We began again with breakfast in our hotel. Then I went on a little quest. We've been drinking lime sodas (club soda with fresh lime juice) everywhere in India; however, here they have great lime squeezers, sort of like garlic presses. Everyone I asked told me that the place to get them is Palace Road. Nobody said more than that, and it's a big road, but I rented a bike again and headed down to see if I could find a lime squeezer. I also took a digital picture of my hotel's one, so that I could show it if I have trouble describing what I want. I biked down, stopping by the synagogue again as it was on the way (it was closed, again). Then I went to Palace Road, and stopped at the first shop that had pots and pans hanging in the front, on the principle that the same shop would sell all stainless steel things. The woman spoke absolutely no English, but I showed her a photo, and after a moment she produced a half dozen squeezers for me to choose among. I selected the best, and paid. I actually got it for less than the asking price without bargaining, due to the chronic Indian lack of small change!
Then I biked back to the coffee shop we'd eaten at yesterday. We'd arranged to meet up with Alan Mackworth, a colleague of mine from UBC, and his wife Marianne. Amazingly everything worked out, and we were all there at the appointed time. We swapped India stories and chatted for a while. Alan and Marianne were traveling in deluxe style: they had paid for their entire trip up front as a package, and had four star hotels, a car with chauffeur in every city, etc. They were going to spend the afternoon shopping for gold in Cochin; as it was mostly on their way, they generously offered to drive us to the bus station, where we were heading for the next leg of our journey. We're going to Alleppey, the gateway to the Keralla backwaters.
The drive took nearly an hour. By the time we arrived, I was starting to feel really sick: a splitting headache, very weak, and really tired even though I'd slept very long the night before. Though the bus was very crowded and cramped, we luckily got a seat; I slept nearly the whole way. We arrived and checked into our hotel, then I slept some more while Jude arranged with the insurance for me to go to the doctor, while I slept. When that was arranged, we headed directly to the hospital. As it has on all previous occasions, the Indian medical system really impressed me. This was the first general-purpose hospital we visited--in the past we saw a doctor in his home and a private clinic for westerners. The hospital was clean, uncrowded and efficient. Registration and the consultation with the doctor cost 50 rupees: less than $1.50. And, I got to talk to the doctor a good deal longer than I would have been able to in Canada or the US. He ordered some tests. I had a bad reaction to the blood test: I almost fainted, and became quite nauseous. The doctor said this was common, and called "vaso vagal syncope". Anyway, after the blood work he said that since Delhi I'd had a viral fever (which evidently doesn't necessarily involve having a temperature) and that now I had a secondary bacterial infection. This explains why I've been sleeping so much on this trip, and why I've so often felt a lack of energy. He prescribed me an antibiotic (I persuaded him to upgrade me to Cipro, just in case) and told me to drink lots of water and get lots of sleep.
We ordered dinner at the hotel. There was *still* a strike going on about the execution of Saddam Hussein, and our hotel was one of the only places left in town that was serving food. So they were ridiculously backed up. Our order took two hours to arrive! (There's a sign warning that even in the best of times they take 1-1.5 hours, though; I'm not sure why.) As soon as we'd eaten, I headed straight for bed.
Today was pretty much a write-off: I slept most of the time. First I slept about 13 hours until 1 PM. I then pretty promptly fell back asleep on and off. By about 3 Jude and I eventually walked into town, trying to find something to eat. It turns out there was a strike today also; all the shops were closed. A very good day to be out cold! The town appeared deserted; all the streets were empty and all the shops had their gratings down. After walking around for about forty-five minutes and finding nothing open, we gave up. We returned and ordered food in the lousy hotel restaurant. It was going to take an hour to prepare the food, so I went back to sleep. I got up when the food arrived, and then yet again went back to sleep. Jude came in periodically with information about what plans we could make for tomorrow: questions about what boats are available (for a tour of the backwaters, the main attraction in this area), what buses are running, whether there will be a strike tomorrow and what plans we should make to accommodate that (should we leave tonight to get away from the strike, even though I'm pretty sick?). I got up for dinner, planning to walk into town again. However, just behind our cabin there were some local guys playing guitar and drum and singing. We joined them, and ended up staying for hours. They were quite good, and this was the best thing we'd found in town so far! Then it was back to bed, once again.
Today we went on a one-day houseboat tour in the Kerala backwaters. However, partly because it is high season and partly because no tourists got to go yesterday due to the strike, there wasn't much available. And even in the best of times prices are amazingly high: we were quoted up to 10,000 rupees (about $250) for a one-day cruise for a couple. We managed eventually to find a boat for only 4,500 rupees, but the arrangement was a bit complicated. Apparently cruises leaving Alleppey (where we were) are more popular than cruises leaving Kollam, another city 60 km to the south. So there was an empty boat in Kollam that had to return to Alleppey. The owner drove us down to Kollam, then we took the boat back north to Alleppey. We also saved by having three couples on the boat rather than one (i.e., the boat was somewhat bigger, with three bedrooms). In the end, we actually preferred this arrangement; one of the couples was very friendly, and it would have felt kind of awkward to have the crew of three (two drivers, one cook) attending to just Jude and me.
So we got picked up at 10:30, and headed to another hotel in Alleppey to get the other two couples. The first complication arose when we tried to fit everyone into the jeep. We were eight people; there was room on the roof for luggage, and two seats facing each other in the back, where Jude and I sat. However, there was too much luggage to fit it all on the roof (so Jude and I had to squeeze a huge pack between us) and the jeep had standard transmission (so there were only two seats in the front). As the boat owner came with us as well as the driver, this left us with eight people and only seven seats. The owner tried to squeeze beside a girl in the front seat; her boyfriend took the hint and wedged himself in there instead. The whole way up, the owner talked on his cell phone, each call only lasting thirty seconds or so. After a short time someone asked him to change his ringtone: the grating electronic rendition of Jingle Bells was too much to bear so frequently!
We stopped off a couple of times along the way, for fresh coconuts (which we'd have as drinks on the boat) and for fresh fruit and beer. Then we got to the boat, which was beautiful. From back to front it had a kitchen; three bedrooms, each with attached bathroom; an open dining area; a lounge area with six chairs; and the front, where the captain steered the boat and where we could sit in the sun. We started out being given the coconuts to drink and a big basket of fruit to eat, and as we headed out down a narrow channel edged by palm trees, we felt that life was pretty good.
As I said, we had a crew of three; none of them spoke much English, so we didn't get to know them very well. One of the couples was a pair of women from London, who both worked in social services. Hannah had (very early-stage) MS, and so was just in the process of retiring on long-term disability from her job. Her ex-husband was a Queens professor of Irish History, so she knew Canada well. Amanda was a bright, sunny woman; both were in their mid 40s (I guess) and both liked to read. We suspected that they were partners when we met them, and by the end of the cruise were pretty sure, though they never said anything overt. They did have an ongoing joke about Indian people asking them where their husbands were, and replying that they had killed each other in a duel. The other couple was a British guy who lived in Prague and his Czech girlfriend. They hardly ever spoke and really kept to themselves, so it was almost like they weren't there.
The cruise began along fairly narrow channels, that looked quite a lot like the mangrove swamps we'd been to in Malaysia except that the trees were coconut palms, and there were little villages all along the water. The water was the center of village life: we saw lots of people down on the water's edge, washing their pots and clothes, bathing, brushing their teeth, riding in long, narrow punting boats, wading in the shallow water looking for shellfish, or just lounging by the shore. After a while the channel opened up, and we saw many Chinese nets--like we had in Cochin, but many more--standing free on little platforms in the middle of the shallow water. They lined the (presumably deeper) shipping channel on both sides, with water stretching out behind them in both directions for hundreds of meters. We came to a place where we could see the rivers feeding into the sea, and then we turned and headed back inland. We spent another couple of hours going through coconut-lined waterways, and along the way had a very nice lunch--three dishes and fresh chapatis--prepared by our onboard cook.
After some time we passed through a little dam, and we were told that above this point the water was fresh rather than salty. Thus, the farmers in this area worked rice paddies rather than collecting coir, palm fiber which is used to make rope, carpet, etc. There was still a row of palm trees against the channel, but beyond them were huge rice paddies instead of forests. There were also occasional kingfishers; the driver tried to slow the boat down for me when he saw one so that I could get a picture. We went for a couple more hours through this terrain, and stopped eventually at the edge of a paddy where we would moor for the night. Now, in the last half hour or so of daylight, we could explore the local village on foot. It wasn't as remote as this makes it sound, though: a good half-dozen houseboats were all moored along the same stretch. (I should digress: although we'd been promised a tour at least partly on the "small channels", in the end we basically followed the "highway": the most direct route from Kollam to Alleppey. We were a bit frustrated about this, but oh well.)
Anyway, we got out and wandered through the villages at the edge of the rice paddies. While the guides and the guidebook use the term "village", in fact it was more like a continuous low-density scattering of houses. Nowhere did we see more than five or ten houses clustered together. More often they'd be stretched out thinly along a canal, with paddies behind. We saw a few interesting sights: a couple of fairly large (say eight-inch) lizards mating or fighting; a man with a bucket of palm sap he'd collected; reflections of the palm trees and the setting sun in the canal; men carrying huge bundles of straw on their heads; a mosque loudly broadcasting the evening call to prayer; the full moon rising. At last, it was getting very dark, so we retraced the path as quickly as we could, and returned to the boat. Now we relaxed and had a beer, while I used my tripod to try to capture a picture of the full moon. (It never worked: the gentle rocking of the boat spoiled the picture.) After a while dinner came, and although we'd repeatedly instructed them to make an all-vegetarian meal (four of the six of us didn't eat meat) they produced something the main part of which was chicken. A good indication of how poorly we'd communicated with our "guides"! There was enough food anyway. We read a bit more by candlelight, and then went off to bed. It's amazing how early you want to sleep when you have no artificial light!