The brawny, bare-chested boatsman wore nothing but a lungi wrapped around his waist, and a big, toothy grin tucked away in a bushy beard. His other hand gripping the handle of a rickety trolling motor, he pointed at a mango tree hanging over a canal fringed with coconut palms.
“Mango, mango,” he said. “Mango tree. There. Mango.” He pronounced “tree” with a silent r.
Around the bend, he pointed at something else.
“Look, look. Snake. Rattlesnake,” he said.
I hate snakes, to quote a certain archaeologist action hero, but thankfully the long, sinuous serpent seemed oblivious to our canoe (and to my dread) as it slithered towards shore.
The day approached 6pm, somewhere between Alleppey and Thathampally in the placid backwaters of Kerala, India. My wife and I sat in a long, skinny canoe in this certain middle of nowhere, our captain an Indian who spoke little English and whom we’d just met 15 minutes prior. On the riverbanks, dressed in lustrous saris, their backs bent and faces expressionless, hard women beat laundry over large, flat rocks — thwap, thwap, thwap, thwap. A gaggle of grinning children poured out of a simple, pink-colored dwelling — open windows, open rooms, lives lived in the open — waving at us and smiling at us and saying “hello! hello! hello!”
When we returned the waves and the smiles and the hellos, shyness pushed them back, giggling, into the house.
And this all felt far more normal than it should have.
The canoe made another turn, and I watched fishermen casting spider webs of netting to our right. To our left, standing on the edge of an expansive rice paddy, three men dressed in lungis and button-ups were deep in conversation, the setting sun behind them casting its godly glow in blazes of honeycomb-colored light that would soon run through prisms of pink.
Skinny goats grazed in dusty fields of dirt pocked with spotty patches of grass. Whole coconuts bobbed in the water. I looked up and saw bat nests, like fluffy cones of brown-colored cotton candy, dangling from tree branches high above us. Massive jackfruits hung from other trees like a giant’s scaly grenades. The canal narrowed, the jungle thickened and encroached, and our captain cut the motor and started paddling. It was so quiet out there then — just the soft splish, splish, splish of the oar kissing water, echoes of laughter from a small cluster of homes behind us, and the deep, buzzing ballad of the undergrowth and its millions of invisible habitants.
And I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was all so normal.
When the river became deeper and the wispy weeds thinner, our bare-chested boatsman with the bushy beard kicked the motor on and steered the canoe back towards our main vessel, a houseboat tied to a narrow parcel of land in middle-of-nowhere Kerala. That’s where we spent the night, just the five of us: myself, my wife, and the houseboat’s three crewmembers, one of whom didn’t speak any English, and another a man that we knew was there, in the kitchen, but who was at no point introduced to us. We were safe that night because of course it was safe; it had to be safe.
I’m not sure how long we were out on that canoe; maybe 30 minutes, maybe 45, maybe longer. Thinking back on that unexpected highlight of the overnight journey through Kerala’s backwaters — itself certainly a high point of a trip that began in Trivandrum and ended in Cochi — I’m a little overwhelmed by how privileged I feel to have sat in that skinny little boat, a beautiful woman I call my wife in front of me, a kindly stranger behind me guiding us through a moving postcard he simply called home.
Privileged isn’t the right word, actually; neither is lucky. I’m not sure there is one.
Of course, as splendid as that pastoral scene may have been, the environmental romanticism was strongly tempered by my self-conscious knowledge that I was a white tourist on vacation — another vacation — being jettisoned around a remote village that was clearly poor and very isolated. As much as I travel and have traveled, the crooked level of voyeurism shared between myself and some locals, like the ones who greeted us here with such palpable warmth and curiosity as we motored by them, is something with which I’m still not at ease. I doubt this smoldering specter of white-male imperialism will ever leave me; I suppose I would be a sad shell of a human if it ever did.
I write this from my home office in Singapore, our trip to Kerala now four solid months in the rearview mirror. And as I think back on that canoe ride, it all seems too fantastical to have even happened at all.