Houseboats and palm trees

We decided to cut our time in Periyar shorter than originally intended due to the wildlife being exceptionally good at hide and seek, and headed next (by taxi and not bus this time) to Allepey. This is where you get the iconic ‘houseboat’trip, in the Lonely Planet’s Top 10 Things to do before you die list. LP also describes Allepey as a ‘slice of Venice’ which is misleading as the town is a complete shithole. We stayed in a lovely guesthouse called Palmy Residence which is out of the town and very quiet. We decided not to do the overnight houseboat, we’d seen photos and there really isn’t much to do except sit and look at the world go by which is a luxury when you are short of time, and we also wanted a couple of extra days beach time further down the coast. We opted for canoeing, which actually means sitting in a small boat under a shade and being pushed along with a pole by a driver who perches at the back of the boat.  I'd like to say it's like a gondala - in theory it's similar - but perhaps slightly less romantic!

This trip was six hours of watching the backwaters of Kerala slip by. On each bank people go about their day to day living, washing clothes against rocks, bathing in the water, brushing their teeth (again with the water!), collecting mussels, fishing. The river is life in every sense of the word. It does flaunt what Westerners consider to be hygienic, which is what makes it so fascinating. And it’s a hard life, women look weathered and worn, spending most of the day in the water thrashing clothes to get them as dry as possible or washing dishes in the same spot. They dress in the most beautiful coloured garments to do it though, and the riverbanks are vibrant with the pinks, oranges, reds and blues of drying clothes, brightly painted houses and boats, water plants, and the saris and lungis of the inhabitants.  Schoolgirls bounce up and down the river paths, pigtails flying, as they would anywhere.  Large river ferries carry the commuters up and down the waterways. 

If we had the time the houseboat would have been lovely, but canoeing is more personal.  Being in such a small boat we got to get right up to people and it was easy to take photos. The houseboats are huge, confined to the middle of the channel and there is nowhere really open to sit. They do look wonderfully relaxing though.

Then it was another train, but only 2.5 hours to Varkala which is a gorgeous seaside resort nestled on cliffs above a golden beach. The rip here is strong, and lifeguards try to keep people out of the water, particularly Indian tourists who don’t have the savvy or swimming skills as Westerners, but follow the Europeans into the deeper surf assuming it is safe. We stayed about 10 minutes walk from the Varkala cliffs, in dirt cheap accommodation, where we could hear the waves crashing all night. We were right next to a rainbow-coloured mosque but call to prayer was mercifully short. There was nothing to do but top up our tans and relax. The first morning we were having our breakfast, and a school of dolphins came frolicking through the surf in front of us. Add the sea-eagles soaring just up above the line of gently waving palm trees, and it really is the most perfect exotic location and beats Goa for overall scenery and cleanliness.

Varkala is home to fisherman, and at night their boats light up the horizon like a string of pretty Xmas lights out to sea. They come in during the early morning, hefting their massive wooden crafts safely up the beach away from the tide, a task which takes several hands. We actually got roped in to help whilst cheekily trying to take some snaps, and had to dig our feet into the black sand to heave ho!

Aside from the sad experience with the puppy that I chronicled in an earlier blog, Varkala was just what the doctor ordered. The food was fantastic, the weather perfect during the day. Next stop Rajasthan!