Dawn is breaking, soft and blue. The river and I are just rousing from sleep. Gazing out the window, a placid bed of water gently ripples beneath me as a bird dips down in search of breakfast.
I have spent the night on a houseboat in the famous Kerala backwaters. Here, a web of about 500 miles of lagoons weave between barrier islands inland from the Arabian sea on the western side of southern India.
Sitting at a proper dining room table for morning tea, I watch the local's lives unfold as our boat lumbers downstream. It feels incongruous, as if a four decade-old miniaturized version of an American ranch house has somehow been transplanted directly onto a riverboat in the middle of the old world.
There is a specific culture here in the backwaters. Life is intricately intertwined with the rhythm of the water. One by one, villagers emerge from their homes to practice mundane morning rituals alongside the riverbank. Some are brushing their teeth, others, mostly men, are dipping themselves fully clothed into the water. Women have begun the daily laundry, slapping sudsy wet clothing hard against rock (a cleaning technique that still confuses me). Goats and cows are tied to trees, lazily munching near the river's edge. Men cross from one riverbank to another in rustic hand carved canoes. I feel like I'm at a peep show, looking into the lives of these strangers from a protective floating bubble. The short unscripted vignettes of local daily life that unfold before me feel like a sequence of opening credits for a movie. (VIDEO BELOW)
Our journey to Alleppey from Trivandrum was a bit of a bumble. We accidentally disembark from the train at a city starting with the letter A and ending with -puzha. Ambalapuzha. We are meant to get off two stops ahead, at Alappuzha.
Once we finally arrive, the taxi takes us to the wrong boat dock. We are starving, my emergency snacks long since depleted. The phone number we have for the houseboat company is not working of course, not an uncommon occurrence in India.
We finally find a rickshaw to take us to the proper dock. Along the way, two large passenger buses sideswipe each other. It's the third accident I've seen in three weeks. The surrounding traffic subsequently becomes more chaotic than normal, if that's even possible.
It's easy to fall into a sort of stunned state of overstimulation in India, a country of chaos and confusion for the Western mind.
We finally arrive at the houseboat. The backwaters seem peaceful, an escape from the craziness we've just woven our way through.
I'm amused that our private boat looks exactly like a small version of Noah's ark, thatched roof and all. Except it has a proper living room. And a dining room with AC. And Western toilets with toilet paper, a coveted amenity in these parts. All this luxury makes me feel like old school British royalty, floating along while the locals go about their day-to-day tasks of cleaning, fishing, and transporting goods.
The backwaters mosey along.
Besides the chance to peek at people's daily life, we also get a full dose of wildlife. I notice a curious little green creature on my arm who we later name the Yogi Mantis. I sweep him off, but he sticks around for awhile bobbing, cleaning his antennae, and doing yoga poses. (VIDEO BELOW)
Eventually we stop to explore a small village along the banks of the waterways. Weaving through the red dirt path, kids emerge from their homes to stare and ask for gifts of pens. Men are selling lottery tickets from a brightly colored pink hole-in-the-wall shop. A Christian church is holding mass while a Hindu temple down the way blares high-pitched Indian music from a sound system fit for a frat party. Everything is so different from the strip malls and mega chain stores back home.