Kerala Backwaters and Fort Cochin, mostly

27/01/2014

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Kerala Backwaters. It goes on like this for a lifetime.

29 December. Kerala Backwaters/Fort Cochin.

While all of our collection sites to date have been in the southwestern Indian state of Kerala, we have been in the hills—the Western Ghats. On the Kerala coast there is an enormous network of lagoons and canals similar to the American Bayou but much larger, as it is fed by several major river drainages and spreads for hundreds of miles both north and south of Cochin—the Kerala Backwaters. This is an internationally known tourist destination, and the thing to do here is to hire a houseboat with six or seven of your friends and go on a multi-day cruise, dining on seafood and enjoying long hours of relaxing on the boat’s shaded prow and watching the scenery.

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Cap’n Arun at the helm.

I’ll admit that when I first made the plan to visit Cochin I had a ridiculous idea of what the Kerala Backwaters would be like. I knew I wouldn’t have time for a long cruise, and the whole notion of dolce far niente isn’t all that appealing to me anyways. But for some stupid reason I had expected that there would be some unspoiled nature close by. Maybe it’s because I had been to Louisiana and was stuck on the idea of riding the canals of the Indian bayou into some wildlands within a day or so of Cochin. But now having actually been in India for a week I knew how impossible this romanticized, Cajun-flavored vision was.

Kerala’s population is about 33.4 million (roughly that of Canada), and its area (including waterways) is just a bit bigger than Maryland. This is 860 humans per square kilometer, and for India that’s only around mid-range as far as density of inhabitants. Louisiana’s population density is over twenty times less—a paltry 40 humans per km2—so let’s face it, there will be no wildlands in coastal Kerala. These backwaters extend through an vast area that is just as totally inhabited and intensively used as the rest of the country.

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Sacks of rice loaded for transport through backwaters.

Through the hotel’s concierge, we booked a taxi to take us around for the day—3500 rupees for the driver and 4000 rupees for a two-hour boat tour from Aleppey. This was a lot of money by Coimbatore standards—but it was clear that in Cochin and outlying municipalities (for technically we were in Ernakulam) pricing was adjusted to take advantage of the generally greater wealth of foreigners, who were there in significant numbers. Since stepping off the plane in Coimbatore I had not seen a single Caucasian face—in over a week! Inland Tamil Nadu and the lesser-known reserves of the Western Ghats are evidently not heavily visited by international tourists, and according to Dr. Mani they are not heavily visited even by Indian nationals from the Hindi-speaking north. The throngs of humanity in Cochin streets, in contrast, had a handful of bodies that were strangely tall, unnaturally wide, or oddly pale, and I observed a couple of those bodies walk out into oncoming traffic because they had been looking in the wrong direction (I did this myself once or twice).

Actually 3500 rupees for the taxi seems downright cheap. That’s about 65 USD for all-day (9 am to after 10 pm) vehicle and driver, including back and forth to Aleppey (85 km each way) as well as little side trips to look for the fishing nets. The 4000 rupees for a short ride on the houseboat was more of a tourist-priced deal for the boat operator to make a bit more cash before his next big gaggle of passengers.

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Ferry from Fort Cochin to who-knows-where. We were on the next one out–second boat trip of the day.

But really anything more than an hour out and an hour back would have been too much. Another three days on the boat would be three days of pretty much the same scenery—endless canals beyond endless fields of rice or coconut or manioc. I could see how this might be enjoyable for some, and I could also see from the map that there was no significant breaks of pure nature in the highly human-tinged landscape—it was peaceful and pretty enough with lots of birds (though not a lot of diversity)… and not a whole lot to do. Two hours was just perfect, thanks.

The highlight of the Backwaters trip was Magesh’s demonstration of Badaga dance, which must originate from the Badaga tribe in the Ooty hills of Tamil Nadu though it’s now something that everyone in Tamil Nadu is totally into. The moves are pretty basic and also quite awesome. If I could practice a bit the four of us (Mani, Magesh, Arun and me) could do a closing dance montage for Dr. Mani’s fish video compilation. Upon returning to the dock I celebrated with a nice fish curry at a roadside restaurant.

Our taxi driver—who was actually a pretty cool guy—next took us to the market at Fort Cochin, where there was a place that he knew would have the nets we wanted. It turned out that what they had were just small plastic dip nets used by children to catch polliwogs. Oops—haha. I then proceeded to show no interest in any of the cultural or historically significant sites of Fort Cochin, so instead we decided to talk up the fishermen for advice on where cast nets could be bought.Image

At Fort Cochin the most accessible fishermen were the ones operating the Cheena Vala or “Chinese fishing nets,” which are basically gigantic dip nets that operate from short piers on a cantilevered lower-and-lift mechanism in which a broad, flat, square net of about 10 meters on a side is counterbalanced by stones hanging from ropes. The net goes down into the water—which at the time was flowing from right to left as the tide was going out—left a few minutes and then lifted by manpower to harvest whatever fishies were unlucky enough to be swimming above the net at the time of the lift. A few unmanned ropes are there for tourists to participate in the lifting. Doing this over and over again must be really good for developing upper-body musculature, because it is dead easy to identify a fisherman from the rest of Indian males by his huge back and shoulders.

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With the ancient fisherdude at his home.

We found an ancient dude who had some extra cast nets at his home, but when we got there it turned out that his nets were enormous—like 3 meters radius—and the mesh size was too large to hold most of the little fishes we had been catching in the hillstreams of the Western Ghats.

At this point daylight was getting thin and still on our to-do list was a visit to a toddy shop and dip Ihara’s toes in the Indian Ocean. But just getting back to Cherai Beach—which was kind of on the north end of Ernakulam and really too out-of-the-way to be a good location for a two-night visit to Cochin (my bad—I booked this hotel without doing the proper research)—was a long way around unless we took the ferry across the harbor.

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On the ferry. Our car and driver in the foreground. Driver was pretty cool, but he probably wasn’t too happy with us when we complained about the fare.

Between the long cab rides and the long queue for the ferry we had plenty of time for ev bio lessons—one memorable topic we covered that day was sexual selection. Having Magesh join in slowed things down a bit but made them more entertaining. Species that are habitually monogamous are almost always sexually monomorphic (males and females looking similar), while polygamous animals will typically have males that are either large and intimidating compared with the females or a lot flashier and ornamented. “Monogamy” and “polygamy” were new terms (at least in English) for Magesh, so I explained them. “I think I like polygamy,” Magesh said with a giggle, “but polygamy for us is not available.” He followed that up with, “Monogamy is not available for us,” and Arun and I nearly busted ribs laughing.

Marriages in India are arranged through intense searches and painstaking negotiations between the parents of the betrothed-to-be. Sure, the offspring have a say in the matter and can theoretically decline a match, but Arun’s parents have been working for months interviewing the parents of promising daughter-in-law candidates and consulting horoscopes, all in the interest of identifying the very best spouse for their son and the very best mother for the grandchildren. It would be a very serious matter bordering on indignation for a child to refuse his parents’ selection. Guys like Arun and Magesh anticipate accepting the brides their parents choose for them, and until that happens it may seem like marriage and monogamy may as well be a distant dream.

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Cherai Beach at night. Soft surf, warm water, and lots and lots of people.

I’m not sure which ferry we took, but looking at the map now it would have made sense for us to take the Fort Cochin/Vypin ferry, as that would have put us on the same spit of land as Cherai Beach. But as I recall the boat ride and subsequent drive to Cherai were quite a bit longer than it would have been had we done this. I’m guessing that our ferry landed us on the mainland part of Ernakulam from which we trudged our way through heavy traffic all the way to Cherai, only to find the government-run toddy shops closed because it was Sunday. No problem—at that point I wasn’t really in the mood to drink large volumes of palm juice that is only weakly alcoholic and marginally hygienic. I rolled up my pants and waded shin deep into the surf of Cherai Beach. To me it was weird to feel beach water so tepid. It was also weird to share the beach with thousands of people after 10 pm–it was that late when we bailed out of the packed boardwalk area and headed back for beer and peanuts at the hotel bar.

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