We got a ride into town on the back of the bikes of the guys that ran the guesthouse, one of us on each bike. It was an exhilarating ride. Getting split up from one another, the boys, it seemed, were racing each other into town to see who could deliver their Englishman to the boat docks first. Whilst periodically passing each other across junctions and through chaotic, busy streets, it was hard to suppress the boyish urge to pretend to be shooting at one another or something.
The main reason tourists come to Alleppey is that it sits on the edge of dry land that peters out into the enormous freshwater swamps of the Kerala backwaters. Alternately consisting of manmade canals and farming systems alongside natural lagoons and jungles, the backwaters are home to numerous villages and communities that have fished and lived off the land for generations. Many of these communities are only reachable by boat and so naturally, bikes and rickshaws are useless here. Visitors can drift past houses sat right down on the water and watch old ladies beat washing in the sun, children playing on the banks and running alongside the boats, young men transporting loads of goods to and from the mainland and tourist transports overtaking our slow crawl.
We took a small, canopied canoe that carried a pair of plastic garden chairs. Our guide sat at the back with an impossibly small-looking oar whose lazy strokes took us quickly and silently out of the canal that ran through the town. Soon enough, the buildings fell away, the canal opened out and the vegetation thickened up. We passed the rotting hulks of various tourist barges that had sunk or degraded and taken on water, listing to a resigned heap while its successors glide past full of Indian and western tourists. The green algae had coated some of the older boats so that they appeared to almost blend into the foliage and reeds that lined the waterway.
Further out away from Allapey we began to see more and more of the broad, baguette-shaped houseboats that sat in grand clusters, side-by-side as smoke rose from the occasional chimney and the white buzz of the welding torch flickered over the waters. The more moneyed visitor rode these larger boats for days at a time up and down the backwaters, sometimes riding as far as Fort Cochin to the north or visiting the lesser-seen villages further away from the coast. The costs of the speciality cuisine, on-craft accommodation and the keep of the crew that ran the boats all added up to perhaps a realistic honeymoon but no backpacker pastime; the strange, wicker-basket like structures would remain an out-of reach pleasure for us.
We continued past the floating city of boats and split off from the open lake, up a narrow waterway that bordered a string of houses so closely I could have reached across and helped myself to the washing that hung out to dry. In the opposite direction squeezed a line of similar-sized three-person canoes, so that it felt like we were on a long conveyor belt, passing one-another for a brief few seconds apiece; enough time to regard one another with a quick smile and wave. Occasionally the vegetation that dangled down above us would rake the canopy above us and deposit leaves, twigs and yellow caterpillars in the lap of whichever one of us was at the front making a token effort at rowing. Similarly, the wild lilies and water reeds we glided over would thicken up and thin out periodically, so that the path ahead would appear blocked or solid. Our guide would pull a sharp turn into what looked to us like a bank, only to ease under a low awning and drag, squeaking against the hull, past the pink flowers and fat green leaves to another quieter avenue.
In and amongst these little alleyways that we traversed, we would occasionally see the side-to-side, back-and-forth wobble of a white-headed water snake and the distinctive trail they leave in the water as the speed past. Protruding from the deep green water in a rigid S-shape, the upper body of these long snakes would dart from movement to movement and then to a momentary stillness to contemplate their surrounding before moving off again – never too slow as to lose their momentum and sink beneath the waterline.
We passed one of these soggy serpents that had died in a funny little coil, floating amongst a tangle of reeds. Out of its mouth that was stretched as thick as a drainpipe protruded a large frog whose lifeless body was bulging like a squeezed balloon. The snake had attempted to swallow the frog, legs first. The real problem for the snake, though, was the fact that it had just successfully swallowed another frog the same size as the one that now protruded out of its mouth. This previous frog was now a shapeless bulge halfway down the snake’s neck. The only part of this second frog that was now visible was it’s back leg, which protruded from the greedy snake’s neck in a bloodless pink rip about an inch long. These two frogs had been too much for the snake to handle, and had, despite both being dead, killed their killer with teamwork. It was only the second frog trying to be squeezed down the snake’s gullet that had caused such pressure in the snake’s throat that the foot of the first victim had pierced the snake’s neck. It was a fable preaching the merits of teamwork and loyalty as much as a dangers of gluttony.
We stopped for tea and a snack at the house of the guide and spent a very special half-hour sat out on the riverbank. The narrow walkway that led away from his home and through the undergrowth gave the only real impression of a connection to the outside world, and the absence of honking horns or Indian bustle as well as the cool shade underneath the green leaves gave an amazing feel to the place. I suddenly felt an intense desire to spend the night in this place. Perhaps a houseboat wouldn’t be so expensive? The allure of the un-policed waterways and open swamp stretching for miles and miles was compelling. The degree of freedom that a boat, some food and money for an impromptu bed for the night could give was a prospect that was alien to me. I find that Britain, being such as small and regulated island, can easily create feelings of claustrophobia even in the most apparently open settings. I think I had found the antidote to that mindset here in the backwaters.
But time was ticking and we had only rented the canoe and our guide for half a day. Reluctantly, our guide let us take the helm and attempt to find our way back to Allapey, which, despite some dodgy rowing manoeuvres and almost getting plowed by a larger tour boat, we managed successfully- much to all of our amazement.
That evening we explored the other side of the enormous land-spit that Allapey turned out lie on; to the east lay the backwaters and to the west, the Arabian Sea. It’s crumbling, pleasure-beach promenade was another opportunity for some Indian people watching at its best. The ubiquitous holidaying Indian family was out in force, as was the small groups of Indian teenage boys, hanging off each others’ shoulders, all dressed up and no-where to go. Lone stalls dotted up and down the promenade selling hot nuts and ice-cream. Protruding into the choppy Arabian Sea crumbled a rusting pier whose walkways had long ago fallen into the sea. Upon the warm, damp breeze pulling out to sea hung a number of kites, silhouetted against the gathering dusk. And as night fell and the evening strollers gradually made their way off the beach, the dressed up families all gingerly crossed the railway line towards town, hitching sarees up around knees and stepping over the piles of rubbish that lined the tracks.