We gratefully dropped our packs in the well-appointed bedroom of the houseboat. After one hour and five boats we had settled on the first we had been shown, and, not having found anyone with whom to share, were looking at two nights of what seemed like ridiculous indulgence: an entire houseboat complete with air-conditioned bedroom, bathroom with shower, upstairs deck and a cook for two people.
Well heck, what are holidays for? Our driver informed us we had 20 minutes before departure, and it was then that I realized we had omitted one important detail: we were carrying no booze.
With assurances that we would be back within the requisite time we dashed through the corridors and decks of the three boats that separated us from the dock and hailed a tuktuk (a three-wheeled contraption more properly known as an auto-rickshaw). Perhaps I should explain that the state of Kerala is in the process of going dry.
The touristy areas are replete with restaurants advertising beer and wine, but we hadn’t seen a single liquor store. This in contrast to Sikkim, where we had been previously, where low taxes lure Indian tourists from the rest of the country to brightly-lit, well-stocked counters for cheap bottles.
Even in West Bengal there were shops to be found, though they were dingy and fronted with iron grates and loitering men with downcast eyes. Our tuktuk driver knew the scoop, however. He actually laid a finger aside his nose as he nodded conspiratorially at our request for a “beverage shop” and we putted off in a cloud of dust.
Five minutes later we stopped across from a shack that was more run-down than most, and unmarked, out of which straggled an incredible queue that sprawled into a mob the further it got from the low entrance. Our faces fell and we shook our heads. No way were we going to attempt to navigate that – and besides, we now had less than 15 minutes before our boat was due to set off.
The driver shrugged a little and wobbled his head as he put the little vehicle in gear, which I interpreted to mean he had a plan B. This was revealed to be the case as we lurched to a halt in front a narrow alleyway between two large complexes of open shops. I wouldn’t have noticed it, and certainly wouldn’t have ventured an exploration, if it wasn’t for the figure of our driver darting down it and beckoning. We followed and passed one, then two, then increasing numbers of men and a single sari-clad woman clutching newspaper-wrapped bottles.
We also began to pass the queue, ragged and loose at first then becoming more and more compact as we approached a series of wickets – a metal railing against the left wall narrowed the line to single file, but the crush was just as intense on the outside, which was where we were.
We both hesitated under the malevolent glances of the men.
“There’s a queue you know,” one ventured.
However, our uncertainty seemed to turn the tide in our favour, and the majority began to encourage us.
At this point we still couldn’t make out where the actual sales were happening, but allowing ourselves to be moved along by the sea of humanity we suddenly were popped through a narrow gap in the concrete pillars that supported a roof above us and found ourselves in front of an iron grate beyond which lay the shelves of not-quite illicit liquor and their attendants.
Hayley was in front of me, and she asked for wine, hoping to spot a drinkable vintage from the Deccan plateau that we had sampled at a tea baron’s estate in Darjeeling. The coat of dust the agent removed from the bottle was thick. Her eyes searched quickly, realizing that perhaps this was not the best option, and alighted on a familiar label – Smirnoff.
Gesturing towards it and thrusting money through the narrow slot in the window she only noticed belatedly that it was green apple flavoured. Beggars can’t be choosers and the queue seemed to be growing more restless so we pocketed the bottle and eased our way hastily through the crush, hoping the general air of congratulations would continue to outweigh the mutterings over the injustice of it all.
Our driver, waiting behind the crowd, flashed us a grin and sprinted to his chariot with us at his heels. We sped – as much as one can speed on a giant hairdryer – back to the wharf and scrambled through the hatchways back to our boat for 48 hours of floating bliss.
I don’t think I will ever intentionally purchase a flavored vodka again, but I must admit that we enjoyed every sip of that bottle, and surprisingly discovered that, like many things it life, it was best neat.