The sun sank slowly behind the palm trees separating the backwaters from the Arabian Sea, the evening meal on board our houseboat was a sublime mix of chicken in Keralan spices, aubergine chutney, chapatis and large-grained rice, and as we sat on the prow of the boat, watching fireflies wink past and enjoying the rare treat of a peaceful evening in India, Peta said,' Do you fancy a beer, then?'
'Sure,' I said, and wandered down the end of the boat to ask Anil, the chef, whether we could have a bottle of Kingfisher.
'Ah,' he said. 'We do not have any beer on board.'
'Oh,' I said, momentarily taken aback. I thought back to when we'd booked our trip. 'The price includes everything, including food and water,' said the man from the Visit Kerala travel agency. 'Except for beer and sodas, which are extra,' he continued, as we peeled off Rs16,000 in cash and slapped it down on the counter. This seemed perfectly reasonable, but unfortunately he had omitted one small detail – that we would have to provide the beers and sodas ourselves – although thinking back he had asked, 'Would you like a beer?' when we were sitting in the rickshaw, waiting to head off to the ATM. At the time I'd just thought he was being polite; clearly he was asking whether I'd like to stock up with beer for the trip...
'The hotel may have some,' said Anil, pointing to the hotel alongside which we were tied. 'But it will be Rs100 a bottle.'
'That's fine,' I said, and Anil stepped onto the jetty and headed for the hotel. Five minutes later he came back and said, 'I'm afraid they do not have any beer,' which I perhaps should have seen coming, seeing as the hotel was called the Green Channel and looked as if it hadn't had anything to declare for months.
'If you want beer,' continued Anil, 'there is a place you can go not far from here that sells it. You can go with Retheesh in a rickshaw if you want.'
'Why not?' I said, and Peta and I dutifully put on our shoes and followed Retheesh back through the village to the rickshaw stand at the top of town.
'Not far from here' meant a 15-minute rickshaw ride through pitch blackness, playing chicken with oncoming traffic, potholes and pedestrians who were invisible until scared out of the road by the driver's incessant horn. As the minutes rattled by, the road became more and more urban, until we hit the main drag of a busy, bustling city, lit by the garish lights of shops, petrol stations, hotels, restaurants and, just over there on the left-hand side of the road, a small warehouse with a truck parked outside, unloading its cargo of cardboard boxes via the heads of a couple of wiry porters. This, it seemed, was the bottle shop in Karunagapally.
Retheesh indicated that we should follow him, and much to the amusement of the rickshaw driver, we disappeared into the chaos. After stepping around a couple of heated conversations and threading between the porters, who had boxes of bottles stacked on their heads and cried out, 'Hey! Hey!' as they sliced purposefully through the crowd, we entered the bottle shop and stepped right into the seedy end of the Keralan alcohol trade.
20 Green Bottles
Behind a counter at the end of a dirty, dimly lit, concrete room was utter mayhem. A crowd of men stood three deep at the counter, every single one of them yelling and jostling for position. At the left end of the counter a man took money off people in exchange for a receipt, and along the rest of the counter the customers waved their receipts until another man brought them their alcohol. Retheesh turned to me and asked how many bottles would I like.
'Um,' I said, trying to work out how much beer we'd want for a three-night, four-day trip, including a few beers for the crew, while all around locals stared at me as if I'd just teleported in from another planet. 'Uh... 20?' I said, wondering whether this was remotely close to the right figure. Retheesh sucked in his breath, smiled a conspiratorial smile and dived into the chaos.
A minute later he resurfaced, saying, 'That will be Rs900,' which I dutifully peeled off, noting with some glee that at Rs45 a bottle, this was as cheap as beer gets in Kerala (the bottles have 'Rs44' emblazoned on their labels, so we were clearly getting the local price, a bit of a first for this trip). Retheesh again disappeared into the crowd, and I stood back to wait while Peta hid near the entrance, trying to look as inconspicuous as possible (not an easy task for a fair-haired white woman in a dodgy bottle shop in urban Kerala, it has to be said).
While we waited, men flocked in and out of the shop, noisily changing their money for receipts and their receipts for bottles. They were all buying single bottles, mainly of brown spirits that looked like whisky or rum, and to a man they looked sheepish and guilty once they had their prizes, most of them tucking them away in their underwear before leaving the shop without meeting anyone's eye. Clearly, with their mission accomplished, the next step was to get themselves and their precious cargo out of the shop as quickly as possible, so they could get on with the serious business of getting drunk.
While I was waiting, a man with bloodshot eyes indicated to me that I should be waiting in line at the other end of the counter, and he seemed to be getting more and more insistent when Retheesh came back with Rs100 change, and two boxes of rattling bottles appeared on the counter, moving over the heads of the throng like crowd-surfers at a punk rock gig. One of them landed in the arms of our rickshaw driver, who must have followed us in for the entertainment value, and Retheesh grabbed the other one and headed for the door, grinning wildly as the other drinkers looked at our stash in the same way that men stare at an unattainable woman as she and her curves walk past.
The journey back was punctuated only by a brief visit to a petrol station, where a banner proclaimed that January had been 'oil and gas month' and that 'using oil is your right, conserving oil is your duty.' Rickshaw drivers caught sight of us in the back of our rickshaw and smiled and waved, and with us smiling and waving back, we hit the road once more, the rickshaw clinking and clunking at every bump in the road. As we approached the village, at the end of another hair-raising 15-minute joy-ride through the suburbs, we had to try to stop the bottles from rattling quite so loudly as we drove down the main street and past the mosque of this evidently dry part of Kerala.
And with that, we finally got our beer under the stars, and boy, did it taste good. As it says on the label, 'Kingfisher, India's best selling Premium Lager Beer, is a rare pleasure.' Round here, that sums things up pretty accurately...