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Huckleberry Finn Is Alive And Well In India

                                                                By Diana McLeod                                                      2009

      In Southern India, in the province of Kerala, there is a place of childhood dreams. In this land, it is always summer. There are endless canals, and bayous, and larger lakes to explore, and they are full of fish, and frogs and turtles. Boats and rafts are everywhere, and even young children can borrow them and paddle to their hearts’ content. In the heat of the lazy afternoons, the kids dive in and swim among the pink waterlilies and purple water hyacinth. There are plenty of other children to join the fun, as they splash and play water games. A piece of hemp rope, hanging from a tree branch, provides them with a Tarzan swing.

      The land is rich. Fresh fruit is always ripe for the picking. There are banana trees and papayas growing along the riverbank. Coconut palms are always ready to provide cool shade, sweet milk and fresh coconut meat. When the children get tired of swimming, they pull out their fishing lines and wait for a bite. They can even dig for fresh water clams, which can be steamed over an open fire.

      Overhead, the nodding palm trees arch gently over the canals. White egrets and brilliant blue kingfishers soar past on tropical breezes. Beyond the canal banks, beyond the thin strip of raised levee that holds walking paths and the line of brightly painted thatched huts, one can see acres of emerald green rice fields. This is some of the most productive farmland in all of India.

      It all makes you want to go there, doesn’t it? Tourists have always been drawn to these peaceful waterways. About thirty years ago, some enterprising locals got the idea of adapting traditional rice barges to accommodate tourists. The wide bodied barges, with distinctive curled bow and stern decorations, were turned into whimsical houseboats. Construction of the wooden hulls is traditional. Arched structures of rattan mats, lashed with bamboo, cover the center of the boat, creating simple living spaces. These days, the rattan rooms are artfully decorated with fanciful windows, lattice work and verandahs. Some houseboats even have second story balconies. The boats head out into the canals for romantic overnight trips. Most houseboats are docked around the town of Allephuza (formerly Alleppey), Kerala.

      We had prearranged a houseboat rental on the Internet. We were a bit worried that we might not get the best experience, since we couldn’t view the boat in advance. Luckily, our boat was perfect for us! These boats are delightful! I can only describe them with Tolkien style – if Hobbits had boats, these would be their favorites. I was like a little kid, grinning from ear to ear as I explored our ride.

      It was very simple and traditional. Everything was made of organic materials – mostly rattan and bamboo. There was only enough battery powered electricity on board to power a couple of feeble lights and the fan above our bed. The boat had two bedrooms; one for the crew of four, and one for the two of us. Our bedroom had an eco-friendly toilet, sink, and even a shower. The kitchen was in the stern. In the bow, there was an open dining area, two comfortable chairs, facing forward, and even a lounging mattress with round pillows, so that we could enjoy the scenery from any angle. I felt like Queen Cleopatra on my barge.

      We were also very pleased with the fact that our crew did not use the motor unless they were in deep water. Most of the time, they poled the boat. This, of course, was deadly slow, but our purpose here was to stop being in a hurry – at least for a day or two. Except for one other day off in Thailand, this was my first chance to slow down and stop working in several months! We moved with languid grace through the canals. The only sounds we heard were natural ones; the poles in the water, the footfalls of the captain’s bare feet as he walked the pole down the deck, the wind in the palms overhead, the calls of birds and frogs.

      The water flowed past tiny villages built along the levees. The little thatched huts and colorfully painted cottages were neat and tidy. Mothers did laundry in the canals, and little children splashed in the water. Gentlemen worked on their boats, or lounged on their front porches. People didn’t seem to mind our presence. They smiled and waved cheerfully, even though they must have to greet tourists many times a day.

      Time moved so slowly that it was lunchtime before I knew it. (Does that make sense?) We casually tied up the boat by the side of the canal, and the cook served us a delicious vegetarian lunch. What an elegant dining experience! After lunch, we got into some of the larger waterways. We crossed a wide lake, and made a circle trip down a series of smaller canals. Some of them were really tiny – we barely fit, and we had one of the smallest houseboats we had seen.

      School got out, and suddenly the levees were swarming with children. They ran or bicycled home, with two or three kids balancing on a single bike. In no time at all, the school uniforms were discarded and they were all jumping into the canals to cool off. Little groups of kids dove in and splashed around our boat as it went by. These kids were all easy smiles and silly poses as soon as the cameras appeared.

      How could the day go by so quickly? It did, and, all too soon, we were tied up for the night. We had a lovely dinner, and watched the sunset fade. The peace and tranquility was blissful. I felt divorced from all thought, existing only in the sensual experience of the moment.

      Suddenly, an explosive series of sounds made me jump. It was loud - like gunfire. What the -? I ran up onto the bow to see what was going on. It was fireworks! Apparently someone in the area was celebrating a wedding! Probably, a wealthy local family had hired one of the largest houseboats for a wedding reception. Anyway, we had a very nice view of the fireworks, and their glittering reflections in the water. It was very romantic.

      That night, we opened up the rattan windows of our little bedroom, so that we could look directly out onto the moonlit water. All was quiet, except for a few frogs. There didn't even seem to be any mosquitoes, but we kept the net down just in case. I don't remember what I dreamed that night, but I'm sure my dreams were happy ones.

Thanks for reading, Diana McLeod,

P.S. For pictures, please see Dave's photo gallery. There is more information about Allepuzha below.

ABOUT THE CANALS: This land of childhood dreams is located in Kerala, India. The city of Allepuzha, (known in earlier times as Allepey) is the jumping off point for one of the most remarkable systems of canals in the world. The two most important canals were constructed in the 1700’s, by a remarkable army general named Rajah Keshav Das. He realized that the area's river deltas could be connected together, so he dredged the swampland, and raised the water level, so that barges could make their way from one river delta to another. The system was improved over the years, so that today, over nine hundred kilometers of this massive water system is navigable. The water level of these canals is often ten to twenty feet higher than the level of the rice fields. This provides the fields with exactly the water level they need, because sluice gates can be opened at any time for irrigation. It is strange to be on a boat, looking out over the levees and down on land that is lower than the boat is. What a singular engineering feat!

TROUBLE IN PARADISE: The Indian authorities are aware of the delicate ecological balance of the water system. In the 1960’s the canals were in danger from too much pollution. In the past few years, the authorities have banned all sewage dumping into the canals, and they have worked hard to cleanse and preserve the area. The canals are now flourishing. The only worry, at present, is that there are too many ecologically insensitive tourist boats. Houseboats have become so popular that they have become a local industry. Many of the new houseboats are oversized monstrosities, with powerful engines and gasoline generators powering enormous air conditioners, refrigerators, and TV on board. How can anyone enjoy the canals properly with a loud, stinking generator on board? How can people be comfortable, knowing that they are forcing the crew (who stay in the stern) to breathe those fumes all day and all night long? Not to mention the ecological pollution! Huckleberry Finn would surely disapprove!

WANT TO GO? We flew to Cochin, near the Southern tip of India. Allepuzha is two hours further south by car. Try to find a company that uses a small houseboat which is poled, and which doesn’t use a generator. Then, make sure they have an ice chest, so you don’t miss out on cold beer!

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