By Marcee Murray King
“When you get to the bus station, and the station is behind you, cross the green bridge on your left,” were the instructions given to me from my Alapatt Homestay.
Green-ish would have been a better way to describe it. In fact, some spots where the green still clings would have been more accurate, still. Either way, I didn’t see a bridge and it took me a bit to find someone who spoke English well enough to point me in the right direction. It was where he said, but I needed to walk just a bit to find it.
My tuk-tuk driver in Fort Kochi had told me there was an air conditioned bus that left daily at 8:30 a.m. and went to the Alleppey bus station. I decided to save the money I would have spent on a taxi ride (making up for all that cash I gave that little girl) and try my luck. Being the overly cautious person that I am, I got there about 20 minutes early, thank god. The bus actually left at 8:15 a.m. I barely sat down before we took off.
There were other tourists on board—a group of three and another group or two–but the rest of the bus was filled with Indians. With the heat of the day, I was grateful for the air that didn’t always keep up with cooling us off. As we arrived in Alleppy, they all got off at the tourist center, while I got off at the bus stop.
That was the last I saw of westerners. I was a white minority of one adrift in an ocean of people of various shades of beautiful brown skin.
I had felt adrift—aimlessly wandering since coming to India (more so now). A white woman traveling alone was truly an uncommon sight. Most folks were friendly. Some stared at me like I had a horn growing in the center of my forehead. Each moment I was aware of standing out in the crowd, unable to be inconspicuous no matter what I did.
After all the garbage piled in Fort Kochi, Alleppey seemed quite clean. It was really only clean in comparison, but that was enough for me. Alleppat Homestay was truly clean, for which I was very grateful after the previously not-so-clean hotel I had stayed at. The host and his family were delightful and so helpful. When I arrived I was exhausted, having barely slept since I had arrived in India over five days before. We had discussed the possibility of me getting an Ayurvedic treatment while in Alleppey. My host asked when I might want to do this, today or the next. I told him maybe today would be good, as I hadn’t slept well and the treatment might help. He called the Ayurvedic doctor who was available to see me and said he would be right over to pick me up. I ran my bags upstairs, quickly got ready and ran down to meet my ride.
The doctor arrived on a motorbike and I was expected to climb on. The one thing I was so happy I would never do in India was ride a motorbike. People are very casual about them in India, with sometimes four people riding on one. Once, I saw three people with a big dog on the back of one. There was nothing I could do, so I climbed on, closed my eyes and held on tight.
After the doctor interviewed me, we discussed a treatment plan. We settled on Abhyangam (an all-over body massage with oils that are picked to help with whatever your body is going through at the time) and Sirodhara (a stream of warm oil that is poured through a container over your forehead for about a half an hour). An Abhyangam massage is not like our version of massages. It helps stimulate the flow of energy in the body. All I can say is that it worked, and I went back tired, had an early dinner, and fell into bed early, sleeping well throughout the night.
Waking the next day, I began wandering the streets. People were selling spices from small stands. One man stopped me and cracked a bunch of spices into my hand that are used for making masala which smelled lovely. Everywhere there was so much to see. Eventually, I ended back up by the north canal that led out to the sea. Seeing some steps going down, I decided to follow them to try and get closer to the water. Glancing over, where I would never have seen it from the road, I saw giant seashell sculptures that seemed out of place but so lovely. I started taking pictures of them and realized a bit further off was a statue…a giant statue of a topless mermaid, beautiful, powerful and just tucked away from being easily noticed, strangely out of place in a city of Hindu temples and mosques, a mystery whose history I have yet to discover.
India is steeped in spirituality, unhidden and everywhere.
Being in Alleppey during Ramadan, beautiful Muslim prayers were broadcast throughout the day over loudspeakers. Small Hindu temples and shrines are everywhere. Buses have stickers of Ganesha, the elephant-headed God and the obstacle breaker (perfect to keep me safe!).
People aren’t shy about stopping to light incense and say a quick prayer at any one of these temples or shrines. In Kochi there was a Catholic church as well as a Syrian Orthodox church. The Syrian church had a small shrine out front of Mary holding Jesus, with a place to light incense and say a prayer.
My host arranged a backwater canoe tour for me in Alleppey. The backwaters had prompted my stop in Alleppey, with my original intent to kayak them. When the kayaking company wouldn’t respond to me, I went for Plan B and let the host plan it for me, and I wasn’t disappointed. It was one of the many blessings in disguise I have encountered on my way, as it was a very hot and long day.
We left at 9:30 a.m. and got back at 4:30 p.m. This tour also blessed me with a new friend, Georgina Guinness from Australia, who I sat next to and talked with all day. And we talked! Shared life stories, feeling I had known her forever.
The first part of the backwaters trip involved stopping at a home where we were served breakfast, consisting of some sweet filled rice patties and some spicy-savory beans…the first amazing Indian food I had had since arriving. Having had hardly any appetite since arriving in India, my stomach was so very happy. It was here that I used my first Indian squatty-potty–a memorable event! And then the tour began.
Truly, it was stunningly beautiful. Lush greenery. Small canals wandering back and forth, with houses and villages interspersed. There were people bathing in the canals in their clothing, washing their laundry, doing their dishes. Homes were personalized with unique patterns and colors. We saw a beautiful, brightly-colored kingfisher that flew in front of us, landing on tied-up canoes.
There were people harvesting coconuts to sell and small grocery stores. Fishermen threw nets or lines off the sides of the canals. Canoes were the means of transportation, and seeing one car parked in the middle of all of this was just…weird. We couldn’t figure out how it got there, or where the person could possibly go with it in the middle of all that water. We stopped at a small cafe for snacks. There were small temples and shrines here throughout the backwaters as well.
There were retaining walls of rocks and dirt all along the sides of the canals, with the houses being sunken in behind them. While we were traveling, we noticed canoes filled with mud traveling, and men working, piling it up and smoothing the sides off raising the height of the walls.
When we asked about it, we were told that the water level in the canals has been getting deeper and deeper over the years, and now when monsoons come everything floods if they do not build the walls up. Global climate change has had a very negative impact on their lives.
When the tour came to an end, we ended up back at the home of the woman who had served us breakfast. Our late lunch was served to us on banana leaves. It was a very large grained rice with–my favorite–sambar! Five different types of “relishes” were on the side, all of them delicious. One was a super hot and spicy one that the man only gave us tiny tastes of first, but was so happy to see that I loved it that he kept piling it on. Another favorite “relish” was tomato and onion chopped up and served in thin coconut milk. With twenty-five days in India so far, it remains my favorite meal.
Sadly, the only good food I have had in India yet has been at this woman’s home and in Rishikesh at Madras Cafe. Otherwise, I feel like I have been eating the Indian versions of Denny’s. I keep striking out somehow. Georgie and I parted ways after the canoe trip, but happily would be seeing each other again at Amma’s ashram the next day when I finally met up with my friends, Michelle and Lucy.
I had gotten a bit acclimated in Fort Kochi, managed to get myself down to Alleppey by bus and wandered both of the towns on my own. I made a friend in Alleppey that I would see again in Amritapuri. I then managed to figure out how to take another bus ride down to Ochira the next day, where I would then get a small cab or tuk-tuk to Amritapuri.
At long last, after a week of being here, I felt like I had truly landed in India.
Photo: provided by author
Editor: Dana Gornall
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