Reflections on the backwaters

It rained quite heavily the other day.

So what, you might ask. Our thoughts immediately turned to the people who live in the backwaters who lost family and friends in the floods this summer.

Does it bring a fear, a reminder of how they came to lose so much?

Before we leave Kerala, we choose to visit Kainakary, one of the small towns worst hit by the floods this summer.

We don’t have a guide or anyone to introduce us to anyone but our friendly tuk-tuk driver Binesh points us in the direction of a man and his shikara. Knowing how hard this area has been hit, we don’t even try to haggle over the named price for two hours. We only really fancy one hour, but feel we can’t deprive him of two hours’ work.


One minute, you are staring out at idyllic scenes, lilac water hyacinths dotting the water, palm trees swaying in the breeze, blue sky broken up a little with fluffy white clouds, keeping an eye out for the kingfishers, herons, egrets and woodpeckers.

And the next minute, your attention is back to the harsh reality of life so close to the water. Banks stacked with sandbags, a houseboat half-submerged in the water, paddy fields still choked with mud and stagnant water, a Red Cross mobile medical centre.

Our boatman tells us that in the immediate aftermath of the floods, people were housed in temples, churches, schools and hospitals in Alleppey. Only recently have they returned to assess the damage to their homes. Many have lost everything. We cannot begin to imagine our possessions being washed away or utterly ruined by water or mud.

A narrow boat passes by with four large black plastic barrels balanced in the middle. It’s the daily delivery of drinking water.

An old man paddles by. He splashes some canal water onto the fish, loose on the bottom of his boat, to keep them as fresh as possible. They are tiny though. How is everyone surviving on such meagre food supplies?

You wouldn’t want to eat anything touched by this water, let alone wash your dishes and brush your teeth in it – as people do, of course.

People here do not seem as smiley as the people we have met on our walks in the countryside. In my head I question why we have come to this town particularly. If nothing else, I want readers to remember that these people still need help – and particularly that Kerala is very much open for business and it is safe and easy to get around.

In fact, it is a particularly good time to come. My Lonely Planet book refers to the fact that the backwaters are usually so busy with houseboats that there can be gridlock. No chance of that at the moment.

As part of the need to attract tourists back to the area, the community needs to rally around and tackle the rubbish in the canals, particularly plastic bottles. If every boat owner did one extra journey at the end of the day and cleared his area, they would be on top of it. Even as I say it, I know that many people here have much more fundamental issues to deal with first – getting through each day as they rebuild their homes, and work out where their next meal and water is coming from. But I do think there are also people whose livelihood depends on the backwaters tourism who have some free time right now to be proactive.

The backwaters extends to a network of 1,500 km of canals, 38 rivers and five big lakes. If the whole area’s tourism has been hit, there will be hundreds, if not thousands, of people who could do a concerted clean-up.

Never have we all been more aware of disastrous events on the other side of the world, but after reading the headlines and seeing a 30-second video on YouTube, we all quickly move on. We mustn’t forget that the people who have been affected will feel the trauma for many years yet.

Next stop Kochi.

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