A brief sightseeing trip.
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Venice of the east, by a little stretch of one’s imagination. Alleppey in the southern state of India, Kerala. A small town - population around two lacs, well known over the world for its coir products, the annual boat race at the fag end of the monsoon season. Alleppey is steeped in history. The Dutch had a presence here a few hundred years ago till the British established itself, packing off the Dutch. The tourist can visit the Dutch palace, sail on the canals that crisscross the town, or even stay for a few days in a houseboat, anchored for the night in the huge lake of Kumarakom. There is an Iron bridge, in local parlance irumb paalam, more than two centuries old, still retained as a landmark. It was a connecting bridge at one of the main junctions of the town. Today, the area has been broadened as the traffic grew, and macadam roads laid. The rice bowl of Kerala is also located nearby, the area – Kuttanad. With plentiful of water, it’s not uncommon to hear of three harvests per year. Alleppey is blessed with a wonderful shore line and pristine beaches.
A thriving town its economy dependent on its coir products, tourism, aquaculture and agriculture.
It was a chance meeting. I was on the edge of the highway on the outskirts of the town waiting to flag an empty autorickshaw, a three wheeler vehicle for hire, to get into the business area. A while later, an empty auto stopped some distance away from me. The driver stepped out, presentable, of medium build, full head of hair, a bushy salt and pepper beard and mustache, bright eyes, enquired of my destination, a few moments of thought and then invited me to seat myself in the vehicle. Off we went to the market. On alighting, I paid the fare, whereupon he asked me if he should wait. Intuition propelled me to request him to, which he did. The product I was looking for was unavailable at the store where I had gone. Back to the auto, discussed with the driver, who in turn took me to several stores stocking the product but not of the brand which I needed. This exercise lasted almost three hours. Being an out of towner, I kept asking him about the various aspects of the town. A willing guide for an amateur tourist, combining business with pleasure.He took me through bylines, roads with sparse traffic, all the time telling me this was the shortest routine. No luck with most of the shops till we struck gold on the last store. The drive was scenic, road adjacent to a canal, with a boat plying on it loaded with farm produce. Enroute he kept pointing out various attractions – the oldest coir factory, the iron bridge, the boat jetty, the luxurious residence of some ex minister,[ tourist attraction, I wondered ] and the like.
At the final store we concluded our business, on our return I suggested a break for lunch, we repaired to a decent restaurant and over a lunch of fish curry and rice, he gave me his biography. I had been anticipating that he would get to it, sooner or later. His enquiries of my family was evaded with some semi convincing replies or lies. A person of middle class standing, the youngest of his clan, pushing around forty years of age, still single and according to him revelling in it. A remarkable feature I had noticed on the trip, as we combed the town, was, he seemed to know people almost everywhere. With his broad smile in place, he would get warm greetings and acknowledgements as we trundled about. We stopped for a strong cup of tea, whereupon he introduced me to a fellow driver saying that he was the proud owner of the only front engine auto rickshaw in Alleppey. I dumbly nodded wondering if the vehicle was an antique. As we continued on our semi sightseeing tour, he requested if we could make a detour of a couple of kilometres, I agreed and as we proceeded he enlightened me saying he had dropped his elderly mother, at his cousin’s place for a religious ritual. He wanted to check on her, as she had had a mild bout of fever the previous day. On arriving at the cousin’s place, he used his cell phone to inform his relation that he was outside the main gate of the house. The gate was bolted from the inside. A few moments later his cousin appeared at the gate, opened it a few inches, and there, they had their conversation. He did not step in nor was he invited to. I was a bit puzzled. His mother was fine, and was having her siesta. He then cleared my puzzlement, said this was the ‘fooding’ time of his cousin’s dogs. All huge ones and let loose after their fooding. Two of them were ‘Rotorvil’, and the third was a special breed - ‘German Shipyard’. I struggled to keep a straight and blank face. Rottweiler and German shepherd. We resumed our journey. I suggested since the work on hand was completed, would he be free to take me to a famous temple some dozen kilometres away – Ambalapuzha Krishnan temple. My guide was only too willing. An ancient well thronged temple, famous for its milk porridge or paalpayasam. Along the way we passed the memorial built for those who took part in the freedom struggle. We had a very satisfying visit, then we spent some time watching two mahouts bathing their elephant. The return journey was made in near silence. A wonderful day, made so, by this special friend of mine who went out of his way to help, assist and advise. He dropped me off at my hotel, bade farewell, and left enriched with a few crisp bank notes.
As I reflected on the days events, it struck me that, what was missing was a commitment from both the citizens and the authorities. Their town with canals. A great many choked with water hyacinth, flotsam, indiscriminate dumping of debris on its shore. The banks on both sides could be beautified, debris removed, water cleared of weeds. This requires determination, will and stringent laws. I had asked my Venice friend, why is there nothing being done to attract more tourists, and create an environment that every Alleppeyan could be proud off. In answer, he gave me his most broadest smile and a desolate shake of his head. Nature being wasted. Sad.