Backwater Bounty (20060122)
Though it may come as a shock to long-time readers, I can't say I'm impressed with the Indian cities I've seen so far. In general, they're noisy, dirty with pollution and trash dropped everywhere, and filled with unfriendly touts who love nothing more than to separate your rupees from your wallet by any means necessary. Kollam, my first stop in Kerala, was no different. But then, the whole point of coming here is to check out the lush green foliage of the backwaters. Without question, the Rs. 300 (US$8) that the 2 1/2 to 3 hour backwater tour cost me was the best money I've spent in India. Had I more cash, I would've gotten a houseboat for 24 hours, which includes backwater day tours and your own private chef and slave - I mean, servant. But it also includes a tenfold price mark-up, which gives me something to look forward to doing next time I'm here. After 45-minute ride in a taxi, included in the tour cost, we walked through a heavily wooded area of Monroe Island to a small canoe-sized boat. Besides the tour guide and the boatman, who steered our boat with a long Venicesque pole, there were four of us. My Financial and Menu Adviser and myself, and two strangers. One was an Israeli man whose wife stayed home for her university exams - I can't imagine that she's not furiously jealous of him. The fourth was an 18-year-old Dutch girl, blonde haired and blue-eyed. She seemed intelligent, but then, she also started her trip in Kashmir. Book smarts she might have, but she was also either incredibly brave or shockingly dense. Probably both. She didn't say where she got the cash for a four-month stint in India, but I did ask her what Kashmir was like. It was safe, she said. Really, I replied. Oh yes, she said, there were soldiers everywhere. I didn't want to crush her idealistic point-of-view, that lots of soldiers generally indicates a lack of safeness. Did you have any problems, I asked. Oh no, she replied. The soldiers always check your passport, but then they let you go. The people, apparently, were very friendly, which was what I was told about the majority of Indians I'd meet. Anyway, both guide and boatman were on a first-name basis with the villagers we encountered, because, it turned out, we were going through their village. It was quite exciting to be shown somebody's neighborhood, especially when all the minutiae were explained. Everything from the biggest palm tree to the smallest shrub had a social or economic purpose. The coconut is the Da Vinci of fruits. Multi-talented beyond belief, the people living in these backwaters drank coconut milk and ate coconut flesh, of course. But after eating and drinking this Renaissance fruit, the husks kept on giving. Dried for 90 days, the bush outer shell was woven in coir, coconut rope, used locally and exported around the nation. Cashew nuts also followed in the footsteps of the coconut. They provided food, of course, but their oil was also used for water-sealing the wood of the canoe. The waterways were used for transportation, but also provided fish, mussels and even in January we saw some people cooling off with a mid-day swim. Each stop showed us something new about the village. The guide turned over a nondescript leaf at one point to reveal vibrantly green peppercorns. Less than a meter away a strange fernesque thing had a greenish pineapple sticking out of its middle. The plant turned out to be the pineapple stork - y'know, where pineapples come from. The family goat, got in on this act, too, producing milk and cheese and doing its part to clean up garbage - by eating it. Our guide's family had two goats, named Atchoo and Itchoo. When he told us this, I said "Gezundheit!" He didn't get it. So unlike in America, where very few farmers make better-than-average livings, working the land in Kerala seemed to be far more profitable. The pathways and waterways of this unnamed village were far cleaner than anything else I'd seen previously. Education is a priority in Kerala, too: the state has the highest Indian literacy rate, more than 90 percent. The lack of noise was almost as intense as the normal Indian ruckus itself. Water silently lapped at the boat, brightly colored kingfishers could be seen but not heard. It was surprising, but even the fish swam silently. Now, Westerners have been idolizing more agrarian ways of living since at least the French painters of the late 19th century, and even earlier with Walden's Thoreau. I wouldn't call the Keralan backwaters a panacea for what ails modern life - no fiber-optic or wireless broadband Internet access, for one thing - but it's sure a fantastic place to visit.