Friday, July 25, 2014

Ferry notes

A shorter version is in this month’s Second Anniversary issue of National Geographic Traveller India. The published piece is not on the Nat Geo website, so there’s no link to it. So pick up the issue. 

“The boat service is dying out, you know,” says Raju, the driver of the autorickshaw I am in. We’re careening through the pre-dawn darkness of Kottayam in his auto, heading towards the “boat station” at Kanjiram. I’ve just told him that I plan to take a public ferry from Kanjiram to Alappuzha on Kerala’s coast.
“With more roads and bridges, there aren’t many takers for the ferry. It’s quite slow, you know,” he explains, perhaps perplexed by my interest in the ferry. But when I tell him that I’m a writer, he exhales in understanding as though all is revealed.
As dawn breaks, Raju drops me off at the Kanjiram jetty, an asbestos-roof shed with a small concrete pier. It is the terminus for the Kerala State Water Transport Department’s daily Kottayam-Alappuzha boat service.
The first departure of the day is at 7.15 a.m., although timings can change if a boat has been sent for repairs. I’m rather early, so I sit on a ledge and study the ferry. This is no elegant creation of wood, glass and metal, but a squat, wooden workhorse that looks like it’s been around for a while. Noticing me on the pier, the ferry’s crew invites me on board and tells me to make myself at home. I pick a seat in the prow and wait.
A cat anticipating breakfast
Today, houseboats prowl Kerala’s backwaters, that intricate, interconnected maze of rivers, lakes, and canals that spread across Kottayam, Alappuzha, Kochi, and Kollam. A while ago though, these waterways were the liquid highways connecting large parts of Kerala and ferries were the region’s mass rapid transit systems, linking inland trading centres like Kottayam with Alappuzha on the coast. In A History of Travancore published in 1878, P. Shangoonny Menon, scholar and official in the government of Travancore, writes how in the 1750s: “Several canals were opened to facilitate and extended communication from the back-water to the new town of Alleppey (Alappuzha).”
My interest in the ferry though is personal: I’ve heard older friends and family talk about running errands, or commuting to work on it. As one friend put it, “The ferry was my physical link to the outside world.” With the evolution of faster modes of transport, public ferries may no longer be very popular, but they’re still a window into the region; a window I wanted to open.
I’m woken from my reverie by the voices of people trickling on board. Several carry plastic sacks bulging at the seams; others are armed with fishing rods and nets or farm implements. Almost everyone seems to have a newspaper. Most passengers seem to be regulars; greetings are offered and gossip exchanged. A few choose a seat and dive into their newspapers, while others swap tales about farm workers playing truant. And then, with a toot or two, we’re off.
The glistening 'blackwaters' against the sun
It’s a beautiful early summer morning, the sun is still a baby and there’s a cool breeze. Along the waterways people are beginning their day: brushing teeth, washing clothes and utensils; cleaning fish, and mending nets. We pull up by a makeshift pier for the crew to fix a mechanical issue. A fishmonger’s boat is docked nearby and a passenger makes use of this unscheduled stop to inspect his catch. She returns to the ferry triumphant, a handful of fish wrapped in newspaper.
As the canal opens out into the Vembanad Lake it’s easy to see why Kerala’s backwaters lure people from across the world. I feel like I’m in the middle of the perfect postcard, with green fields that stretch to the horizon, flocks of birds wheeling overhead, battalions of coconut trees guarding the banks, and lotuses blooming in water tinged gold by the rising sun. It’s all rather intoxicating.
We pass churches, mosques, temples, and houses in almost every colour of the rainbow — bright hues of violet, indigo, green, and orange. There are “cool bars” and “fish centres” and more mundane tea shops, hotels and Ayurveda centres that promise “relaxing” massages. For a while, we’re escorted by a squadron of ducks. Like an elephant, the bulk of a houseboat emerges from the mist, a film song booming from an extra-large telly on its deck.
The boat putters along, zigzagging across the water to pick up or drop off passengers. Some jetties are crumbling concrete slabs that seem to be in the middle of nowhere; at one, a dog greets a man as he steps off the boat and they head off into the distance.
A cheerful 'cool bar' and 'fish centre' 
I observe the people on board. There aren’t too many of us, only about 30. In the row of seats right behind me a tourist from Germany and a commuter talk about cameras and lenses; the conversation then veers to toddy tapping. The aroma of sambar and warm idlis wrapped in banana leaves wafts across the boat. My stomach lets out a low growl in response: A family has just opened its breakfast pack.
As we get closer to Alappuzha, the action picks up. The waterways get busier and more people are waiting to board the ferry at each stop. At one jetty a small gaggle of scrubbed, giggling schoolboys gets on. They head to the prow, prop themselves on the sills, and watch me scribble in my notebook. They begin a discussion about why this saipu or “foreigner” is writing notes. When I join the conversation in Malayalam, there are half-embarrassed smiles around.
Soon, the boat is as crowded as the Metro at rush hour. And suddenly, we’re in Alappuzha town inching through water hyacinth and trash towards the main boat station. It’s a little after 9.30 a.m. and there’s a small crowd waiting to board the ferry on it’s return trip.
I’ve had a lovely morning on the backwaters for just Rs 16. As I head away from the crowded jetty, it strikes me that the ferry’s days of glory may perhaps be over, but it still matters to many people in the region.  And that’s just the way it should be.

The Vitals
  • A one-way Kottayam-Alappuzha trip on the Kerala State Water Transport Department’s ferry usually takes a little over two hours and costs about Rs 16 depending on the route.
  • The ferry terminus in Kottayam is currently at Kanjiram, about 9 km from the town centre. In Alappuzha, the terminus is in the heart of the town.
  • There are several trips a day: The first scheduled Kanjiram (Kottayam)-Alappuzha trip is at 7.15 am, the last at 5.45 pm. The first Alappuzha-Kanjiram boat is at 7.30 am, the last at 5.15 pm.
  • Timings can change so it’s best to check with either the station master at Kottayam (+91-94000-50371) or Alappuzha (+91-94000-50324 / +91-477-2252510)
  • There are mobile phones on the Kottayam-Alappuzha ferries (+91-94000-50372/+91-94000-50373), though the crew may not answer while the boats are running.
  • There are no restrooms on the ferries and you’ll have to carry your own refreshments.
  • The Water Transport Department also operates ferries from Alappuzha to other destinations in the region. It also runs the ‘See Kuttanad’ service from Alappuzha for commuters and tourists. The first boat usually leaves at 5.30 am and a round trip takes about three hours. A one-way ticket for an adult on the upper deck costs Rs 80 and the lower deck Rs 30.

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