Sail away

by Jan Wheatcroft

A few years ago, I took a simple, small ferry trip along the backwaters of Kerala in Southern India to an ashram, where I spent the night and continued on another ferry further south.

Along the way, we passed beautifully thatch-covered boats with people lounging in what seemed like luxury to me. I longed to do just that—lounge on a covered boat cruising along the canals and watching the life on the shores as we passed by. And so this past January my desires were made real as my friend Barbara and I booked an overnight trip on one of these covered “rice boats.” The boat came with a driver, a cook, a bedroom and bathroom and a covered front deck to lounge on, eat on and generally just watch the world on the Keralan backwaters pass by us as we floated on the waterways. 

We arrived in Fort Cochin in Kerala, a lovely small town filled with everything a tourist could want; inexpensive guest houses, good food, the old Chinese fishing nets on the shore, which create lovely large triangular shapes even though they are hardly used for fishing anymore. There are lovely parks where youngsters play sports after school, great shopping, and auto rickshaws to take you anywhere. After a few enjoyable days, we drove down to the town of Alleppy to stay in a small guest house for a night and through the owner we hired a rice boat for a 24-hour trip of sailing on the backwaters. We had just settled down in our room when we heard some music and a lot of drumming that continued to get louder and louder. Being curious, we ventured outside and saw that a crowd of people had gathered next door to our guest house, which we then realized was a small Hindu temple. 

Joining the crowd, we pushed up to the surrounding wall and watched as a large group of young men were helping each other put on orange lungis (similar to a sarong) and then, in smaller groups, they poured buckets of water over their heads, all this to the pounding of drums. We saw one young man taking a very long metal spike and sticking it through the tongue of the now wet lungi wearer then securing a lemon on each side of the tongue. The young man began to prance and dance about and soon was joined by many others, each proudly holding the ends of their metal spikes and dancing faster and faster as the drumming grew louder and louder. 

Our landlord said that he was a Christian and did not know what was happening or why. No one else around seemed to speak English, so we never did learn what it was about. But as quickly as it began, it ended as the entire group danced and drummed out of the temple grounds and down the street to the next temple. It was quite an amazing experience to have witnessed.

For dinner, we were directed to a restaurant on the beach and we arrived over bumpy roads in a rickshaw. We climbed up rickety stairs and sat at a table overlooking the beach bathed in the setting sun while people strolled up and down by the sand. It was what I ate that was so memorable. I ordered Singapore chili crab. A beautiful sweetly spicy red crab dish arrived, which I had to eat with my hands as it was the only way I could get to the crab meat out. So I slurped and chewed and crushed shells with my sharp teeth, enjoying every moment. The next day, I noticed that my fingers were red and they stayed red for many days. I wondered what I had eaten in that crab dish that dyed my hands so well.

Early the next morning, a driver came and took us to our boat. There are many types of boats to choose from, each a different size and style ranging from rather simple to totally luxurious. Our boat was simpler but was very comfortable. We were welcomed on the boat with a fruit drink and soon took off down one of the waterways.

Our driver sat on a chair in the front and we just sat quietly watching life sail by us. Houses of all colors and shapes and sizes line the sides of the water. There are also small shops and a few snack bars as well as temples and churches every so often. Behind the houses we could often see rice fields. Trees lined the paths where children walked to and from school with school bags on their backs. Goats and chickens lounged and roamed about, and men and women walked mostly barefoot carrying huge loads on their heads. In front of the houses, men and women washed themselves discreetly or scrubbed pots and pans after a meal. Every so often, one could hear the loud “slap, slap” of clothes being pounded on the rocks that lined the water as the laundry was being done. 

Small boats criss-crossed the water from side-to-side selling and delivering goods and ferrying people from one side to the other, as well as fishing. We watched quietly and then our lunch was served at the table on the porch. It was a huge spread, far more than we could ever eat just the two of us. The food was beautifully prepared. We had fresh fried river fish, rice, dhal (lentils), and a great selection of various vegetable dishes. With all that food, we were lucky we didn’t have anywhere to go. And then, just a short time later, it was tea time, where tea and banana-stuffed pancakes were served. Before that could be totally digested, it was dinner time and another fish and vegetable spread was put before us. We did our best to try everything and enjoyed it all. The boat stopped for the night by the side of the water and another few boats tied up next to us. 

The bedroom was comfortable and we slept well.  In the morning, we were served a full breakfast. The best part was the fruit plate of pineapple slices in a heart shape and decorated with tangerine slices. At one point while sailing, we ventured away from the inhabited river area and sailed around a vast lake for a few hours. We passed other boats, some small and many quite large filled with happy people and often with music. We all photographed each other and danced as we passed, waving and feeling happy and in a holiday mood. After breakfast, our boat began the return trip and we were back and tied up by 9 a.m. We were soon picked up by our driver and taken back to the guest house and ultimately back to  Fort Cochin for the night. 

For quite some time, it had been a dream of mine to just be on a rice boat and sail the backwaters for a bit of relaxing luxury with nothing to do but observe and enjoy. It is so satisfying when one can fulfill a dream and be happy with the outcome. It turned out to be easily arranged and with one call we had a guest house stay, a driver and car and a boat for a very reasonable price. I was one satisfied customer.

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