Rural Venice: the backwaters of Kerala

Kerala’s backwaters smell unlike any other part of India we’ve been to. The crisp salt water breeze of the ocean and canals blends with the monsoon’s ambient humidity into a sort of lazily clean scent. Fish abound on restaurant menus and homes. A network of narrow, shallow channels chop up the land for a 100 kilometer stretch along the coast, creating a maze of saltwater that works its way inland, supporting fishermen and a mild climate year-round.

“Venice of the East” is the moniker given to Alleppey, the city that serves at gateway to this watery world. We spend an evening in town awaiting a train, but three days in the more rural network of canals connecting villages and rice paddies.

To call the area Asia’s answer to Venice isn’t wrong, exactly, but it doesn’t quite capture the fishing canoes carved from jackfruit tree wood, the striped black and white snakes undulating through green water, the noise of cows and goats and birds calling out into the humid air. It’s a rural Venice. A tropical Venice. A Venice where all the food is seasoned with coconut and you can spend less on three meals, a comfortable room and a two-hour canoe ride than you’d pay for half an hour with a gondolier.

We started in Kochi, the port city illustrated in guidebooks by graceful pictures of Chinese fishing nets suspended just above water in the harbor at sunset. The old historical part of the city is technically an island, with a few bridges stretching to a mainland dominated by tall buildings and shopping malls. It’s not really part of the backwaters, which stretch further south, but it has the same ocean-tropical feel to its wide streets, and a sea breeze that does more to quell my homesickness than any American fast food ever could.

Chinese fishing net in the Kochi harbor

The Dutch came to Kochi before the British, and the city’s centuries of immigration and foreign influence show in its religious diversity (48 percent Hindu, with the rest split about evenly between Christians and Muslims). A sizeable Jewish population settled here around 70 AD following the Roman destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, though many of their descendants left for Israel.

A four-hundred year old synagogue still stands, though its interior is less grandiose than the mosques and temples we’ve been inside. Inside, an old man sits scowling at the tourists, mostly Indian, who venture inside and wags his finger at me when I pull out my phone. I had been hoping to search Wikipedia for a brief history of Jews in India but resign myself to ignorance until lunch. When we leave, we find someone has stolen the umbrella our homestay family lent us for the day.

Close by, there’s a palace with faded but impressive murals showing scenes from the Ramayana, plus placards narrating the history of Kochi and its royalty. The monarchy was matrilineal, I learn, and royal women commonly went around topless until Europeans showed up with their civilizing anti-nipple influence. I’m tempted to argue wearing a shirt is prudent in a climate with so many mosquitos, but the next few days teach me that even seemingly foolproof precautions only go so far. If there’s an upper limit to the number of mosquito bites you can get on your breasts in Kerala, I have yet to discover it.

Spencer and I are given to being lazy tourists, less interested in sightseeing than wandering around, ducking into strange alleys and hiding under awnings when the rains pick up. We find ourselves in a spice shop waiting out a torrential monsoon rain and part with 1100 rupees after a kind, professional and insistent saleswoman helps us fill our basket with sandalwood soap, green tea and star anise. We walk along the beachfront, where half a dozen people stop us to ask where we’re from. We take snapshots of murals and invent personalities for so many goats that we contemplate starting a “Goats of Kerala” blog to parody Humans of New York. We enter a bookshop and leave an hour later with eight more volumes to add to our quickly growing backpacks.

"Yeah, I'm eating grass from a fancy hotel. What are you going to do about it?" -Goat
“Yeah, I’m eating grass from a fancy hotel. What are you going to do about it?” -Goat

Three days in Kochi and we’re off again, to a backwaters homestay near Kottayam. The bus takes two and a half hours to reach the town, and an autorickshaw takes us the rest of the way. Roads turn to mud a few kilometers before our host’s front gate. George, an energetic 60 year old man, bounds out and shows us to our room – a separate block from his house overlooking a massive rice paddy. “Welcome home,” he says.

This is where there are backwaters, not just waters. Two lines of houses are separated by narrow dirt roads, then a canal through the middle. Stone steps on either side descend into the brackish water, where women wash clothes and men bathe wearing dhotis, the traditional skirt-like cloth worn by most Keralan men that Gandhi made iconic in the west. In the morning, a man paddles down the canal near our house in a small canoe, calling out in Malayalam. He’s a fisherman-cum-traveling salesman letting neighbors know about the day’s catch.

Rice paddies - the view from our homestay.
Rice paddies – the view from our homestay.

Over meals, we talk to George about the homestay business, which he’s been running for 13 years and swap tidbits about weather and politics in our native states. He attributes Kerala’s good government and health to its excellent education system, for which he thanks foreign influence.

I’ve noticed individual explanations for Keralan prosperity tend to align closely with personal opinions about the rest of the world. George is a former guard for the Sultan of Oman who spent much of his working life around Brits and hosts only foreign tourists. (Indians, he says, don’t understand the homestay concept and expect five-star luxury regardless of the price they pay for a room). Scholars I read in college said Kerala’s success is largely due to its Communist influences. Another Christian homestay family said the state is healthy and well-educated because it’s blessed with good weather and climate.

For two days, we go for short walks and a boat ride, looking at the jagged lily pads in the water, appreciating the cooling effect of the rains and playing basic English tutor to every child (and the few adults) who calls out, “Hello-where-you-from?” as we glide past their homes. (One especially ambitious boy yells, “Hello-how-are-you-I-am-well-thank-you” in a single breath.)

Our laundry dries slowly and we take dozens of pictures of coconut palms and beautiful flowers we can’t name. The power cuts in and out, so we sit on our covered porch and read while trying to fend off mosquitoes and wasps. And then we pack up our spices and our books and board a bus to take us to a train, which winds around the mountains and on to our last stop in Madurai before we begin the long journey home.