After a most delicious South Indian breakfast of Masala Dosa (spicy potato curry inside a rice flour pancake), we were collected by Mary, her son Akhil, and our tour guide Praveen with car and driver. Twisting and turning our way through almost stand still traffic, car horn beeping, we headed towards the coast through Kochi and out the other side to Aleppey – home
of the waterways.
Praveen, an excellent guide with fantastic knowledge of the area, pointed out the great Periyar river which, much like the African Limpopo, appears grey and greasy, snaking through the countryside, the main highway of this very wet State.
Vasco De Gama, the first of the European explorers, came to India to find the spices that the Arabs were selling at such high prices in Europe during some historical periods spices were more valuable than gold; De Gama set up the spice route that allowed this importation to happen directly.
Kerala was introduced to the concept of Chinese fishing nets, vast sheets of netting hung between large bamboo poles, by Portuguese sailors bringing them from Macau. They have since been adapted but the Portuguese culture that sits in Goa is also prevalent here, alongside the relics of colonial Britain.
Passing by high rise modern apartment blocks which sit cheek by jowl with tiny homes with corrugated metal roofs, we were continually reminded that ‘We are not in Kansas anymore!’ Nothing could be further from our familiar safe lives, could it?
After about 2.5 hours of jolting along in our very comfy SUV, we arrived at our water house boat. A large wooden structure with palms woven in and out across the roof and sides that it looked more decorative than functional. There was a terraced area, two ensuite bedrooms and a kitchen where we met our chef of the day. He had begun preparing us a feast of Kerala food, mostly vegetarian dishes but also a typical fried fish dish made with the famous Kariemeen (pearl spot) fish ‘If you think of Aleppey there is no food without Kariemeen’. We ate our meal in traditional fashion, with our right hands, rice flew everywhere but fork or fingers, a fantastic feast!! Apparently we are the first white tourists to go local that the chef had ever met! Go us!!
Aleppey now survives on their fishing and rice for food as well as exporting the rice, they also export coir. The rice is grown in vast wet paddy fields, harvested by hand, the sheaves of rice plant are shaken to release the grains we know, which is then dried and steamed before cooking. If it is exported it goes through different procedures and some chemicals are added to create the perfect whiteness and for preservation purposes. Praveen made us slightly more aware about this process than perhaps we wanted to be!
The coir is the husk taken from the coconut trees that grow so prolifically in the area, used for matting and basket ware it is now even being exported to China where they use it to make Eco friendly clothing!
Back on board out boat ‘Minar de’ Lake’ Praveen explained that the history of the rice boats is a long one and the boats were originally used to carry rice, spices etc down to Kochi before roads and lorries came on the scene. Two or three men would fill the hull with whatever they were trading and set of on a three day journey, rowing and punting their journey, fishing and cooking their catch on a small kitchen on board. These days there are no rice boats; all the larger vessels are used for tourist purposes, short day jaunts like ours, or longer overnight journeys. Along the smaller backwaters local people have canoes as we have cars, parked outside their small homes waiting to take them over the river for any shopping or errands they may have.
This, Aleppey, is also known as the Venice of the East. This, Aleppey, is even further from our comfort zone than the heady sounds, smells and sights in the towns. As we snapped away at the sights around us we talked about how, for the local people, we must be the strange ones, the variety of people they must see on these tourist trips must be fascinating for them, and frankly who needs a TV when you have your own soapbox waterway outside your front door?
It was such a peaceful afternoon, stopping off to buy giant Konju water prawns which were freshly prepared for us, being snapped by strangers’ smart phones. ‘They are from Karnataka they don’t see many white people!’ And generally watching this wonderful, strange world go by.