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I am posting a bit early today, for soon I have to leave for the airport, and I may not be able to post tomorrow. I thought it best however to conclude my account of Kerala, since this is the last post and there was no point in keeping the series hanging.

The 26th of September was my last day in Kerala but it was also unfortunately a Jewish holiday and the synagogue was closed, so I could not go in this time. And I suspect much has changed, for the road that gave access to it, which I remembered as a sleepy little street, was full now of touristy shops. Still, I bought there a delightful little fish, which I got at a good price, for it was early and I was the first customer.

Then, for I realized I had walked a long way, I took a trishaw back, and got down near the hotel as I thought, only to find that I was near the basilica. That was just as well, for I could then meander to St. Francis’s Church, which was indeed open, and look at the memorial tablets dating back to Portuguese and then Dutch times. But then I rushed back to the hotel so I could check out on time, leaving my luggage there while I went to have lunch by the sea.

This was a weekday morning, but the promenade was as packed as it had been the previous morning. The place was full of vendors of foodstuffs and toys, and I was tempted by mango achcharu which I had not tasted from a street vendor for decades, not since the days of the man who squatted outside the college gates with his delicious offerings. Having enjoyed this in only a slightly more sophisticated incarnation, I decided I would have snacks instead of lunch, and so, having walked to the end of the promenade, I had an ice-cream cone, and then, on the way back, corn on the cob, demanding more and more of the chili powder rubbed on it with a segment of lime.

I had sat for this, as for the achcharu, on one of the many benches alongside the promenade, watching the gulls floating in the distance and then swooping down to the shore by the seaside. That was a lovely sight, in the bright morning light, just as the previous night the ships going by against the setting sun had been. And my joy in the scene was tinged with melancholy, for I realized that this was probably my last time in Kerala, my fourth visit, twice for sightseeing, and twice in between for meetings, a workshop on liberalism for youngsters and then a gathering of the Australia Studies Association.

But now I had to leave, though the hotel proprietor had suggested, when I asked the previous afternoon how long the bus would take, that it would be quicker and easier to take the ferry to Ernakulam. When I got to the hotel he was out, but a visitor who turned out to be his brother engaged me in conversation, and said that he would be going back to Ernakulam and we could go together. So I waited while he had lunch with his brother, and then took a trishaw with him to the ferry station, and boarded the ferry which stopped first at Willingdon Island before getting to the mainland to get to the station for my overnight train to Chennai. The last four pictures are all from that ferry ride, with the tower of the synagogue and a detail from St. Francis’ church to start with, and then part of my feast that afternoon by the seaside.

It was a lovely afternoon, and the ride across the sea, dotted with islands, brought home to me as my previous visits had failed to do, the marvelous situation of Cochin, which had provided the European adventurers with their first main gateway to the East.

Once again I was up before dawn, that morning at Waves and Wind, and went up as the proprietor had advised to the bridge above the hotel to look at the sunrise. But that was not as good a view as the sunset had been from the hotel garden, so after it became light I read in my room and worked outside until breakfast. The proprietor, who had shown me his father’s house a little way along the lakeside, had however gone back to Quilon for the night, but he had said he would be back. So I waited for him, before getting a trishaw to the main road where I got a bus to Cochin, now Kochi, where I had booked a hotel in the Fort for my last night in Kerala.

Unfortunately the bus stopped miles away, so I had a very expensive trishaw ride to the hotel, which it took us some time to find. And it did not have much of a view, which was most disappointing after the splendours of the last four days. Still, it was near enough to the few sights I wanted to see, the Santa Cruz Basilica and the St. Francis church, which was closed though I noted that there was a festival there the next day.

And then I had a look at the elegant buildings of the Kerala Club, before a long walk on the beach, when I could not resist a paddle before dinner. That was at a lovely little restaurant by the seaside promenade, and I ate as the sun was setting, buriyani with squid and lime juice. And then I walked past the Chinese fishing nets, before an early night.

Getting up early next morning was not much use since coffee proved impossible to get. By the time I was told it would be available I had finished work on the computer, so I set off and walked along the street alongside the sea, but there were buildings all along the way and I only just glimpsed the sea at one of the ferry terminals. But then I came across a hotel that, unusually, had a lakeside view, housed in a beautiful old building that had been renovated. It had a canopied restaurant on the lake, and I had breakfast there, lingering over the view with my coffee before then setting off to the Matancherry Palace through little side-streets intersected by canals and bridges.

I could not remember the Palace at all from my first visit to Kerala, way back in 1989, when I had also slept in Cochin. I should have, for it had splendid colourful frescoes on the wall, though sadly these could not be photographed. But I loved the building and its ceilings, the view over the lake, and also the pictures including of a family cricket team. Then it was on to the Jewish synagogue, which I did remember from 1989, and the plaintive declaration of the custodian who said there were just over 20 Jews left in the town, which had boasted an influential Jewish settlement for two millennia. Now, I was told by the security guard, there were just two left, an old couple in their eighties.

Once again there are lots of pictures, for I realize that poetry here lies in these rather than my prose. I begin with sunrise and early morning at Waves and Wind and then sunset in Cochin, Then we have the Kerala Club and the view at breakfast next morning, followed by the Chinese fishing nets and then the view from the Cochin Palace and details of its ceiling and a decorated door.

I had wondered during that day what to do on the next. Though Ashtamudi Villas was delightful, I thought I should try something different, so in the afternoon I booked into Waves and Wind, which I had been thinking of the previous day, believing that it was on the seashore. But that evening I was disabused of this notion by the proprietor of the Villas who struck up a conversation as I was working in the tented area after my coffee.

A little later he approached me again to say the other hotel also belonged to him. He was wondering if I minded staying at the Villas another night, since some friends of his would be at the Waves, and they were wondering about getting another room, the place having just the three. But I said I thought a change would be nice, not least because I wanted a sea beach. He corrected me, for that hotel was also on the lake, but the view of the water there was wider, looking westward, and he understood my desire for a good sunset.

I had wanted early coffee, but the boys at the hotel told me firmly they got up long after sunrise. They provided me however with a kettle and coffee and milk, so I was up before dawn and at the edge of the lake as the sun rose. Then I worked under the tent as it got hotter, having to wait till the boys were up for breakfast. That included a delicious savoury omelette, plus hot toast with lashings of butter and a bit of jam.

They suggested I wait till late morning, to allow the other hotel time to get my room ready. Meals were not easy to get there, they said, so I decided to order lunch, which was good enough though sadly the restaurant that serviced the place had no prawns. Till then I read in the cool of my room, and after that they arranged a trishaw which took me to the other place. That had a lovely lawn on the shore of the lake, with rooms set back, and I had the place to myself till evening, to work outside – here too wifi was excellent – and to read and sleep in the warm afternoon.  

This place had just the one boy in charge, but he was good about coffee which I had outside as the heat of the sun diminished, and then my friend the proprietor turned up, as did his friends. I asked him about a beer, but he said it would be complicated to get some, and instead offered me some brandy, which I drank by the side of the lake as the sun set. I then worked a bit more on my computer outside the room, but realized it was time to go inside when the others in the hotel appeared. I read and had cajdu for dinner and then slept without disturbance, though I saw next morning that the others had had lots to eat and drink after I had retired.

I start with two pictures of the glorious sunset there before going back to sunrise at the Astamudi Villas and the tree trunk on which I could sit with my coffee, in between pictures of the villas early morning when no one else was up and the Waves and Wind in the afternoon, and then myself against the waters with my afternoon coffee, in the bright light of sunset and then as night fell and lights came on across the lake.

I failed to post in this series last Saturday, for wife was not working that morning. It was restored later in the day, but I seem to have forgotten the blog. That may be why the numbers accessing it declined sharply last week, after not Wednesday, but Thursday, which may have been the result of the lovely pictures from the houseboat that appeared in the last post in the series.

These I think are as enticing, in a different way, I did show some pictures from the next stage in my literary blog eight days ago, when I talked about reading Gerald Durrell’s ‘My Family and Other Animals’ on the backwaters, but these are more ordered, three of my afternoon coffee at the Villas and two of the journey from Alleppey to Quilon.

Ashatmudi Villas

From the Finishing Point at Alephuza where my trip on the Houseboat ended, I went to the bus stand to move on to Kollam. That used to be known as Quilon, a name I thought fascinating, whereas Alephuza seemed to me slightly more romantic than its earlier name Alleppey. I had not quite decided where I would stay in Quilon, having thought two hotels I had found on the internet quite attractive. But then, when I decided on one and asked the bus conductor to set me down at the village near where it was, it turned out that we had passed it, and were almost in Quilon.

But there were two foreigners on the bus who had booked into the other hotel I had thought of, and a very helpful local with perfect English on the bus, who helped them get a trishaw to go there and then told me it would be much cheaper for me to go there too since the other was quite some way back. So I found myself soon enough at the Ashtamudi Villas, just a few rooms with a luscious garden in front, with the lake beyond. A room was soon made available, and though the place did not have a restaurant, I thought I could easily skip lunch. Breakfast on the houseboat had been filling, and I still had the cadjunuts I had bought before getting to the hotel in Alleppey. First though I had a beer which the very helpful young manager got from a bar, sitting in the shade of a tented area in front of my room, where I could work happily on my computer, for the wifi there was excellent.

And then I read in the cool of my air conditioned room and then soon fell asleep, dozing through the sultry sleepy afternoon, loving the shade of the garden glimpsed through my window as I drifted in and out of sleep. Rousing myself at last, I had coffee by the lake, where they had set benches by the shore, but where there was also a tree extending over the lake with a fork on which one could sit.

I stayed there as the sun went down, enjoying the changing colours of the sky, but then thought I should have a full meal. Instead of ordering food, I went in search of the restaurant the manager told me was only a short walk away. But then, on the way up to the main road, a motor-bike stopped and offered me a lift when I said I was in search of food. He took me first left, and then right, but I was not enthused by the little restaurants he showed me, and I walked back from the second and went into a hotel where however the security guard told me the restaurant was closed.

But they had a bar, and he said I could get food there, and in fact having ordered a whiskey I got a substantial menu and was totally happy with an egg fried rice. And then a walk back to the hotel proved shorter than I had imagined, and I loved the stroll down the pathway that led to the lakeside and the Villas. And then I was out on the edge of the lake, to watch it shimmering in the lights on the other shore.

Slowly, slowly we moved through that mellow afternoon, the light dancing on the waters of the lake. We passed few boats, for most houseboat trips were for a day, and that was now over for the most part on the lake, as the boats returned to their homes. Soon, while it was still bright, we turned into a branch of the river, and then the light began to fade though there was still lots when we tied up for the night.

I was told I could get down and walk on the bank, but the gap between boat and bank was wider than I dared risk, and the bank did not look particularly interesting. So I stayed on board, watching fishermen walk past, and also take their boats into the river, on this side and the other as dusk fell. I had my beer then, while the sun set, though both banks were covered with trees, so there were only glimpses of a reddening sky.

I worked after nightfall up in the lounge, and had dinner, this time chicken, late for the pakoras had been filling. And then, much earlier than usual, I retired to my bedroom, to read a while to the rocking of the boat, glimpsing through the window lights on the opposite bank, and the occasional boat on the river.

But I was soon asleep, having set my alarm, for I wanted to be up before the sun rose. The waiter slept in the lounge, but had told me to wake him up, and soon enough he brought me coffee while I stood on the balcony and watched the sky light up slowly. Life on the river began in fits and starts, for activity only really began when the sun was well up in the sky.

Soon though we were on our way, and breakfast was served while we glided down the river. And almost before I had finished, we were at the Finishing Point, having to manoeuver to fit the boat in its regular place between two others. It is only with that tying up that pictures are once more preserved, so that exercise can be shown, and the long suffering waiter, whose coffee was hot, whose beer ice cold, and the food he served delicious, with unexpected moreish supplements.

I had had a wonderful time, and though it was just for the one night I shall always remember the rippling of the water as we carved our way through it, the hordes of holiday makers in other boats which made me exult in my solitary splendor, with the view I commanded from high up, the women in their coracles drawing nets across the river. Cold beer in the morning, under the awning of the balcony but exulting in the sun on my shoulders, was a joy, as was coffee in the sleepy afternoon. And so was early coffee, in a cool breeze, as the river slowly stirred to life.

The Finishing Point at Alleppey was full of houseboats, easily a hundred stretching up and down the bank of the river from the pathway towards it. I only had the name of the chap who had reserved a place for me, but that was well known, and also the nake of his boat, so I was directed down the river, and walked for a mile or more before I found him.

He had the booking but it turned out that the boat I was on was on the other side of the Finishing Point. He sent me however on a motorbike, his young assistant maneuvering in and out of the crowds on the bank, and then taking me fortunately just a few yards up the river.

The boat was beautifully designed, two cabins below behind the prow where the steering was, and then stairs to a lounge above the prow, with a balcony. The lounge was ideal for work, for the table could be drawn close to the French windows giving on to the balcony, with almost as good a view of the river. I wrote while waiting for the boat to start, which it did soon after the scheduled time of noon.

It turned out that I was the only passenger, with two men to look after me, a steersman and a waiter, both of whom could cook. I had ordered beer before we left, and as we set off a cold bottle was brought up and I sipped it while on the balcony, gazing joyfully at the passing scene. That was blissful, passing boats and clumps of greenery on the river, the life on the banks which could be seen on either side, including little coracles fishing and then the panorama of a lake into which we entered, chugging slowly along.

Lunch was late, for they tied up the boat to serve it after I had finished my beer. First we had stopped at a place where they said I could buy prawns, but I said I would be content with the fish they had got, after checking that I was not a vegetarian. We went on then to a narrow grin strip where they tied up, before bringing lunch to the lounge.

After lunch I slept, down in the airconditioned cabin, able though to see outside through the window which showed first the bank, and then the river, after we started moving. Boats passed us and I was soon asleep in that tranquil setting, lulled by the rocking of the boat, gentle when we were tied up, and then slightly greater when we moved. Sadly, the pictures I took after the session upstairs before lunch, did not transfer, so I cannot convey the joy of that sultry afternoon, nor indeed the splendid food I was served. This included the crispest of pakoras with the coffee I asked for when I awoke and went back to the lounge and the balcony, entranced now by the altered light as afternoon drifted into evening along with the drifting of the boat on the lake to which we had returned.

I had asked in the morning for two more bottles of beer, so that the boat would not have to go up and down unnecessarily. Following on the morning’s beer, this seemed excessive, but after my coffee, during which I moved also to the back, to see the ducks floating past on the lake, and then a shower, I felt as the sun began to go down that I could cope.

And that was then a blissful evening, as the sky opposite reddened, and the sun dipped down behind the trees. As the light faded the traffic on the river grew less, and then the lights began to appear on the opposite bank. I had ordered both prawns and mushrooms for dinner, and both were delicious, unlike the rather dull lunch I had had. I ate after nightfall, loving the sight in the lights on that side and this of the river flowing, and also the stylish buildings of the hotel behind me, lit softly to bring out the shape of the peaked roof of my section.

Then there was sunrise. I had been told firmly that coffee would not be available till at least seven, but having slept well I was happy enough without it. Now I sat on the other side, on the balustrade of the little verandah behind my room which looked over the lake. There the previous evening I had seen little ducks floating along, but now, before dawn, nothing else stirred as I sat there.

Or rather the sky did, and I saw the place light up slowly. First in relative darkness I saw the moon well above the lake, and then the waters were lit up, and then after quite some time the sun rose in a great ball of fire. It glowed too through my bedroom window, across from the collapsing fence which separated the verandah there from the lake.

And then there was the light on the other side, across the river that was still not too busy though some traffic had started early. There was also chanting, the resonant repetitive Hindi hymns that I recalled from a train journey to Kerala 25 years ago, when I travelled from Bhopal, after seeing Sanchi, and the train was full of a band of pilgrims heading to Trivandrum for a festival. They chanted all the way, but it was not disturbing at all.

Now in Kerala I heard what I thought was the same tune, both here and early morning when I was on the houseboat. Then, when I had moved to Quilon – a much nicer name that Kollam, which is what it is called now – it was Christian hymns that I heard, early on the Sunday morning. And at another hotel there the next day, further north on the Ashtamudi Lake, I heard first Christian singing from the nunnery across the way, and then over breakfast a long drawn out Hindu chant.

But back on that first morning, it was magical to hear the chanting, from across the river. And then later I crossed the river, again in the little canoe, to get to the  Finishing Point, of the great August Boat Race, from where the Houseboat I had been booked on was to start.

Rajiva Wijesinha

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