On the canals of Kerala

Descending again to the lowlands—a four-hour bus trip on twisting roads through tea plantations, which divide the hillsides into intricate geometric designs and shapes—we arrived at the town of Kottayam and boarded a boat for a three-hour trip along the backwaters of Kerala to Allepey on the west coast.

The 21st in a series of blogs about Semester at Sea, a round-the-world voyage with 600 students.  David Mould is the author of Postcards from Stanland: Journeys in Central Asia (Ohio University Press, 2016) and the upcoming (2019) Monsoon Postcards: Indian Ocean Journeys. Read excerpts at (Travel Blogs) or Facebook /PostcardsFromStanland/


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Most of this area is below sea level and crisscrossed by waterways used to irrigate the rice paddies. Small houses on narrow levees fringed with coconut palms line the banks. Children were swimming and fishing, and women hanging out clothing to dry; in the middle of the waterway, men were digging sand and loading it into a boat. The rice harvest was under way. Men and women gathered rice stalks and carried them in huge sheaves to the river bank, where machines separated and husked the rice. It was packed into sacks and loaded onto narrow boats for transportation to the nearest road junction; at one place, we saw men unloading a boat, using ropes and a pulley to move rice sacks to a truck.

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Nearer the coast, we started seeing large houseboats. Borrowing the concept from Kashmir, this is the up-and-coming tourist industry of Kerala, attracting many Europeans; for $200 to $400 a day, you rent a houseboat with a bedroom, covered dining area and other conveniences, and a two-person crew to pilot and cook. Most were occupied by couples, lazing in the late afternoon sun sipping cocktails.

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On the bank of the waterway, a red flag fluttered high on a flagpole. In several years of travel in the former Soviet republics of Central Asia it was something I had never seen—the distinctive red flag of the Soviet Union with the hammer and sickle. Earlier in the day, I had seen a hammer and sickle painted on a wall. Later, as we traveled north by bus from Allepey to Cochin, the road was temporarily blocked by protestors, again waving red flags. Since India’s states were created in the late 1950s, largely along linguistic lines, Kerala has been alternately ruled by the Congress Party (the original party of Gandhi and Nehru) and the Communists. The state has the highest literacy rate in the country (over 90 per cent), and women have more rights than in other regions. Kerala also has more of a religious mix than other states, with about 30 per cent of the population Christian. However, unemployment is high, reportedly because businesses fear red tape, state interference and labor stoppages. Indeed, the next day, most of the shops in Cochin were closed because the Communist Party (currently out of power) had called a general strike to protest the police killing of a demonstrator in a protest by indigenous peoples.

Cochin was founded by the Portuguese in the early 16th century, and the explorer Vasco da Gama died there in 1524. The Dutch captured Cochin in the late 17th century, only to be booted out by the British just over a century later. It is a fascinating cultural mix: the oldest European-built church in India, which switched from Catholic to Calvinist to Anglican as the colonial rulers changed; a 16th century palace built for the local maharajah by the Portuguese in return for trading privileges; and the Jewish quarter, settled by descendants of people who fled Palestine 2,000 years ago but now reduced (largely by migration to Israel) to a community of less than 20 with a street of shops and a 16th century synagogue. 

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Back in Chennai after a 14-hour overnight train ride, we used the last day to go shopping for fabric and clothes. With a population of about nine million, Chennai was by far the largest city we had visited on the voyage. It was also the most crowded, the roads full of cars, auto-rickshaws, motorbikes with women passengers in saris riding side-saddle, bicycle rickshaws, bicycles and the occasional ox cart. Part of the fascination of a city like Chennai is simply the visual clutter, with shop signs, hoardings and large billboards with all sorts of pro-social (“Books are lighter than bricks. Put a child laborer through school”) and commercial (“World Cup video replays on your Hutch GPRS mobile phone”) messages. 

Next week: The mystery disease