Friday, June 15, 2012

Backwater cruise down the Neyyar River.


I had told Vinod to be back at the Leela Hotel at 1p but by 11:30a, I was ready to go so I went ahead and checked out. I had the receptionist call Vinod for me and as it turned out, he was already waiting for me somewhere nearby. Less than 10 minutes later, I saw him pulling up to the front door.


We greeted each other with smiles and I got in the backseat. It was good to see his familiar face.

Not more than a few minutes into the ride before Vinod turned out to look at me and utter another one of the one word questions that had become a hallmark of conversation between he and I. "Boating?" I replied, "yes" and nodded my head. In the "Things to See and Do" guide in room, I had read about some interesting palaces to go and see. I figured it would be a long shot with Vinod but I decided to give it a try. "Palace?" No respone from Vinod. One more time. "Palace?" Still no response. I decided that he didn't understand the word so boating it was.

I had no idea where we had to go or how long it would take to get there. Again, my day was in Vinod's hands. Vinod rewound his music selection to once again play his interpretation of what someone who speaks English wants to hear. I am now trapped in the rap/techno/pop mobile :-)

After more than 6 hours of being in the car with Vinod yesterday, I had long grown accustomed to his style of driving which I think would be considered cavalier even by Indian standards. There's a lot of darting in and out of lanes and honking of horn - Vinod is your typical Indian driver!

The road we were on was far narrower than the one we traveled over yesterday and the villages far smaller. We were headed somewhere remote.

The day was still sunny and I hoped that it would hold up for the boat ride - I don't relish the thought of being on the water in a thundering rainstorm....at least not the monsoon force rains they have here.

Just around 1pm, a little over an hour from the time that we left the Leela, Vinod, pulled off the road into the parking lot for the Leela Backwater. I recognized the name from the pamphlet that Vinod had shown me yesterday.

I had barely stepped foot out of the car before a man approached me and asked me if I wanted to go on a boat cruise. I asked if he could explain what the options were and he led me to a small table where he proceeded to tell me that since I was boating by myself, my options were reduced down to just one - a small motor boat. Price was 1600 rupee for a 2 hour ride. That was probably expensive by Indian standards but it was in my affordable range so I agreed to the ride.

The two hour ride would take me up and down the Neyyar River and into some of the narrower channels. The Neyyar River empties into the Arabian Sea and along the ride, we would also pass by Poovar Island which is situated very close to the mouth of the river. Poovar is a popular holiday destination for local Indians though this, being monsoon season, means that many establishments are either shuttered up or have cut back on services.

This is definitely low season because two minutes after I said yes, I was already on board the boat and reaching into my wallet to pay the guy. I asked my boat driver's name and of course, promptly forgot it because again, not an Indian name that is familiar to me. He seems like a nice, young man though and as we pushed off from the dock, I just hoped he was less cavalier a boat driver than Vinod was a car driver :-)






The sunny was still shining brilliantly overhead and we barely moved over the water at a speed above snail's pace. I was in for a slow ride.













We passed under a bridge and soon, we left all signs of urban life behind. We were just surrounded by the lush tropical landscape that surrounds the Neyyar River.






We slowly motored along and every now and again, the boat driver would point out a bird species to me. I saw eagles, kingfishers and cormorants. I asked if there were crocodiles in the river and the boat driver smiled and replied that there were only fish. Whew!



















 Tall coconut palms dominated the landscape.









We headed down one of the narrower canal ways. Here, the coconut palms gave way to trees with limbs hanging down just a few feet above the water. Birds fluttered back and forth between the trees; there was the occasional, brave cormorant perched on a tree stump just a few feet away from our boat.



 Local residents, living at the water's edge, were going about life's daily business - men fishing, women pounding laundry against rocks, young men lathering up and bathing. One enterprising vendor was even selling fresh coconut juice from his canoe that was moored just offshore. Life is slow paced and relaxed here.

 


Just as we neared the broad waters of the mouth of the river, the skies darkened....threatening rain. I kept my fingers crossed that the clouds would blow off but no such luck. Light rain drops soon turned to pelting rain and even though I was sitting under a nylon canopy, I was getting wet. I looked back at the boat driver and the poor guy was getting drenched.

He navigated our small boat under the protection of the tree canopy and we waited for the heavy rain to stop before resuming our ride.



The water channel soon got broader - to our left was Poovar Island and on our right, something that looked like a massive sandbar; on the far side of the sand, the ferocious waves of the Arabian Sea were crashing on shore. There were small wooden boats parked on the sand and a handful of people walking about.

 




We motored towards the sandbar and as we neared, the boat driver shut off the motor and we drifted til we were stopped by the sand. A another, larger boat, was already beached a few feet away. It's passengers had wandered off, presumably to catch better views of the surf.
The rain had started back up so I was barely out of the boat for a minute before I was back in it. A few feet from our boat, there was a group of 4 Indian boys - teenagers, I'm guessing - swimming nearby. They were a curious lot, asking me where I was from and what my name was. I made them guess the country of origin which, since I made up the country name, I knew they would never guess - Chilaysia. It was the country that Lei and I came up with when we were traveling in Turkey. Of course, when I asked them if they knew where Chilaysia was, they all nodded :-)

One of the boys was more curious on the others. He actually hoisted himself up on the edge of the boat and I saw him eyeing at my backpack that I had placed, in front of my feet, under the bow (??) of the boat. I quickly used my leg to push the bag further under the bow and kept my leg there so he could not reach in and lift out the bag. He saw my actions, dropped back down into the water and swam back over to his friends. You have to be ever so vigilant when you travel even with the most innocent of looking faces.

The boat driver started the motor back up and we headed off. Located nearby the sandbar was a cross mounted on a rock standing in the water; nearby that, on a short and narrow promontory that jutted out into the ocean, was a statue of the Virgin Mary and Jesus and nearby that was yet another cross atop a rock.



 The boat driver steered the boat near all three places so I could have a good views of all three which served as reminders to me that Kerala is a predominantly Christian state.




We motored alongside the shoreline of Poovar Island and passed by barely a handful of resorts most of which looked empty. A floating restaurant stood, patron free, a short distance from shore.





We continued our ride up one of the canals that run off the Neyyar River. More birds to be seen; even a small flock of ducks.

Eventually, we had to turn around and head back. Instead of returning the same way that we had come, my boat driver took us down a different set of canals. By now, the scenery was familiar to me and I found myself just staring out into the distance, not focusing on anything in particular.



The constant drone of the boat's motor providing hypnotic white noise and in no time, I turned to daydreaming to pass the time.

Before I knew it, we were back to where we started. I waved to Vinod as the boat pulled into dock. I tipped my boat driver and headed back towards the car. Two hours had indeed elapsed since I last sawVinod.

Back on solid ground, one of the guys working at the boathouse, handed both Vinod and I small plastic cups filled with a hot concoction called payasam. The guy said something about someone in their area winning some sort of an election and the payasam was made in celebration of the occasion. The payasam was hot so I carefully took a sip. It was a sweet dessert that had the consistency of a thick pudding. Condensed milk is a popular dessert ingredient here so I was guessing that that was the base of the payasam. There were nuts, cardamom and other bits of things I could not make out. I have to admit that after the first sip, I wasn't sure I was going to have a second sip but I did and after a few more tastes of the payasam, it started to grew on me. By the time I finished my cup's worth, I wished I could've had more. Luckily, there are plenty of payasam recipes on the web so I can try my hand at making it when I get home.

Back on the road, we continued on our journey back to Smitha's house. I settled back in to my seat for the long ride back. I figure it would take us at least 6 hours and it was already a late start for us.

Somewhere in time, Vinod turned back and uttered another one word question, "lunch?" I wasn't hungry having stuffed my face at breakfast and then topped it off with the payasam. It was close to 4p and I didn't know if Vinod had eaten anything all day and most certainly he needed the energy for the drive so I answered, "yes". Who says you need sentences to communicate? :-)
 
I have no choice but to leave it in Vinod's hands to decide where we eat. I wonder how he chooses where we stop? He pulled over into another small parking lot and backed the car into a space. I got out, locked the door and followed him inside the building. The sign read, "B Six Inn". It was obvious the restaurant was not on the first floor. Vinod pressed the elevator button to go up but I just motioned for us to walk up the stairs. Two flights later and we saw the restaurant. We entered and took a table near the front window which overlooked the parking lot. Except for a couple of waiters wandering in and out of the room and a cleaning woman going about her work of sweeping the floor, Vinod and I were the only two people in the entire place.

The waiter must have taken one look at me and decided we needed English menus. He plopped two down in front of us. I don't think Vinod reads English so he just asked the waiter questions before placing his order for chicken spring rolls.....which in India look nothing like the Chinese spring rolls that I grew up eating. I have yet to try and Indo-Chinese spring roll but I'm pretty certain they don't taste anything like the ones I grew up with either. Vinod had ordered from the snack menu so he mustn't have been as hungry as I imagined he would be. I also ordered from the snack menu - veg pakoras.

As we waited for our food to arrive, I decided to give conversation with Vinod another try. This time, more than one word exchanges. It went something like this. I kicked things off. "Wife. Name?" Vinod replied with a name but again, not a name I could easily remember.

"Wife. Photo?"

"Yes. Mobile. Car." Good man, Vinod. Has a photo of his wife stored on his phone.

"Wife. Work?"

"Yes." Vinod attempted to tell me what she did for a living but he obviously didn't know the word in English to describe her job as he replied in Malayalam.

"Wife. Work today?

"Yes."

Conversation fell dead after that brief exchange of words. Silence fell between us as we waited for our food to arrive. The waiter soon appeared with our food, a cup of tea for Vinod and a bottle of iced cold water for me. I didn't need the water so we sent that back. My veg pakora turned out to be paneer pakora which was fine by me as it wasn't worth having to sending it back to the kitchen and then having to wait for another eternity for the food to come back.

Vinod's chicken spring roll looked tasty; the waiter came back with small containers of condiments for dipping.

There wasn't much to my pakora - just a handful of small pieces so I was able to easily eat it all. Vinod's plate of chicken spring rolls was too much for him so he only ate one piece of four; asking the waiter to pack up the rest for him to take home - Indian doggy bag :-)

The bill came and I picked up the tab - 240 rupee for the two of us. Pricier than breakfast but still very, very affordable.

When we got back to the car, Vinod proudly showed me the picture of his wife - he hadn't forgotten to do this. I saw very pretty woman standing next to a very handsome man; they make a very cute couple.

By the time we got back on the road, it was close to 4p and according to Vinod, we had about 240 km to go. I estimated it would take us about 6 hours on the roads we were traveling.

I wanted to take back to Smitha's house as a gesture of thanks to her and her family for letting me stay with them and so I decided that I would buy some fruit. There were plenty of roadside vendors selling fruit but the challenge was to get Vinod to stop at one.

I kept my eyes on the road ahead and when I saw us coming up to a fruit stand, I quickly tapped Vinod on the shoulder several times.

"Mango. Buy. Stop!"

Vinod understood but by the time he hit the brakes, we were past the stand. He threw the car into reverse and backed up. Good man.

I got out and with the help of Vinod and the two women running the stand, I managed to buy several kilos of different types of mango. I had no idea which ones were good tasting and sweet or not so I went on the word of the two women and Vinod. Crossing my fingers that they are tasty. 230 rupee for a plastic grocery bag filled to the brim with mangoes. What a deal!

Back on the road we went, mangoes sitting on the floorboard of thefront passenger seat.

Just before night fell, it started to rain and it never let up. The wet roads and glare of oncoming headlights made driving conditions difficult but Vinod was focused on the road and he took care to be safe.

Hours started to go by. Around 9p, I emailed Smitha to see if they had arrived back home. They were close but not quite there. I thought we were just a few kilometers away but it would be nearly an hour and half more before Vinod pulled into Smitha's driveway.

I could see lights on in the house. As we pulled up just short of the carport, Regi and his dad came out to greet us. It had been a long ride and I think both Vinod and I were glad that we had made it safely back.

Over our snack, I had asked Vinod if he would take me to the airport tomorrow. Of course, he was willing to do so. We settled on a 6a pick up time. I asked Regi to mention this again to Vinod to make sure he understood. Vinod had been very reliable so I had no doubt that he would be back in the morning to drive me to Kochi International Airport. I retrieved the bag of mangoes from the front seat, gave Vinod a generous tip and followed Regi and his father inside the house. I was glad to be *home*.

Smitha soon emerged from the bedroom and along with Regi, we compared notes and photos of our respective one night visits to beach resorts. They had a wonderful time - especially the kids.

Regi's family had kindly left out food on the dining table for me. I graciously declined their offer to bring a plate for me, telling them I was still full from our late afternoon snack break.

It was already getting late but before I called it a night, I wanted to make sure settled the outstanding bill for Vinod. Including the drive to the airport and minus the 2000 rupee that Smitha had already given to Vinod upfront, Regi calculated that I still owed 4110 rupee. Luckily, I had exchanged the currency this morning and I had enough to pay the balance. I still owed Smitha the 2000 rupee which she kindly said I could pay her when we're both back in the US.

Back in my room, I opened up the windows to let the cool night air in, spent a few minutes repacking my suitcase, took a shower, set my alarm for 5:30a and went to bed.

What a day it had been! Tomorrow, I begin my long journey back to the US.