To my left, an elderly woman in a bright red sari dunked her soap-sodded hair into the lake. To my right, uniformed kids lined up for the school boat while a fisher hollered about the fresh catch. Up ahead, a stagnant lagoon strewn with water lilies made way for our dawdling canoe.
This here is the backwaters of Kerala, India. Like the American bayous, it’s a labyrinth of lakes, canals with sleepy villages stretching almost half the length of the state. After three months of backpacking through India, my husband Russ and I traveled to this southwestern state in search of a peaceful refuge—taking a break from the cacophony of eager rickshaws with blaring horns, and numbing fragrances of burning garbage and street urinals.
We ended up on a beach bungalow in Alleppey (also known as Alappuzha), a rural city on the coast of the Arabian Sea. Before long, we learned about the utopian water world in our backyard: the backwaters. So on this day, there we were, taking an unhurried safari down Kayamkulam Lake. Guided by Anthony, a local villager and retired coconut processor, we observed everyday life in his community.
In this so-called “Venice of the East,” life revolves around water. Kiddies swim before they walk and row boats before they ride bicycles. Townspeople use the lake water for all purposes: drinking, bathing, washing, earning. On either side of the canal you can see simple eateries, shops and flat-roofed houses. I spied a homemaker rinsing fish for supper. Two friends sat on the canal’s edge having a chat. Aromas from Indian chutneys and seafood simmering on kitchen burners drifted out into the open air, tickling my nose hairs. I followed the divine smells until we reached the Chavara Bhavan, where we stopped to use the squat toilets.
Chavara Bhavan is a sacred shrine built on the birth site of a revered saint. As for religion, the number of Christians there surprised me. Anthony even toted a Malayalam version of the Holy Bible. I had no idea at the time, but legend has it that St. Thomas founded a church in a nearby village called Kokkamangalam. While local devotees moved past us to kneel and pray, I walked with my husband along the green paddy field, in my own meditation—beguiled by swishing nut trees, cerulean skies and fluttering ducks with freakishly long necks dipping for fish in the water. But my trance came to a quick halt when a nasty bellow from my belly warned me of the time.
“We take lunch!” said Anthony, beckoning us to the rowboat.
Anthony led us across a slippery path and into his home (a small cottage wedged behind a slew of nut trees), where his smiley wife Maria rustled up a homemade traditional South Indian appetizer called ada. Ada is made of rice parcels encased in rice flour dough with sweet coconut fillings. Next was a finger-mixing meal, consisting of rice with three Indian curries, lady fingers (in the U.S., this is okra), beet root and fried fish served on banana leaves, plucked fresh from the couple’s garden.
After eight short hours, we said farewell to the backwaters, sailing by ferry to our beach bungalow (where I, perhaps, hurried to plan our next move to Rajasthan, Udaipur). Because I sensed that Kerala’s arresting allure makes it easy for a weary wanderer to become trapped. And with just three months left on our Indian visas, we had to keep moving.