As the bus left Kumily and wound its way along the terrifying roads, the skies opened. At times the bus driver could only see a few metres ahead as we traversed the sheer roads through the cloud layer. Everything was eerie. Trees appeared from hazy shadows, the voids below us intriguing. It was cold and the air in the bus was so saturated our skin was sticky to the touch. We slept a little, holding hands.
Leaving the cloud layer the views expanded and we had a final glimpse of the hills and high jungle before reaching the tea and rubber plantations, and then on to the watery plains of Kerala.
We arrived at lunchtime and decided to walk to the guest house, 3km to the West. It was baking hot but we took our time. We’d planned to get lunch on the way but the only places we passed were a little terrifying looking in terms of hygiene so we decided to wait until we got there. En route, a man pulled up on his motorbike and asked if we were going to that specific guest house. He turned out to be the owner. I guess we must have stood out because we didn’t see anyone else who looked obviously like a tourist on the way, especially with such huge backpacks.
Our room was basic but cool and lovely, and only a few buildings away from the sea. But that was what we were most interested in so we dumped our bags and headed straight out. The beach was wild, the sea lashing the coast with spray visible moving into the coast along the whole beach. We walked down the sea shore stopping at all the hotels and restaurants we could find. Nowhere was open, with most places taking advantage of the off season to complete renovations. About 2km away we passed Amazeworld: a bizarre looking funfair which had obviously seen better days. We decided to give it a miss. After a slightly dodgy lunch we sat and watched the sea for a while. Signs warned against “taking your bath” here as it was too dangerous.
At the guest house we hung laundry on the room to try and dry and then went to paddle and watch the sunset. Later in bed as we were falling asleep the clouds erupted overhead with the most intense monsoon storm. We had to go up to retrieve it because we thought our laundry was going to blow away. Outside the wind was fierce and the courtyard was 2 inches deep in water. We made our way up to the roof in what can only be described as a power-shower. The noise of the rain and the thrashing sea was deafening. Soaked, with arms of soaking clothing, we made our way back down the flowing stairs and were soon deeply asleep.
The next day we were up very early for a ‘Backwaters Tour’, which is something that Kerala is famous for. A lot of its population live on the waterways and they are how people make their living and travel around. We had a tuk tuk arranged by the guest house which was met by a fixer who got us onto the local commuter ferry, saying that the tour started from somewhere with no road that could only be reached by the ferry!
At each stop two guys would leap off the ferry with ropes to steady the ferry and passengers would start piling off before it had come to a standstill. Small children were using the ferry to get to and from school, and some, the smallest, were lifted on and off by the men. As the ferry started to slow against the ropes the men would leap back aboard, ring a bell, and the engines start up again. Each stop took less than a minute, and woe betide the passenger trying to board who wasn’t quick enough!
The stops spread out and whilst we’d been travelling along narrow canals in the built up areas, we suddenly emerged on a vast open expanse of water. Across the lake on the horizon, we could just make out palm trees and some buildings. Keralan houseboats plied the ways here, like bamboo covered barges. Most of these were kitted out like hotels and housed rich tourists rather than local families.
Off the ferry we followed our guide along narrow paths on banks built up through the waterways. The paths were covered with a layer of coir matting, presumably to make them less slippy and prevent erosion. Unexpectedly, we descended to a small house, and we realised that most of the houses here were below the water-line. All of the backwaters are below sea-level, like the Netherlands, but without the money for climate-change-proofing. Last year the state saw bad flooding with heavy rain continuously, rather than just over-night as we’ve experienced. All the region flooded and the man whose house we visited told us they’d been evacuated and flooded, unable to return for over 30 days. Many people had lost their lives. In the area we visited the wealthier families were building additional stories on their homes, or re-building them on platforms.
Our hosts for the day lived in the small house, and our tour began with a Keralan breakfast made by the woman who lived there. The food was delicious and we had ample to eat, as we were told “everything is more”.
We set off on a traditional canoe, along with a young Indian day on holiday from college. Our host paddled the canoe sedately, using a single paddle to maneuver through the water. We entered a very narrow canal and immediately got a sense of life on the backwaters. Houses backed onto the water, and the canal was central to the residents lives. Each house had steps down into the canal and people were bathing and soaping themselves in the water, using it for washing clothes, and for cleaning food for cooking with. People looked up as we went by but they weren’t that interested in us and didn’t stare in the way we had become used to in India. They were probably sick of having tourists meandering past their houses, although we were told by our guide it was a welcome income for the area.
The canal opened up onto a much wider water course and the boat pulled over for the young tourist to buy some “Toddy”. This Keralan speciality is a fermented alcoholic drink made from coconut leaves. It was provided in old plastic water bottles that had presumably been cleaned first. The Toddy was a white liquid that looked like emulsion. We realised that many times we thought we’d seen people selling milk in old water bottles at the side of the road, it could have been this. We declined it but did end up having a small sip. It wasn’t intensely strong, but had a strange flavour, like a mix of coconuts, cider, and paint stripper. We were glad we hadn’t bought a bottle.
The bird-life was phenomenal along the water-ways. At one point, while drinking a kingfisher beer, we glided past one sat on a log, posing exactly like the picture on the bottle. We saw many types of kingfishers, kites and eagles, along with wading birds like different herons, egrets, and cormorants.
We stopped at a water-side stall for coconuts and snacks. Both of us were so upset when we saw that they had a huge kite on a stand, it’s wings banded so it couldn’t fly away. We saw a few of these at different places along the canals, and it was always horrible.
For a lot of the journey back to the house Maeve slept, one of the most soothing naps she’d ever had, with water gently lapping the boat.
For lunch, we had a Keralan banana leaf meal, vastly better than our Kochi experience, There was a pile of fat Keralan rice, sambar, curries, a selection of pickles and vegetables and poppadoms. It was never-ending. Every time someone started running out of food, the woman who made it would appear from nowhere and pile more on, despite our protests.
After we’d eaten we sat by the water, watching birds and fish, and the houseboats drifting across the open channels. The backwaters were so peaceful, particularly as there were almost no areas we travelled through with vehicles. It was one of the few places in India where the pervasive honking of horns was absent, and the air was cleaner. The colours of the sparkling water, and the never-ending hues of green along the banks gave the place an other-worldly atmosphere, soporific and gentle.
All too soon though we had to leave, to walk to another ferry across rice fields which stank of slurry. After a day out Jay was struggling with the heat, and it was a bit of an effort to make it to the ferry on time, but we did, and we were soon on our way back to Alleppey.
The rest of our time there was relaxed. We lazed at the beach, and frolicked in the shallows, did some planning for the next stages of our journey, and ate some incredible food. The beach was our favourite place to be, especially at sunset when hordes of people would appear 500m south by the carpark to stand on a very small area of sand and take selfies. The beach stayed busy well into the darkness, with families relaxing after watching the sunset, travellers from the youth hostel playing frisbee in the sea foam and groups of fishermen playing cards long into the warm evening. We reflected that in the UK, only drunken teenagers brave the cold of a beach after dark! The other exciting thing about the coastline there were the crabs. The beach was covered in holes of various sizes, and if we were still enough we’d see sand flying out of them, followed by crabs that would take the sand and move it away from their burrows before rushing back in. They were awesome!
Although Alleppey had been beautiful what Maeve was craving most was the opportunity to actually swim in the sea, something that was very definitely not possible there. We watched our final sunset and slept soundly that night, before the next leg of our journey the following day, North, to Goa.