Cruising the backwaters

The Indian Coffee House is an institution we have come to know and love over the last few weeks. It began life in the 1930’s, there were 50 outlets and they were run by the Cess Coffee Company. In the late 1950’s, the company decided to close things down, at which point, everything changed. Encouraged by A. K. Gopulam, a prominent communist in Kerala and India, the workers formed a co-operative. They convinced the coffee company to hand over the cafes and now they are all run by the workers themselves through their co-operatives. The waiters wear fancy peacock hats and different uniforms depending on their seniority and the coffee houses are always busy. Isn’t that a feel good story?! On top of being a place where the profits go to the people who work there, they serve a mean iced coffee and the floofiest scambled eggs that I’ve had in India so far. With the majority of the branches being located in Kerala, we’ve had a chance to visit a few, and it’s where we had our breakfast this morning, a great way to start the day!

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Heading back to our wee hotel, we packed up and took a minute or two to take a few quick pictures with Sam’s new beardy friend. I think they talked about staring some sort of facial hair appreciation society, but I wasn’t allowed to join in cos I’ve no beard! Then we headed to the jetty to get the ferry to Kottayam. The jetty is just like a bus station, people waiting round looking bored with bags of shopping, old men nodding off on benches, except of course it’s all boats for transport and they’re all fairly rickety affairs. We got there with plenty of time to spare; sometimes manoeuvering with the bikes can be a bit of a pain in the arse so we wanted to make sure we weren’t trying to throw them on the ferry as it moved away. Once we pulled away from the jetty, the “conductor” kindly informed us that the ferry doesn’t go all the way to Kottayam at the moment and that we would have to travel the last 7km of the trip under our own steam. Good thing we have bikes then, isn’t it!? We paid our tickets for us and our bikes, not bad value at 60 ruppees (about 60p) for both of us and our bikes for a 2 and a half hour ferry trip.

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We were slightly delayed getting underway as we were apparently low on fuel and had to stop at the petrol station to fill up and the driver (captain? pilot? skipper?) appeared to be attempting some mad some sort of crazy 7 point turn to get the boat in position. It was a bit of a faff, as every time the driver (let’s call him the skipper) wanted to speed up or slow down, he had to send a signal to the guy on the chair by the engine (let’s call him the engineer) and he would follow suit. And so it went, a little steering by the skipper, bell ringing beside engineer, engineer puts engine into reverse and so on and so forth. Eventually,with much skippering and engineering, we were off. I should point out at this stage that these two men were situated about 5 metres apart and it was all a little bizarre!

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Alleppey is considered the entrance to the backwaters, hundreds of miles of networks of rivers and lakes dotted with villages, full of fishermen and industry, accessible only by water. Travelling through the backwaters on an old rice barge converted into a house boat is one of the big draws for tourists here. We had only seen one or two of these houseboats docked up around the town and we thought perhaps there weren’t that many available. Oh how wrong we were! As our boat exited the warren of small rivers around Alleppey,  we were confronted by a swarm of houseboats. So many, that there was an actual traffic jam on the river. At the front of each one were tourists, some taking selfies, some looking, quite frankly, bored out of their skulls and all pootling along at a snails pace. Our intrepid duo of skipper and engineer guided us around them all, weaving in and out. No mean feat considering the size of our vessel and the bulkiness of the rice barges. And suddenly we were free of the madness, out in the open water a warm breeze flowing through the open sided ferry.

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As our boat was carrying a majority of people going about their day to day business, we made many stops. Often barely pulling in for long enough for a little old lady laden down with shopping to spring from the ferry to the pier before we motored off again. We passed between seemingly endless lakes, wide channels and tiny little canals, all the while dropping people off and occassionally picking up one or two. While we were bobbing along, Sam decided to pop to the loo. A little concerned as to the condition it might be in on a boat like this, he nervously went to check it out. He needn’t have worried, it was quite clean, and owing to the fact that the walls ony came up to chest height and there was no roof, it had the best view in the house. You could see a perfect 360 uninterrupted degrees of the backwaters, the small villages we passed and everything that was happening around! For the last 20 minutes of our trip, there was no one but us and two other foreigners left to be dropped off.

The houseboat traffic jam

The houseboat traffic jam

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As we neared our disembarkation point and the final stop, the boat became surrounded in pond weed. The water was so thick with it that it looked as if we could have gotten off and walked the rest of the way. And then the engine began to struggle, we could hear it wheeze and whine like a geriatric hippo trying to force it’s way to our destination. The water (not that we coud see the actual river) had claimed quite a few boats that it seemed had just given up the ghost and just lay there, forgotten, never to move again. I began to worry that our trusty vessel would go the way of the others, it certainly sounded like it! Eventually, the groaning of the engine eased and we glided the last 500m to our destination without much hassle.

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When we arrived at the pier, we breathed a sigh of relief as we could see that there was a proper road leading away from it. I had visions of a rocky track, me losing my balance (it wouldn’t be the first time), and ending up in the soup! Thankfully we were saved the prospect of that drama and we began a dusty cycle into Kottayam town. It was a short cycle, about 8 km and we ended up finding a small hotel that was within our price range. After we had brought our bags up to our room, I headed dowstairs to fill in the register (a pain in the arse load of paperwork that we must fill in everywhere we stay here). And then the guy at reception asked me if I was a Christian. I told him that I was a Catholic, like most Irish people are and then he started getting serious “Do you believe in Jesus?” he demanded! “Oh God, yeah, of course I do?” I replied, more question than affirmation….. he followed it up with a swift few questions about heaven and the like, fired fairly rapidly in the tone of one convinced in their righteousness, so I ran away! He was a bit weird all in all, every time we passed reception he asked if he could ride our bikes up and down the road. To be honest, he seemed a few parothas short of a full thali….

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Once we had showered and were feeling a little fresher, we headed into the town to have a bite to eat. We were almost there, when I caught my flip flop in a crack in the pavement and I heard a sickening snap. And just like that my flip flops had broken. I had no choice but to walk to the nearest shop in my bare feet, luckily it was just across the road! I walked out of the shop wearing a pair of sandals that Sam thoughtfully described as “hooker pink” and which had given me blisters on both my feet by the time we had eaten and returned to the hotel. Probably God punishing me for not answering the Jesus quiz I was given by the world’s weirdest hotel receptionist!

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I like this stats round up at the end of a day and so todays tally goes as follows:
Likenesses of Mahatma Gandhis spotted = 1
No. of crazy head wobbles = innumerable
Pairs of flip flops consigned to the trash heap = 1
No. of kilometres travelled by boat = 21
Scenic toilets enjoyed = 1

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2 responses to “Cruising the backwaters

  1. Loving your posts!
    Did you ever get to Munnar?(joke)….out of it? Via forbidden route?
    Will just have to wait and see, won’t I?
    Greetings from hot,sticky, laze inducing Kovalam-by-the sea

    • We are getting there! We did reply to your first comment (can’t remember which post that was on now…), we will shortly be arriving in Munnar (I think its scheduled for tomorrow) and we did survive the crazy headhunter Maoist drug smuggling illiterates! Just a few more days 😉
      I have no idea where we are at the moment, hopefully we will be in Hampi tomorrow or the day after. Hope you are having fun at the coast! It seems to have become really hot recently, it’s making the cycling very hard!

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