24 March 2009


By the time we arrived at Chennai airport I felt like a refugee, stumbling on my last legs toward safety. OK, it wasn't that bad. But my brain was frazzled to the point where I felt like I was on constantly on the verge of frustrated tears. In the last few weeks everything had gotten hard – food (whether Indian or Western) arrived at our table and was nothing like I had pictured, touts were aggressive and mean, buses meant to take 2 hours took 5. The beautiful temples and smiling children we encountered stopped sustaining me and each angering incident felt like a personal affront – I had hit a wall and I needed a break.

Our last real break had been over 6 weeks prior – an idyllic ten days spent snuggled gratefully in the lap of Anjuna Beach in Goa, eating and reading and walking up beaches hand in hand. A month later we were ready for what I had dreamed about for years – a lazy houseboating experience through the backwaters of Kerala. This is where the vast tributaries of India empty out into the ocean, creating a delta of channels and small waterways barely above sea level and populated by easy going villagers with an ancient sea faring culture. For most people, this is the highlight of a trip to Southern India, and is described by Lonely Planet as one of the top ten things to do before you die.

We started the backwaters on a huge high. I had arranged a homestay 12 kilometres from Alleppey (accessible only by boat) staying with a Keralan Syrian Orthodox family, one of the oldest surviving Christian sects in the world. The religion, food and customs fascinated me, and our room and the people we met were amazing. Thomas, the patriarch of the family, led us on a few village walks where he stopped and introduced us to the villagers and arranged for us to try toddy (the local coconut derived tipple.) We canoed through the purple dusk, fireflies illuminating the palms while Thomas and his friends sang haunting local music that echoed and bounced off of the houses and churches on the banks of the canal. The days were spent lazing in hammocks, playing with his adorable daughters and answering the giggling “Hello! One pen?” calls of the local children.

In a rare stroke of genius planning, we had arranged for the boat to pick us up at the homestay so we would not have to backtrack and go to Alleppey to embark. When it pulled up I was delighted – it was decorated tastefully and was quite posh and luxurious. Cool lemonade was handed to us immediately, and we sat down in our comfortable deck chairs to begin our 2 night trip.

Our crew consisted of 3 men – a slightly uncomfortable ratio, but they all seemed eager and happy to be there. There were 2 young men, the cook Adithaya, the server Rajan and an old geezery guy with one jutting tooth in his mouth who seemed to be the captain and whose toothlessness made his name impossible to decipher. Old Chomper donned a leather outback-style Aussie cowboy hat and took his seat to begin steering our boat. Took his seat RIGHT THERE. Practically in our living room. Normally I would be totally okay with this – but as we had not been able to find a “party boat” scenario where we would share with one or more couples on a large boat, this boat was actually quite small and this grizzled little man was kind of in my space. I took a few deep breaths, decided I was being a giant baby and relaxed.

We began the first leg of our journey. I had envisioned our ketuvalum (converted rice barge) as a floating sanctuary upon which we would read, soak in the scenery of the narrow backwater channels and just basically be in love. This was the image that flashed before my eyes when instead we were paraded, along with hundreds of other boats, down a wide shipping channel and docked approximately 2 hours from where we started, near a village. I poked my head down the hallway toward our cook and server. “Um...excuse me? We're stopping?” I asked.
“Yes, madam. Stopping for the lunch.” That made sense to Sean and I, and we sat down to a marvelous lunch of delicious fried fish, multiple curries and chutneys and fruit. The food was delicious, yes...but it was somewhat sullied by the frequent lung clearing hoarking and spitting of the men walking by on shore, some of whom couldn't resist a good “stop n' stare” as they walked by. Laughing at the absurdity, we finished and reverted to our deck chairs to hit the open water and start heading down smaller, more scenic canals.

We sat in those chairs for a good long time, and our crew did not re-emerge. After almost half an hour of throat clearing and loud chair repositioning, our attempts to draw attention to our urge to leave, Sean stole a glance down toward the kitchen and reported back to me.
“Um, hmm. They're all asleep on the floor.” I was indignant.
“What? They're what?”
“They're sleeping. Have a look.” Sure enough, down the hall all 3 men were sprawled out on the bare hardwood floor, mouths agape. Old Chomper was snoring. Loudly.

Finally, probably due to my shameless noise making, the men awoke. It was now approximately 3pm. “Now we go” said the server Rajan, who's English was the best. “Between 1 and 3 sun too hot – we take rest.” I gestured toward the multitudes of other houseboats happily chugging away down the canal.
“Do all boats stop? Um, I mean, these other boats seemed to go....” The server stared at me blankly. “Fine, okay – lets go?”

We spent 2 more hours peacefully cruising down the channel – only occasionally roused from relaxation by the crew coming to talk with the captain, kind of lolling about our living space and shouting (to be fair, speaking volume in India is considerably louder than in the West, so to their ears they were not shouting) – finally turning down a small waterway lined with homes and people fishing and bathing. I immediately began to relax – the dread I had been feeling melted away. To think I had been worrying that they were going to keep us in wide commercial canals! I looked at Sean. “See baby, this is what I've been dreaming of....” The boat began turning again, not toward the picturesque little lanes to our right. No, it turned left.

And we were then a tiny boat amongst many. A speck in a huge shipping channel, at least twice as wide as the one we'd been on earlier. The beautiful scenery melted away behind us and was replaced by supply boats on one side, and a featureless, unending rice paddy on the other. We pulled in for the night, docking within sight of a busy bridge with cars zooming across. Paradise? More like rush hour under the Patullo Bridge. Many other houseboats started pulling into the same area, which made me less angry at the early hour, but I was still irritated. The booking office that we had chosen to go with had seemed like the best in town – the agent had glossy photos, sample menus, had even offered to take us to see the boat himself. And he emphatically stressed that his company specialized in houseboating for people who wanted to see authentic Kerala – that his routes were superior to other companies and took houseboaters down channels normally unseen by tourists. I wanted to find the agent and break his thumbs.

After a lavish Southern Indian supper, we sat down in our comfy chairs and split a few beers. As the hour grew later, our crew's voices slowly began to increase in volume until they were shouting to one another at full volume. This generally signals that people are having a good time in India, and so while I was definitely irritated I tried to take it with good humour. I also realized that the living area was probably where the crew slept at night, so it was with a generous spirit that Sean and I retired early.

I had a much less generous spirit the next morning when I woke up. We had chosen “No AC” as an environmental measure, though it didn't seem to be reducing the pollutants our boat was spewing into the delicate eco-system and it left me waking groggy, confused and coated in sweat in the stagnant 40 degree air. Our crew, we could tell by the banging and loud voices, was already awake. Bleary eyed. I stumbled to the living area and surveyed the morning outside. Every other boat that had been docked the night before was gone. Vanished. I glanced at the clock and it was barely 9am – clearly the rest of the boats had started up and left even though their patrons had still been sleeping. Ours had just lazed around and waited for us to get up. A grey cloud of distrust and anger settled over my head – these guys were all about saving fuel and cutting corners. This was a sham.

We were on our way for mere hours when again, the crew wanted to stop. They wanted us to get off of the boat and have a look at shops. They wanted us to stop at this village and see a church. They wanted us to get off and look at a fish market to purchase prawns at over inflated prices so that they would get a cut. Everything, every stop and every move just began to seem more and more calculating. I was determined to get everything out of the boating that I could, even at this point, and so we declined their offers of shopping and sight seeing and chose rather to stay on the kettuvalum and try desperately to relax.

Today, however, the crew seemed much more comfortable with us. The lolling and conversations of yesterday began to get louder and more invasive they were basically on top of us. Adithya would thump up the hall, pass off a cell phone to the captain and lounge on our bench seating area while the mobile conversation took place. Then the two men would have a full volume exchange, leading Rajan to come barreling up the hall and join in. Even when they were working down the hall, every few minutes a lull in their conversation would happen – my shoulders would begin to drop – and then sharp machine gun bursts of Malayalam would shatter the silence. The thing was, they were so polite and friendly to us whenever they weren't loudly arguing and laughing with each other that we couldn't reasonably get angry – we couldn't tell them to get the fuck away from us and let us relax in peace. So instead I sat and stewed. I felt like the wife of an 18th century pioneer – my delicate sensibilities offended more and more with each hoark and loud burst of Malayalam – I wanted to shout “I. Don't. Belong. Here!” and then possibly have some sort of 'spell' or 'case of the vapours.'

But that can be the rub with Indian tourism – they have absolutely no problems charging extremely high fees for tourist services – fees comparable to those in SE Asia – yet they have absolutely NONE of the customer service training that goes along with it. Ninety Nine percent of the time I am totally fine with rustic. I am fine with non-existent service, with unapologetically bad mannered waiters and hotel staff. But NOT when I am paying a week's budget for 2 days – 2 days that are supposed to be blissful and perfect and high end. The decor, the food the boat itself was perfect. But the lack of personal space, the lazy itinerary down huge canals and the clear attempts to get away with using as little fuel as possible – I was that kind of disappointed that makes you pout and want to slam doors and sleep all day. Except I couldn't, because an old man with one tooth was shouting and sitting in my seat.

Finally Sean had had enough (and you know that means it has gone too far.) After our crew's epic nap on the second day he piped up and asked “Um, are we going down any actual small channels?”
“Oh, yes yes. Of course. Tomorrow. Would you like to buy some beer or wine items?” We were past laughing – I just saw rupees floating away in front of my eyes.

The final morning we woke and were ferried back to the dock in Alleppey by 10am. There were no small channels. No scenes of local life. It was basically a Disneyfied boat trip around a big lake and characterless waterways. We should have stayed at the homestay, where the amazing scenery can be experienced with much less of an environmental footprint and we actually got to interact with the local culture instead of being served by it. This kind of disappointment is hard to get over.

And so I think from that point on we were basically done. We saw the beautiful tea plantations of Munnar, spotted wild elephants in Kumily, and enjoyed the towering statuary and oceanside temples of Tamil Nadu, but everything felt hard. Every bus ride seemed fraught with misunderstanding, every hotel was dodgy and every meal was unappetizing. People, fiercely proud and protective of their threatened Tamil language, refused to speak to us in English, there were no signs posted and people seemed angered when we asked for help. Guides demanded extra tips and fees at the end of tours, and drivers unabashedly ripped us off. Everyday was difficult, hot, dirty and tiring. Nothing seemed beautiful anymore. We started referring to the day we would arrive in Bangkok as “Thaimas.”

I wish I could say that we ended India on a high. Sometimes I wish I could be one of those hippies who comes here and exotifies the people to a point that they can do no wrong, and leaves with images of Krishna and Shiva dancing on their eyelids. But frankly, for me on some days it was hard enough to be tolerant, let alone enamoured.

At the Chennai airport we settled in for a drink and some incredibly overpriced bar snacks at the lounge and breathed a sigh of relief. Sean looked at me, earnestly and said “So, you wanna get a houseboat in Kerala?” I couldn't even laugh at the thought. But somewhere out there, I'm sure Old Chomper sure was......

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