Tag Archives: forced labor

Into the backwaters of Kerala…

Kochi to Alleppey

I leave Fort Kochi in Kerala with memories of birds waking me up to witness early monsoon showers. Coconut palms bathing in the rain against the backdrop of a vast sky. And my last night in Fort Kochi, crows on the beach, Chinese fishing nets and fresh fish on the harbor, delicious, and cooked and served without pretense. The kind of goodbye that makes me smile. Hello Fort Kochi, Goodbye. It was nice to meet you.

I use public transportation to get to my backwater hotel in Alleppey, south of Kochi – a ferry, a train, another ferry. A short, crowded ferry from Fort Kochi takes me to the train station in Ernakulam, the big industrial city on the mainland from where I’ll catch the train to Alleppey. In between the ferry landing and the Ernakulam train station, a bit of early morning comedy. A rickshaw ride where the guy tries to charge me double the standard fare because he thinks he can. Um, no, I tell him, the fare is fifty rupees, and that’s what I’m giving you. He takes it, without argument. Always worth the try though, I suppose.

The train to Alleppey is inexpensive, quick and comfortable enough – fifteen rupees (around twenty cents) for a one and a half hour journey.

Kochi - Allepey train

A view of the backwaters from my train to Alleppey

Even the coffee on the train cannot compete in value – it’s ten rupees (fifteen cents). I thought it would be good to have a real train coffee experience in Kerala. Now I know – it’s horrible. Horrible. But it’s quite the experience…I’m sitting by the window, looking at the lush backwaters and coconut palms outside, while inside, horrible coffee in my palms and across from me, stretched out on the facing seat, a man is fast asleep and snoring loudly. In a minute, a slight rain adds to the experience.

The rain starts off slow, then stronger and then begins to come inside. I pull down the glass window but it doesn’t close all the way. A couple of fellow passengers sitting near the aisle begin a debate on whether the outer, opaque shutter should also be pulled down. The sleeping man has now woken up, glaring at the debaters. One helpful Johnny, seated furthest from the window, steps up to take charge of the mildly intruding rain. With all his might, he secures both the glass window and the outer shutter. Now, instead of the backwaters, all I see are the slats of a dull, grey, unevenly painted, old metal window. Really? I think, the rain and the backwaters and the coconut palms are outside and you’ve blocked them with this stupid shutter? But I keep my annoyance to myself…I’m traveling…all experiences are part of the adventure. 

Pleased with himself, Johnny returns to his seat, looking around for appreciation from his fellow passengers. None is forthcoming from them or from the window shutter, which slams itself back up – it’s a loose latch, not an act of god. A few seconds later, the rain stops. The formerly sleeping passenger returns to his slumber, but not before slowly warning the aisle seaters with a wagging index finger that they should leave the window alone from here on.

We are now at the Alleppey train station. I take a rickshaw to the public ferry which will take me to my backwater hotel. For a real Kerala backwater experience, the public ferry in Alleppey is simply the best deal around. Most rides cost between ten to a hundred rupees – around fifteen cents to a little more than a dollar. It’s safe, and like most public transport, not luxurious, but comfortable enough for anywhere from a twenty minute to a two and half hour journey. I’m now traveling like a local, alongside real locals from the backwaters who use the public ferry to commute to and from work in Alleppey.

From inside the ferry, I see the houseboats I’ve been told are a “can’t miss” item. Everyone I know has said, You have to do it, once in a lifetime, etc. Looking at them right now though, the houseboats…they seem pretty boring. They look like smaller, bamboo-tented versions of cruise ships. Exotic looking but frankly, quite…boring. It feels like a contrived, “exotic” experience with no real, unfiltered interaction with local people.

On the backwaters. All the way at the back is a houseboat. In the middle, moving to the right, a shikara, a modified fishing boat. In the foreground, moving to the left, a motorized, commuting canoe.

My backwater hotel in Alleppey is better than I expected. A two-story, elegant and comfortable place on one of the little islands, about ten minutes from Alleppey. The owner of the near-empty hotel – it’s off season – offers to upgrade me, for a charge, to his best room. I pass, the room I have is good, and good enough. In case you change your mind, let me know, etc. He offers a shikara ride, a four-hour excursion in the backwaters on a comfortable, modified fishing boat. Or a kayak trip for four hours. Or, he could arrange a houseboat ride through a friend. For four hours. Four hours is the magic number for all his value-added offerings. I decline my host’s generous, customized offers. I’ve been on the public ferry already. I know what’s going to work for me.

After lunch, I walk down to the public ferry pier, wherever it will take me. The first boat comes by. The signs are in Malayalam, the language of Kerala. A villager standing on the pier translates for me. Both Malayalam and English are spoken in most places in Kerala. It makes it easier to get directions. The villager tells me this boat is going to Kottayam, on the other side of the backwaters, a two to three hour long journey. Oh, that would be fun, I think. From Kottayam, I could take the bus to Kumarakom, another backwater destination where there’s a bird sanctuary. But the boat leaves while I’m lost in translation. My translator tells me the next boat will arrive in a couple of minutes.

Once we get onto the next boat, my helpful translator suggests I go to Ayiravelly bridge, a small island hamlet in the backwaters of Kainakary district. The boat conductor tells me in English that this ferry will go right to Ayiravelly after a stop in Alleppey. It’ll be about 2 1/2 hours. But, he adds, take the ferry to Kottayam if you can – the view is really good.

Other commuters on the ferry chime in, in Malayalam. Some are eager to help with travel suggestions, others are just plain curious at this local-looking fellow who doesn’t speak the language. What village in Kerala are you from? someone asks in Malayalam. Someone else translates the question for me. I respond in English that I’m from Bombay. It reminds me of Sheila Menon, a Keralite colleague in Bombay, from a lifetime ago, who’d asked me where in Kerala I was from. When I told her I was from Bombay, she didn’t quite believe me, she thought I was lying. Really, you are not from Kerala? But you have a very Mallu cut. 

I wish I could speak Malayalam right now. It sounds fascinatingly tongue-twisting and aurally exotic, even more so because I don’t understand any of  the words – it’s pure sound to me.

At the Alleppey ferry hub, it turns out the next boat to Kottayam is three hours away. It’s decided, Ayiravelly is where I’m going. It’s a long ride. Along the way, we pass a man in a canoe, ferrying milk to his village on one of the islands in the backwaters.

Milk delivery in Allepey

A man in his canoe, ferrying milk to his village on one of the islands in the backwaters

We pass extensive paddy fields alongside the backwater canals, and people washing pots, pans and clothing along the water’s edge.

Backwater paddy

Paddy fields on land alongside the backwater canals

Paddy bw

More paddy fields

Finally, after around two and a half hours on the boat, we get to Ayiravelly. There’s just enough time to go for a quick walk around the island before the boat heads back to Alleppey. A local shop is just yards away from the pier. I’m hungry but all they’re selling is packaged goods from a factory far away. I was hoping for something more local. Oh, well. Instead, I go for a walk down the island.

Not far from the pier, on the banks of one of the inland canals, a man is sitting on the ground, trimming the leaves of a coconut tree to make brooms. We nod and smile. Neither of us speaks the other’s language but we communicate through hand gestures, head tilts and tone of voice. He’s Govindnathan. He’s been doing this a long time. He’s from here, Ayiravelly. He points to me…And you, where in Kerala are you from? I laugh – by now, I sort of recognize the phrase in Malayalam, even if I’m not able to repeat it back to myself. Bombay, I say. Ah, he nods. Okay, I have to get back to work now, Govindnathan says, and waves me off.

Govindnathan - Ayiravelly bridge

Near the Ayiravelly bridge, Govindnathan makes brooms from the leaves of a coconut tree

Past where I’ve met Govindnathan is a long canal, with canoes on either side, personal canoes belonging to local families, often a preferred mode of transport from village to village in the backwaters instead of waiting for the ferry.

Ayiravelly narrow

A narrow section of the backwaters, behind where I met Govindnathan

IMG_9340

Local canoes in Ayiravelly

Behind dense foliage are houses, and villagers going about their business. I don’t stay long, I don’t want to pry, and the ferry will be leaving for Alleppey soon.

It’s a long ride back to Alleppey. Returning along the same canals and waterways, the sights are lovely. But after already seeing them on the trip down here, my eyes are slightly glazed over. Reminds me of this thing I have about famous palaces. Once you’ve seen one of a certain style, you’ve kind of seen them all. Pretty much. The trip back to Alleppey feels somewhat similar, though sitting at the very front of the ferry, the open waters are relaxing.

Back in Alleppey, I take a rickshaw to the nearby beach for a taste of toddy – palm wine derived from the sap of palm trees. Can’t find an open toddy shop at 6 in the evening. Some public holiday or a local rule or something. And then, the rickshaw driver gets indignant and hostile when I refuse his demands of more than double the agreed fare. After he repeatedly threatens to call the cops on me and I keep saying, rather comically, I think, Please do, he accepts just a little more than what we’d agreed to and takes off, muttering loudly in Malayalam. Don’t burst my bubble, dude, I think.

Now, there’s no toddy to be found but the beach is just there. And then the skies open. Thunder, lightning and I’m laughing out loud in the rain, wondering what the hell I’m doing out here in the first place. Go home, get some rest. I’m lucky to find another rickshaw in the pouring rain. A nicer man, and chatty. He lets me off at a good restaurant about five minutes away from the ferry terminal for the ride back to my hotel. A local meal of fried beef, local bread and plantains. A pretty full day so far, and now, a pretty full stomach.

Back at my hotel, the owner is still gently trying to sell me his customized trips. He’s also somewhat surprised that I’m skipping the next day’s included breakfast in favor of an early morning outing to Kottayam and Kumarakom.

In the next room from me is a traveler from the French island of Réunion in the Indian Ocean, near Madagascar. She’s on her way to northern Kerala for a panchakarma treatment – an Ayurvedic course of healing that lasts several days.

I find out that Réunion has been a French territory for about four hundred years, and from the 1960s to the early 80s, hundreds of Creole children were taken from their families in Réunion to rural France to boost falling populations. Their families were promised good education for their children but most of the children were provided as free labor to the bourgeois class in rural France and kept deliberately disconnected from their biological families in Réunion for most of their lives. The missing children. Stolen and disappeared.

My fellow traveler tells me that at the beginning of this century, lawsuits were filed against the French state but they failed because the statute of limitations had expired. Colonialism, classism and blindness of the law in the service of evil never fail to surprise me. But we all know it’s not just colonialism, or capitalism, or socialism, yes, and that forced labor goes on in all cultures and has been going on since the beginning of time. Ah, fortunate are we who have had the accident of being born in the right place at the right time…

Good night, Alleppey. See you tomorrow morning.

© 2019 Marlon de Souza. All rights reserved.

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