Saturday, June 9, 2012

Let the vacation begin! Alleppey.



We wrapped up work yesterday so today formally began the vacation part of this trip for me!

One of our colleagues, Pete, left for home last night and another, Shri, headed to the airport this morning. I'm spending the day with two of my colleagues, Chris and Mai. Yesterday, one of our Indian colleagues, Sandeep had arranged for us to do a backwaters cruise so that's the game plan for today. It is monsoon season here so the skies are always a bit overcast but there was hint of sun as well. It looked like it would be a nice day to be on the water.


We wrapped up breakfast at 9a, said our goodbyes to Shri and waited outside the front entrance of the hotel for the car and driver to come by and pick us up.

Car and driver arrived in due course and we piled in for the short ride to go pick up Sandeep and his wife.

Sandeep and his wife live inside a gated apartment complex - looked like a very nice place. Sandeep had recently returned to Kerala to get married and so we were meeting his wife for the first time. Impressions? Praneesha or Neesha as she prefers to be called is very pretty, not shy, seems like a very smart, confident, modern Indian woman. On the ride, Neesha showed Mai and I pictures from their wedding day. They make for a very cute couple!  By the way, I'm guessing on how her name is spelled - I hope it's correct!

It would take us about a hour and a half to get to Alleppey which is a popular launch point for backwater cruises. I kicked back and enjoyed the scenery along the way - lots of small country villages. The roads in Kerala are very good and so it was a smooth ride - except for the occasional honking of horns that is so integral to driving in India.


Traffic here is not quite as chaotic as that in either Delhi or Mumbai....or maybe it is and I just don't notice it as much as I've gotten used to it. Amazing how quickly you can get accustomed to life in a foreign place.

Today was Saturday so by the time we arrived into Alleppey, it seemed like the rest of India had as well. The streets were packed with locals going about their weekend routine as well as tourists headed for the boats.

Our driver pulled into a small parking lot that fronted the dock. I could see the boats all lined up.

We piled out of our van to wait for another of our Indian colleagues, Om, and his wife and daughter to arrive. I was already looking forward to the boat ride and it was going to be even more fun with Sandeep, Om and their families coming along.

And luckily for me, Om is a budding photographer and brought along his Nikon dSLR as well.  So, the photos for this posting are a combination of ones taken by me, by Om and by Om's wife using his camera :-)  

It was just a few minutes wait before Om and his wife, Ganeesha, (sp?) and their 5 year old daughter arrived. After we did the round of intros, we followed Om to the boat. We boarded one by one. We were all in for quite a surprise. I was expecting a boat. You, something with bench seats that could sit 8 people. There would be a place for the captain to steer the boat. We'd have to don bright orange colored safety vests, You know, something like the boats that weekenders take out for short trips on the water.




Instead, we had a true houseboat! It had a large seating area, a dining area, two full bedrooms with attached bathrooms and a kitchen at the back.
























We had a captain, a deckhand and a cook! Looking around, it pretty much seemed like all the boats were this massive size. I know smaller ones exist; maybe they dock in another location.

Shortly after we boarded, a family came on board. I presumed they ware joining us but Om said that they were actually headed to the boat that was moored behind ours. Apparently, we had this huge boat all to ourselves!!

Like a choreographed dance, all the boats started to push off at pretty much the same time. It was a race to see who could get to the back waters first. The boats were all crammed into the dock so it cooperation from our neighboring boats as well as careful maneuvering by our captain to get us out into the open water.





The houseboats are known as kettuvallams and they have a very distinctive look - dark wooden bottom with a woven thatched top. I saw a few that even had an upper deck.








When I had read about the backwaters, I thought we would be boating along narrow canal ways. They were anything but narrow. The waters we were cruising on were so expansive that at times, it felt like we were on the open ocean - I couldn't see the other side of the shore line.






We cruised along between two narrow strips of land. According to Om, the water beyond the canals, were actually rice paddy fields. Small houses dotted the narrow strip and there was a path that ran along the length of the land. Women were at water's edge doing their daily laundry. Every now and again, there would be a store or restaurant. Those narrow strips of land were villages unto themselves.





























Smaller canals veered off the main one. At intersection points, there were *street* signs indicating direction and distance to the next nearest town, a reminder that these waterways are still being used as a transportation pipeline for the local residents in this area.






We motored along the waters slowly and in no time, everyone was settling back and enjoying the experience. Snacks and drinks soon appeared. Conversation filled the air.




Our gracious hosts - Sandeep on the left and Om on the right





















Nosy as always, I ventured back into the kitchen to see how lunch was coming along. There was a pot of something stewing and fish was being fried in another pan. It was shaping up to be a good meal!







At one point, our boat captain pointed the boat towards shore and in minutes, we were docked alongside a local restaurant. Sandeep, Om and Chris all got off. Apparently, this was the place to pick up a bottle of toddy, the local alcoholic beverage of choice.


Sandeep pouring out some toddy





Here, coconuts are plentiful and locals have learned to ferment the juice into toddy. I don't drink but I've been told it can be potent. 









Om also bought some mussels that had been stir fried with chilies, spices, and bits of coconut meat. Thin slices of raw onion garnished the dish. Now, those were absolutely addictive!! I kept eating one spoonful after another. The mussel meat was very small, about the size of a cherrystone clam, and not at all salty.  Had I known how tasty these little morsels would be, I would have asked Om to buy a second helping....for my late night snack later on :-)







The ride was so relaxing and I just wanted to take in as much of the experience as I could.















The boat captain once again steered the boat towards shore and shut off the motor. Already docked around us were a few other boats. Apparently, this was a popular spot for lunch which soon appeared from the kitchen.







Dish after dish of scrumptious Indian food. It's amazing what came of the little kitchen in the back of the boat!


I'm not shy, I dug right in and I enjoyed every single bite!  So did every one else.  As so often happens, the moment the eating begins, the talking stops :-)





















Sandeep and Praneesha. 





After lunch, I decided to try my hand at a bit of fishing. Sandeep appeared with a piece of bamboo that had a nylon sting tied to it; at the end was a small hook. Bait is just a small pieice of dough. I headed to the back of the boat where the deck hand already had his line in. In his bucket was a handful of tiny fish - no more than 4 or 5 inches in length. I found my spot to drop my line in. In less than a handful of minutes, the deck hand had pulled up another handful of fis h. Looked promising but alas, it was not to be for me. No luck.....not even a nibble.  Chris showed up and kept me company and even he gave up waiting for me to yank up anything.  After a while, I called it quits and headed back to join the rest of the gang.






With bellies full, the captain got us underway again and we glided along our way. It was a warm afternoon and there was a gentle breeze blowing - perfect conditions for an afternoon nap and soon, folks starting nodding off. The boat fell quiet. I'm not a nap person so I kept my eyes on the waterways, daydreaming to pass the time. It was a lazy afternoon.








At one point, we cruised past a small church - situated on a narrow strip of land jutting out into the water.










We slowly motored along.  There was a warm breeze blowing and it had been a hazy day all day.


While I was daydreaming and other's napping, Om's ever so cute little daughter occupied herself by drawing.






The cook never stops working!  Our afternoon snack of fried banners appeared. Cumin seeds flavored the batter. Amazing how the irresistible smell of food wakes people up.















All the nappers came to life!













By late afternoon, we were cruising back to dock. Soon, we were in the Kerala backwaters version of a traffic jam. The captain really had to pay attention as faster boats passed us and as we passed slower boats. There was the occasional sound of a warning horn. The closer to the dock we got, the more boats were around us. It was like a race to the finish line.






As each boat neared dock, it found itself a space. Our captain did the same and he expertly maneuvered the boat into a slot.



Back on shore, we prepared to disembark. Sandeep and Om refused to take any payment from Chris, Mai or I so we tipped the captain, deck hand and cook. Earlier, Om had told us that this is a very popular time of year to do backwater cruises so he was able to book the boat because he knew the captain. We had the advantage of having an insider arrange this for us so we decided to make sure we left good tips for the three men.

It was a short walk back to the parking lot and there we gave our thanks and said our goodbyes to Om, his wife and daughter.

We piled back into the car and made our way back to Kochi. Soon, we had arrived back at the hotel and it was time to give our thanks to Sandeep and Neesha.

It was so hospitable of Sandeep and Om to have arranged and organized the backwaters cruise for us and I will forever have wonderful memories of the day.

It was also our time to say goodbye to Chris who was heading off to the airport to begin his journey home.

Mai and I rested for about an hour before heading back out for dinner. Per suggestion from the concierge, we hired a car and driver to take back to the Taj Malabar hotel where we had had our last team dinner last night. Mai and I had a very nice buffet dinner and by the time I got back to our hotel, I was beat. I was asleep the minute my head hit the pillow. It had been a great day!