Kollam & Alleppey –the Backwaters Monday 11 - Friday 15 May 2009
On the way to Kollam we paid a quick visit to our friend Salim of Gulnar Auto Services who we mentioned last page. Salim is really into 4 wheel driving and so we saw some of his pictures from his trips & met his lovely family. His little boy was fascinated by the car!! Salim gave us plenty of information about the best routes to take which was really helpful.
It was a fairly easy 2 hour drive on good roads (but with plenty of manic truck drivers!) until we hit Kollam. We'd heard this described as a typical market town, and were a bit surprised when we saw a pretty cosmopolitan city centre - with live TV screens and big department stores. However we quickly found that once you got onto the water- the Ashtamudi Lake and the waterways off it - you can still see the old traditional way of life continuing.
We first went to the information centre to see where we could park They suggested we try the Tamarind Hotel - a Keralan government hotel- to see if we could camp there. They kept us waiting whilst they thought about it - and we were finally ushered in to see the manager who said that for a slight discount on the normal room rate of 1,500 rp - (way more than we've ever paid!) we could camp on their lawn!! Thanks but no thanks!
Driving on we were stopped by a very helpful man telling us about his resort. When we said we were just looking for a camp spot he said that we'd be welcome to camp at his place which is how we ended up at the lovely Valiyavilla Family Estate. This boutique guest house with just 4 rooms is 9km out of town down a fairly windy road. News seems to spread quickly on the grapevine here as a couple of times we pulled up to check we were going the right way and everyone knew which way to direct us! It is very much off season here - so we were the only people at the guest house. It was an idyllic spot just across the water from the town so we left the car and went around by boat for a couple of days.
We camped right on the basket ball court - nice and flat! It was an idyllic setting we got a great breeze straight off the water and woke up to the sight of fishermen in their traditional head turbans punting along. Joseph our host and his staff couldn't have been nicer- we even got breakfast served by tray at our car!! It is a superb location right on the water serviced by public ferry and we enclose their web site and would thoroughly recommend it as a place to stay www.kollamlakeviewresort.com
The next morning we were keen to explore the back waters and as we were between public ferries we did as Joseph instructed us and stood out on the ferry wharf looking conspicuous. Sure enough within a minute or 2 a fisherman arrived to ferry us over to the church opposite from where we caught an auto rickshaw into the main ferry wharf in town.
The backwaters are the 900km network of waterways which criss cross Kerala running from the coast to quite far inland and were long used as a transport system. You can explore the backwaters via luxury houseboat but (even with the vast decrease in price at the moment) we found that a bit pricey so we just did a local cruise.
We met up with the only other passenger (save the rower!) Claudius from Germany and set off. It was about a 30 minute drive to the departure point way out in the sticks. The 4 hour trip was fantastic and very good value at 300 rp ($8 Aus) per person. The monsoon should be with us by early June so the water levels are pretty low. At one point we got wedged due to the low water levels and Claudius and I had to get out and walk whilst Andrew helped punt the boat along - to the huge amusement of the local villagers!
Once we got into deeper water though it was a beautiful - we glided past grazing goats and cows, prawn farms, pineapples growing and everywhere coconut palms. The coconut really is the life blood of Kerala and there are many river based cottage industries. We saw small workshops producing coir - the rope made of the husks - coir being spun, & coconut meat driving out.
Cashews are another big crop - I didn't know they came attached to a yellow fruit. The seed contains the nut and the fruit has juice which can be drunk and is good for digestion apparently.
Kerala is the big centre in India for herbs and spices and many are farmed out on the river. We saw nutmeg & pepper amongst others - it explains why the food here is so wonderful they have such a huge number of good natural ingredients. It being low season there were a lot of boat repairs going on which Andrew was particularly interested in. The boats are repaired using the ever versatile coconut rope which stitches them together. There were also a number of unusual looking plants out here, just growing wild. It seemed that life out here must have been pretty unchanged (save the prawn farms a relatively recent introduction) for hundreds of years.
We got back in time for lunch - a nice biriyani - we spotted a few of the spices we'd seen in it!!- and spent a fairly relaxing afternoon exploring Kollam. The area has mosques, catholic churches and temples so there are a mixture of religious beliefs. There is a fairly prominent shrine in the centre of town dedicated to Our Lady of Velamkanni. It was right in the middle of the main street and very noisy but this didn't seem to dim the fervor of the devotees - many of whom where kissing the statue of Mary or praying face down on the floor!
We wandered around the bustling shops - good place to buy fresh cashew nuts. There were quite a lot of gold stores, as gold is a big deal in Kerala. There are huge department stores specializing in weddings which sell beautiful saris and huge amounts of gold which is a big part of wedding celebrations here. Most of it was a bit over the top in style for my tastes but the workmanship was exquisite.
We decided to have a beer with Claudius before we went our separate ways. We followed a sign saying "Bar" and ended up down some stairs round a corner - into what looked like a cellar full of ominous looking bottles of clear spirits - I think I might have fled by this point but we were seen and escorted away to a private room! This was very grim - no windows - but we think it was the deluxe suite. It was a bit like being in jail! Anyway we had a bottle of "Knock Out" the only beer available and left!! Going out for a drink is a challenge in these parts!!
The next morning we drove on to our next destination Alleppey aka Alappuzha the "Venice of the East." Our ever helpful hosts at Valiyavila had rung ahead to friends who owned a guest house in Alleppey and already organized our next camp spot for us! What service!
Alleppey is a lovely little market town - set around canals - hence the Venice tag. I really think we have timed it right as over 600 house boats operate out of this area so in high season it must be like Pitt Street (or Piccadilly Circus for the UK readers!) but now it is fairly laid back.
There was quite a lot of house boat refurbishment going on- so I could have put Andrew out to work!! We went straight to our next home Cherukara Nest. This is a beautiful 100 year old colonial style home with teak window frames, & a verandah set around a lovely garden with a pigeon loft and several 100 year old mango trees. It was a beautiful old family home with a very gracious ambience. Again we were made very welcome and we backed our car in the drive where it was a pretty tight fit! The home stay has only 4 rooms - but we only saw 2 other guests during our time here - so hopefully our presence wasn't too intrusive.
Again we'd really recommend this place to stay. They also organize the only eco friendly (punting not a motor) house boat tours on offer here. Have a look at their site www.cherukaranest.com as you really have to book in high season if you wish to stay here.
So, we spent a wonderful couple of days relaxing in Alleppey. We left the car and took an auto rickshaw tour of the main highlights of the area.
Again there is a mixture of religions, so we saw Catholic Cathedrals -which seems to have a different architectural style here - Hindu temples and a Jain temple. I had heard of Jainism but knew little about it other than that the adherents are such strict vegetarians they won't eat potato as it may contain a living fungus! The nice young man who showed us round didn't speak much English so we didn't learn a lot more other than that they have 24 gods. There are only 5 temples in Kerala and this one services only 15 families. There are larger Jain communities elsewhere (especially Bangalore and Mumbai apparently) so maybe we'll get to see another temple elsewhere.
We also saw the local beach. It was full of local fishermen divvying out their money after the day's catch (not without a bit of tension!) We loved their economy style boats - which were just floats really. There are lovely beaches here and there is a lot of building going on - mainly home stays & resorts for tourists - hopefully this won't destroy their way of life totally. Nearby there was a real traditional looking English lighthouse - over 500 years old and still in use to this day.
As mentioned Coir or coconut rope is a major industry here. It is sold as it is or made into flooring & mats of all shapes and colours which are sold all over the world. We went round a few factories and it was quite an eye opener - the conditions are pretty Dickensian. It is all done by hand using primitive looking machines which must really hurt the muscles to use every day. It was very hot and there was fibre everywhere in the air which can't be good for the workers' lungs. The men did this heavy work and there were ladies sorting the fibres and spinning.
Outside were men cutting up the finished products and loading it into a truck. It is certainly a huge industry. They work 6 days a week from 8am to 5pm and earn around 170 -200 rp a day or $4-$5 Aus. I said to our guide how hard it must be but he said they are lucky they have a job. I guess if you brought in machines to make it easier it would throw them out of work so you can't win really! I'll never look at a doormat without remembering those men and how hard they work. Next door was the factory owner's palatial mansion. Very "Hard Times"!!
Alleppey is a lovely little town though, attractively set on the canals. The waterways are surrounded with traditional industries as well as new plush resorts. There were lots of small workshops producing coconut oil. It is crushed out using machines and the final remaining dried out husks are used as animal feed so absolutely nothing is wasted. There were plenty of shops and stalls selling all the spices we'd seen earlier. This was a big attraction for Indian tourists who flock to buy the Kerala spices.
We also saw an unusual advertising campaign. A slightly cheesed off looking cow had posters advertising a company pasted to its sides and was being driven around on a cart whilst one man banged a drum and another bellowed through a loud speaker. It was certainly attention grabbing!!
We also took the opportunity to drop off some repairs to a local sewing shop- the odd rip and tear - much to the amusement of the sewing ladies!
For our final afternoon we had a 3 hour cruise of the waterways by punt. It really was magical - we went past luxury houseboats (still a few out and about- mainly Indian tourists) smart day boats and local punts ferrying people & goods around the canals. The area seems to be a Communist stronghold - this party has long been in power- and we saw election posters for the local candidates everywhere. We drifted along in the lovely green light filtered through the trees at eye level with plant and bird life. There were lots of water hyacinths which whilst attractive are actually a real menace as they aren't native & clog up the canals.
It was interested going under the little bridges and seeing people doing their washing and preparing food in the river. Again this has probably remained unchanged for centuries.
Alleppey was a great place to chill out for a couple of days but as at Friday 15 May we are about to head on to our next destination the Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary - where we're really hoping to see some elephants - and maybe even a tiger!!