The usual panics at work; the usual delays with transport. No matter how much planning you put into things out here, so often it all ends up being rather last minute. You leave work in plenty of time but get called back with only moments spare. You set off hoping to beat the traffic to be told of two hour delays that would have afforded time for supper if you had known about them early enough but now just lets you eat the soggy sandwiches back in the flat. Still, everything has a beginning and my trip to Kerala was, finally, no exception.
Not to be daunted by beginnings, I settled into my seat, relishing the weekend ahead. Perhaps my enthusiasm for what will probably prove to be my last weekend adventure here in India spilled over a little too much for I was soon in conversation with the very attractive and sprightly girl in the seat next door. Reciprocity is a wonderful thing and an exploration of things in common turned up some delightful surprises. Less delightful were the insights into the weirdness of foreigners (in this case, me) that she wished to share. Did I know Mr Bean, for if not she felt I could do worse than simply peer into a mirror. And what of that ghastly pale skin the English persist in carrying about with them? What did I think of that? Its near translucent, death-like qualities could, she felt, assure me a place in any horror film without even the need for cosmetics. Indeed, she became quite expansive on the subject. Throughout this unlooked for detour in the conversation, I felt her agreement to meet for dinner was some sign that she did not, in truth, consider my mein either so death-like or so repellent.
So we parted with smiles, she to her destination and me to mine, which in this case was the taxi booth where I was shanghai’d with such thoroughness that I could have looked for no more singular a welcome to Kerala.
The Backwaters of Kerala, and Alleppey
Up and out of the dismal hotel early. Capaciously drab rooms with Dolby surround sound noise from the builders next door did little to make one want to linger. Nor did breakfast: an insipid collection of uninspiring offerings kept luke warm from the glow of tired paraffin flame. Too few hours asleep and chai too weak to make up for it were the backdrop to the first full day of the Keralam progress.
The guidebook recommended a trip to Kollam, so we took ourselves off to the railway station. Alas, if buying the right ticket was easy, finding the right train was not. I asked what time the train left and was told 10:30am but to find out from which platform I needed the help of the information kiosk. I looked at the crowd for information and thence to my watch. It was half past ten right then and there and there was certainly not enough time to try to queue for an hour. A train sat idling in the station, but its very presence threatened imminent departure. We dashed to the platform, confident that in a country continuously swarming with uniformed officials we would be able to ask someone closer to the train. The platform was deserted of useful uniform. A passenger replied to our queries with that typically Indian yes: a sort of non-committal utterance of nothing in particular. It was not much but it was all we had. We jumped on board, the train departed and we discovered our error. The train was not going to Kollam at all. What could we do, we asked the conductor. His only advice was to continue on the train to its end, then turn around and come back, and then try again for Kollam. Where was the train going? Alleppey. We looked up Alleppey in the guidebook and resolved on a day spent there.
So Alleppey it was and of all the unintended outcomes it could have been very much worse. The morning was fine, the town pleasant and the jetty easy to find. I asked the jetty-master where we could get a boat to go along the backwaters. He recommended boat number 25: it would take us to Kottayam in an hour, give us an hour to explore a charming village and then bring us back. A public-transport based guide to the backwaters and it sounded like just the thing. So we jumped on board boat number twenty-five and bought our tickets. But if the jetty-master had said boat 25, he had not meant it. No sooner had we got off the wrong train, then we boarded the wrong boat. But sometimes it is not about the destination and more the journey. If we were not going to see Kottayam, we were at least go to sit back and enjoy the moment, and savour the calm and the country. School had obviously just ended (many many schools out here have Saturday morning lessons: a fine practice) for there was a succession of school-boys first boarding and then alighting from the boat. All seemed bright, fun and energetic souls and all seemed to want to sit near the weird ferengi. I was shown their work books and their textbooks and invited to discuss their lessons. And all was spoken with such enthusiasm and fervour, their eyes wide and flushed with the pleasure of learning.
We never made it to Kottayam (or to Kollam for that matter) but we did make it back to Alleppey for lunch. Fearing for his stomach, my companion in travails said that he would stick to the paneer, but a single sight of the tiger prawns held out for our inspection put paid to such cautious ideas and plates of prawns (such excellent prawns) were soon served up and gulped down. Feasted and restored we returned to the jetty having decided upon a last throw of the dice. We would hire a boat for two hours and visit an out-of-the-way village in the back of the backwaters.
On our return to the footbridge across the canal we were not a little surprised to find all the boats, and the jetty itself, gone. The situation, and our attempt to remedy it, was not helped by the sudden reminder that the monsoon was still in full swing. In a flash we were soaked. But, huddling under the awning of an umbrella shop, we finally discovered the truth to our mystery. There were two canals in the town: one north and one south and we had turned right out of the restaurant and not left.
In the end it seemed pointless to rush. The water stopped in its own good time and our clothes dried in theirs. The boat we hired to take us to a village never did take us to any such thing, but I suppose it was agreeable in its own way to have the chance to re-explore the morning’s journey, just the two of us in a boat noisier than was strictly necessary and at sixty times the morning’s price.
And then, of course, all good things must come to an end. I will admit that, as I left the jetty for the second time and returned to Alleppey’s railway station, I was thinking of the particular more than the general, but the sentiment remained true. We bought our tickets, failed to find the correct carriage despite our best efforts and the help of the conductor and returned to Ernakulum: the town of the night before and the transfer point for the ferry to Fort Cochin. En route I was relieved of the heavy burden of my telephone and forced to argue with the rickshaw driver before he finally agreed to take us to the ferry. All the while, even almost to the point of our boarding the boat, he persisted in telling us that the ferry had shut and that he could take us to a hotel. Then, in the lull before the storm, we, unsuspecting fools that we were, dined superbly and went to sleep contentedly.
Morning has broken, blackbird has spoken and the bananas in my porridge turned out to be reconstituted plantain. My chai was a Tetley’s teabag boiled in milk and my lassi more than a little cheesy.
Walking into the town we passed a garishly lively church. Multicoloured flashing lights, dolled up shrines, painted murals and red plush seats. Then, the true glory of Fort Cochin: the old cantilevered fishing nets. Easy, if heavy, to handle, these contraptions spend each day being raised and lowered into the sea front. It is hard to tell, though, if fishing is the main source of income for the fishermen anymore, so keen are they to lure the tourists into their nets for more. No, the morning was spent in tourism, pottering about the town, poking heads into shops and looking over monuments. It was with lunch that things began to go seriously wrong.
The guidebook listed Addy’s Kitchen: simple Indian food if a little pricey, it seemed exactly what we wanted. When we arrived there I noticed the restaurant called itself a 1776 house and if I commented at the time that it was an inauspicious date I could hardly have been more right. The place was deserted of patrons; the stuff had to be flushed out from deep within the building’s bowels. The menu was massive, but nothing was on. We chose simply: some spicy paneer and a grilled fish. Then we waited. And waited. And waited. Good things come to those who wait, but so, it appears, do bad things. Raw fish and paneer so fruity that my companion’s stomach (fine with prawns more raw than not) began to complain. As I poked about my measly morsel looking for something cooked enough to eat, my companion finally threw down his fork saying that he had probably eaten more than enough. So had I. Finally we could extricate ourselves from the restaurant, finally we could return to the sun outside. But Fort Cochin was shutting itself up. The shops were barred or empty of enticements. We returned to the jetty (with the fruity paneer still rumbling in-stomach) and took the ferry back to Ernakulam. Half way across the water, the heavens opened. We crowded into the centre of the boat but the wind shifted, the rain lashed in almost horizontally and my clothes were plastered to my skin. The boat docked, we dashed ashore and huddled under covers. The rain intensified and, unforgivably, the temperature dropped. We were not just wet, we were very cold with no way to warm up or dry off.
Ernakulum is a town so exciting that it does not warrant and entry in the guide. Its bright lights and intriguing architecture speak volumes for itself so we decided to cut our losses and head to the airport early. We might have ended up getting to the terminus ridiculously early, so our kindly rickshaw-wallah got lost on the way, killing a few minutes here and there. Obviously fearing that he might get so lost that we would be late, our connection was delayed by first forty minutes and ultimately an hour. For two and a half hours, then, we sat, still drenched, in an hall devoid of warmth, huddling till we could be shepherded to our seats.
Two hours late, still cold and damp and riven with hunger, returning home was a joy almost over-whelming.
I was back.