donderdag 21 januari 2016

Articles from Alappuzha or How To Spell Venice With An A

Alappuzha is the gateway to the backwaters of Kerala, the much heralded 900km maze of narrow waterways through the lush green, paddy fields and the occasional village. Its canals has reportedly earned it the nickname 'Venice of the East', which is at best misleading; a plain old marketing trick, probably more aimed the Indian - who're mostly only vaguely familiar with the place - than Europeans, who should know better than to think there's more than one Venice. Restaurants and hotels however, gladly make use of the reference, as you can find a 'Venice' something on every corner.

While Alappuzha feels a lot less touristy than Cochin and more like a regular Indian town, it's not the most interesting place in the country. The main market area is filled with stores selling (gold) jewelry, clothing (men OR combination of child/women) and your usual drinks and food stalls, which makes it interesting enough for a stroll or two. It does have one thing that I missed in Cochin: an Indian Coffee House!

Having lunch in one of the Indian Coffee Houses is an experience in itself and one of my favorites from the last journey. The waiters in their white, formal attire are rude, it's overcrowded during lunch hours and the menu doesn't differ much from Uttar Pradesh to Kerala.. But keeping those things in mind it has one big advantage: it always lives up to expectations. They're even consistent in the way the waiters smack your coffee (standard with milk and loads of sugar) on the table, spilling some of your cream coloured Indian Red Bull. Oh yes, and it's all dirt cheap. The coffee is 12 cents, while the most expensive snack on the menu is barely 1 euro, in which case you've selected the mutton omelet (and really, why would you do that?). Usually I leave a tip that's half bill, just to show some appreciation, even if it's just one way.

Although it hasn't rained here in a long time, umbrellas are a widely popular item in Alappuzha. The city even boast a couple of stores, dedicated solely to selling umbrellas of different sizes and in a great multitude of different colour combinations. There are even umbrella hats, which look halfway between pretty cool and completely ridiculous. As it rarely rains (monsoon excluded!) the majority of the umbrellas serve to protect people from the sun, which is scorchingly hot even in midwinter. Even in the shade, the afternoon temperature reaches a whopping 33 degrees celcius. And even though I was tempted, it seemed more like a thing for women and old men, not suited to the laid back non-dreadlock-but-keeping-it-cool-anyway me.

So, backwaters! The reasons why I'm here and the reasons why (ten) thousand - Indians and non-Indians - flock here to this far distant long lost not-really-family-but-we-tolerate-you-anyway cousin of Venice. While those with the budget, the time and the company opt for the houseboat experience - spending the night on the waters in an old rice barge, now floating apartment - I explored the backwaters from a paddle driven canoe, which is as or even more relaxing than it sounds. Especially compared to the loud motorized boats, which rush past the endless side streams and small waterways, where the small life magic is hidden. They'd miss the 'duck shepherd' - yes someone who's herding ducks - who's guiding his quacking flock to wherever they need to go to do whatever they need to do. Oddly, I haven't seen duck on the menu anywhere, nor is duck part of the Indian menu. Maybe someone should tell him. Seeing how some places are run, business models do not seem to be the strong point of most Indian entrepreneurs.

The 'ice cream man' seemed to be the exception. Roaming the backwaters with his simple boat and small cooling box, he seemed to know exactly where and when to ring his bell. He wouldn't even have time to properly arrive at the house and the kids where already waiting, hauling they parents along, thereby assuring this man of an income.

Regarding income, it seems that everybody in this region is either involved in tourism, fishing or rice production. And the last two are even often combined. As the backwaters are connected to the sea and below sea level, freshwater was originally only available during and for a while after the monsoon months, meaning that rice production was limited. Therefore next to dozens of rice paddies, the area is also dotted with shrimp farms, as these creatures welcome the salty sea water more than the more selective rice plants. However, as rice is more profitable than shrimps, dams have been built to (partly) control the flow of water. Meaning that the once natural process is now manually controlled. Take that mother nature!

The area still looks beautiful and serene though. There's something calming about rice paddies and palm trees all around you.

Talking about calming... To close, a little confession. Even though I've grown used and sometimes are quite fond of Indian music, it can be such a relief to your ears to just listen to your own (Western) music. It's like eating pasta for a slightly upset stomach. You're bombarded with so many sights, smells and sounds that unfamiliar to your senses that it can do a world of good to expose yourself to something you know. Just some 4/4, non-tabla, sitar free, your thousand in a dozen scale progression, no morale, non high pitched female jabbering music.

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