Thursday, August 19, 2010

Alleppey and Chennamkary (India)

Further south lies the town of Alleppey, aka Alappuzha. Luckily, our visit coincided with the 58th Annual Nehru Trophy Boat Race. Boat clubs from all over the state of Kerala compete on a 1.5 km course in snake boats (long, narrow canoes) with crews from 20 to over 100 men! Transport to the mini-island with our section was via a ferry so packed it threatened to tip when the eager spectators were disembarking. Though we were slightly farther from the finish line than the more expensive Tourist Silver and Gold stands, sitting in the mid-priced Rose Corner meant being right in the thick of the most ardent Indian fans. At times, the raucous chanting and shouting surrounding us could rival those of English football hooligans. The other unanticipated advantage was our location alongside the VVIP (very, very important persons) section, which included such dignitaries as the Governor of Kerala and, the guest of honor, the President of India! This guaranteed some prime photography as the 100-men snake boats lined up to salute Her Excellency during the opening ceremony. Many of the actual races were highly competitive, and it was thrilling to see the athleticism of the rowers (even if some of them have pot-bellies!) as they sped by, casting up sheets of water. In the lull between heats, we amused ourselves making fun of the English announcer, a woman who, speaking over the play-by-play commentator, sounded as if she had just been handed the microphone and knew about as much about boats as we did. Her inane comments included such gems as, "The heat has begun, and definitely, the heat is on" and "Next is a boat presenting the various art forms of Kerala, and you know, Kerala has various forms of art." The finals had the spectators standing on their chairs and cheering themselves hoarse as all four boats were racing neck and neck at the finish. Immediately, another mad rush to the ferry resulted in mosh pit-like crowds and several foreigners losing their tempers in the stampede. All in all, the Nehru Trophy Boat Race was a fantastic outing!

The rest of the year the other reason most come to Alleppey is because it is also the gateway to the backwaters of Kerala. There are two ways for seeing the lakes, rivers, and canals that make up the backwaters - by houseboat or by homestay. We chose both.

Our private houseboat was one of many thatched barges available with its own crew for an overnight trip. As the houseboat drifts slowly along, you catch glimpses of daily life in the tiny communities that line the waterways... Women slapping laundry on stone steps, and men in dhotis (a sort of wrap-around skirt, which seems to be more common in the southern India) bathing and fishing. In the background, coconut palms and banana trees line large rice paddies growing the giant, fluffy rice of Kerala.

For the more up close and personal backwaters experience, our homestay was exceptional. In the small village of Chennamkary, the homestay really is a family affair: staying in Maria's house with her older brother Thomas handling the bookings, her younger brother Matthew guiding walks, and their mother doing the cooking in the joint compound. We took a couple of walks by ourselves around the island, but one of the highlights was an evening guided walk. We learned more about how the families of the different trades/former castes (toddy tappers, mud diggers, fishermen, carpenters, etc) and different religions (Hindu, Muslim, and various Christian denominations) have worked and played peaceably in the community for generations. At dusk, we boarded a canoe to float the rest of the way back with Matthew and the canoeman sharing a few traditional folk songs. It was easy to imagine the call-and-response over the Keralan backwaters, especially when some of the guys on land joined impulsively in on the rendition of the boatmen's chant that had rung continuously in our ears during the Nehru Trophy Boat Race. Richard also took advantage of the opportunity to do some fishing off the pier, catching 3 fish with only a set up of a stick-and-fishing-line with dough as bait! He decided to stop after catching a catfish with spikes that Matthew ran out to tell us were "deadly painful" (clarifying later that they would only sting... but very painfully... for at least a week). But we have to say, the fish were delicious when they arrived fried for lunch the following day!

Our homestay also allowed us to taste an array of Keralan dishes. The homecooking differed from the Indian food we had been eating in the prevalence of its local giant rice (grains the size of your fingernail!), abundance of fresh and saltwater fish, and frequent use of coconut meat and its oil (Kerala can be roughly translated as "land of coconuts"). Some of our favorites were: steamed rice flour cakes with egg curry for breakfast, finely chopped beet salad, a spicy tomato and onion sort of pico de gallo that we took seconds of everyday, water buffalo curry with the stretchier Keralan version of parathas, the parade of vegetable-and-fresh-grated-coconut dishes, and iddlyappam (rice noodles with coconut formed into nests).

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