Notes from a crowded country: India – 08

Sun, 17 Jan, 2010 – Kollam

It’s warm down here. Here being somewhere in  the town of Kollam, in the state of Kerala, on the southeastern coast of India. We got here last night. Yesterday afternoon Ravi, Kesh, Annelie, and I all boarded a Kingfisher Airlines flight from Hyderabad and flew to Kochi, a couple of hours north  here. From Kochi we travelled about 2 hours further south to Kottyam, where we met up with Ravi’s wife, Sulo. Sulo’s Mom lives in Kottyam, so we spent the evening at her mother’s flat. The next morning we went another couple of hours further south to Alappuzha.  The plan is to take a “Backwater” boat from here 8 hours (by boat) further south to Kolla, spend an evening in Kolla at a hotel on the Arabian Sea, then take one more drive even further south, to yet another “K” town (detecting a pattern here?) called Kovalum, where we’ll spend a couple of days at a beachside resort relaxing and soaking up the sun before flying back to New Delhi.

The flight from Hyderabad was uneventful, and the drive from Kollam was also mercifully uneventful, although not particularly comfortable nor relaxing. Since there were 4 of us, plus the driver, 3 people were stuffed in the back seat. I was stuck in the middle, it was hot and humid, the A/C in the SUV we were in wasn’t really reaching the back seat, and the driver drove like was in the Indy 500, if the Indy 500 was a race for one-handed drivers with a death wish. His other hand, of course, was on the horn, which he used almost continuously to warn others that he was passing, using an imaginary 3rd lane down the center of the 2 lane road. All of this wouldn’t have been so bad, except more often than not there was another driver doing the same thing (passing in an imaginary 3rd lane), on the other side of the road, and they’d somehow manage to avoid a head on by what seemed like an extremely narrow margin, at least when you’re sitting in the center of the rear seat, with a clear view out the front window, and no seatbelt. So it was with wobbly legs and a sigh of relief we all got out at Kottyam.

This morning we continued our journey on down the coast to Alappuzha (can I call it “Kalappuzha ” just to be consistent?) We had the same kamikaze driver, but at least it was cooler in the morning, so despite the lack of real A/C we weren’t sweating buckets in the back of the car.  We got to Allephezhu around 9 AM, and after a little searching found our “backwater” boat on a small canal choked with water lilies in town.

Backwater boats in India ply the backwaters of the southern state of Kerala. The backwaters are a series of canals and lakes that criss-cross the state, mostly fresh water but brackish in places where they come very close to the Arabian Sea. There are small towns and villages all along the way at various places, and rice paddies and fishing nets in between the villages. On the larger canals and lakes a particular kind of houseboat is common – apparently you can rent them out, complete with cook and food, and they’ll motor from village to village while you sit comfortably in the front in armchairs with a cup of tea and watch the world go by. Originally, Ravi and Sulo had thought of renting one of these – but we have a fair distance to cover today and these don’t cover the ground quickly enough. Instead, we’re on a state run boat that makes a regularly scheduled run from Allephezhu to Kollum in about 8 hours, including a stop for lunch and afternoon “tiffin” (tea). How civilized.

When we got to the boat at 9 AM we were the first on board, so we took seats up front and piled our suitcases in the open area in front of the seats towards the bow of the boat. As the time for departure approached, however, first, one, then another, then another backpacker climbed on board, threw their backpack on top of our bags, and either grabbed a seat or sprawled out topside. By the time we actually got underway their was a large pile of backpacks and bags in the front of the boat.  Apparently, this is a popular route for the backpacker crowd, mostly from various parts of Europe, to hear the mix of accents and languages. They all seem, well, dirty and tired, for lack of a better description. Some of them were friendly, but for the most part English wasn’t their primary language so they tended to keep to themselves for the duration of the cruise.

The boat cruise itself was a blast. Our boat still wasn’t *fast*, but I guess it make pretty good time as we cruised first on small canals, then larger lakes, than back to small canals again all the way to Kollum.   Along the way we were treated to a tableau of life in rural southern India – from women washing clothes and kids by the river banks only to happy to wave, to Hindu temple processionals by the side of the river, to ladies in elegant sari’s with umbrellas for sun protection being ferried from one bank to the other by boatman in canoes. And it wasn’t only human life we witnessed – we also saw a panoply of birds, including cormorants, egrets, and even the occasional Kingfisher – the multi-colored emblem of both the beer and airline of the same name.

When we got to Kollum a short car ride (mercifully air conditioned and non-kamikaze) deposited at the “Orchid Beach Hotel.” We checked in, took an elevator ride to our rooms, and opened the doors on rooms with floor-to-ceiling windows looking out over the sun setting on the Arabian sea.

Life could be a whole lot worse.