Saturday, January 3, 2009

Rum, Buggery, & The Lash Pt. II

I must learn to ask more specific questions.

"Will there be beer on the houseboat?", I politely inquired of our driver, Sadeesh. With an emphatic head wobble denoting a certainty that could only be described as absolute, he replied "No problem". This was the point where I should have drilled down a little deeper.

We had decided to do what we rarely do. Tourist things. It had been said by everyone from the Lonely Planet guide, to our landlord Stanley, that no visit to Kerala is complete without a tour of the backwaters in an enormous houseboat. These floating behemoths ply the backwaters by the hundreds it would seem. With a crew of three or four men, these babies will happily take you out on the water for a day, a week, or until your inheritance runs out, whichever comes first. They are anywhere from 40 to 70 feet long, with anywhere from one to three bedrooms. They come in three distinct price strata: standard, superior, and luxury. Covered entirely in faux palm thatchwork, these enormous shallow draft vessels cruise the massive network of canals, performing the same ritual of hospitality day after day for whoever can pony up the dough.

Along with John and Mary Ann, my cousins who are visiting from Vancouver with their 9 year old son, Aidan, we decided to pool our resources and charter one of these floating pleasure palaces. It was not cheap. Especially by Indian standards. It cost us 21,000 Rupees, or approximately 500 dollars, for a one night cruise for 5 adults and 3 kids. That's about two months salary for the average person here. Ouch. Undaunted, we assembled and loaded ourselves and our camera gear into a very small "van" for the one and a half hour drive to where the boat was docked. Having been assured of the ready availability of our favourite frosty cold malt beverage, we declined to make a stop en route for essential cruising supplies.

The boat was pretty cool, actually. An impressive ode to conspicuous consumption. A large open dining and lounge area up front, then three bedrooms, and a galley. Ours fell into the "superior" class, as there was AC in the bedrooms, and the insect life on board wasn't quite as mutinous as on a "standard". We were greeted, loaded on board, and promptly handed a green coconut to sip on as we headed out of the dock and onto a massive lake. It was pretty stunning. Slowly cruising by locals fishing from small canoes, we headed for the canal area. It's worth talking about these canals. As we got closer to the finger of land that formed the point we were rounding, it became obvious that these were all man-made structures. For miles and miles, as far as one could see, there were walls of interlocking rock, representing an engineering and construction effort that could only be described as colossal, not to mention visionary. On the other side of the rock walls, about 15 feet below water level, are dozens of square miles of flat rice paddy. These fields are serviced by a series of irrigation ditches fed by the canals, and they are populated with small fish and shrimp. John and I marveled at the scope of the project. It was truly amazing.

All that amazement and wonder worked up a fierce appetite, and pretty soon, our erstwhile crew had fixed us up a tasty lunch of Keralan food. Grilled kerameen fish, locally know as "pearl spot", sambar, green beans with coconut, and a coconut and cabbage dish. Rice and pappadam rounded out the meal. Well, almost. As the sun was definitely over the yardarm, at least in Alberta, we decided to tuck into one of those emphatically promised beers. So I asked our crewman who was serving us "Could we order some beers, please". This seemingly simple request was greeted by a furrowed brow. "There is only one", he tersely replied. "Only one brand?", I asked. He looked at me as if I was some sort of idiot for not comprehending his first response. "No. Only one bottle. One beer on my boat". Surely, I thought, this was some form of language barrier problem, one that could be easily overcome by such a smart foreigner as myself by saying the same thing again, only louder and slower. "We... would.... like... ONE... BEER... EACH... please". "One beer", came the clipped response through pursed lips. A sinking feeling descended over us, that us to say, John and me, as we realized our doomed teetotalling state. We finished our lunch in relative quiet. It was at this point that I resolved to ask more specific questions in the future.

We cruised more through the canals, past the rice fields and shacks on the bank. It was possible to live here and never really have to go anyplace else for food or shelter, and that's what a lot of people were doing. A real subsistence lifestyle. Catch fish. Harvest rice. Pick coconuts. Repeat as necessary. This lifestyle could not have been contrasted more emphatically by the barges of infinitely wealthier interlopers cruising past their shacks, snapping pictures and shooting video. And here we were not alone. It's interesting to note that there were many Indian families doing this cruising thing, not just foreigners. More evidence of the exploding middle class in India. However, with our boys playing cards as we chugged down the canal, it was the very definition of irony itself hear the boys cry "Go fish!!", when 15 feet away people were actually standing chest deep in the water, doing their best to catch dinner.

A dinner of chapatti, chicken curry, beet root and coconut, rice, vegetable curry, and... a beer. Or should I say THE beer. Not bad food, but we got the feeling the spice/salt level was dumbed down a bit for foreigners. The beet/coconut combo was an especially nice surprise. We retired to our cabins about 10 PM, whereupon I was compelled to dispatch a cockroach roughly the size of a volkswagen that attached itself to the wall above my bed. In the bathroom, a column of ants marched out of the crack in the ceiling and down the corner of the room, dutifully returning the bodies of fallen mosquitos to the nest in order to feed the young 'uns. We had taken our anti-malaria medicine that night, and true to form, the Lariam caused some mighty psychedelic dreams. Laurel and I were first up, and the morning light on the water was pretty spectacular. After a slightly disappointing omelette and white bread breakfast (no idli and sambar?!?!), we were summarily deposited on the dock at just after 9 AM. All in all, a very interesting experience in a very beautiful place, despite the chronic lack of refreshments.

As we were driving off, we were flagged down by one of the crew. The van stopped. "Sir sir!! You must pay for beer!!! One hundred rupees."


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