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Kottayam Backwaters in Kerala

14 May, 2011 (08:15) | Living in Europe | By: admin

This video combines both Alleppy and Kottayam backwater footage

We sleep in and check out at around 11:30, ignoring Rajeev’s hurry. He spoke with Bijoy this morning, who suggested we explore the Kottayam backwaters, located about half way back to the coast. We are told there is a completely different vibe in Kottayam than in Alleppy, and we say, “Sure, why not?” There are still 3 days until payday, so one more adventure sounds like fun.

Kotayam is much more upscale than Alleppy, and overnight accommodations reflect this. Goodbye Tiger Sanctuary, hello backwaters adventures part 2.

Once we make it to Kottayam we learn it isn’t easy to find a reasonably priced, comfortable place to stay. Rajeev is in good humor. Maybe he’s happy we finally agree to one of his plans, or maybe he’s happy to not have to drive all day in order to make it back to the Arabian Sea, or maybe he somehow got a good night’s sleep. Whatever the reason, he cheerfully drives us from hotel to hotel. He won’t let us stay anywhere that is overpriced, and his persistence pays off; for half the price of the one hotel we did like, there is a family run accommodation only about a block away, accessible only by canoe. This already sounds promising, that it is located on a canal.

Rajeev speaks with the hotel manager, who meets us in the parking lot (where drivers sleep but Rajeev says its okay here, because the lot is quiet and also has a designated overnight parking area.) He knows one of the drivers who will also be sleeping in the lot, so he’ll have someone to chat to. Also, there is a bathroom in the parking lot intended for drivers who have to spend the night in their cars.

It is already early evening once we get in the creaky canoe with our luggage and gear.

Creaky canoe

We take this tiny canal to our hotel.

Although the ferry ride to our accommodation is creaky and the ferryman older than Methusaleh, the hotel proves to be perfect for us. The tiny canal spills into a big lake, and our place is on the corner property. It has a beautiful swimming pool overlooking the lake, a rinky dink but functional dial-up internet connection, and a mellow vibe; not at all touristy like some of the other places we investigated. Later I spend countless hours recording and photographing the busy life force that flows through this funky canal like blood through an artery.

The swimming pool is dreamlike.

After his swim Mark goes into the hotel reception to see how our business is going. Harsh reality; our check-out system is suddenly broken and the paypal checkout isn’t working for people with credit cards. Our programmer, Guru, is not following through with his job. Mark spends 2.5 frustrating hours on the slow hotel computer creating new download pages and apologizing to impatient customers.

I wander around and try to shoot video, audio and photos while Mark slogs away on the dial-up office computer. There is so much aural and visual stimulation I become a caricature of myself, with expensive techno gadgets spilling out of my pockets, hanging around my neck, strapped around my waist; Its much easier when Mark does this with me; normally one of us shoots video while the other records audio. But poor Mark is stuck in a claustrophobic room working on a quasi antique hotel PC, trapped in a nightmarish scenario, trying to control his rage, but slowly resolving the multiple problems that have piled up overnight. When something like this happens I know I’ll be spending some “alone time”. So I blithely amble around and capture the unique ambiance of where we are, to alchemize into future blogs. There’s no point in me getting worked up about the business, my job will soon be to buoy Mark back up, which is never an easy feat when we have business snags.

1) Evening shot of our little canal which feeds into a lake. 2) Poetic evening light.

At sunset fishermen come back in from the lake.

1) Coir boat 2) Collecting silt from the lake bottom.

Next morning I get up early to catch the sunrise. There is a surprising amount of activity going on at daybreak. We are scheduled to go on another overnight backwater cruise, and I look forward to it. But I’m right here, right now, and concentrate on capturing this unique little corner of the backwaters. I know that when Mark wakes up he’ll head directly to the computer to make sure everything is working. So its up to me to document where we are.

Rain, critters, rills and insects inhabit the soundscape.

I notice an image I see a lot, mostly at the beach, of an awkward newlywed couple. I will write more about my take on “Bollywood Newlyweds” when we reach Cherai. The couple I presently refer to is staying at our hotel. They are the product of an arranged marriage. (I always ask this question when I meet young married people here). She is bashful and he seems tentative. They obviously don’t fit together yet, but to me they make a cute couple. They are actually traveling with her brother and sister-in-law who have rented the room next door to them, just to help her adjust to the transition into marriage and to make sure she is okay.
Arranged newlywed marriage.

1) The modest canoe ferry that will take us back to Rajeev is parked and waiting for us. 2) Our little canal is teeming with working life.

Kottayam backwaters part 2

Reunited with Rajeev, we head to the houseboat. We pass affluent homes on our drive to our kellum boat. This houseboat is much bigger than the Alleppy boat, but so are the canals in this area. Like on the Alleppy canals, we see people using the brown water to bathe and wash their clothes and dishes. I even see a guy brushing his teeth using water from the canal.

1) A woman doing her laundry. 2) A man washing himself.

I can see Mark is having a hard time letting go of his stress even though the website crisis is over. So when we get to our houseboat I request a beer run to help take the edge off his mood. I’m not a drinker and Mark only drinks alcohol when on holiday.

We head out on the boat and Mark has a couple of beers, which do the job. In no time he feels as careless and free as a skylark. I have no problem at all relaxing, but I *rarely* do. Relaxing has always coe easily to me. Every so often I go to our bedroom for a toke. Our room has a perfect stoner spot for me near the window, on my side of the bed.

1) My very own spot from where I can chill while watching the passing landscape from my little window. 2) As evidenced in this shot, Mark has left the stressed persona behind, replacing it with his Fun Mr. Carefree and Nice Guy character.

I love the teapot handle on this drawer in my corner. 2) Typical, elaborate Kerala lock.

I start to trip out on the details of our boat.

Four vintage “artsy fartsy” MLV compositions.

As dinnertime approaches, our driver stops the boat at his village, where we are to dock for the night. He asks Mark if he wants to go with him to see his village. Mark says “sure” (of course) and they walk past a houseboat maintenance yard which is crude but very impressive. They continue walking to a street where they meet the driver’s buddies. His friend gets his motorcycle and drives up, tells Mark to hop on. Mark has always loved motorcycles and used to race dirt bikes when he was young but I have a motorcycle phobia, and when we got together I made Mark vow to never get on another bike, I don’t want to lose my soulmate… so he hasn’t ridden one since we hooked up over 15 years ago.

Mark climbs on the back and they take off down the village road, past a very impressive temple and up another small dirt track to what looks like a moonshine distillery with some tables out front. They get off the bike and Mark is ordered to sit at the table. He is brought a ‘Toddy’ but unlike the toddy we had at the restaurant a few days ago, this one is “Strong Toddy”, mixed with alcohol. Toddy is apparently sugar cane fermented into alcohol and then sometimes made stronger by adding more alcohol and sometimes even valium. The taste is bitter, sweet and tangy all at the same time. (To me it tastes like dirty socks).

He gives Mark a big glass (washed out in river water, hmmm) and he drinks it. Then the bar owner drinks one too, and they all chug the strong toddy. His host gives Mark a small bowl of spicy mussels from the river just in front of the village. They are very good.

Once they are done with their drinks they hop back on the bike and head back to the boat. Our driver takes off again to get us 4 litres of toddy to go with our dinner; before, during and after I guess… I am a good sport so I drink a glass despite my distaste for alcohol in general, especially stinky toddy. But there’s way too much toddy for me, there’s even too much for Mark. They must have gotten the impression we’re a couple of boozers. Too bad I’m not a drinker – sometimes I wish I were. But I’m happy with my smokeable birthday present, which should last another week to 10 days if I am frugal with it…

Here I share some scenic shots taken from the boat:

Our ship captain asks us if we’d like to take a canoe out to catch the sunset. We’ve already docked for the night, but its still light out for another couple hours. “Sure!” we say, and are balanced onto yet another rickety canoe boat.

After sunset we are served a gourmet meal and then left to our own resources. We are free to walk around the canal banks if we like, but it starts to rain and we’re cozy in our houseboat. I record some night sounds.

The night chorus sounds wet and wild.

We wake up the next morning and begin our slow cruise home, past Chinese fishing nets popular in the backwater region.

Dead Body

We eat breakfast while cruising down the big lake, which we learn later is a shortcut to our launching dock. We come up to a bridge where there is traffic, but it is not like a real bridge where boats can pass underneath, it is basically a road that is sitting right on top of the water and the water passes underneath it. There are big black metal plates between the road and the surface of the water which are meant to catch large debris before it floats into the other side. Well this morning the debris catchers caught a human body. The driver points it out and we can just see the bloated and clothed figure of a man bobbing face down against the very black debris catcher. There is a group of men on the road looking down at it as they yell at cars to stop to get help.

It is a bit unnerving. Mark and I spend the rest of the morning making up stories about how he might have been killed and ended up there in the debris catcher. I imagine he was a stern priest or pastor who was killed with knitting needles by jealous follower. Mark thinks he was probably the communist brother of a crooked local politician who found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. It seems like it would be easy to dispose of a body in these backwaters…

It quickly becomes apparent that we had been watching far too many CSI type crime dramas in Spain before we left on our trip.