Daily Archives: February 18, 2012

Kerela, Socialism, Houseboats & Tourists

Another day, another chunk of the sub-continent. Where exactly is Kerela? Think of the map of India and imagine we are at the bottom left of the inverted triangle. The port of Kochi/Cochin to be precise as we bounce onto the tarmac on a packed Jet Airways 737. We de-plane – why this non-word is beyond everyone I ask – to the insistent embrace of humid tropical heat which grips tighter as we meander (nicely un-shephered) across the apron to the terminal. We are cheerfully greeted by Mr Taxi – immense relief on my part as BeerTours sole operative in this or any other latitude – and consider mini-cab mutiny when he is even slightly reticent with the AC. We’re dead ‘ard us Beers.

When you are your own tour company, it’s a twitchy business. (Thanks for the nod Tim, will be reading Twitchiker soon.) The family are all smiles and expectant: “ooh, what’s next?” Whilst I am fretting madly… will the pick-up be there? Will it be a pants place to stay? Hope the food is okay. What if they hate it? Am in need of un-hitching this anxiety wagon as it stops me sleeping. When I do, I have a dream about a version of Tripadvisor on the narrowest of demographics. IE: where spouse and offspring get to rate the experiences provided by BeerTours and I get the stocks if it’s less than 5-stars wall-to-wall. (We won’t be taking the BeerTours brand public for obvious reasons. Maybe DadTours instead? No, oddly specific and somewhat creepy.) A longer term project there I fear.

More immediately, it’s now a few days into the (near) tropics and I can report that I am utterly failing to get used to the heat in a particularly Welsh, slightly ginger yet manful kind of way. I am, unfortunately, coping only marginally better than Mrs B who really is tetch-tastic. Wipe that tear from your eye at the back there, we don’t want your sympathy.

Presently I am failing to get used to the climate on the foredeck of a houseboat surround by noises of crickets chirruping, locals chit-chatting, birdies singing, frogs croaking, the ubiquitous mini-petrol-generator chuntering and of our nice boat captain who keeps trying to chit-chat to me. The latter is sweet, lovely and all, but makes it difficult to marshal my writing thoughts. In any case, we don’t get very far due to my linguistic hopelessness. Bah. Where were we? Ah yes… Dinner was a hit with all concerned. Happy consumption of South Kerelan fayre by all in the party is quite a result with recent convert Master Beer tucking in with gusto. Still, a day of lounging on a converted riceboat watching the Alleppey backwaters glide by is a tiring business. (Oh and Josie Beer is well in the digestive department as-are-we-all-thanks-for-asking.)

Guide books tell us all sorts about Kommunist Kerela: it’s highly literate, socialist, pretty dry (booze wise), blessed with a splendid climate. It’s India after a well earned afternoon snooze: a little more chilled, always happy to stop and say hello. Both J&M are slipping into their “Hello… I’m fine… My name is… You are?… Nice to meet you” role with such aplomb it brings a paternal tear to the eye just writing about it.

Prior to our water borne escapade we spent a couple of days in Fort Cochin: a peculiar, crumbling historical mish-mash of colonial Portuguese, Dutch, Oriental, Syrian Christian, Jewish & British. Last time I was here we stayed with an ex-pat tea taster.

Sunset at the Chinese fishing nets

Much of the place remains true to my memories. This time it’s a “homestay” or as we Brits might refer to it, a B&B. It’s decor is functional – he says politely – and has wi-fi! So we Skype the Welsh Beers who can’t quite believe it. Sample of conversation [alt+tab to Gavin & Stacey mode]: Eggs for breakfast you say?! Dew-dew, tidy isn’t it? (We are taking photos of EVERYTHING as requested by Aunty Sue.) Outside the gates of “Good Karma” we find many more tourists per capita than Delhi and accordingly businesses are geared around them. We avoid the sight seeing boats and stick to the local ferry because it’s “more authentic.” (A white lie. Yet at 4p per person return, it’s worth a fib.) Iconic Chinese fishing nets are spied, freshly-juiced pineapples quaffed, heads are waggled and tuk-tuks are haggled with. Despite developed tourism, budgets still go a long way in this part of the world.

Easy on the budget until you board a houseboat as they see you coming. The houseboat industry is the preserve of sharply intentioned young men it seems out to make money from their customers: a fine example of capitalism in a socialist land with no shortage of punters. It’s referred to in some quarters as the “most expensive thing you’ll do in India” and so it proves. At one point I counted a regatta – fifty! – of these iconically styled craft and was saddened to note that they were beginning to equip them with car horns for use as per the highways of this land. The beeping could easily detract from the chilled ambience…

That said, the backwater experience is on the Lonely Planet global Top 10 for a reason: it’s magic. The bird life is abundant both on the water and in the trees: terns, kingfishers, darters, eagles, cormorants… Village life is on display too with locals all but ignoring the tourists gliding by. (Although when they spot J&M we get dazzling smiles, cheery waves and hellos.) The rich, (cowin) lush impossibly green fields, coconut laden palms and water hyacinth. The latter – aka Nile Cabbage/African Moss – looks delightful but is clogging up the smaller waterways alarmingly. Our photos don’t do the overall splendour justice – they hardly ever do, do they? – but the residual feeling remains. It’s a lovely glow. Shan’t write any further on the place as others with a more eloquent turn have already. I’ll close by saying that I missed out in 1994 and am delighted to have the opportunity to go back. You should drop by if you’re passing.

A houseboat, yesterday.

As I may have already said, we were advised to travel as if we would never be back this way again. This potential wanton recklessness is difficult to resolve against typically more cost concious habits. (Tightwad? Moi?!) I have pondered how we’ll get on. We had dinner in Fort Cochin for 4 at a total of around twelve quid. Josie was visibly guilty at ordering the most expensive dish by a factor of three. Woo-hoo: way to go, Idaho. Boy can we spend. Talking of which, we’re faced with a journey from the backwater country across the narrow plains and up into the Western Ghats in a day or two. Direct, air-conditioned, easy-peasy taxi? 3,000IRP. Ferry boat and bus for the same journey? 600IRP. Do we pay five times the price and miss out on the local thing? Or go mad and spend thirty-eight quid on a chauffeur? Answers to the usual address (or whatever the equivalent blogosphere term is). HINT: Choose taxi, because if Gilly dies in a freak bus crash she will NOT be happy.

Annnnd finally for this post. A touch of snobbery, dripping with so much irony that I fear for the lapdog keyboard. Imagine you are sitting quietly with your family in the corner of a cafe overlooking the water. A cafe at the back of an art reclamation yard/junk shop/gallery/rip off merchant in south west India. A wee family of blinking, bluey-white, just off the plane Western tourists, looking remarkably like the Beers. Got the picture? Then, pour in 20 or so other Westerners, many dressed like it’s a fancy dress Bollywood theme trip, who start dragging furniture around, yelling to each other in heavy accents ” GEE MARSHA, THEY GOT LIME AND GINGER SODA.”Then “HEY, IS IT FRESH?” And “HOW’S IT MADE?” “OOOH, WE’RE EATIN’ KINDA LATE TONITE, LET’S GET SOME FRIES.” Rounded off with “HEY, CAN I GET SOME WAA-DURR? WHO WANTS WAA-DURR.” Now who was it who said “You are a tourist, I am a traveller.” [No idea & I’ve probably mis-quoted. It’s not in this list of 50 at any rate, so here’s another.]

“The traveler sees what he sees, the tourist sees what he has come to see.”  GK Chesterton

Morally speaking… is it right to be offended by this bunch? Seeing as we are displaced, utterly foreign voyers here ourselves, is it okay to feel anger at being robbed of a moment by other foreigners (when locals doing it would have been somehow fine)? Not sure how to feel about this one and my onboard moral/snobbery compass appears to be on the blink. It’s a dilemma that crops up again and again in the journals I write. Please let me know if I am crossing boundaries of taste, irony or something else (in apparent innocence). Thank you, normal service now resumes.

Two things, of course, are abundantly clear:

  1. Aren’t Americans bloody annoying?
  2. There is clearly a letter T in the word water. Y’all come back now, y’hear?
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