Yesterday I saw old 'Chackappan', in English 'Jacob', hobble past me,in our small town 'Varapuzha', which was a beautiful small island village some time back, till it got connected to Kochi city with a bridge. Chakkappan is the 'kadathu karan' (ferry man) who served us all for decades, especially the students going to the Varapuzha school. The sight of Chakkappan after a very long time triggered a trip down the memory lane.
Remember those days when we had to get into the vanchi every day to go to the school. There was always a special bond among the passengers of a vanchi, because of the challenges of the journey. At peak times, it could be overloaded, and passengers could even sit on the edges on both sides. That was a great balancing act because the wait on both sides should match, else the vanchi would tilt to one side, with the minimum consequence of drenching the clothes of the passengers on that side, especially at the buttocks, which will act as a souvenir of the vanchi travel for another couple of hours, before it dries off. During rainy season it could take even longer to dry. That is at the lighter side. The imbalance of the vessel can even topple it. At every stop when passengers get up to alight the vessel, the balancing act repeats with perfect understanding else the vanchi will tilt or topple. Some of the vanchis had the provision of an extra paddle, and one of the passengers with experience used to help to speed up the sailing. During the late nights the frequency of the vanchi service was low and there was a special code whistle 'pooooiii' to call the ferry man (in some places women). During the monsoon period, the passengers carried umbrellas which made the kadathukaran's job difficult when the wind blew.
There were giant vanchi's known as the vallams used for carrying goods in tons. They had a curved roof to protect the goods and the vallakkaran (sailor) lived in it. It had a kitchen as well. They did not use a paddle, but poles of bamboo. Some of them had sails which leveraged the breeze for momentum. Most of these got converted to housing boats. Still could spot them at the Vembanad lake. Then we had the speedy and smaller versions used for travel through the smaller canals. Some of them even delivered goods at the door step. That was a great time of zero noise, zero pollution travel. Purely nostalgic. That is the reason when I met my school mate Ramesh, who is an Indian air force pilot after four decades, the first thing he remembered was the vanchi trip we did with Joseph another childhood friend of mine.
If you are travelling to Kerala, ask the tour operators for a vanchi trip at Kochi, Alleppey side, and most probably they will not disappoint you.