When I arrived in Allepey after five days of chilling on the beach at uber-touristy Varkala I was again in search of authentic experiences with the local people. I wanted to ‘do the backwaters’ my way. I searched among the tour operators for a basic canoe rental. Everyone wanted to sell me a tour package and no one just a canoe rental. Apparently there had been a boating accident the day before my arrival and four people had drowned (most Indians can’t swim). As a result of the tragedy, the police were cracking down on improvised forms of water traffic.
I decided just to relax and sign up for a one day tour. I did my best to ignore my skepticism and get in line with the ‘group tour’ mentality that I have perennially struggled to successfully adopt.
The tour was OK. I enjoyed it, but it wasn’t the experience I envisioned. That said, it was a springboard for what I was truly looking for. In one of the nearby villages where we stopped on the group tour I chatted with a man who spoke decent English. He was willing to find me a dugout canoe and facilitate my vision: to rent a canoe and spend 1-2 days getting lost in the backwaters. Although no maps were available, the area is densely populated by villagers. I assumed that I would be able to source dinner and shelter on the fly and eventually return by asking the direction of my adopted home village – Kuttamangalam.
I woke at 6 the next day and caught the local ferry from Allepey to Kuttamangalam. The boat took a different route than the previous day, but I recognized enough landmarks among the canals to find a suitable docking point and walk to my friend, Sajeeve’s house. I had told Sajeeve that I would arrive by 7:15. I was an hour late due to the ferry departure time and getting slightly lost en route. He was happy to see me, but had let my canoe back to the boat owner as he unfairly concluded that I was a no-show. I asked why we hadn’t called me. After all he had my local India number. No response. I didn’t press too hard.
He called to arrange the canoe again. As we waited, his wonderful wife served me a small breakfast. We had agreed upon the price of the canoe rental over the phone the previous night – 300 INR for one day. We set about drawing up a contract. I was hesitant to leave him my passport as collateral. We agreed upon 2000 INR ($40) as a security deposit.
I told him that I didn’t have an exact plan and that I would return either the same day or the following day.
Shortly after 9 the boat arrived and it was time to adventure. As I got situated in the shallow canoe, I began to question what I had signed up for. There was already water seeping into the craft and it was not sturdy enough for me to sit on the wooden seat. Sanjeeve placed two planks in the bottom of the vessel. One to raise my small day pack off the soggy bottom and one for me to sit on, slightly raised from the already-accumulating seepage. I rested my back awkwardly against the wooden bench.
With and awkward smile and a ‘Here we go!’ laugh I launched away from the shoreline.
I paddled slowly…
The rest of the story is best told through pics and captions.