Tag Archives: travel diary

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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Everyone wants

There’s a pigeon outside my kitchen window this rainy July morning in the monsoon. It’s soaked completely, its feathers striated and streaked by the rainwater that’s still dripping off its body as it sits under the ledge, sitting out there waiting to dry. Sitting and looking out at the darkened sky, wondering perhaps when the rain will stop so it can get on with gathering food – it’s still early in the morning. From inside the comfort of my kitchen, all I see is the pigeon’s back, its pinkish-red claws clutching the top grill of the plant nursery outside the window. There’s no movement from the pigeon, no bobbing this way or that, no sounds, no coo-cooing. Its head is pulled into its body as though it’s defending itself from the elements as it sits there on the grill, waiting to dry. Maybe it’s cold, maybe it’s conserving energy. I really have no idea. So little we know from within the comfort of our homes. On the right, below an air-conditioner casing is another pigeon, relatively drier, curious about its temporary surroundings. Is it inspecting the casing for a potential habitat for when things settle, a place to raise baby pigeons? Are these two a couple? How did they come to be on this parapet together, outside my window? Accidental? Two souls seeking shelter? I have not a clue. So little we know from behind the all knowingness of our human eyes. 

Everyone wants shelter
Everyone wants love
Every one wants peace and happiness
From a lion to a rain soaked dove

Monsoon dove

Everyone wants love

Everyone wants nurturing
Everyone wants love
Every one wants to be cared for
From the worms to the birds above

Everyone wants healing
Everyone wants love
Even the people who say they don’t
No one wants to starve

Everyone has little time
Little time on earth
Every one wants acceptance
Before they turn to dirt

Everyone you see will go
Every one, it’s true
Every one needs acceptance, for
Every one is you.

©2019 Marlon de Souza. All rights reserved.

Happy are the sailors

IMG_7755.JPGI walk down to Juhu Beach, Mumbai, down the back road to the entrance that leads to fewer cricket and football games on the beach, the area where there are more fishing boats offshore, where the shore is less beach and more rock. I walk past the usual traffic, dodging a vehicle coming from behind me and over here, a motorcyclist coming straight at me until he turns away at the very last moment. It’s fairly busy for an evening, this back road. Someone behind me taps me lightly but just as I guessed, he doesn’t need anything from me, he’s just trying to quickly walk past. By now, after a few months in India and after having lived in New York for half my life, I’ve realized that it’s not that a sense of personal space doesn’t exist in India. It’s simply that the sense of personal space, or distance, is different in India compared to the United States. Neither ones trumps the other, it just depends on one’s accustomed level of cultural and spatial comfort.

The back road has a couple of vegetable carts, a general store with numerous cats snoozing on the porch, crows cawing loudly above, and a man on a bicycle with about fifteen empty, commercial-sized water bottles strapped to the bicycle’s carrier. On the left, by a vegetable stand, I see a man raising his hand, a stone in it, toward a medium-sized, black dog not far from him. The dog is cowering. It backs away from the man – a sixty-something year old man, big forehead, beady eyes, a black, dyed mustache and dyed black hair combed back with enough oil to make his forehead shine. The man raises the stone again, the dog backs away again, continuing to cower. It appears to be a game for the man, an amused look on his face. I’m bothered by it but I keep walking. I’m concerned he’s going to strike the dog, not sure if he’ll do it or what the story is over here. It makes me want to stay and see what he’s going to do.

As the man moves close to the dog, his hand raised and the stone in it, I realize I have to say or do something if he strikes the dog. The dog backs away from the man again. The man notices I’ve stopped to look and smiles at me with amusement. A bizarre spectacle. I decide I’m not going to wait and see if he’s going to strike the dog. I go up to him and ask him, politely,

“You’re not going to throw that stone on the dog, are you?”

“No, it’s my dog. I’m going to church and he follows me to church until I give him a biscuit. This is our daily game, man,” he says to me in English, in a Koli Catholic accent punctuated with a lisp. Kolis, both Hindu and Christian, are a fishing community and the original inhabitants of Mumbai. “Holy Cross Church I’m going to. Same story every day with him.”

“How old is he? What’s his name?” I ask.

“He’s five, six years old. Shadow, because he follows me everywhere. You see? He always follows me.”

As we talk, the dog comes closer. I pet him, he’s enjoying the love. Five, six-year old Shadow. Nuzzling up against my leg. White paws, whitened from age. I introduce myself to the man. Clement Fernandes, he responds.

“Don’t pet him,” he cautions me. I continue petting Shadow, who’s now turning this way and that so I can get that spot. 

The street traffic continues unabated, most of it navigating away from us, except one red car that comes dangerously close. As I take hold of Shadow’s collar to guide him away from the street, he lightly mouths my hand, with perfectly managed bite control, not enough to tear skin or leave an imprint but just enough pressure to say Don’t touch my collar. Instinctively, I know that this dog has been hit or yanked before. I let go of Shadow, he moves to the side of the street to sniff a potted plant in front of a shop.

Clement Fernandes asks me if I’m going to church as well. I say no, I’m going to the beach. He apologizes for Shadow nipping me. Not a problem, I say. And, I’m on my way. And that’s that. Shadow and Clement.

The beach is not too busy, the sand is wet, suitable more for bare feet, not for the flip-flops I’m wearing. Planes taking off overhead, departing from the nearby Santacruz airport. Below me, tiny holes in the sand from where little crabs and other marine life emerge early morning and late at night, when humans aren’t around. Some garbage on the rocks, broken beer bottles. A small crab darts below a rock, into a pool of water, at the sound of approaching footsteps.

In the distance, the sun is setting. The sky is a mix of light blue and orange and purple, and the approach of dark. On the left, a fishing boat is moored not too far offshore. A white and red striped fishing boat with a couple of flags. Further away, another fishing boat, also moored, also with flags, painted in saffron, white and green – the colors of the Indian flag. And a blue and white striped fishing boat. Far off on the left, the most beautiful boat this evening – a solitary, tiny red boat rocking gently in the Arabian Sea, anchored to a bigger boat. Forward, way off on the horizon, the sun moves down, moving into someone else’s daylight.

On the right is a long, curved pier – families taking an evening stroll, a little girl showing off a cut paper flower to her big sister, a cyclist trying to navigate through the walking families and getting cursed out a couple of times. Designer puppies being walked by their working class handlers. Fawned over by the walking families, not getting cursed out. And people taking photos of each other against the departing sun.

By the edge of the water, where it’s craggy and there’s no sand, a young man is taking selfies with the sun. A couple of minutes here. The sun leaves. The young man leaves. Day ends here, a new day somewhere else. The sun is gone, all that’s left behind is the most beautiful force, the most beautiful thing. Waves of sea water, operating with an energy of their own, moving on a force of their own, touching the shore and going back to where they came from.

Touching the shore and going back to where they came from.

Touching the shore and going back to where they came from.

Bigger than everything. Bigger than the rocks they touch, bigger than stones in men’s hands, bigger than people and dogs and animals on land and animals that live in the sea. Bigger than the experiences on the shore and far away from the shore, in cities and villages where people and other beings live. Bigger than all of human experience.

Waves of sea water, touching the shore and going back to where they came from.

Uncontrolled. Beyond power, beyond free, beyond you and beyond me.

Beyond everything we feel, beyond everything we see.

Beyond everything we seek to be.

Waves of sea water, touching the shore and going back to where they came from. Back and forth and back again. Beyond you, and beyond me.

Happy are the sailors, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

© 2019 Marlon de Souza. All rights reserved.

Refuge

It’s 32 degrees Celsius (90 degrees Fahrenheit) on a sweltering Friday afternoon. Mumbai in May is more intense and humid than any other time of year. The monsoon next month will bring much needed relief. Even the birds in the trees seem to be saying so.

I’m early for my physiotherapy appointment – after years of sitting behind a desk for a living, I’ve recently exuberantly embraced a rather intense level of physical activity. My body is not fond of the enthusiastic embrace. “No thanks, buddy. What’s the hurry?” my body’s been telling me. “After being sedentary for so long, how about we ramp things up a little bit slowly, yes? Then we can get intense, okay?” But I didn’t pay much attention.

After a couple of months of sending fairly clear and polite signals, my body says, “That’s it! Enough.” And with all the clarity in the world, it pulls the slow the f*** down lever. It usually wins this exchange. I’d like to continue to be in a healthy relationship with my body for a long, long time. Rest of my life is what I’m thinking. So, here I am at the front door of the physiotherapy department at Holy Family Hospital in Bandra, Mumbai.

Just outside the front door, a dog is taking shelter in the shade provided by an overhanging construction canopy. I’ve seen this dog before on the hospital grounds – in the evenings, I’ve seen it hanging out in the parking lot. During the day, it takes refuge from the heat under a canopy like this, or below the trees near the main gate. It’s calmly asleep amidst the noise and bustle from the hospital grounds. Feet kicking slowly in a dream, peacefully asleep.

Unlike me, this dog will not be going through those doors for a physiotherapy session – it has already learned to listen to its body when it speaks. But I don’t feel hopeless. I’m actually feeling quite fortunate – here’s this dog showing me how to be long after I’ll be done with physiotherapy. It’s a very good day.

© 2019 Marlon de Souza. All rights reserved.

Hey, hey, hey

Monsoon rain
Gone summer pain
Time to show my face again
to the sky
to my eye
No reason for
Beards to hide by

If the moon comes to play
when the rain has gone away
I’ll be there
No facial hair
Just ol’ me
I’ll be there

When the rain
comes to play
I will meet it
more than halfway
For the water is the way
Calls my name
and yours
Hey, hey, hey

© 2019 Marlon de Souza. All rights reserved.

The Monsoon in Kerala – at 6,000 feet

At a height of nearly 6,000 feet, the monsoon in Munnar, a verdant hill station covered with tea plantations and coconut palms in Kerala, South India feels more intense than the rain at sea level in Kochi. The monsoon here owns the sky and the earth without permission or apologies. No thunder, no lightning this afternoon, just a trickle for a minute and then the sky opens up. And then some more. And then, even more. Until it stops. And then resumes.

Now, there’s no place to go around and be a tourist. The choices are limited to simple ones…sit like a cat in the window, howl like a dog at the rain, read a book, sleep, or stare into the misty rain until my vision gets as blurry as the heavy, foggy mist that fills the skies for a long, long, long way. One way or the other, respect is demanded by the rain gods.

© 2019 Marlon de Souza. All rights reserved.

The rickshaws of Kochi

Ashraf with his rickshaw on Princess Street in Fort Kochi

There’s Ashraf in the first picture. He’s been driving a rickshaw for thirty years. At first, he had his own rickshaw. Now, he rents – it’s cheaper and without having to handle all the hassle of maintenance, insurance and paperwork, he says. I met him in Fort Kochi my first morning there, on Princess Street. Ashraf greets me with his big, warm smile for no particular reason. He exudes ease, and calm. I’ve gotten many big, warm smiles in Kochi for no particular reason. I love it.

And then there are a multitude of other rickshaws this next morning, in Ernakulam, across the harbor from Fort Kochi. I’ll be taking a rickshaw from the ferry jetty in Ernakulam to the train station. From there I’ll catch the train to the backwaters of Allepey, south of Kochi.

The first guy at the ferry jetty at Ernakulam will not take any customers until he completes reading his morning paper. So I go with the next rickshaw. My homestay host in Fort Kochi told me it would be forty rupees to the train station.

Kochi rickshaws are wider and more comfortable than the ones in Mumbai. And more colorful. They drive slower too, even though traffic is light this morning.

All adding to the sense or illusion of peace and serenity…that old saying seems to be true – the outer world is a reflection of the inner world. I’m feeling generally very peaceful and happy here in Kerala, even though it’s been just two days.

I get to the train station in about ten minutes. My rickshaw driver tells me it’s sixty rupees – from my rucksack and my travel shorts, he must know I’m a traveler, not a local. I calmly and serenely tell him it’s forty rupees, which I hand to him. He calmly and with apparent serenity takes the money without any argument.

Off to Allepey now and to the backwaters.

© 2019 Marlon de Souza. All rights reserved.

It’s just the simple things…

Darkness at Fort Kochi beach, Kerala, southern India. It’s half past eight. The extreme humidity of the day has subsided. The beach is quiet. Except for waves loudly lapping the shore – high tide is still some time away. Chinese fishing nets sit silently against the Kochi harbor.

Shaheer, the owner of a fish stand on the beach suggests butter fish, a local specialty. Price 200 rupees, just under $3. Shaheer hands the butter fish to Fakhruddin M Y, the chef at Cafe Balbba, a busy kitchen shack on the water, just behind the fish stand. Fakhruddin will grill the butter fish, medium spicy, with local herbs. For 150 rupees, just around $2.

The view of the Chinese fish nets, the waves lapping the shore and the sand below my feet make it the most satisfying meal in two days in Kochi. Even with the mosquitoes around. And far more satisfying than the unappetizing food and ambience at the expensive and highly rated seafood restaurant in the heart of Kochi. It’s just the simple things…

© 2019 Marlon de Souza. All rights reserved.

Project Good Earth in Kerala

Nature put on an early display of the monsoon in the middle of the night. Pouring rain, thunder claps, the skies opened up in the dark.

Morning arrived, and with it, nature’s soothing alarm clock. Project Good Earth, well known to the Ancients, continues to deliver its promise of nurturing nature.

© 2019 Marlon de Souza. All rights reserved.

It’s raining outside. Can you guess where I am?

I couldn’t wait for the monsoon to arrive in Mumbai. So I’ve headed down to Kerala, God’s Own Country, all the way in the south of India. It’s been an exciting and delightful first day, heat, warmth, smells, sights. But I’ll cover that another time. For now, enjoy the sounds of my first taste of the monsoon here in Kerala, outside the window of my homestay in Fort Kochi.

© 2019 Marlon de Souza. All rights reserved.