Kerala: Backwaters and Beyond

It was the first week of monsoons in Kerala. The distinctive muddy scent of first rain had faded and given way to an  imagery of vivid greens all around, which had started dominating my tired senses. Already 20 days into my travel, I was exhausted and a bit disappointed. But I ended up jaunting across the beautiful backwaters of Kerala. I was a bit frugal, a bit naughty, and a bit too easy on time. But in the end I was refreshed and ready for what lay ahead.

I was hosted at Kochi by my friend from college. After an evening which involved engaging conversations on Krishnadevraya and Southern dynasties over a few beers and banana wafers, I packed my bags and accompanied him next morning on his sales field visit to Kottayam. I had tweaked my itinerary a bit, as I had a sudden urge to revisit the backwaters of Kumarakom and Alleppy.

We stopped on the way and stuffed ourselves with some lovely appam and stew. I told to myself for the nth time, the vegetarian food in Kerala is so underrated.

Appam and Stew at some place between Kochi and Kottayam

My friend dropped me around 11 AM at the main square of Kottayam. The streets were busy, but still carried a eerie sense of calm, something so omnipresent in Kerala. Men jostled around wrapping their mundus almost flawlessly, women moved around hurriedly in semi-crisp saris with their long hair, oiled, slightly frizzled, and clawed perfectly in middle. People had a strong sheen on their body and face. Probably it was the high humidity levels, or it was the excess coconut oil dripping, or perhaps being in the literary capital of Kerala, the seat of Malayama Manorama and the first city with 100% literacy, it was the shine of knowledge.

I walked towards a bakery. A bakery is Kerala is much more than a mere bakery. Although one can’t beat their puffs or Sharjah milk shakes, bakeries represent much more than selling baked goods and a joint for leisure-time snacking. It’s a place for breakfast, for buying household items and groceries, a strong PoS for multinational consumer goods companies, a place which a working father visits every evening post work to buy sweets for his kids, and a place where retired folks execute their Kerala version of a Bengali adda.

I couldn’t resist having an egg puff and a Sharjah. The former a beautiful combination of boiled egg with caramelized onions inside a layered pastry, the latter a banana, dates, Horlicks-infused milkshake which will make you forget even our worst losses to Pakistan at Sharjah. Ok, probably not the Miandad sixer one.

I inquired about the bus to Kumarakom village and was immediately directed towards one across the road. I took the bus and got a comfortable seat. While I was busy clearing the small flaky remains of a thoroughly enjoyed egg puff of my t-shirt, I was shrugged off by a set of ladies to vacate the seat. I got up politely and then got lost in a series of nonsensical thoughts for rest of the 10-12 km journey.

I got down at Kumarakom town, just another one in the rather continuous series of never ending cities and towns in Kerala. Being densely populated, the state has evolved as series of habitations, in sharp contrast to the open agricultural spaces one is used to seeing across other parts of India. I strolled towards another bakery, sipped a tea, inquired a bit about the locality, and started walking.

The road towards Vemabanad lake slowly unravelled itself, the scenery evolved from a small residential town to a leading holiday destination, as the resorts grew in both number as well as size. Being a tourist-lean season one couldn’t see much activity around. I was now in desperate need of a conversation to drive my day forward, and so I entered one resort. And what followed was never planned for, it just happened.

Somewhere in Kumarakom

I got a salute from the security guard, and a lot of steps later, a smile from the receptionist. I introduced myself as a HR of famous IT company, in search for good resort for my middle management outbound of around 150 people. Smile changed into happiness, it was like this rainfall after a tough hot summer, like a weekend after a tough week of work, or quite simply, the feeling of selling some rooms in the off-peak season.

Suddenly I saw activity all around me, staff started moving around, a Manager was called for, I was asked what would I like to drink, to which I quite egoistically replied, something alcoholic. I was handed over quite a neat menu, of which I happily picked up a Pinacolada.

In the mean time the manager came up, quite visibly just up from sleep. He started asking for my requirements which I kept generating on the fly. He then gave me tour of the resort, from the spa and pool, to the gardens and business centres. What caught my eye was the beautiful Vemabanad, what caught my ears the sound of raindrops plopping on the lake, what caught my nose was smell of freshness. Sorry, but the manager was just pure noise.

I spent sometime and then bid goodbye with the promise of sending them the plan. I had been a bit naughty today, but given the long trip, I think I deserved some pampering.

As soon as I left the resort and started walking towards the jetty, there was a sudden gush of rainfall. Initially I couldn’t find any shelter, but then a small home cum kirana store in between a sort of a plantation came to rescue. Aunty running the store offered me a cigarette, but I pleaded for a tea. Semi-wet and slightly shivery, I cupped the warm steel glass of tea tightly. There were a few duplicate Parle-G’s to dip, beautiful sound of the rainfall hitting the banana trees in the their plantation, and some sweet noise of the aunty chattering in Malayalam.

I thanked aunty for the tea, made payments which she refused to take. I offered to buy out her entire stock of cream biscuits (10-12 packs), to which she gleefully agreed. I got a pat on the back, some sweet chatter, and oodles of smile as a farewell gift.

I walked towards the Jetty, the sun had come out again, but clouds still lingered on waiting for the right moment to strike. I boarded the ferry to Muhamma Jetty. More than a year back I had paid INR 12,000 for browsing this lake on a houseboat, today I paid INR 12!

I distributed few biscuits on board. There were school kids, office goers, men and women on just another journey. Water transport is so unique for an outsider, so normal for a Keralaite, and its effective too. Infact the public transport system in Kerala is one of the best in the country. The journey went for around 35-40 mins. It was peaceful, with Vemabanad silently playing with clouds, people on board mostly in an afternoon siesta mode, broken by the clicking sound of my camera, and the persistent buzz of the boat. As soon as I reached Muhamma, it started raining again. I rushed for the bus stop and caught a bus to Alleppy.


Leaving Kumarakom Jetty
Clouds vs. Vembanad
Somewhere before Muhamma

Alleppy or Alappuzha is often compared to Venice, the entire area is a well connected network of canals leading to backwaters. The city was preparing for the upcoming Nehru Cup (Annual Snakeboat racing event), and there were 100s of posters all over the place. From politicians, to film stars, to jewelry brands. Vijay’s Jos Alukkas looked like a clear winner in terms of promotion, beating Mohan Lal’s Malabar Gold by a significant margin. I landed at Mullackal Road which seemed like the city center. Markets were busy selling bright and colorful stuff, things looked pretty chaotic. I had a sudden realization that I was still to have a full meal since morning. I consulted the traffic police guy, and suggested me KreamKorner.

I opted for a Sadya, and asked for additional egg curry on the side. The usual suspects- boiled rice, sambhar, rasam, and avial were present. The Kaalan (kadhi like preparation) and payasam were perfect. Egg curry was a bit of a disappointment, but combined with the papad and some lovely sun-dried stuffed chilies I washed down couple of heaps of rice. I walked out of the place- content, happy, and full.

Sadya at Kreamkorner

A short walk, followed by a bus ride brought me back to Muhamma. In between I had picked up a couple of cans of beer for company, both poking out of my pockets, demanding attention. As I waited for the ferry at Muhamma (which it seems was delayed quite a bit) an uncle pointed out that the can was about to fall. I asked him whether he would like to have one? His agreement to this suggestion was reflected by a toothless smile. Both of us turned our backs towards other people, sat down and enjoyed our beers. I was looking at this:

At Muhamma Jetty

Did I feel better now? Certainly. Will I do something like this again? Definitely.

Ok, probably no more of that HR roleplay.

Tried out Tripline, pretty good tool to animate maps. Here is a summary of my trip

3 Comment

  1. Wonderfully written Desh..5 minutes trip to Kerala and back 🙂

  2. Interesting post about Kerala. We can get everything here. It’s a heaven in simple. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Thanks for your comments 🙂

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