Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Canoeing on the waterways

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India; October 17th; Day 26; Kottayam

We got up early this morning, packed, skipped breakfast and took an auto-rickshaw to a bus station. In the usual maelstrom and scrum we managed to determine which bus would take us to Kottayam and piled on. This was the first of many bus rides and it had all the required features. The overhead racks are too small for your luggage, the seats are hard and the windows are non-existent. Who needs windows in this heat? We were early so we had plenty of room at first but it soon got full as we went along.

After pushing through the traffic of Ernakulum the bus drove south on the main highway taking many detours into several small towns along the way. We had arranged with George, the proprietor of GK’s Home-stay a few kilometers outside Kottayam that he would meet us in town at the bus station and take us to his place. After a few hours traveling we arrived at a Kottayam bus station but could see no sign of him. As is usual the towns here have a number of bus stations, one of which is the one used by the State Bus Company and the others used bi various other operators. Keith got on the phone and George eventually found us and the three of us piled into his auto-rickshaw with our luggage (a tight fit!) for the short ride. After careering through the traffic in town we headed out into the country eventually crossing a footbridge over a canal and down a rutted path to reach the home-stay.

George's homestay was by the riverbank and the lodgings were just down a small track at the back. The place had four separate rooms all joined together with a common veranda with a small garden in front. It looked out over a rice-paddy which was at the moment just a brown muddy field.

After our introductions and the usual formalities we settled down. We arranged to have some lunch and George came back for us a while later to take us to his house. All our meals would be taken in his house and generally George would sit down with and chat. Though he didn’t eat with us. We stayed three nights in the end after originally just booking for two, and we were the only guests whilst we were there. George lived with his wife, his mother and his father-in-law. His wife did all the home cooking for us and we were treated to Keralan cuisine at all times. George’s daughter was there too, home from university. he has a son too.

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When we’d finished lunch George showed us his canoe which was tied up in the canal opposite the house. It was a tradition style wooden boat a good 20ft long and he claimed a 100 years old. It was held together by brass rivets. It was a smart looking vessel but spoiled by having poor paddles, one of which was plastic. George offered to paddle us around the local waterways but we assured him that we were experienced paddlers and that we would be safe on our own. Fortunately he handed us a map of the local network of backwaters which would help us in our meanderings. at that point we decided that we’d relax in the afternoon and go for a paddle later when it had cooled off a bit.

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We passed away the sultry afternoon by sitting on the veranda and reading our books. If an occasional butterfly or dragonfly appeared then I’d get myself to take a photograph or two. We were also keeping an eye on the birds which were flitting about. The highlight of the afternoon came when a huge Monitor Lizard made an appearance. Although quite a drab brown colour it was about a metre long. It stealthily moved about the grass in front of us it’s forked tongue flicking. It used it’s feet to scrub up the dirt in places and seemed to be eating small insects. It crept about quite slowly and we watched it for a good half an hour before it ambled off into the undergrowth. It came to within a yard or two of and appeared quite oblivious. I wondered quite how good it’s eyesight was! George's wife brought down a pot of tea in the afternoon.

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At 4pm we got ourselves together and prepared to try the canoe. We grabbed the paddles from the side of George's place and settled ourselves in. I took the bow and the plastic paddle and Keith took the stern and wooden paddle. There was quite a distance between us! There’s not much flow in these backwaters and it was difficult to work out if it was flowing at all but we went in the direction that we assumed was downstream.

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We paddled slowly down the canal for about half an hour until we slipped under a bridge and took the right fork. Eventually we reached another bridge and a much larger canal. On the corner was a char shop where a group of men were taking tea. As the light was failing we decided to turn around here and paddled back the way we had come. On our way we passed sights that would become familiar to us as we spent several days in and around the waterways. We saw women washing clothes on the bank, we saw children splashing and playing in the water, we saw men fishing and we passed several other canoes moseying along. It was quiet and peaceful apart from the occasional motor-bike bumping along the track beside the water.

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As we returned so George came out to help us tie up. He was probably relieved that we had not got lost. At dinner that evening he told us a few tales about having to rescue guests who had lost their way in the complex network of canals. After dinner we relaxed and read again. George had supplied us with a couple of beers to drink as we whiled away the evening.