From Changanassery station I commandeered an auto-rickshaw to take me to the ferry landing stage, clearly an unusual request as it completely flummoxed the driver. At first thinking I wanted to go to Allapuzha (or Allepey) with him rather than to catch the boat to Allapuzha, he set off gamely along the main road westward, eventually stopping at a petrol station to question a car driver who had better English. Words like ‘boat’, and ‘ferry’ seemed to confuse matters further, but eventually we found the mutually-understood word ‘port’, a lightbulb moment occurred in the driver’s head and we headed back into town, deftly dodging death at the hands of larger and smaller vehicles. Through an attractive backstreet of wooden homes and warehouses, we came to the so-called ‘port’ – a sizeable expanse of un-broken water lillies, at the far side of which floated the picturesque, if rather battered wooden launch that should leave for Allaphuzha at 1pm, tied up beside a little gable-roofed terminal. The auto driver seemed overjoyed to have found the right place, charged me far less than I expected and responded to a not hugely-generous 10 rupee tip by asking, “Sir, what is your sweet name?” Given he was getting over 1,000 rupees less than his imagined trip to Allapuzha would have cost, it was all rather amicable.
On board, the ferry rather resembled an aged, open-windowed wooden bus, with a driver’s compartment up front and the engine sitting in pride-of-place in the middle of the vessel, in full view, guarded by low wooden fencing. There was a separate position here for the engineer to sit, with a throttle and a hand-operated bilge pump of the sort that sits decoratively on village greens in England. Somehow fastened onto the rear of the boat was a sort of corrugated iron shanty that held gender-segregated toilets. Without investigating, I can only assume that they connected very directly to the Keralan Backwaters. To begin with, my only fellow passengers were a couple of Indian families on a jolly, but as departure time approached, a few locals appeared at this slightly out-of-the-way spot to board for their journeys home.
With rather unlikely punctuality, we cast off, the captain ringing one bell for full-steam-ahead and we charged through the water lillies, round the corner and into a canal clogged with still more of the things. There was no clear water until we turned right, some five minutes later, into a broader, better used canal. Here we stopped and reversed to and fro for a bit to clear leaves and stems we had churned up from around the propeller and shaft, watched by quizzical goats at a small farm. Reasonably frequently, at the right time of year, the ferry simply cannot reach Changanassery because of the sheer volume of lillies – what was once a bustling commercial Backwaters port is now reduced to just a couple of ferry boats a day, nothing like enough to keep the plants at bay.
The ferry had a crew of five – captain, engineer, two deckhands and a conductor, who collected a fare so minimal that I considered paying twice to help the service’s viability. We trundled along the green canal, a stone dyke separating the channel from vast areas of flooded paddy fields, passing houses and a whitewashed convent. At the boat’s first stop, the waiting shelter doubled as a Christian shrine. Slowly, we overtook an old woman walking along the causeway using a banana leaf as a parasol; further along, some teenagers simultaneously minded some conked-out looking goats and much more lively ducks. The houses lining the canal grew fewer and more spaced apart – each house with its own dug-out canoe – and the palm trees denser. In places, the banks were completely colonised by huge flocks of ducks, their friends in the water scuttling from our rather limited bow wake.
At a little canalside village, accessible only by boat, we swapped a red sari-ed lady for a white doti-ed gentleman in a very efficient mooring manoeuvre during which the ferry barely stopped, before ploughing on west along the narrowing canal. The conductor snoozed, the deckhands read their papers – it was a lazy Sunday afternoon on the Backwaters. At Kidangara, we moored up to the bank and a deckhand ran off up the path with an empty plastic container, in search of toddy, the local palm wine produced more-or-less-legally throughout the Backwaters. He returned empty-containered: the prohibition on the sale of alcohol for a week either side of polling day was still in place and this cut-off little village was keeping to it strictly.
The ferry turned sharply around a church to join a canal heading north-west, echoing with the sound of laundry being beaten to within an inch of its life at almost every house along its banks. A bearded, be-gowned priest hopped aboard, resembling a Coptic priest in North Africa, though most likely from the local Syro-Malankara Catholic church, off on his Sunday rounds. He hopped off again, with remarkable agility, two stops up the line at the next church. Turnover of passengers was getting fast and frequent now and the conductor had to give up on dozing for a while, while our progress was punctuated by the captain’s bell signals to the engineer as we halted and pulled away from the frequent piers – so much bell ringing, that the priest probably felt very at home on board. Stops were super-efficient, matching the best Venetian vaparetto crew – indeed, take away the palm trees and this could resemble a waterbus route through some of the outer Lagoon islands. Just to complete the picture, in the bustling village of Kunnumma, whose centre seemed to be divided by the 100m wide canal, people were ferried between the two halves standing up in long canoes, traghetti-style.
After an hour-and-a-half of meandering the canals, we suddenly emerged into the ruler-straight, 200m wide Kodar River, running between areas newly reclaimed for agriculture, laid out in angular blocks – now less Venetian and more Dutch polder, though still with added palm trees. This vast area was uninhabited, barring the return of the huge duck flocks, so the ferry motored along non-stop at a good pace. Without warning, we were in a large, square lake, picking our way between the armadas of lumbering replica houseboats, some of them double-deck, hired out as mobile tourist accommodation from Allapuzha and all seemingly navigating south-eastwards as if of a single hive-like mind. Back in the canals beyond the lake, more houseboats streaming past, we were now clearly floating above the level of the neighbouring land, hemmed in by dykes on either side. Through the corner of a larger lake, still more stuffed with houseboats than the last, we tuned south towards Allapuzha, following the Pamba River. After the silent eastern Backwaters, the ferry was now navigating a busy waterway, with motorised canoes, launches, ferries and houseboats all jostling for position between the serpentine, tree-lined banks. Declining the direct route, the ferry cut across the traffic and plunged back along another narrow, twisting waterway, once more in local bus mode. A few more twists and turns and we were into a narrow canal, cutting into Allapuzha itself. Finally, I disembarked, clambering over another ferry that we had to moor alongside at the town’s cramped ferry terminal. None of the laid-back snoozing of Changanassery’s sleepy terminal here.
In the heat and dust, an auto-rickshaw to the station seemed a better option than wandering Allapuzha, though the driver did take great delight in pointing out a few more water-lilly clogged canals, encircling the town centre. He also took me closest to death of any Indian driver yet, missing a lorry’s wing by 5mm, while having a nice chit-chat with me about elections. We then got caught in a traffic jam seemingly caused by two competing private buses refusing to give way to each other at a narrow level crossing, resolved only by a policeman, looking stern, with his nightstick.
With time to spare at Allapuzha station, I whiled away the minutes by enjoying the wide range of Notices, especially the one setting out in some detail the forty-seven categories of persons entitled to rail travel at reduced rates, which included:
12. Either parent accompanying a child recipient of the National Bravery Award.
15. Kisans and milk producers (In parties of no less than 20).
20. Technicians of regional film industry.
Not one of the numerous categories seemed to apply to me, alas. Time was also passed watching a girl, who could not have been more than 5, trying – with limited success – to stop her goat and its kid from eating all the tastiest plants growing in the station sidings at once.
The Allapuzha Ernakulam Passenger was what it said on the tin, the lowest train of the low, formed of ‘lived-in’ General class coaches, but it was remarkably empty – I had an entire bay of six seats all to myself. A fellow passenger clearly knew the ways of these carriages, fetching a stick from the platform to poke at the ceiling fans to urge them into action, though they were hardly needed. Sitting by the open window, inhaling the smell of Kerala’s dinner wood fires, rattling past cricket matches and candle-lit processions at level crossings, was very pleasant. Through a countryside composed largely of pure white sand and of stretches of water glowing pink in the gloaming, we rumbled across a long, low bridge over an estuary and into the suburbs of Ernakulam, better-known Cochin’s non-peninsular neighbour.
I had hoped to stay at the Keralan Government Guesthouse, who supposedly take paying guests when not fully occupied by state employees, but on arrival at its eight-storey tall, neo-Maoist reception area, I was informed that the regional government was indeed using each of the many rooms tonight. I opted for more modest accomodation, with fewer fears that any weaknesses in my understanding of Marxism-Leninism would be probed overnight. Dinner was excellent, albeit served in India’s least co-ordinated restaurant, where orders either never appeared at all or appeared twice. However, once you worked out that the waiter with a fine moustache was the only one who could get things done, everything proceeded somewhat more smoothly.
In the grey morning, I took the four-penny ferry across Ernakulam’s harbour to Cochin, weaving between cruise liners, freighters and naval vessels to the low-rise red rooftops and trees of the peninsula. Disembarking, I found myself on a road lined with tea and spice exporters, many housed in peeling Dutch warehouses. Outside the Indian Coastguard HQ, a large Notice informed me that ‘The Coastguard Recruits Solely On Merit’. I was advised to beware unscrupulous recruitment agents and a number was provided if I wished to report ‘Elements’.
Beyond the chaotic car ferry terminal was Fort Cochin’s signature piece, the so-called ‘Chinese’ fishing nets. Ramshackle wooden piers supported gigantic yet fragile-looking quadrupedal wooden structures, which held the submerged nets. Every few minutes, the teams of dark-skinned Malaysiams would haul on the stone counterweights attached to the boom and slowly, smoothly, the nets would emerge from the water. Invariably the nets would be empty, looks of disappointment would be exchanged, a passing ship blamed and the net re-submerged (there’s a video of a net in operation here).
That some fish were caught occasionally was demonstrated by a bustling set of fishmerchant’s stalls beyond the nets, although the thinness of the patrolling cats did not speak of rich pickings. For the first time I attracted an audience, sitting by the fort’s walls, writing my journal – a group of fishermen gathered, smiling in amusement at this decidedly odd behaviour.
Beyond the nets and the fort, reminders of the nationalities that had colonised or exploited this little peninsula, gateway to the riches of the Keralan interior, stood side-by-side – first, ochre painted St Frances’ Church, the first European church in the sub-continent, dating from the seventeenth century, whose cool, spartan, white Portuguese interior housed Vasco de Gama’s tomb, a little fenced-off tablet which tourists picked their way around a religious instruction class to gawp at. A symbol of the shifting powers on the Cochin peninsula, the church had been built as Catholic by the Portuguese, converted to Lutheran by the Dutch and then to Anglican – which it remains – by the British.
Next to the church was the British parade ground, the ordered square of grass so popular with the colonial army, surrounded by wide trees to provide maximum shade for observers of sun-baked military pomp. Now a desultory cricket game and the warm-up for hockey training were the only activity on its under-watered lawn. Just around the corner, by the old lighthouse, the Dutch East India Company graveyard stood locked, overgrown and slowly disappearing, amidst the quiet, verandah-bedecked, white-washed streets.
After a breakfast of street stall vada, idlai, banana fritters and chai, I set off to walk across the peninsula, eschewing the many offers of auto-rickshaw drivers, who worked on the premise that a man in possession of a sweat-soaked shirt must be in want of a sight-seeing tour. The walk was lengthy and dusty, but fascinating – sometimes a broad road, sometimes down a single track as businesses, formal and informal, crowded onto the carriageway, retailing everything from huge metal cooking pots to reclaimed wood. And there were goats. MORE GOATS THAN EVER BEFORE SEEN IN AN URBAN AREA. Perhaps. I’m far from sure how there were quite so many goats, given that their approach to traffic made auto-rickshaw drivers look like the honorary patrons of the Tufty Club for Road Safety. Their caprine nonchalance amid the swirling traffic at intersections was something to behold.
Approaching the far side of the peninsula, wooden nineteenth century warehouses re-appeared, selling spices, tea leaves and, in one case, tea dust. White-washed walls and bowing red-tiled roofs showed I’d arrived in Mattancherry, centred around the sprawling ‘Dutch Palace’, in fact a Portuguese-built Maharaja’s Palace, now sitting beside an equally sprawling Hindu temple and its pool, the scrubby grassland grazed by any number of healthy-looking sacred cows. Beyond was the straightforwardly named Jew Town, now crowded with antique shops whose provenance was apparently the left-behind furniture from the exodus to Israel of the majority of local Jewish families during the 1940s. Sitting at the end of a pleasantly shaded lane, the beautiful white-washed synagogue was firmly locked to gentiles on the first day of Passover. Obscurely, one of the neighbouring craft shops had a huge banner wishing HRH Prince Charles a happy birthday (it wasn’t his birthday, or anything close. I checked.), complete with an unflattering photo. Frankly, it didn’t make up for the disappearance under Pepsi branding of Ernakulam’s famous (-ish) Ken Livingstone Coffee Stall. From Mattancherry’s run down ferry station, a peeling red boat transported me back across the wide harbour towards Ernakulam’s modern skyline.