India is a fairly vast place, but the traveller circuit is pretty small (to wit, we’ve just walked into a cafe in Gokarna on the west coast, and run into two separate people we met in the Andamans over a thousand kilometres away). So it was no great surprise that before we’d even said goodbye to Johan and Manon, we were making plans to meet up with another friend from the boat, Laura from Germany.
But before we catch a bus and a ferry to Alleppey to meet Laura, let me tell you about our farewell breakfast with Jo and Manon. I had a hankering for a breakfast that didn’t involve idly or dosa or sambar or anything even vaguely curried, so I dragged our wee group to a cafe the Lonely Planet assured me did a fine line in western treats like pancakes and cornflakes and all that jazz. Over a fruit platter we got chatting to an ageing hippy at the next table who waxed lyrical about, well everything. He was a seriously positive guy, telling us about the amazing time he was having in Kumily, the wonderful yoga lesson he’d had that morning, and his plans to travel down to a local ashram to meet the “Hugging Mother”, a popular woman guru who goes around the world hugging people. Apparently she hugs thousands of people a day, doling them out from dawn to dusk without taking a break. We’ve met a couple of people who have been hugged by her and said it was a transformative experience, and briefly toyed with the idea of going to see her ourselves, but couldn’t make our schedule line up with hers.
Our new happy hippy friend Michael turned out to be a Welshman originally, who’d lived in London for many years and now lived in Holland (like I said, a small world no?) But the best part was discovering that during the sixties he was a Harley Street dentist to the stars, poking around in the gobs of Ronnie Wood, Eric Clapton, George Harrison and, as he put it “their mutual wife Patty”, as well as David Bowie’s wife and John Cleese. He told us about an anaesthetic technique they pioneered that involved sustaining patients in a state of semi-conscious general anaesthetic so they could do hours of work on them and it would feel like minutes. Fascinating guy.
Anyway, bit of a non-sequitur, but I had to share that for one of our best encounters to date. Let’s get scooting along to Alleppey shall we?
We took a bus part of the way and then a ferry, which gave us our first taste of the Keralan backwaters. It would have been amazing were it not for the fact that a) we were sat right next to the ridiculously noisy engine and b) despite all the noise, Rani and I were so dog-tired that we could barely keep our eyes open to take in the sights. After another very long day’s travelling, we arrived in Alleppey as the sun was going down and were met by our hotel host, Anju. We’d booked two nights for ourselves and Laura at the Paradise Inn, recommended by Jo and Manon. When we arrived however, Anju started shaking his head and saying there was a real problem. He’d double booked the rooms for the second night, but would be able to move us ‘just across the road’ to his friend’s hotel, with nicer rooms for the same price. Okay great, we’d been looking forward to a lie-in for a change, but we’d get up early, move our bags and then just chill out.
Not so easy. The next morning we presented ourselves in reception with our bags, and Anju said “great! The rickshaw’s just outside” Uh, what? I thought it was just over the road? “Oh yeah yeah, it’s really near”. So we pile into the rickshaw and follow Anju on his bike to a house maybe 20 minutes out of town. Granted it looked lovely, but it was way too far out of town for us. Anju looked a bit nonplussed, but started ringing round his mates to find another hotel closer to town. Back in the rickshaw, and off to the Brown, which had two rooms, and the second should be vacated any minute: “normally people only stay two nights, and these guys have been here two nights, so the room should be free”. What do you mean, normally, should be? “No no, 100% it’ll be available”. Well, 5 minutes later The Brown’s owner appeared, and no the other room wasn’t free, but he had another hotel just round the corner with a free room. Argh! Fortunately this one was actually just round the corner, and the upshot of spending the whole morning running around hotels with Anju was a 20% discount on the accommodation, bonus!
After an afternoon wandering Alleppey for a spot of light shopping and some ice cream sundaes (one of which seemed to involve alien sputum, but it was in fact a fairly evil pistachio sauce. Poor Laura), we booked a canoe tour for the next day. I’d initially been quite keen on the idea of a houseboat, but it turns out they’re huge, noisy, expensive and entirely unnecessary. For one thing, they can’t fit down the mini side canals, which turned out to be the most interesting bit of the backwaters. Sitting in a hand-paddled canoe was also a lot quieter and more relaxing, and we felt a bit sorry for the rich tourists chugging about with their noisy motorboats.
We spent the morning snapping photos or everything, but by the afternoon we’d all settled into a sleepy lull, watching the world drift by and occasionally dozing off. The lazy hazy feeling was so complete that at one point in the afternoon Ben said “what day is it? Is it… Friday?” There was a long pause as we all thought about it, but nobody could say for sure…