We have been exploring the Keralan backwaters by kettuvallam and kayak, and it has hit home just how terrifying the floods must have been.
In August nearly 500 people died in Kerala from the worst monsoon floods and landslides in a century.
We nearly abandoned the idea of coming here, as hundreds of others will have done. The kayak operator said he hadn’t been out on a kayak in over a month.
(Pictures show a mattress out to dry… flood damage… lifebuoys at the top of the trees… and the high water mark on the green house)
Our AirBnB host says that all forward bookings at her place have cancelled. When the floods came, her property was safe but she was inundated with calls for help and she accommodated ten relatives who needed a place to stay.
As we sail through the backwaters, we can see that houses are built on a ridge between the waterway and the paddy field beyond. People are walking on pathways just a couple of feet wide, and only a foot or two above the level of water. We can’t begin to imagine what it was like for that water to be rising. There is simply nowhere for them to run to. It’s difficult to imagine how they even began to work out where their next meal and their drinking water supply was going to come from.
The community is going about its normal business – the water is where they bathe, shave, wash hair, wash dishes, wash laundry. But for several moments I wonder which of them have lost someone they loved and how they are still coming to terms with that, while they are still surrounded by water.
As the houseboat went along one waterway, all we could see on one side was mud. It should be fields of rice. The crop is ruined. Throughout Kerala, tens of thousands of hectares of crops have been decimated.
The other side is still under water, with electricity pylons up to their knees in water.
In the town of Alappuzha (Alleppey), the canals which run alongside the main roads are where it is most obvious that a disaster has struck. Trees which have fallen across the canals have yet to be cleared away – the priority has to be the homes and roads. The canals have been clogged with mud, and loads of plants have taken the chance to grow there, making them a sea of green. They do not usually look like this, we are told.
Of course, when trees fall, they often take down power cables too.
And the canals feed out to the sea, not far away. The amount of rubbish on the beach, everyone tells us, is not normal but is blamed on the floods washing so much out to sea and the sea dumping it back on the beach. (More on this to follow.)
A sense of perspective
India gives you a spiritual journey, whether you like it or not. There is something about the country which makes you question your place in this life and how you are living it.
People who know and love India will understand this.
It is humbling when someone opens their home to you with complete trust. Our AirBnB host, Marina, offered to cook us Keralan fish curry and, not only that, but she would show me how she did it. For an hour we chatted in her kitchen as she prepared everything from scratch, although some she had prepared earlier, like soaking rice and grinding the coriander.
Nothing came out of a packet. She shops at the small stores in the market street, she grows her own tomatoes and cucumber.
She didn’t weigh anything, she doesn’t have any cookery books. This was a recipe handed down by her mother. It included lots of different spices, including turmeric, aniseed and cloves, but she was wary of putting in too much for us foreigners. (The curry for her and her husband had been marinating for hours, already ten times stronger than ours.)
At one point, she took the coconut milk (which, of course, she had taken directly from the fruit) and rubbed in cornflour with her finger.
When she tasted the food, she simply poured a little on the palm of her hand. I did the same.
All in all, she was in her kitchen for the best part of two hours, during which time she asked about our eating habits. To be honest, my life has been so busy that it is summed up by: cereal at breakfast, sandwich lunch and, for tea, whatever I can create from something in the cupboard or the freezer within ten minutes of thinking about it (or get a takeaway).
Our eating habits are changing fast. We are being served all kinds of different things at breakfast and they rarely resemble anything that we would eat at home – apart from eggs and bananas. Rice, semolina and curries are all on offer.
We are more determined than ever to make lasting changes to the way we eat when we get home, not least being vegetarian.
Acts of kindness
Earlier this week we walked past a small coffee shop in what can only be described as a shack at the side of the road. David had said ‘We must go in there before we leave Alleppey.’
Funnily enough, as we walked back past it on the way ‘home’, we heard the man say ‘Coffee?’
We decided we had time and did indeed go in. It was quite dark, a single dull bare bulb in the middle of the ceiling, wooden tables and plastic chairs. Four old men were sitting in there, one was tucking in to a plate of rice with his hand, others just coffee or tea. They were of a generation who perhaps know less English and they didn’t try for any conversation (with us or each other).
Our host did try, even though he too had limited English beyond ‘Where are you from?’
We had just been shopping and David opened a packed of incense sticks because he wanted to know what the ‘free gift’ inside was. It turned out to be a small packet of matches. But we had just bought a packet of matches too, so we offered the larger packet to our host.
He seemed delighted. Either he can use them to light his stove or he can sell them on.
His wife also was particularly smiley. The nicest thing was that he wouldn’t accept payment for David’s glass of coffee.
A simple gesture of kindness in both directions.
Update: We went past there again today. The shack was closed but the man spotted us and welcomed us in. He insisted on preparing two glasses of black tea and we established that his name was Nazeer.
While the kettle was on he also insisted we take photos of him. First he put on a better shirt, and then popped round the back to get his hat.
He started talking about his son and grandson. With limited English, he seemed to be asking for 3,000 rupees, we were not exactly sure what for.
‘So your son is in France…?’ David ventured.
‘Yes. Closed Sunday. Holiday,’ he said.
He then invited us to the next room behind his shack, where his 90-year-old mother-in-law was sitting on a bed.
Then he got out an old biscuit tin and showed us receipts for medical treatment and his tablets, explaining that he has psychiatric problems, bipolar disorder, diabetes and his left foot is bandaged.
He still insisted that we didn’t pay for our tea.
We walked away feeling that we could easily give him 3,000 rupees, the cost of a Chinese takeaway at home. It wouldn’t mean much to us but it could make a huge difference to him, considering he charges about 10 rupees for a cup of coffee.
It was the living accommodation at the back of the shack that did it for me. I had no idea that this was where he lived as well as worked. We said we would be back before we leave.