Varkala to Kollam; More train stupidity; A night on a houseboat in the backwaters

I knew we had to leave Varkala before it sucked us down into its black hole of wasted time for another month or two. We’d actually planned to leave the day before, but Sheryl had been feeling poorly and needed a day of rest. By the time that was obvious it was too late to do anything in Kollam besides maybe sleep anyway, so I wasn’t going to argue. Instead we got up early the next morning to make it into town and catch the train.

We’d been told that the train was supposed to come at 7:10, but usually oozed into the station around 7:30. We arrived at the station at 7:25, so we thought we’d be okay - and in fact we heard an announcement come over the loudspeaker that the Kollam train would be arriving shortly on track 2. We got our tickets and ran for it, jumping on the train just as it pulled away. The car was stupidly crowded and we had to squeeze our way in. A very offended-looking young girl informed me that this was the ladies’ carriage. She looked even more offended when I didn’t immediately jump off the moving train. I compromised by hiding in the corner until the next stop, where we got off and ran like hell to the next car.

That car was even more stupidly crowded. We could hardly breathe and were wedged with our packs in the little hallway between the toilet compartments, which was exactly as pleasant as it sounds. An old lady with no English was wedged beside us and we tried to converse with an aim to figuring out how many stops there were until Kollam, because we couldn’t see out of the train to know where we were. She was somewhat helpful in that she told us the name of each station as we pulled in. Eventually we asked someone else and made the unpleasant discovery that we were on the wrong train and were headed away from Kollam. After half an hour of being hot and crushed! Ask me how that happened, I have no idea. The 7:10 train must have come on time after all, and we just heard “Kollam” over the loudspeakers and missed the fact that it said “from Kollam” and not “to Kollam”.

Grinding our teeth, we fought our way off the train at some nameless little station in the middle of nowhere and bought another ticket to Kollam. We were very careful to ask all the right questions this time, helped a lot by the lack of urgency - there was half an hour until the next train. That train was much less crowded. Thinking back, the crowding should have been a clue that we were on the wrong train. It was rush hour, heading into Trivandrum, the nearest big city, so it’s natural that the train would be very full and you’d expect an empty train headed out of the city. But we’ve become so used to crowding here in India that it just seemed natural and we didn’t think about it any further.

It was another half-hour back to Varkala. At this point it was after nine o’clock. We should have slept in. This is what comes of getting up early. I’ve learned my lesson, believe me. The train filled up as we went. One man had the right idea and was sleeping in the luggage-shelf above the seats. The fare was much cheaper (Rs14 instead of 40) than the first ticket - maybe because Sheryl was too rushed to specify second-class for the first ticket like I did for the second. After another hour, we were finally in Kollam. It was a smallish, dusty, busy town. We took an autorickshaw to the bus station to find the information booth we needed. I’ve discovered the value of laughing and walking away when a rickshaw driver states a price - it magically drops by half, sometimes. This only works when there are a lot of rickshaws around, though.

Kollam is at the southern end of the Keralan backwaters - a network of marshy canals, lakes and channels covering the flat land between the mountains and the sea. The backwaters are famously beautiful and we wanted to see them, even if we only had time and money for a taste before we had to move on. There are little canoes and big ferries, but the usual way to see the backwaters is on a houseboat. Alappuzha, at the northern end of the backwaters, is the main centre for houseboat tours. Kollam is a much smaller centre and thus, less hectic. Or so we were told. I can’t imagine Alappuzha, in that case. The instant we stepped off the rickshaw we were swarmed with hustlers pushing their boats. We’d already decided to go to the DTPC office (the District Tourism Promotion Council) which brokers the most reliable tours, according to our guidebook. I know nothing at all about boats, so I’d have no idea if we were getting a good one or a bad one if we went out on our own.

The man in the DTPC office was very patient and helpful. I’d originally planned only to ask about shorter tours of a couple of hours on a canoe or something, since we’d been told that houseboat rentals started from Rs5000 a day (about CAD$125) - well outside our means. The price was a lot lower than we expected, though - at Rs3500 for a 2pm to 8am tour including all meals, it started sounding a bit more reasonable. Still, $85 isn’t spent lightly, even if we’d be saving $15 or $20 on meals and accommodation. I asked a thousand questions to satisfy myself, and I still hadn’t ruled out the smaller trips. Sheryl was enchanted with the houseboat idea, though, and she came back after looking at the boat with stars in her eyes. As soon as I heard her use the word “cute” I knew we were spending the money. What with the flights to Jaipur and this houseboat, it’s been a very expensive couple of days here in cheap India.

I have to admit, though, that the houseboat was indeed very cute, even floating as it was in Kollam’s reeking sewer of a harbour. It was small - maybe fifteen meters long and six or seven wide, and had rounded walls woven of palm-fronds with windows, a sitting area in the front under an awning with chairs and a table, and a little room with a double bed and a bathroom with a shower and a toilet. The driver’s seat and the steering wheel were in the very front and the motor was in the back. There were three crew - cook, pilot and one other man whose function was never clear to us, but who may have been the designated translator as neither of the other two spoke any English.

We pulled out of the harbour right on time at 2 o’clock. I’ve never been on a houseboat before, and it was quite charming. The driver took us around Lake Ashtamudi, a big brackish lake ringed with big expensive houses and one pink hospital. Schools of little fish jumped ahead of the boat like scale-model dolphins. The air was cooler out on the lake and the sun was bright on the surface of the water. The shallows of the northern part of the lake were all lined with so-called “Chinese” fishing nets - spidery four-armed wooden rigs with the net stretched horizontally between the spars. The arms of some were painted in bright reds, blues and yellows, but a lot were unpainted. The whole rig rests on a dock and pivots on a balance point in the middle to lower the net into the water, controlled with the aid of counterweights on the landward end. There were hundreds of the huge things. They’re used for crab, crayfish and shrimp mostly. Some of them had big lights mounted above the nets - possibly to lure the creatures or possibly just so the fishermen can see what they’re doing since the nets are mainly used from dusk until dawn.

Besides the nets, there wasn’t much of interest on the lake, aside from a couple of bridges and one gigantic, hideous statue of a seemingly deformed nude woman holding a red lantern. It was easily twenty meters of pure ugly and was titled Goddess of Light, according to the sign mounted on the retaining wall below it. The initial joy at a bit of peace and quiet was wearing off for me at this point and I was getting disappointed at spending all our time on a big lake without seeing any of the smaller channels which made the backwaters famous. That was the whole point of the exercise, as far as I was concerned. I can see a lake anywhere. We tried to convince the crew of this and they took us into one of the small channels for half an hour or so. It was by far the best part. The water was slow and green and the canal was lined with palms and cashew trees. One side was shored up with ancient stone pilings supporting a stone railing. Thousands of birds fluttered everywhere. There were pink-, purple- or blue-painted houses on both sides - it was essentially one big linear village all strung out along the canal. The main mode of transport here is by boat - we saw a lot of little craft out fishing with nets or trundling from house to house.

The people here were generally quiet and unresponsive. A few little kids waved and yelled hello. The older boys were awful as usual, making nasty gestures and shouting rude comments. One threw an unripe mango at the boat and it hit the railing right beside Sheryl’s head very hard - she’d have been hurt quite badly if it had hit her, and as it was she was covered with smashed fruit. That soured the enjoyment somewhat, and I began to see why they don’t take tourists into the smaller channels as a matter of course.

We watched the sun go down over the water and all the little fishing boats going home for the night. It was stunningly beautiful and would have been very romantic if the boat hadn’t been so crowded. There was quite a lot of traffic noise still audible from the nearby road - and of course the now-usual loudspeakers blasting from the nearest temple. I had hoped we’d be staying the night much further from town, to be honest. Dinner was after dark and was much more food than we needed. Fruit, daal, chapattis, aloo korma and some kind of tomato salsa thing, quite good. I was exhausted by 9:30 and couldn’t keep my eyes open. When I went to bed I had a bad case of the skin-crawlies and couldn’t get to sleep, though. When I finally managed to sleep, I slept very well, rocked softly by the waves. Sheryl sat up writing for a couple of hours, mostly in peace except for a couple of canoes full of locals who kept circling the boat yelling obscene comments until one of the crew came up front to sit with her. Where are all the friendly locals that the brochures and the guidebook keep talking about? Kerala is very rapidly losing its charm.


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Chris Liberty - Dispatches from a Gentleman Adventurer
Being the internal dialog of a vagabond who chased his own tail across five continents for 4 years and 2 days from May 2008 to May 2012, in search of something that never really became clear.
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