That night I struck out on the sleeper train from Madurai to Kollam, my first destination by the Arabian Sea, which laps against the west coast of India. I was only going to Kollam to catch the backwater boat north to Alappuzha, along a particularly pleasant water route along the inland waterways of coastal Kerala, so I hopped straight from the train onto the boat, a transition eased by the willingness of the rickshaw-wallahs to take me exactly where I needed to go (where they got a generous commission, no doubt).
The state of Kerala is a thin north-south strip along the western coast of the tip of southern India, and it's instantly got a different feel to the eastern massif of Tamil Nadu. Palm trees, a permanent fixture throughout India, have invaded Kerala in a similar fashion to Indians on a bus; there's scarcely any space left that isn't lightly shaded by a canopy of fronds and nuts. There's a pleasant sea breeze in most places that helps to keep the humidity comparatively low, and with the mountains of the Western Ghats cutting Kerala off from the rest of southern India, the culture is markedly different to its neighbouring states; it's no coincidence that just down the coast from Kollam are some of the most popular beaches in India after Goa.
The backwater boat takes advantage of the natural and man-made waterways that follow the coast from north to south, just inland from the sea. Smothered on either side by palms and rural houses, the route of the eight-hour trip is quite beautiful, if you manage to ignore the tourists. Yes, the backwater trip is a severe tourist trap, and although it's easy to shut out the inanity of the local's reactions, the boat I boarded had a particularly intriguing mixture of western weirdoes. There was the English geek with his NHS specs, stupid curly haircut and a talent for insipid small talk; the two Birmingham lasses who concentrated on showing off as much bare flesh as possible; the man who plugged himself into his Walkman and stayed connected and thus disconnected until we arrived... as per usual the tourists were as much of an attraction as the beauty of the surroundings.
Except that the tourists were instantly forgettable, while the scenery is the stuff of which memories are made. My long-enforced boycott of the delights of water transport (barring the Indonesian cockroach ferries) has made me forget just how pleasant coasting can be, and with absolutely no swell, a cloudless sky and a total lack of idiotic crew, it all added up to a distinctly pleasurable day. There's an idyllic detachment that comes from having nothing to do and no control over your destination, forcing you to kick back and simply savour the experience, so I settled into my sunny seat on deck and thoroughly enjoyed the experience.
Still, Indian peace is, as I have already discussed, a bit of an oxymoron. Passing through the villages where the canal is lined with concrete paths, children run along the banks, easily keeping up with the boat while shouting out, 'Have you one pen? Give me please one pen! One pen, one pen!' and other such variations on a theme. Of course, nobody gives them a pen to start with, and their persistence – following the boat for five or ten minutes, screaming out their litany that by the end has become 'wunpenpleezwunpengimmewunpen!' – is either a product of fanaticism or sheer boredom; but eventually the pens start to fly of the boat and competition hots up, with the shouting only getting louder and louder as the tourists throw out more goodies. There are smiles everywhere, but I can't help the feeling that this is a slightly false sense of socialising; the children were all grins and so were most of the adults, but plenty of men on the banks of the river looked quite fed up with our presence. And out of maybe a hundred kids, only one said thank you when he got his pen. Bless him.
Despite the obvious Indian-ness of the people, one thing that startled me was how similar the Keralan backwaters are to French Polynesia and some parts of Indonesia, such as Flores and equatorial Sulawesi.
On reflection, there can't be too many variations available in the recipe when the ingredients are water, blue sky, palm trees, fishing, copra farming and squat huts, but it's uncanny how much I was reminded of distant atolls and remote fishing villages. For one slightly scary split second I even felt a twinge of homesickness for those unusual days spent floating through the bowels of the Pacific, but perhaps it was simply relief at not being there, disguised as nostalgia.
Another aspect of Kerala that smacks of Polynesia is the incredible turnout of the women, despite the primitiveness of the habitat. I've commented before on the pristine quality of the fairer sex in India as compared to the clean but mediocre male species, but when your home is on a tiny breakwater between a waterlogged paddy field and a weed-choked canal, the vibrancy of the eye-catching sarees is even more commendable. Nothing, it seems, can dull the liveliness of the local beauties, even incredible poverty.
The boat trip ended in a picture-perfect sunset over the sleepy town of Alappuzha, where I boarded a bus north for Ernakulam, one half of the twin town of Kochi-Ernakulam. I managed to get myself a seat in the melee by the time-honoured method of passing my daypack through the window for someone to place in a vacant space, but the Brummie girls from the boat obviously hadn't managed to slip into the Indian psyche quite as convincingly, because their laden entry into the heaving bus was accompanied by the one of the most pathetic displays of whingeing and squealing I have ever heard.
Their argument with the conductor, who quite reasonably insisted they take their packs up to the front of the bus, embarrassed me in the way that only unwanted geographical kinship can; heads turned and wobbled in disbelief as Midlands voices rose to fever pitch in an expression of frustration and futility that could only have resulted from a bad day in the heat.
So when we arrived in Ernakulam I made a break for freedom by jumping into the first available rickshaw and heading off for a hotel, but the ubiquity of the Lonely Planet meant that not only did the noisome couple book into the same hotel as me five minutes later, I also bumped into them at a nearby restaurant, where I was treated to the therapeutic retelling of the gory details of their ordeal. Is it any wonder some people find India a struggle, when simply boarding a bus becomes a major drama?