Rather than head north from Palolem, up the coast to Margaon train station from where we’d booked our onward journey to Kochi (aka Cochin), we instead took a taxi south to meet the train at it’s first stop, mainly to give us a couple of extra hours on the beach. No problem you’d have thought. And apart from a slight issue with a bridge not wide enough to accommodate the taxi, the alternative route running us worryingly close to the train departure time, the ride down through lush Goan countryside was a relaxed affair.
The same couldn’t be said for the station master at rural Karwar station who, having clocked that we intended to flaunt the rules by departing from a station other than the one specified on our ticket, issued us with dirty look and got straight on the phone to check whether or not our spaces had already been sold on. The dismissive turn of the head and ticket thrust back across the counter suggested that on this occasion we’d been lucky, so tempted as we were to leave our thanks for this ‘let off’ running down the counter window, we instead beat a hasty retreat to the platform.
The 13 hour journey was for the first half fun, the second half miserable. The fun; hanging out of the train door as banana plantations, paddy fields, rivers, and rural scrub-land flashed by, wisps of smoke from smouldering village fires drifting on the warm afternoon breeze into the carriage. The cups of chai washing down amusingly mouse-shaped crispy snacks, actually large battered chillies. The miserable: live mice and cockroaches scuttling through the carriage, the gutteral snores of fellow passengers, and patches of sleep barely snatched between wild rocks of the carriage until, at 4am we pulled in to Kochi’s Ernakulam Station.
Four in the morning isn’t actually as horrendous a time to arrive somewhere new as you may think. The rickshaw drivers are still waking up, the chai is freshly brewed at stallholders shacks outside the station, and it’s plenty cool enough to walk off ‘carriage ache’ as you head down streets still lit by starlight.
In all honesty, we were on a bit of a smash & grab mission in Alleppey with just two days and nights to get a feel for Kerala’s, and perhaps Southern India’s number one tourist attraction, the 900km’s of backwater canals. Definitely not our preferred approach, but arriving in town by 7am after an hours bus ride from Kochi at least gave us the most amount of time possible. Alleppey turned out to be a mid-sized town of around 180,000 people, slung between two arterial canals to the north and south, and the Arabian sea to the west, and fairly stereotypically Indian in it’s choked, fumey, baring-horned social melee kind of way.
Daytime or overnight ‘houseboat’ cruises are most people’s reason for coming to Alleppey, and there are hundreds of boats and nearly as many individuals, lean-to counters, and air conditioned offices there to peddle them. Not to be put off by the weed choked town canals whose occasional patches of dark water glistened iridescently with a diesel slick, we checked out a couple of thatch roofed houseboats and picked one with the least dubious of environmental credentials; a petrol engine, solar panels, and waste water tanks. Departing late the following morning for a standard 21-hour overnight trip, we then had the rest of the day to explore.
Despite being somewhat time limited, having walked most of the town, eaten tasty southern Indian dishes in a couple of local joints, and taken a trip out to the beach, we were left with an impression that had we had all the time in the world, we probably wouldn’t have chosen to spend much more in Alleppey. Probably the highlight, in a strange sort of way was a trip out to the beach, which was uninspiring as beaches go (straight, fairly featureless, and filthy) but being a Sunday it was absolutely packed with local families and groups of lads strutting up and down. In contrast to Goa, everyone on the beach was pretty much fully clothed, and even the lads messing around where the surf crashed heavily on the beach did so in jeans and t-shirts. The scene became somewhat more surreal as a group of some 20 fully habited nuns waded into the shallows, giggling and rushing down to meet the breakwater as the backwash snatched flip-flops from their feet. We of course were the subject of much hilarity and oh-so-subtle snatched photographs as we flaunted our shins and shoulders strolling along the beach.
Before departing on our houseboat cruise for two, there was of course one final important errand to run, that of equipping ourselves with sufficient beer for the perilous journey. This seemingly simple errand turned into something of a mission, highlighting the unfamiliar relationship that India (or at least everywhere except Goa that we’ve been so far) has with alcohol. Our guest-house owner told us which direction to walk and when to ask for the “Beverage Corporation”. As it turned out, at the given point we didn’t even have to ask, we were just waved towards a seedy looking alley at the end of which was a rusty sign declaring the “Injurious” nature of alcohol to health, above a series of grilled metal traps much like turnstiles at rougher dog tracks back home. Inviting.
Judging by the steady stream of somewhat tottery, glazed-eyed punters passing through the turnstiles despite the early hour (10.00 am) and despite the injurious nature of the wares, business was booming. Sadly for us they were beer-less (selling hard liquor only) so we headed instead to a local hotel bar where trade in the short stuff was equally swift, the environment almost as seedy, but this time beer was very much there so we went (clinking) on our way.
And so to the houseboat, the concept of which (pay around £60, get a boat for two, 3 meals, and 3 crew for 21 hours) felt at once luxurious, extravagant, and a little uncomfortable. We’re not really accustomed to being outnumbered by ‘crew’, and paying (from our perspective at least) so little for so much was off putting at least. Relative to anything else we’ve done in India it was a small fortune however, so with that in mind we owed it to ourselves to give it a good crack.
Sipping on a welcome drink of lime and rose flavoured water while our contraband was taken off to the cool box, we soon relaxed in to the sedate pace as we gently pushed in to the first of the 900 kilometres of canals. Being on a smaller vessel we were promised that we’d be able to cruise (naturally enough) through smaller canals not accessible by some of the much larger boats on the water. First though we had the ‘option’ of stopping at a handily placed stall selling enormous freshwater prawns (“much tasty”) at inflated prices. Once you’re staring into a pair of those beady eyes (the prawns, not the stall holder) you can’t really say no, so we bought a couple and jumped back on the boat.
The whole experience really was beautifully sedate. Lying on the front of the boat with a book as leaning palms perched on slivers of slightly raised ground which separate the waterways slip by…a complete antidote to the hectic pace and aural chaos of urban India. We were also significantly over catered for by the friendly crew, who whipped up an embarrassment of fresh fish, chicken, and veg curry dishes for both lunch and dinner.
It took all our energy just to roll ourselves off the deck and into the warm waters of our lakeside evening resting place, thinking not of the freshwater claws which may have lurked beneath. Probably the only down side of the experience was the cramped and sweaty night sleep enshrouded within a mosquito net in our cabin, although this did offer an added incentive to rise early to see the morning mists over the still water, broken only by the occasional tail-slap of a surfacing fish.
We arrived back into Alleppey town just after 9am, and with the heat and noise building, we jumped pretty much straight on to the first bus heading north to spend some proper time back in Kochi. The backwater houseboat experience definitely comes recommended (although 1 day / night is probably enough), and our time in Alleppey certainly provided us a few new insights into the Indian way of life, but if you come just remember, the vibe is a long way from Venice…