Kumarakom / Alleppey : Reflections on Backwater Bliss
Alleppey Travel Blog› entry 250 of 268 › view all entries
[ Disclaimer : Any budding botanists, ornithologists, linguists and pedants please bear with me on this one as I play fast, loose and incorrect with many a spelling, species and observation. It’s a truth I often point out to myself that not only am I an atrocious linguist in the true, communicative sense of the pursuit but also in my paucity of the broader descriptive languages of the world such as the nomenclature of flora and fauna. Most names attributed to animals and plants observed in the following entry are merely dodgy transliterations of things half-heard from my friendly guides Monachan and Sernan, often from their Malayali names and further presupposing that they know a) what I’m talking about when I make enquiries and b) actually know the correct answer themselves.
The paddle breaks the water. The sun breaks the horizon line. The sun hits the water. The paddle breaks the sun. It reforms in peach slice ripples and shivers and swims on uninterrupted into the sky. Monachan and I in our 'dachoot' canoe made of the wood of the 'small jack fruit' tree move in silence through the glassy waters at the bidding of his coconut palm bark oar.
Many small fish congregate in the shallows at the lake and canal fringes.
The far shore of the lake is not visible. Black cormorants dressed like undertakers in their long black coat and tails also have the appearance of bedraggled, closed umbrellas. They perch upon any protuberance above the waterline they can find. A fishing pot marker. A buoy. The ghostly limb of a sunken tree. When the sun is higher they and their cousins the snake birds - whose long sinuous necks give them their name - will stretch their wings out like lacquered Chinese fans to dry off following forays into the weedy depths for food.
Houseboats resembling weaver birds' nests or wicker and bamboo Chinese fish traps with their woven palm frond exteriors slumber in the misty morning. Well paying guests not ready to rise. Monachan paddles along the shoreline pointing out birds for me. A quick blue flash. A kingfisher darts to the water, hovers, muscular little wings a blur, stubby little tail flicking up and down, and then flits back to his branch. Successful or not he appears to grin with his oversize beak. I love these birds but have rarely seen them in Britain. A rarer sight and exclusive to the countryside. Here in India, a land where necessity dictates to man and beast alike, I have seen them almost anywhere there's a sizeable body of water.
We turn away from the lake and back into a wide inland heading water channel. More islands of piyel plants hover upon the mirror that surrounds us. These buoyant green lily-like plants heavily populate the backwaters of Kerala often behaving like weeds, clogging and sometimes utterly choking the smaller canal ways. Sometimes old water-logged canoes lean, foundering into their grasp. Ship wrecks sunk in emerald treasures. Moving through such patches of growth I must grab my paddle and assist. Forcing our way through this floating garden. Amidst the piyel a depressing prevalence of deceased plastic bottles and, oddly, throughout the day a noticeable tally of discarded light bulbs float.
Dragonflies are busy buzzing me. They hover in the heat haze in great profusion, a myriad miniscule mirages. Whole lace-winged heli-squadrons constructed of fine enamel work and glass. Sun beam chasing casings of copper and gold and pearlescent blues and greens. Flighty filaments of colour. Delicate little clockwork dreams crafted under a master jeweller's magnifying glass. Their shadows, larger and easier to spot than those that cast them, flit and dance across every object and surface. They fall across lilies and dust and tarmac and rust and corrugated metal roofs and cattle and crops and wooden fences. They fall across friends, neighbours, traders and labourers chatting outside tea stalls and 'toddy' bars and over rickshaws and boats and grass-swaddled drunks all slumbering in the afternoon heat.
The bunched salmon pink flowers that one of the dragonflies alights upon are the 'chethi' flowers used often in puja rites of village temples. Monachan is quick to point these small shrines out as we pass and we visit that of his village. As is often the case throughout India, Shiva worship predominates. He was a rural God ( ‘Rudra’ ) of the agricultural communities in origin. Modest in scale though these shrines be, many are only part way finished as construction is paid for virtually one brick at a time as and when the villages collective means permit.
A buffalo's head rises lazily out of the tightly woven carpet of piyel plants and floating grasses. Cooling in brackish waters. He lifts his nostrils high. His fat flattened horns curling, his neck and back receding in a bristly black 'V' shape tapering into the water. Upon him stands a white necked crane. The buffalo wonders what you're staring at whilst you wonder what it's doing there and if the crane's its friend. You will often observe white egrets strutting alongside buffaloes and cows in India, or perched upon their backs as the latter crop and chew the landscape and I wonder what is the purpose of their relationship? To gossip and whisper conspiracies in the paddy fields? They're so nervous when you raise a camera after all.
We weave through patches of lilies. The rubbery crenulated circumferences of their pads, veins radiating out from the centre, stretched wide to draw the sun's strength down into their submerged bodies. Their beautiful pink blooms, like coral-carved crowns atop their rigid regal stalk pedestals, others much smaller like furry white six-petal snow flakes open early in the morning, grow wide and wider still until having drunk their fill of daylight they close up again come evening. Eight o’clock or thereabouts says Monachan. The rhythm of beauty. As our ferry courses to Alleppey the bow wave we throw up constantly chasing us along the canal bank disturbs the lily patches like a strong wind rifling through trees.
An enormous flock of chirruping mallard chicks, the population of an open water duck farm strain their tiny bodies through the water towards our ferry as it bears down upon them, fooled into thinking it some mythically sized Mother Duck, but realise their error just in time and turn and chirrup back towards shore. Cheap-cheap! Paddle paddle, splash-splash. Glug-glug, gurgle sputter-splutter the bilge pump pipe mutters. Their little feathered brown-gold pollen spore bodies scattered by our breeze. Further up ahead the dark-brown winged forms of kites glide on thermals above our passage and flocks of bronze, white headed eagles with umber-tipped wings and small white gulls (or are they terns?) perch in the palm trees and upon Chinese fishing nets that sit like giant water spiders in the now wide open waterway, ready to swoop and catch any fish that escape the fishermen's nets.
Monachan reaches down into the water as we row along and plucks out a small green sphere. I am encouraged to do the same. These are sour mangoes. Warm to the touch from these amniotic waters with the promise of sweetness to come. Fallen prematurely for they will not be ripe until June he says. Edible nevertheless, we happily chew away. The stones once discarded sending ripples wide. Be wary though of the ‘karnika’ tree whose leaves and fruit bear great resemblance to that of their mango cousin yet whose bounty is poisonous and used in much ayurvedic medicine. Look out for the small white star blossoms that give it away.
A woodpecker with a bright red cap and black back dusted with gold taps a beat upon his tree.
We stop for a ’toddy’ break. The misty white alcoholic distillation favoured by the locals here. Tapped from coconut trees by severing a palm frond limb and patching the wound with a clay pot to catch the exuding milky resin. It’s too early for a tipple for me and alcohol at this time has all but disappeared from my travel diet but I feel I must show willing. ‘This very kick!‘ explains Monachan. Meaning potent as it’s yesterdays batch. Not fresh. A little over fermented. Sure enough I have to realign my eyeballs after each sip, but do so until the glass is dry. We sit and drink and watch paddy field workers as they and their raggedy scarecrows fail to scare the crows.
Aside from the parade of small natural wonders the real pleasure of Keralan backwater excursions is the comfortable and candid observances of canal-village life that one can take in in these slow canoe perambulations.
Men bathe waist deep, white soap from top to torso to river. Young lads somersault into the canals happy that school and labour are out for the day. An impossibly perched cricket match ensues on a strip of land no more than five metres wide. Defensive blocks a speciality. The youth of India are adept at converting any topographical circumstance to serve their favourite game. I encourage one lad to ’pull one to the boundary!’ Young boys and girls fish with salvaged threads of nylon baited with thick white grains of Keralan rice or suddenly rear their heads up out of the waters where they were swimming unnoticed like pygmy hippos coming up for air. Their grins and nostrils flaring. One girl splashes all the way across to hand me a bloom and giggles and swims back to shore.
Behind all these little scenes sit the peoples’ homes. Though I know none of the ins and outs of the social history of these communities or how the land for them was formed or reclaimed; reclaimed it has been, though so voraciously fecund is the lush watered green Keralan landscape here that a constant war of attrition must be fought between Man’s and Nature’s mutual need of space. Tucked one besides the other along the narrow canal embankments, squat bungalow homes sit pretty, often painted in bright, almost gaudy, pastel colours so as to defy the universal green palette of the large drooping banana tree leaves and creeping sharpened fingers of coconut palm fronds that reach out to tickle them.
The brick and concrete mainframes of the homes are built up on a foundation, a foot or two high, of stronger less porous stone for when the monsoon comes the rivers and their canal tributaries swell, burst and flood all the land about. The paddy plantations are submerged ushering in temporary unemployment. This being Sernan’s second seasonal job ( 200 Rupees / £2.70 a day for 6 hours of backbreaking labour under the sun) when the tourists down paddles and disappear leaving him without the 400 Rupees / £5.30 per gig, from the 1,000 Rupees / £13 I pay his boss for an 8 hour trip today and that he martyrs his heavily paddle-calloused hands to whenever he can.
But sometimes it’s just hard to take your eyes away from the waters within which all this natural and social vibrancy find their mirrored reflections. I get quite hypnotised by these visions of a green sunken world. As if the whole planet, parched by an overbearing sun had taken the plunge for a swim.
Often in these marshy backwater lands (if ‘land’ be the right word?) it’s often tricky to tell where solid earth ends and the ubiquitous waters begin. The colour green is continuous whatever its foundation be and the many splay footed birds that make this environment their home strut from one to the other without a falter in their step. Though of course the statuesque presence of herons usually indicates the hope of fish below.
[AFTERWORD 12/07/2010 : In response to my Disclaimer I received the following response and information from my travel pal John, a keen Ozzy Twitcher whom I knew would be watching my words with eagle eyes and ready to fill us in :
Sorry about this but I reckon you invited it!
Faun Heron: Definitely Indian Pond Heron.
Black Cormorants: Probably Little Cormorants.
Snake Bird: Colloquial term for Darter.
Kingfisher: You mentioned it hovered which indicates Pied Kingfisher a black and white kingfisher.
White-necked Crane: No cranes in Kerala, possible Asian Openbill or Woolly-necked Stork.
White Egret: All Egrets are white but would have to be a Cattle Egret.
Dark brown winged form of Kite on thermals: More than likely Black Kite. Did it have a forked tail?
Bronze, white headed Eagles with umber tipped wings: Brahminy Kite.
White Gulls: Would have been Terns as you say, Possibly Whiskered Terns. Terns are tricky.
Woodpecker with bright red cap etc: Possible Black-rumped Flameback.
Kujuvee bird: Greater or Lesser Racket-tailed Drongo.
Black-necked Crane; Possible Black-necked Stork. A good bird.
Purple Heron; Purple Heron.
Some great birding Steve. Most travellers are oblivious to these gorgeous creatures.'