APTI, Day 13 – Houseboat to Allepey

Having had a slow day on Sunday could mean only one thing for Monday, more driving. We set out fairly early in the morning toward the pick-up spot for our houseboat tour. Once again we passed hundreds of squeaky-clean little school children along the way. This was to be our last day of winding mountain roads, and while we had enjoyed the sights of the mountains, we were happy enough to put and end to the gut-twisting churns and turns that accompanied those views and panoramas.

We arrived at our houseboat around noon, and were greeted by the owner of the boat who informed us that he would be accompanying us on the way to Allepey, our destination, but would leave us at 4:00 p.m. He sort of served as tour guide along the way, but more than that he served as a major annoyance. After five or six days of rushing from place to place, we were all ready to just sit and do nothing, read a book, or catch up on some news. Alas, this was not to be. Our host insisted in engaging us in conversation and more or less chastised Steven and I for reading, “Are you studying for the exam?” No, dipwad, we’re reading; it’s something people do for recreation when they are just trying to relax.

This was a phenomenon that we encountered several times on our tour, the person who chooses to get just a bit to chummy and doesn’t seem to recognize that there’s a distinction between a service-client relationship and a friendship. This had happened with a particular waiter at the hotel restaurant in Thekkady as well, but that had been more innocent and could have been attributed to boredom, since the restaurant was quite slow in off-season,or perhaps a desire to practice his English.

This dude, though, was more intrusive. Steven had been asked a number of times about his marital status along the way, always in a good-humoured manner, but most often ending with a comment that, at twenty seven, his expiry date was coming up soon. Past thirty, and he would be like a jug of milk past its prime; he needed to move quickly. But our houseboat companion crossed those lines with a fairly big leap, inquiring about Steven’s level of alcohol consumption, and tsk-ing even at the number or teas he might drink in a day. He was also a bit too prone to share his philosophy of life with us, which, I might say, was not particularly earth-moving or deep. It was the sort of behaviour for which one could imagine a proprietor scolding an employee, but in this case, he was the proprietor. He asked for Steven’s cell phone number. He even called once after we had returned to Pune. All in all, he chewed up too much of our relaxing afternoon on the houseboat and cranked up the creepiness factor just a bit too high for all our tastes.

In my kinder moments, I choose to believe that he has very misguided notions of “making
connections” as a businessman. My darker self sees him as a pathetically lonely man who believes that harvesting cell phone numbers from clients translates somehow into having “friends” all around the world. Fortunately, Steven will turn in his cell phone when he leaves Pune at the end of this trip, so he won’t have to worry about any further contacts.

By the time we had shaken him, like persistent snot from a finger, we had completed most of the “touring” part of the houseboat trip and only puttered about the canals for another half an hour or so before mooring for the night. (Local laws forbid the houseboats from traveling during the night to allow fishermen to place their nets without fear of having them ruined.)

On the plus side, in the time that our “guide” did leave us alone we found the tour to be very relaxing. The on-board chef served up some pretty fine meals. And though our “guide” had warned us not to stay out on deck much past eight p.m. because of mosquitoes, we stayed out past nine without being bitten.

Before supper, we went for a walk out to the neighbouring rice paddies and took some shots of the Keralan sunset and watched the same enormous bats we had seen in Thekkady swoop across the twilight.

In essence the backwaters of Kerala are river deltas that have, over many years, been contained by man-made sea walls to form a series of canals, some large, others very small. Rather like a rural, tropical Venice. The backwaters form a unique ecosystem which, for part of the year, is comprised of sea water. Then as the monsoon rains swell the rivers that feed the the canals, the fresh water displaces the sea water. During this time, the fresh water can be used to irrigate the rice paddies, many of which lie a meter or two below the top of the sea wall. According to our annoying “guide” this is the only location, apart from the Netherlands, where agricultural land lies below sea level. Our guide in Cochin had previously explained to us that the changing levels of water salinity have led to the evolution of many unique species of fish and shellfish which can live in both sea water and fresh water.

We would have enjoyed spending another day on the houseboat just to veg out and tour about, just in the company of the very capable but much less loquacious members of the houseboat crew, but we had to settle for the experience as it was. We spent the night a bit over-chilled by a very noisy air conditioner powered by an equally noisy generator, but we did manage to get some sleep. This would have been less of an annoyance if we had had access to the controls of the air conditioner, but these must have been buried somewhere within the crew’s quarters, for no amount of searching or flicking of switches could turn it down or turn it off.

This bring up an interesting phenomenon of hotel power conservation. Almost all the hotels we stayed at in India, including the houseboat had “master” power switches for the rooms which were turned on by inserting the room key into a slot. In other words, when we left our hotel rooms, removing the key would turn off all electrical devices in the room, with the exception of the air conditioning. This struck us as a very sensible and practical approach to the issue of energy and cost savings. It was a pain in the ass for recharging laptop or camera batteries, but we understood and appreciated the logic, and put up with that inconvenience, trying to get all the recharging done overnight while we, and our key, were in the room.

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