On a Monday morning in Munnar we packed up our bags and let our scheduled be dictated by the whims of the Kerala bus system. From Kunchitanny to Aaanchal, then to Ketharavalum, onwards to Kochin, and finally to Allepey, it took four busses in total to reach our next destination.
With the exception of a brief bout of motion sickness as we sped violently through the mountains and an intense headache brought upon by one driver who was trigger happy with the horn, the trip was supremely enjoyable. Everyone we asked for help gave us perfect directions in imperfect English, and Stefje even made one girl downright giddy with joy by agreeing to take a selfie with her.
By mid-afternoon we had arrived on the canaled thoroughfares of Allepey. Bustling with boats, cars and even a few bicycles, the streets and waterways had us thinking of Amsterdam. But the similarities stopped at geographic. The water here was a disconcerting murky color, the cars were spewing vile plumes of black smoke, and just crossing the street was an extreme challenge requiring the utmost patience and skill.
Another foreign aspect was the heat. Each step felt like penetrating deeper into a sauna, especially with our big bags weighing us down. Within minutes we collapsed in a heap at our guesthouse, dying for some cold water and air conditioning.
The next day we strolled down to the city’s docks, already sweltering from the heat. Here we were on the lookout for one of Kerala’s famous houseboats to take out for an overnight trip. The boats were parked 2 and 3 deep, requiring us to walk through a series of thin hallways and tiny kitchens to inspect the options. After fully immersing ourselves in boat hunting, we chose one and set off!
Our initial sight was an incredible surprise. Whereas we could see about 50 boats on the dock, when pulling away hundreds more came into sight in a never-ending promenade of tourism. We had a delightful time comparing and contrasting the different sizes and styles. Some were tiny affairs, with a single inner room and just the captain’s deck. Others were grandiose, with the capacity to sleep 20 people and an upper deck which was more like a banquet hall.
Every boat had a palm-thatched roof and siding, underneath of which there was plenty of stained wood in the classically decorated interiors. Ours was relatively simple: the captain drove on a perched seat from the prow and behind him was a dining area, but we spent most of our time on the comfortable upper deck basking in the luxury our surroundings.
We trolled slowly through the main artery as a bunch of boats proliferated on all sides, then the waterways diverged and we turned down a thin and quiet canal. Slowly the traffic drifted away and the sounds of birds and the dull hammering of construction projects dominated.
On either side, irrigated rice paddies of unknown size opened up, flanked by trees bearing mangos, jackfruits and coconuts.
The slow pace of the boat matched the equally quiet way of life. No matter how far out we drifted there were still crude huts lining the skinny banks. Locals here predominantly lived off the land. While women did the wash in the murky waters, men set out in small canoes to go fishing or transport rice.
Everywhere we turned, laughing children were visible and audible. Whether rolling rubber tires around their house or playing soccer on makeshift fields, these kids spent the whole day outdoors. From our vantage point on the top deck, utter peace enveloped life. The boats moved slowly, people walked languidly, even the birds seemed to circle lackadaisically overhead.
At various times we would emerge onto wide lakes. This sight again had Stefje thinking of home. The waters were filled with boats for as far as the eye could see. As we saluted fellow tourists, it felt similar to the first warm day of summer back in Amsterdam.
As the sun began its westward descent we docked on a quiet stretch of land, flanked by palm trees and blissfully removed from the chaos of civilization. After a quiet dinner, the heavens opened up to drop buckets of rain and the night sky lit up with frequent flashes of lightning, adding another layer of mystique to our cruise.
The next morning it took me a while to remember I was actually on a boat, but having a cup of coffee on the deck while taking in the endless views of waterways brought everything back. The greater part of the day was spent primarily lounging in positions of utter relaxation, alternating between the intense heat and respites in the shade.
While dozens of boats turned back towards Allepey, we began the day by drifting ever so slowly deeper into the backwaters because we had a whole extra day to cruise. Within just a few minutes the coast was clear; on the wide waters we were all alone in blissfully peace for hours at a time.
Farther away from civilization, wildlife flourished. Dozens of species of birds swooped low over the water before coming to rest in the tree canopy, fish accumulated by the hundreds behind our stern, and huge groups of ducks were ever present near the banks.
The water was much cleaner here and completely devoid of plastics, giving me the confidence to even take a quick dip to cool down with our captain. All morning the water was an utterly placid surface, reflecting the sun’s rays and the splayed branches of palm trees in shimmering hues.
As the fellow tourist boats vanished, we spent time observing local life along the sparsely populated river banks and enjoying the company of two excellent traveling partners, John Steinbeck and George Orwell.
Rice and religion were two of the more prominent factors involved in daily life. On the waterside we caught glimpses of churches and hindu temples, whereas muslim mosques were often invisible but their prayers echoed for miles. Behind each row of houses were flooded rice paddy fields in various states of cultivation. Some were flooded and some burning, but others were evidently prodigiously producing because multiple boats were filled with rice sacks almost to the point of sinking.
Although the culture is incredibly friendly and laid-back in Kerala, that’s not to say that the inhabitants aren’t industrious. Women bent over with sickles to chop weeds, more than a few boats were under vigorous construction, and we even encountered a water-based backhoe digger dredging up the river’s bottom to create more land.
Yet the most popular activity and the most persistent sound is that of women doing the wash. Ranging in age from 17 to 70, they take bucketfuls of laundry down to the riverbanks. Upon soaking the clothes in soapy water, they fling each garment in a violent twisting circle to bang it upon a flat rock before scrubbing it clean. This slapping sound echoed across the river as an almost constant companion.
Ultimately, the entire day exuded deep feelings of tranquility as we absorbed the calmness of the river deep into our bodies. Out here surrounded by rural communities and nature we began to forget some of the mindsets of society that we had left behind. As the afternoon came upon us and the boat docked, we disembarked for a walk along on the many riverside paths. Lined with houses ranging from unfinished construction project to beautiful villa, each and every local greeted us with a smile and a wave. The friendliness seemed to emanate off of them, leaving us with fond memories of this destination.
On our last morning on the boat I awoke with deep breaths of cool fresh air before the humidity of the day attacked. From my vantage point on the deck the solitude was evident; my only companion was a single canoe gliding gently across the surface, the strokes creating smooth ripples that spread across the river.
As we lazed back into the port of Allepey, boat traffic steadily increased until we docked once again in the mass of boats and stepped onto dry land. We wished our crew a hearty goodbye, grateful for the calming experience. Yet within minutes the chaos of India returned. We walked in immense heat to the bus station, then boarded a crowded and noisy bus headed South down the coast. Four hours of honking and swerving later we arrived in Varkala.
Ostensibly a temple town accompanied by a sacred beach, the tiny village has also developed a thriving tourism industry. A long string of sand is flanked by two cliffs which both house restaurants, souvenir shops, and more than enough guesthouses.
We started out on the South cliff and meandered down to the beach. While strong waves and a stiff breeze blew in, we posted up on one of the beachfront cafes for a later afternoon lunch of curry, stir-fried vegetables and naan.
The beach scene in front of us was a noteworthy sight. We arrived in the middle of a 10 day temple festival, so families were coming from all over the region to wash their sins away in the sacred water and leave offerings to the gods. Yet right alongside the fully clothed men and sari-totting women were Western tourists sporting bikinis and swimsuits to soak up the sun. Needless to say, the juxtaposition of cultures was stark.
As the afternoon wind picked up, the current followed suit. Swimming here was a perilous affair; each thundering barrel of water breaking on the shore was matched by an equally strong undertow heading back out. My body twisted and turned in the salty waters, feeling buoyant and flexible yet distinctly powerless against the force of the ocean. Stefje was a tad smarter, refusing to go out beyond the break.
Our hostel was just steps from the town’s main temple, so that night we ventured out to see what the festival had to offer. Hindus had come from near and far to wash away their sins from the previous year and pray for good luck in the year to come. Amidst a constant drone of chanting on speaker systems worthy of a music festival, newcomers performed ceremonial laps around the temple. In the back stood an elephant lavishly adorned by a golden headdress. While she chomped down on leaves, drummers summoned the favor of the gods and children stared upwards in wonder.
Apparently the gods are not fond of sleeping in, because those drummers were back early the next day. At 5:20 AM the rolling snares and deep bass drums rumbled with surprising fervor, eliminating any chance of sleep. Perturbed yet curious, I ventured out to see what was up. At the temple was an elephant procession featuring flames, more loud music and hoards of people. Down by the water, Hindu priests had set up a series of identical stations.
For the nominal fee of 100 rupees, all male members of a family followed a strict process to absolve their sins. The priest burned incense while instructing them in a series of detailed hand movements, then filled banana leaves with flowers while murmuring prayers. After a thorough blessing at a candle-lit shrine, the men placed the banana leaves atop their heads and proceeded half-naked into the surf.
Such a strict process was evidently supposed to drum up some luck, as enterprising fellows waited for those who had finished to sell them lottery tickets. I found the whole scene absolutely fascinating and stood there dumbstruck for longer than necessary.
As the sun rose the heat became unbearable, so we moved our stuff to a new guesthouse featuring air conditioning and a lack of pre-sunrise drumming then eloped to the sea. The salty waters washed away the sweat of the day and the immense rumbling waves drowned out all other sounds.
Accompanied by new books from one of the town’s many book exchanges, we lounged on the beach until we were thoroughly baked and ready to fully appreciate the splendors of our new AC room. In the evening we explored Varkala’s north cliff. The more popular of the town’s two backpacking neighborhoods is little more than a collection of tiny alleyways that all eventually lead to spectacular elevated ocean views. Containing yoga classes, aAyurvedic massage centers and trendy organic cafes, the area exudes a blissed-out traveler’s vibe. Now in the shoulder season, we found the calm backstreets drenched in shade and quiet cafes serving up strong iced coffees, spicy curries, and western food downright perfect.
The main stretch of commerce is a thin walkway that overlooks the beach. Here restaurants proudly show off the catch of the day while shopkeepers implore you to part ways with your rupees. We walked back and forth along the promenade numerous times with our hair whipping in the stiff evening breeze.
That night was the culmination of the temple festival. Under the light of the full moon, we strolled back to the temple unsure of what to expect. Immediately, the grandeur of the scene was overwhelming. Lights lined every path and 15 foot tall light installments led the way to the center of town.
Hundreds of people had turned up from the sleepy surroundings. While sugar-fueled children raced around in circles and teenagers pretended not to care about anything, performances and street food took center stage. All the women were draped in saris while all the men wore what I dubbed the Kerala uniform: a long sheet around the waist which can be worn as a dress or folded up into a skirt, a lightly colored button down, and a mustache.
While we took in the sights, the locals were sure to take in plenty of stares of us as well, and more than a few pictures. However, it took just a half hour for our eardrums to start splitting open from the untenable volume of the demonstrations, so we were soon eager to the festival behind.
Our last two days in Southern India were spent much like our last few days in Amsterdam: furiously preparing for the next destinations. While we lined up paperwork for visas for our onward trips to Nepal and China and tried to coordinate itineraries with friends, we also made plenty of time each day to lounge on the beach with toes curled into the scorching sand and books held skyward to blot out the sun. When the time came to leave India behind we were surely sad, reminiscing over the oddities of the culture and evaluating our most cherished meals before boarding a flight bound for Kathmandu.