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A ferry in the backwaters

A ferry in the backwaters

I came here from Allepey, a typical south Indian town that reaches to the edges of the Keralan backwaters, a maze of canals with rice paddy gold and green grass borders. Houses line the waterways as they would on suburban streets, but instead of cars in driveways, there are small coffee colored canoes tied to hunchbacked coconut trees.

A palmthatch roof shaded the reed mat and ruby pillows that graced the center of a dirty wooden canoe, just a hand narrower than my arm span and long enough to hold two lounging tourists and a single rower who sat in the sun at the back.  His name was Pushparajan and he’d lived in the backwaters his entire life. Fishermen and ladies washing their clothes in the river yelled greetings to him in Malayalam as we floated past.

Lazing against my cushion while Pushparajan paddled, I wondered if this would be the closest I would ever come to feeling like royalty. Armadas of motorized luxury houseboats, complete with brass railings, man-sized windows, and lacquered sun decks, gurgled past us. There was certainly plenty of regality to be found on the backwaters. But there were moments when I could have sworn that I was on a street, the canal was so congested. Horns blared and the air conditioned four-bedroom houseboats pushed our little canoe into the green growth that hid along the sides of the canal

In this boat-swamped area, it looked like we were canoeing along the edge of a giant soap bubble.  Turning around I asked Pushparajan about the water.  He frowned and put his hand to his ear. I pointed down at the water and asked again.

“Motor oil,” he said, waving his hand  “but no problem.”

I tried to ask him again about it later, but the language barrier rose up like an iron fence that was inches too high to climb and I got the impression that he didn’t want to worry me.  So I let it go.

A head emerged from the water in front of us, and then a torso.  At first I thought the woman was bathing, as many of the people who live here do.

“Fishing for oysters,” Pushparajan said. And the woman opened up both palms to study her coal black catch of shellfish. Unsatisfied, she took a deep breath, grabbed onto the bamboo pole that jutted out of the water like a flagpost without its pennant, and dove back down again.

Then Pushparajan took me behind the main waterways to where his home was, where there were no road signs or huge houseboats or noisy ferries.  And no oil-slicked water.  Here the air stood still so that time moved with the pace of the imperceptible river current, and you could almost hear the cashew leaves falling onto the water. The people of the backwaters live with the river, as a shepherd lives with grassy hills or the Iroquios lived with their forests of Oak and Hemlock.  Because of this, even though these Keralans are removed from the chaos of the wider canals, they live among a different sort of danger.

A thin green layer of vegetation blanketed the canal. With no motorboats to sweep the growth to the sides, there were parts where I couldn’t see any water at all.  My rudimentary knowledge of ecosystem science warned me that this was not a good sign.  Pushparajan led me into the rice paddies behind his house, and told me about the “little bottle of poison” that they use to make sure that the rice grows.

“Not a problem,” he said.  And no matter how I asked him, he assured me that this was the case.

We went back to the canoe.  By this point I’d left my shaded cushion to move into the sun, where there was an extra paddle under the front seat.  It didn’t take long for lounging to get old. Paddling together, we went back to the main waterway, past rice paddies that were golden and ready for the cutting machines to harvest their grains, past the ostentatious houseboats and the people sitting out on their ostentatious houseboat verandas, through the rainbow oil water and back to Alleppey.

And now I’m at Periyar, the wildlife sanctuary without any wild animals, the home of the living plants and trees that are the source of so many things that we use every day; cocoa trees, vanilla vines, cinnamon trees. Today I had fresh, homemade chocolate, made from a cocoa tree that grows in the chocolate maker’s back yard. One more day here to see a tea plantation, and next is Ama’s ashram in Amritapuri, to continue the search for the answers of community living.

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