The sleepy backwaters of Kerala provide a tranquil escape to a simpler world. On quiet waterways under sunny skies, fishermen let their lines hang from small wooden canoes and birds swoop down occasionally to see what fish might be swimming close to the surface. Towering coconut palms line the water banks and rice paddies stretch as far as the eye can see.
A kettuvallam, or traditional houseboat, floats down Vembanad Lake in Kerala’s backwaters.
Drawn by this idyllic setting, tourists come from around the globe to float down the backwaters in kettuvallam, traditional houseboats with thatched roofs covering wooden hulls. With tourism comes an infusion of money into a part of the world where most residents practice small-scale fishing and agriculture. It would not be India if there were not eager entrepreneurs setting up businesses to get a piece of the action.
To get a glimpse of life in the backwaters, tourists hire small canoes to take them “rounding” – exploring narrow canals that snake off the main waterways. They glide past women in hiked-up saris beating their laundry against stones in the water and wave to children running home along the banks after being dropped off from school by a motorboat. It is a relaxing ride, but tourists must remain alert, ducking their heads under low-lying pedestrian bridges and swerving from side to side to avoid getting smacked in the face by jutting palm fronds and drooping vines.
A woman does her laundry in Kerala’s backwaters.
Amid the thick foliage in the backwater village of Kainakary hangs a tire brightly painted with the words “Coffee Hut.” A sign next to the tire promises visitors “spicy tea” and “homely lunch.” This is the work of Preejith Lal, a 22-year-old Keralite who proves the Indian entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well even in the remote backwaters.
Travelling to new places can be exciting. But when the journey involves changing buses at a crowded terminals where all the signs are in a language you can’t read, you could use a helping hand. Fortunately in Indian bus stations, chai wallahs abound and act as de facto help desks when station workers cannot be found. We found ourselves in need of assistance at the Pollachi bus stand in the middle of a ten-hour journey. We had descended from the heavenly hills of Munnar, Kerala where we had been visiting tea gardens and cardamom farms and were en route to Kotagiri, Tamil Nadu where another tea estate awaited us. But first we had to find our bus. A constant stream of buses painted in marvelous colors poured through the station, slowing to a rolling stop as passengers packed in and conductors screamed their destination in nasal Tamil.
“Coi, Coi, Coi, Coi, Coiiiii!” It seemed every bus was headed to Coimbatore, not one to Kotagiri. Looking for help and a little caffeine, we turned to one of the station’s chai wallahs, Selu Kumar, who operates a modest stall from which he sells tea, coffee, and an assortment of deep fried vadas.
Having memorized the locations and timings of each bus departure, Selu Kumar pointed us in the right direction and sent us off on the next leg of our journey. But not before he poured us a glass of chai brewed with the trademark technique found throughout Tamil Nadu’s tea kaddais: straining a stream of black tea into the glass, adding frothy milk pulled with sugar, and topping it off with one more touch of tea.
With another hour to go before our bus to Kotagiri and thirsty for more chai, we decided to visit a few more of the station’s chai wallahs.
Kaliappal pours a steaming cup of milk.
Dhant Bani with a freshly brewed glass of strong tea.
Ravi heats milk and tea in separate tumblers over a pot of boiling water.
Gopalkrishna makes his chai frothy by pouring it from a height.