Tri-City Herald, Sunday, May 21, 2006

India Through the Backwaters

©2006 Valerie Kreutzer

On a houseboat, tropical paradise meets culture shock.

Houseboat in the Keralan BackwatersMidway through our four-week journey of Southern India we meandered on a houseboat along the famous Backwaters that parallel the Arabian Sea.  Cruising along palm-fringed canals, rivers, and lakes gave us a welcome break from the clamor that is India. 

The six-hundred-mile serpentine of waterways in the state of Kerala served commercial traffic for many centuries.  Barges, destined for the seaports, carried spices, coconuts and rice from fields irrigated by the rivers.  But then a modern road was built and wooden barges started rotting in the waters.

“A German tourist who often came to visit suggested converting the barges into houseboats,” explained Josh, our boat’s handsome young cook.  “That was twenty years ago.  First there were five, then twenty-five, and now there are 365 of these boats.”

Today, houseboats dominate Kerala’s floating life and are its biggest business.  Decked with a canopy of bamboo poles and matting, the boats offer spacious living areas and bedrooms with tiled baths.  Our boat for four came staffed with cook, a captain and the engineer who operated the 20hp outboard motor.  We chugged along about as fast as the uniformed children who burst from school in the middle of the afternoon. They waved and called to us and kept us company along the narrow ridge that separates the waters from the rice fields.  Eventually, the children disappeared into the colorful bungalows that dot the landscape.

Life Along the Waters

Caressed by tropical breezes, we drifted through lily pads past Hindu temples, Christian churches with adjacent schools, women beating laundry, children bathing, and men diving for sand they empty into barges.

“The sand is good for construction,” advised our English-fluent Josh.  Removing it also unclogs the shallow waterways after mountain rivers flood the area during the monsoons.  From silt to palms and fertile fields it seemed that every inch and grain is treasured in this corner of the subcontinent.  The woman tending a garden, the weathered farmer slowly staking his loaded skiff are both intent on eking out a living.  Add to that the fishermen. 

As we emerge from a canal into a wider lake, we notice cantilevered fishing nets awaiting nightfall for their harvest.  Introduced by Chinese traders, the nets require the muscle power of at least four men to operate counterweights to sink and retrieve the nets.

In the late afternoon, crews for larger fishing vessels swish by on slender boats with roaring motors.  They yell a raucous greeting as they pass to sea.  In the growing shadow of the palm trees, our captain finds the perfect cove to anchor for the night.

For supper, Josh serves eight dishes of delicious Kerala cuisine, including local fish.  “Next meal a little less spicy, ” we plead.  He nods, quite used to the blander preferences of his foreign guests.  As the setting sun turns the landscape red and golden, Josh ignites coils to keep the mosquitoes at bay.  There’s no malaria in this area, he says, and reassured we lie back on a futon to gaze up at a brilliant sky.  We notice that the slender sickle of the moon sits on the bottom, not sideways.  Its unfamiliar outline is a reminder that we’ve come halfway around the globe.  It’s a good time to contemplate India and process culture shock.

The Clamor of India

Perhaps it was the cow in the middle of the highway that made us realize that we’d come a long way from home.  Our skillful driver avoided hitting it, as he inched his way past throngs of brilliant saris, goats, buffalo, and half-naked men.

We had arrived the previous day in Hyderabad, nicknamed ‘Cyberabad,’ for its mighty software industry. But the city’s newly created wealth showed little impact on the area’s infrastructure, as we discovered traveling along.

Chaos on the road alternated with squalor in the towns.  Heaps of garbage rotted by the roadside, fodder for the vagrant cows.  The smell of open sewage competed with pungent aromas from food on makeshift stoves.  Blasted music of wailing voices and strange instruments collided with political broadcasts and mind-numbing ohms from the temples.  Beggars, cripples, and street urchins tugged on our sleeves and asked for coins, and hordes of in-your-face friendly students demanded “what’s your name” and “where you from?”  The noonday heat added meltdown to this sensuous overload.

And where, by the way, could we find a toilet?

“Not here,” shrugged the woman in the shack where we stopped for tea.  “No toilet,” smiled the policeman at an outpost. 

Despite the lack of proper plumbing, Indians have high standards of personal hygiene, as we observed in the early mornings of our Backwaters cruise.  Our crew was soaping and soaking in the creek’s muddy waters long before we started showering in our tiled baths with flushing toilets.  Our men vigorously brushed their teeth, spitting toothpaste onto the embankment, then dressing in fresh outfits, pressed and starched.  As they prepared the vessel for departure, smells of spicy soup and spongy rice cakes announced breakfast and a new day.

A Holy Mother at the Ashram

Cruising along, our captain pointed to areas that had been devastated during the 2004 Tsunami.  Over fifteen thousand Indians perished in that catastrophic flood.  While houses have been rebuilt, human scars heal slowly, as we learned during a visit to Matha Amrithanandamayi’s ashram.

Called the Hugging Mother or Amma for the way she blesses followers with a firm embrace, Matha is one of India’s few holy women. Her ashram by the waters houses 2,000 devotees, all dressed in white.

At an afternoon service, Amma was consoling Tsunami victims whose wailing filled the temple.  She held a woman in her lap, whispering and massaging.  The woman’s sobbing soon subsided.  A swarm of television cameras recorded the session to broadcast the Mother’s message of unconditional love and social activism.

“Through her loving embrace and charitable action, Amma is healing the heart of the world,” proclaims Matha’s web site.  Having previously visited South India’s high-profile guru Sai Baba whose ashram is run like a totalitarian camp, the visit with Amma Matha touched us deeply and felt like a blessing. 

Soon we were at the end of our Backwaters journey, but images of a tropical paradise linger like hugs from a holy mother.