India, days 7/8: Alleppey

Weary from nature and animals, during the bus ride I mentally prepared myself for the noise and smell of a city. Our few days in the Ghats, made India seem very peaceful and clean. I had low expectations from Alleppey, which in the guidebooks is simply listed as a place to take boats to see the famous Keralan backwaters. The road to the city was rows upon rows of small houses, sans remarkable scenery, and I felt the anxiety rise as we were approaching the town.

When we arrived to the congested, dusty bus station, I sighed heavily. However, a whirlwind ride by rikshaw later with a lizard under my foot (they seem to like me) we arrived to our home stay. Despite the lacklustre pictures online, the place was a stunning, if a bit faded, mansion from the colonial days, with wonderful wooden windows. We were greeted by the striking owner-manager: a bearded guy in his 30s who could have been a Bollywood matinee idol, was all smiles and politeness. He showed us our rooms, which looked wonderfully historic, a bit like the Moroccan hotel from the latest Bond film where Daniel Craig bedded Lea Seydoux. My spirits lifted. The owner, a gentle salesman, told us that the Telegraph has written about Al Asr homestay. It used to be a house of a local princess and then the Dutch colonists lived in it. He wanted to build a little annex and make it an organic coffee shop, and also open a gallery of works by differently abled children.

As we were famished, his brother, a bit pushier on the sales front, but still nice, pointed us to “Jas Hotel”. I expected a tourist trap, yet Jas proved to be a very local joint, a bit grubby looking but full. The moustachioed, pot-bellied maitre d’, who looked like a comedic character actor, sweetly gave us a tour of curries which were simmering around us. There was no cutlery so we were to tuck into our thails proper Indian style. M was a skilled and could shape her hand into a scoop. F and I got a hang of it eventually and finished our delicious meal. After the queue formed in front of the shop we quickly left, having paid the incredible 50 rupees (80 cents) per thali and 100 for a curry.
We proceeded to the beach, which held potential, but like so many things in India, was spoiled by garbage. Still, some youths were frolicking and after I led us all through a middle of what looked like a road construction site, we went to scout out the boats for the tour of the backwaters. The lake front, which is the entry point to the backwaters looked very unimpressive. A throng of touts descended yet again on us, asking us to promise them that we will see their boats. We did see a few, and they were all expensive, and not very nice. Tired from the previous nights gecko incident I despaired and suggested we check out a nearby Ayurvedic clinic suggested by the Lonely Planet for a massage. The way there was awful, and right in front of the clinic there was a dead rat, pecked by two crows. The place looked more like a back-door surgery, than a place of relaxation and bliss, and we were greeted by a grumpy manager.
“Would this include an ayurvedic check up?” I asked.

“Of course not. Just massage. Let us know if you want to have it now, as we are very busy”
Annoyed, I gave up, yet M and F stayed. I walked past the dead rat, touts and children who looked at me strangely, to find a slightly dotty riskshaw driver. He first introduced himself to me twice, then he stopped to fill his tank and finally left me at a church which I “had to see”. My bladder thought otherwise so he dropped me off and quoted an absurd price. He was happy with what I gave him.
M and F, returned from the massage with news: they had booked us for a trip with a nice old boat guy who will take us around the backwaters for a good price of 400 Rs per hour, from 6.30am. Their massage was a disappointment however.
“They were just whooshing over our body with sesame oil. No massaging whatsoever. It was a bit uncomfortable.” F complained.
He then suggested we go to Varkala, a nearby resort/ Hindu pilgrimage site, straight after the backwaters the next day. M and I, both tired, pleaded to stay here. He concurred.

After a slightly underwhelming Lonely Planet restaurant dinner and a walk by the beach, we went to bed early preparing for the backwaters.

The next day did not start promisingly. We struggled to find a rikshaw. The boat guy barely spoke English. Then the engine broke after a plastic bag from the dirty canals got caught in the propeller. Still underslept, I moaned internally that there is a reason why it was so cheap.

Yet my negative side, was once again to be proven wrong. The engine was fixed quickly. Once we got into the backwaters proper, we were alone among gazzilions of coconut palms, swaying seductively in the morning breeze, light mist rising from the water and the big, blue sky. Villagers were starting their days and were bathing in the water, clothed to preserve their modesty. Some were fishing with crossbows, the others were diving down long bamboo poles to catch shellfish. It was a magical mix of a lazy river in a water park, diorama rides in Disneyland and stunning nature. F papped the locals, M relaxed, and I was inspired to start reciting Sexy Sandra’s “Hajde da se prskamo” (“Let’s splash ourselves”, a Z-list Serbian song, which includes the immortal line “Splash me a bit, I want to be wet”).

Tired from being in awe, we stopped in a local chai shop. The lady-owner, a strong, pretty woman in her 40s, hacked us a local coconut and then showed us Krishna. Krishna was an eagle, the first I’ve seen up close, and he was docile (my conception eagles involved them pecking people’s eyes out, yet that was probably from Hitchcock). Krishna went up our shoulders and was non-plussed. He was beautiful. Like many beautiful and docile beasts, he was injured, and a part of his wing was hanging limply. The lady-owner then showed us Rama, Krishna’s bigger buddy. He was huge, but apparently he pecks.

Relaxed after the perfect boat ride, I realised my love for India soared. Once back in the hotel we met a Roman couple who just came from Tamil Nadu. The lady was nice, the guy had a nervous, overbearing streak. M and F were making polite conversation, while I was glued to the internet.
“Tamil Nadu is so much better than Kerala. It is real India: the temples are stunnnig, it is super-dirty, dusty and people are ugly. Food is very spicy it really kills you.”, the overbearing one said. This planed a seed of wanderlust in my already enthusiastic mind – although I liked Kerala (precisely for the things the Roman did not like) I realised I wanted to see more of India. So in a few quick minutes I decided to do the Golden Triangle and extend my trip for a while longer. After Trivandrum I was going to Delhi!
The night was spent beautifully: we went to the beach again, which looked much better in twilight. There were lots of people: guys splashing about, couples strolling and enjoying the view, and a lot of families, flying kites with their kids. A particularly cute kid started playing with M and me: he approached us and then once we noticed him, he ran off laughing. He did this for about 20 times.

It was great seeing the locals enjoying the sunset and the sea. You could sense the relaxed happy feel of Alleppey, a city much nicer than Kochin. To make this great day even better, Bollywood-star/homestay owner decided to take us to the local meat joint which blew our minds. Despite the tiny premises the food was unlike anything we have tried until then: fried beef was perfectly spiced, crispy chicken scrumptious and parathas deliciously oily. The restaurant was apparently the place where families got their food for celebrations, usually on Fridays, when pay-checks arrive in India. Kind and generous guy that hi is , the owner over-paid his share, despite our protestations.

We said bye bye to the owner and the Italians. The next day we caught an early train to Varkala.

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