When the weather is fine you know it’s the time
For messin’ about on the river
If you take my advice there’s nothing so nice
As messin’ about on the river
There’s big boats and wee boats and all kinds of craft
Puffers and keel boats and some with no raft
With the wind in your face there’s no finer place
Than messin’ about on the river
Mention Kerala to many people, and the universal association is backwaters.
The Keralan backwaters are a network of canals, lagoons, rivers and lakes that stretch over half the length of the state, and contain 900 km of waterways. The backwaters are not just a tourist destination – far from it. Filled with villages and towns, the area has been used for centuries as an agricultural and fishing hub, and supports many small and cottage industries that thrive along this labyrinthine water web.
We started our trip about 30km south east of Kochi, and boarded a shikara along with our delightful guide Thumpi. Not too long after we ‘poled off’, we met a toddy harvester. Toddy is an alocholic beverage made from palm, in this case coconut. Early morning, he will collect the unopened flowers, bruise them to release the sap and collect this sap in clay pots. At the time of harvest, it’s around 5% strength, but by the time he sells it to the toddy shops in the evening, it’s fermented to around 20%. He happily sold a bottle to one of our party, and it apparently tastes rather like Malibu.
Our first stop was at lime powder factory, where the shells of molluscs are delivered by fishermen and end up as slaked lime, used for white wash, calcium tablets, fertilser and water purification.
The shells are then heated in a furnace and the heat induces a chemical reaction, turning them to calcium oxide. (Please note, I’m just remembering what Thumpi told us. I’ve totally forgotten my GCSE chemistry. Do advise me of any chemical errors, please!)
The burnt shells are then combined with water, which provokes a really fun chemical reaction (now some of my GCSE chemistry is coming back!). Over the space of a few minutes, a shovelful of shells was reduced to a white powder (calcium hydroxide), and Thumpi calmly demonstrated how hot the chemical reaction was by lighting a cigarette from the smoking pile.
As we travelled on to our second destination, a smaller cottage industry, it was a chance to watch this verdant and lush world and wildlife pass us by. I even saw an Indian kingfisher, and like the UK version, they are as elusive when trying to get a photo.
Amid the palms and shrubs were many trees that had fruit that loked like small mangos. After asking if these were edible, Thumpi told us that these were named by the locals as suicide fruit. So that’s a no, then? He told us that the seed contained enough cyanide to kill a person, but I couldn’t fathom if the flesh were poisonous too. What really baked my noodle, was that shortly after he told us this story, we passed a woman harvesting the fruit, and the bottom of her boat was covered with them. It was only when I got back to shore that I found out the fruit is also used in deoderants and insecticides. But I did wonder for a long while.
Our next stop before lunch was a little rope-making industry, where the whole village had formed a co-operative as a cottage industry. The rope is woven from the soaked husks of coconuts. In describing the rope-making process, Thumpi showed us that a single strand of fibre will easily break. When two fibres are wound together, they are unbreakable. The moral of the story? We are stronger in unity.
We then stopped for lunch and after that made our leisurely way to the more open waters of the lake. There’s something so soothing about being rocked by the water, watching the flow of life drift by, and appreciating the peace of it all. Definitely a day I’ll cherish.