn’t see the point of paying $100/night for that. Instead, we opted to take an 8-hour ferry ride from Kollam to Alleppey. This turned out to be a great decision. It was a good-sized boat, with two decks, and since the boat goes really slow upriver, there were no problems at all with motion sickness. You might think that 8 hours on a boat would be way to much, but it went by in a flash. We spent the entire time on top, and had a blast.
The boat went through some really small waterways where we could interact with locals very closely. Most of the tourists on these ferry's don’t pay any attention at all to the locals. Since the locals weren’t part of this trip (unlike on the amusement ride), they simply didn’t notice us. Tadashi and I, being the extroverts we are when we travel, waved to absolutely all the locals we saw. In response, we got huge smiles and waves from nearly everyone. And we got to see them in their bona fide, natural, habitat (as it were).
Most locals on this river have a boat, but not a motor. Many use a stick to propel the boat; this method is called punting.
A relaxing way to ride
Making the ever-useful coir out of coconut husk
We were also able to see how the dugout boats are made. In fact, they're not dug out at all -- they're sewn!
Kids were especially excited by the acknowledgment.
Silly girls
A boat-load of kids
This girl did a little dance for us
Most of the trip took place just off the ocean, in salt-water. At one point, the river way switched to fresh water. I was shocked to see a lock separating the two. The lock was operated by man power. It was easily 80 degrees outside, and these men were working hard to move the huge 10-foot doors.
Reflection on lock door
Our boat fit through the doors, but with only inches to spare.
The local ferries also use the locks. Seeing these little boats in the lock reminded me of Mark Daly making the locks on the Mississippi operate just for him in his canoe.
The Country Ferry
Ironically, we saw a lot of houseboats on the same waterways we were on, so we were getting nearly the same trip for only $8 each -- a much better deal, in my opinion.
The ferry's wake
On another note, I think I finally figured out what's up with these types of "houses" that we see all over Asia. I think abandoned houses become "organ" donors. It's like a pick-and-pull for bricks.
Need bricks? Just head over to Ricky's old place.
We spent the night outside of Alleppey at the Rice Garden (which was super quiet, but could use a little paint) and then took the train for the 1.5 hour ride to Kochi. That’s a story in itself. Once we got on the train, we realized that we had inadvertently purchased 3-tier AC sleeper tickets ($4 each), so we upgraded to the much more comfortable and roomy 2-tier AC sleeper class ($6 each). About an hour into the ride, a group of people came to our berth and claimed that we were in their seats. We explained that we had upgraded, so these were ours. We even showed them our receipt. A small (but polite) dispute ensued, and finally someone in the other party asked where we were going. We told them we were going to Kochi, and the woman got an odd look on her face and said, “This is Kochi!” Shocked, Tadashi and I quickly threw our laptops into a backpack, grabbed our 3 bags and ran off the train (ok, we didn’t “run” with all that stuff through the narrow isle; more like we tried to leave so quickly that I kept bumping into things and people on the way off). I kid you not: we were off the train for at most 30 seconds when it departed the station. Talk about luck!! Especially since Indian trains are notorious for running late; this one was 20 minutes faster than it should have been!
Heed my advice: pay close attention to the stations, not the time!

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