Backs against the wall

The coastal region of the state Kerala is famous for its network of smaller and larger backwater canals. Few things excite a Dutchman more than seeing water management in action in other countries, so naturally we had to go there to see the Indian backwaters.

The main area from which the backwaters can be explored is Alleppey. Alleppey is famous for having thousands of canal boats and dozens of tours each day. In peak season the number of boats on the water can lead to congestion and pollution. For the latter reason many travellers seek out to go on punted or paddled tours.

A day after arriving we left on our day tour in the backwaters. Together with a German, a Ukrainian, two Brits and two Kiwi’s we got on a water taxi and made our way to the tour’s starting point. We got on our canoes and set off deeper into the canals of Alleppey.

Life in the backwaters is lived outside the house, near, in or on the water. As such passing through the villages and observing them in their daily routines provided an excellent opportunity to see what rural Indian life in Kerala is all about.

The first thing that struck me is that the villages consist of proper houses, or more precisely, villa’s. Many are two story buildings with terraces and balconies, painted in bright red, blue or orange, and seem to be maintained to a reasonably high standard.

This seems in stark contrast with women washing clothes in the rivers, and drying them by beating each piece of clothing repeatedly on a rock, until most of the water is out and the sun can do the rest. Electricity is somewhat unreliable in these areas so presumably this is part of the reason why some areas of life have not changed. Mobile phones on the other hand are owned by everyone, and often internet for guests is provided by mobile hotspot rather than a cable or wifi router. Similarly many families in the backwaters grow or catch their own food. There were numerous occasions where we saw men fishing or cleaning a freshly caught fish.

All in all the villagers in Kerala seemed to live in abundance. I felt a bit reluctant to make frequent ot repeated photos of people doing the various mundane tasks of life, and wondered how the villagers feel about tour after your floating through their canals, with foreign or Indian tourists making photos of their daily lives. I asked our guide/captain about this and he explained that most don’t mind at all, in part also because they benefit from the tourism, for example by cooking lunch or dinners for tours.

After Alleppey’s backwaters we headed on to off the beaten track Munroe Island. We’d heard that Munroe Island was as pleasant as Alleppey, but with fewer tourists and even more laid back. We ended up in a wonderful looking cottage, built on the land of owner Surai and his family. Their own home had been built some 200 years earlier, and the land produced vegetables and spices.

The cottage was only built 4 months earlier, and was (not counting the more luxurious places we’ve stayed) by far the best value for money of India.

The bed was large with a thick comfortable mattress, the fan very quiet. The bathroom was up to Western quality and all of it was spotless clean. There was ample space to put our stuff, and in addition there was a very comfortable outside seating area. Whilst there wasn’t a second floor as such the cottage had a red tiled pointed roof, which helped keep it cool during the day and warm during the night. The whole building was surrounded by flowers and situated just off the main road.

Suraj clearly was a man with a mission to go so all in on tourism. Since we stayed there for three nights we got to know him and his family a bit better than usual, and one evening, after the home cooked dinner, he opened up a bit more.

Suraj lived in his family’s home with his wife and youngest daughter. His eldest daughter got married a few years ago and moved to Kollam with her husband. As per Indian tradition the marriage between his eldest daughter and husband was an arranged marriage in which his daughter had no say. While speaking about his family his wife got the wedding photo album and showed us the various dresses and explained the process. We in return told them about how this works in Europe and showed them some of our wedding photos. They were stunned at how Franzi looked, really impressed.

At that point his youngest (unmarried) daughter had joined and I could tell she adored the dress. I think Suraj might be in for a hard time with this one. She is very much a modern woman, studying maths at the state university, and clearly bright. What English she knew came out perfectly fine, but where she didn’t have the vocabulary she lost confidence. Surprisingly Suraj commented “she studies math for two years but can’t speak English, I didn’t go to university but my English is fine”. The comment was completely unjustified as his English is horribly accented and difficult to understand, but it did show an interesting, much more conservative aspect of his character than we’d seen so far. Perhaps he is not a forward thinking as we thought he was?

Later in the conversation about marriage Suraj touched on how expensive it is to arrange a marriage. The dowry for his eldest daughter was substantial and they could not afford for the youngest to get married any time soon. Here we at last see (in part) a strong motivation for the new cottage. The family didn’t seem to be doing very well financially, and perhaps the funds that Suraj sent home from working in Bahrain are running out. To ensure their survival and his daughter’s future he borrowed funds from the bank to build the cottage, as well as two smaller rooms next year.

Whilst it may make sense to go into tourism, it is a bit of a risky all or nothing strategy. If the income is not sufficient to pay off the debt he stands to lose everything, including the large 200 year old family home.

It does also explain the sometimes painful lengths he goes to to make sure his guests are happy, thereby achieving the exact opposite. A good illustration is with food. Franzi and I started eating less when travelling, often only having two meals a day, and even those tend to be small. However, the word enough doesn’t seem to feature in Suraj’ vocabulary. Even when we clearly said “no thank you”, we still got a dollop of dalh or a new chipata. One day I was hungry for breakfast but Franzi wasn’t, so I had breakfast alone. Suraj was completely upset: “Where’s madam? She not happy to have breakfast?”. My explanation that she wasn’t hungry didn’t seem to enter. He immediately switched tactics and decided “she will have breakfast later, at 10.” I tried very hard to make him understand in polite but clear terms that it’s Franzi’s decision when she will have breakfast, if at all.

When I left him I was not 100% sure whether he got it, but sure enough he comes over around 10 and asks her whether she will have breakfast now. Her “No thank you, I’m not hungry” was met with confusion. How could she not eat? She must be unhappy. He turns to me but I just point at Franzi – she’s the one he needs to talk with. After numerous assurances that we were perfectly happy and just not hungry he left, still looking slightly unsure.

It’s this bossiness, that dominant aspect of his character, that may make him succeed or be his downfall. It could make him an attentive host or a bullying landlord. He could recognise the strengths in his family and put them to use for the business, or drive them away in megalomanic thinking. It did make me think of my experience in Croatia, where I met people who needed to plan their lives ahead given the adversity in their country, sometimes making big leaps of faith. It’s the sort of thing that many of us don’t need to do. Did we lose a skill there that is necessary in life, a sort of desperate inventiveness? Do humans need some level of struggle, to some extent have their backs against the wall, to make the most out of their lives?

His daughter seemed in awe with Franzi for the wedding she had and the lifestyle we have. Does she dream bigger? I looked for opportunities to encourage her confidence in English, equally realising that this is none of my business. Unfortunately no opportunity came, and when our taxi drove off we all waved and that was the last we’ll see of them. I do hope Suraj and his family will be successful. He is in essence a good man, trying to provide for his family in the way he knows by going out of his way to make his guests happy. This is illustrated by him driving me on his motorcycle to a government run booze warehouse for cheap beer, stopping on the way to collect yellow blossom, and making the following surprise for us the next morning (something religious related but I never quite understood what).

Equally I hope his daughter puts her brain and future maths degree to good use, perhaps as a housewife but simultaneously as a homestay manager? If you get a chance to visit Kerala do stay a night or two at the Munroe Island Heritage Inn!

Suraj (right) with his wife (middle) and oldest daughter and grandchild.: younger daughter not in photo.

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