October 29, 2012

Tom Steps in Poop (or, "Alleppey, Kerala, India")

Coming off our super relaxed time in Kovalam and Varkala, we were looking forward to visiting Alleppey (or Alappuzha) and its famed backwaters, a major pitstop on the backpackers circuit of South India. On the recommendation of Rani at Mummy Bamboo in Varkala, we booked 2 nights at the Palmy Lake Resort in Alleppey. Don't be fooled by the word "resort." While Palmy was certainly comfortable, it wasn't a "resort" in the way you might be thinking. On the train from Varkala to Alleppey, we sat in a compartment with 3 French backpackers and a local woman and her adorable toddler daughter. We made friends with the Frenchies and they quickly asked our thoughts about the upcoming Presidential election. Once they realized we are liberals and Obama supporters (and they announced their mutual support for Obama as well), the ringleader of the trio, Yannick, said, "You must have been happy not to have George W. Bush as the President any longer." When I agreed, he shook his head and said, "The shame of the world." WOW! I won't get further political on this blog, but isn't that hard to hear? The rest of the ride to Alleppey was uneventful and we said goodbye to our French friends and hoped we'd run into them down the road.

Alleppey was a bigger town than we had expected, and Palmy was 3 kilometers outside of town, along a quiet stretch of backwater. We were greeted by Macy who showed us to our little cottage on the well-manicured property (that was dotted with bird cages full of pigeons for reasons we never understood). Our room was clean and simple, with a basic bed, old desk, ceiling fan and with the ever-present bucket shower. An extra bonus was the little lizard that lived in the roof in one corner of our room. We named him Barry and he was always in a hurry - running up the wall, running down the wall - and we were happy to have a 3rd roommate. He was so fast that I never got a picture, but this is what he looked like.
Barry's cousin

When we first arrived at Palmy, it was after lunch time, but we were starving, so Macy directed us down the quiet road to a local stand for a late lunch. When we sat down at this roadside shack, the owner asked us, "Veg or fish?" We both said "veg" and he served up the only thing on offer. This is where we had our first thali, and it didn't disappoint. A thali is kind of an all-you-can-eat meal served in a compartmentalized metal plate - like a school lunch tray, but round and metal. The compartments on the outside are each filled with various mixtures and sauces. This is all accompanied by the delicious, fluffy, Kerala rice. Like most meals we've had in India, the method of eating is to use your hands to mush it all together and then eat with your fingers. It was really REALLY good and super cheap…about $1/each. After we ate, a massive rain storm hit, so we were stuck in the little shop with the owner and his wife until it passed. They spoke no English, but she would say something to him and he would run across the room and get a candy for us or some other treat. It was obvious she was the boss.

The biggest reason for visiting Alleppey is to hire an overnight houseboat to explore the backwaters lined with fishermen and villages. Knowing we'll likely be back in Alleppey in January when our friends, Emily and Anna visit Kerala (for their honeymoon!), we opted instead to hire a covered canoe and a "driver" to show us around for just the day. Macy arranged a day trip for us with Raju. After breakfast on our first morning (where we had Tom's favorite, appam and curry, and sat with some very rude young English girl backpackers), Raju greeted us at 8:30am and we walked up the canal by Palmy towards the larger channel until we got to Raju's canoe.

Raju's English wasn't great, but he was super friendly and easily managed to explain to us what we were seeing with one, two, or three word exclamations, "Cashew Tree!" "Fishing Man!" "Married 15 years!" We liked him a lot. Immediately, we were struck by how many houseboats were on the water. Everywhere we looked, houseboats were coming up the channel, loaded with tourists. Most of them were pretty nice, and some of them were absolutely stunning. I can't wait to go back and visit with Em and Anna. Once on the water, we loved the bustle and activity of the morning - women stood on the banks in front of their house, waiting with money, for a man in a canoe to come by with fish and mussels for sale. Kids were getting ready for school - bathing in the canals, having their hair braided in their front yard, being scolded for being late, and then taking a canoe ferry system down or across the canal to their schools.

The best part about being on a canoe (versus a houseboat) was that we were able to explore some of the smaller canals, which was really cool. At nearly every home, people were outside, doing something in the water - washing dishes, buying fish from a man in a canoe, bathing themselves, doing laundry, fishing for mussels. It was obvious that the people on these backwaters rely heavily on the water and food in the canals.

We noticed that each home had a huge pile of something between the house and the water…after looking more closely, we realized that these 10+ foot high piles were empty mussel shells. Raju told us that, after eating the mussels, the shells can be dried and ground down to powder and that the families can sell the powder for others to make paint. Who knew! Along the way, we stopped at a chai stand on the water for a quick cuppa (and, no doubt, where Raju gets a kickback for bringing tourists). Raju disappeared for a bit and came back with one of the beautiful sea eagles we'd been admiring since we arrived in India. This eagle was a pet of one of the boys at the chai stand. He is trained and requires no cage. He goes out fishing and brings fish back to the family. Isn't that amazing?!?! They talked Tom into holding the eagle (we can't remember his long and complicated name) and then, after much prodding, I agreed to let the eagle perch on my head. It was terrifying.
The nice, pretty sea eagle (name, unknown)

The nice eagle w/ Tom
The eagle trying to eat my brains
After another hour or so on the water, Raju told us he was going to park the canoe on the banks (next to a HUGE free-roaming bull), and we were going to walk away from the water through a rice paddy to visit a local village. The village was incredibly quiet and peaceful and the views were amazing. After a few photo opps, we began our walk back towards the canoe when Tom stepped in a huge, fresh, steaming pile of cow crap! And he was wearing flip flops. It was the best moment of my life! I laughed so hard. He had to rinse his foot and shoe in the canal water (of questionable cleanliness) before we hopped back in the canoe to head back to Palmy after our 5 hours on the backwaters.
Tom, rinsing cow poop off his foot - aka: the best moment of the trip

Alleppey did not disappoint and it was nice to have a scheduled activity for the first time on our trip thus far, and we're excited to go on a houseboat with Emily and Anna, if the timing works out. However, Alleppey, to me, will always be remembered as the place where Tom stepped in shit for the first time in India (because I'm sure there will be a 2nd time).

Check out all of our pics from Alleppey here. A few favorites are below, including a video (with poor audio) of a fisherman selling his daily catch on the narrowest canoe I've ever seen.
Backwaters village

Laundry on the backwaters
Check out this video of a traveling salesman!

And, one more time...the crowd favorite: Tom cleaning cow crap off his foot.

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