In the dark I pushed my paddle against the concrete and drifted to the center of the river. Behind me was the steady thwap, thwap, thwap of a woman standing in the river slapping her laundry against the concrete platform. I looked back to watch her. Her red and yellow sari floated around her ankles. Along the road in front of her men passed on foot and bikes. Even before dawn there is no solitude in India’s cities.
I turned to see my guide drifting in front of me, smiling. He was a handsome young man. He had long hair tied in a bun and a large, easy smile. On shore he introduced himself as Johnson though I’m certain that was only a name he used with tourists.
As we paddled down the inlet the thwap, thwap, thwap faded and bird songs overtook the noise. My eyes were small and heavy from lack of sleep, but the excitement of being somewhere new lifted some of the weight of my exhaustion.
“My partner told me you were a good kayaker.”
“How could he tell?”
“The way you stepped into the kayak. Most people are more uncertain. And most people don’t step in the center.”
“I grew up beside a river. My dad and I used to go kayaking all the time. And we had river kayaks which are more difficult to handle than these ocean kayaks.”
“Yes, much rounder.”
After a few minutes Johnson and I came to the end of the inlet where the water opened to the main thoroughfare. The sun was only beginning to reach its light over horizon. The water was dark and murky. The dawn light didn’t dance across the water but fell on it like it were asphalt. These were not the crystal waters of Croatia.
In the distance a few forms could be seen gliding across the still surface.
My guide pointed to one of them.
“He’s training. You see. He’s training for a competition.”
I followed the direction my guide was pointing to and saw a strong figure standing in a long canoe. He paddled with a single oar as though a machine. His movements were precise, efficient. He rose the handle to his ear then drove it into the water. He made a stroke or two on each side then perched like a cat as the canoe sliced over the water.
I dug my plastic oar into the river to catch the boy in my path.
The grogginess from too little sleep left me as thoughts of the photographs I could make suddenly paced in my head.
With fresh muscles I caught the boy easily. I held one paddle then the other into the water to slow myself, then held an paddle in the water to spin and settle perpendicular with the boy.
The sun was rising now. The water shone orange and I was close enough to the boy to see his dark skin holding and reflecting the sunlight like a rich piece of stone. He was a teenager, maybe fifteen. His back rippled with deep shadows where one muscle rolled into the next. I caught a few pictures of him as he passed.
I inspected the photos to make sure I had properly focused them, then I sat the camera between my legs and paddled back to my guide.
Where we were the river was at least a kilometer wide and was the main path into the city of Alleppey. But currently there were only a few large boats out. Almost all the house boats were still moored with their occupants sleeping inside. A ferry was running, but now it was only one and later there would be dozens.
We paddled over the large expanse of water and barely seemed to make any progress. The palm trees lining the island ahead of us took a long while to grow. But I was in desperate need of exercise so I enjoyed the familiar burn in my back and shoulders. I dug my oars into the water with masochistic pleasure.
When I was walking I was accustomed to eight hours of exercise a day. But when I returned to New Jersey I’d done little more than some brief walks with Savannah and push ups in the kitchen. Then in India I’d done essentially nothing other than walk around during sunrise and sunset. I hadn’t felt a muscle soreness in too long.
Johnson and I reached a pair of fishermen that I was able to photograph as they pulled in their net and searched it for fish. After that we paddled to an empty canoe beside a tall growth of water plants.
A bamboo pole stuck out of the water and was held upright by a rope tying it to the canoe. The pole wobbled briefly then a woman surfaced and heaved two handfuls of mussels into her boat. She said something to Johnson, smiled to me, then disappeared below the water’s surface.
“She’s diving for mussels?”
“Yes. They sell for maybe a hundred and fifty rupees a kilogram.”
About two dollars for two pounds of mussels.
“How deep is the water?”
“Twenty, twenty-five feet. She’ll stay out here a few hours then-”
The woman surfaced beside the bamboo pole and I caught a good look at her for the first time. She was glistening from the water, her dark skin was glowing in the dawn and her eyes were bright and attentive from the exertion. She was more alive than anyone I’d seen in a long while. She smiled closed-lipped and held two handfuls of mussels above the water for me to see.
For fifteen minutes I circled her canoe and photographed her. She seemed to love the camera, but not in the way of someone who knows she’s an attraction. She looked the camera straight on, with an assuredness that revealed itself in her expression, and yet despite her comfort I had the feeling that she’d almost never been photographed.
When Johnson and I moved on I felt a magnetic pull to turn around and follow the diver for the remainder of the day. I wanted to see the entire process; where she lived, her paddling in the early morning, where she sold the mussels and who she was in the evening.
But I continued paddling away from her because we’d only been on the water for an hour and we hadn’t even reached the true backwaters yet. Who knew what characters and stories lay ahead?
“That was a hell of a woman,” I said. “So strong. Up and down in the water like it was nothing. She barely took a breath.”
“I think she’s been doing that a very long time. There are others now who use nets to scratch the bottom of the river and capture muscles that way. She’s one of the few people who still catches mussels how they’ve been catching them forever.”
“Are there people indigenous to the backwaters? Is there a name for the people who have lived here a long time?”
“A name? They’re just locals. She’s a local. I imagine her family has been here a long time. You know there are photos of Alleppey fifty years ago, taken from a bridge over there. You should see it. This place was paradise. You could see through the water to the floor. But now there are all these house boats and everything else and there’s oil on the water. The water is cloudy now. The government had to put a limit on the house boats. Until a few years ago there was no limit. It was getting crazy. Now you have to have a license.”
“This place must have been incredible. It’s incredible now, but fifty, a hundred years ago this place must have been unreal.”
“It’s good and bad, you know? The people have electricity and internet and the tourists bring in money, but now there’s trash in the water and noise from all the motors too.”
“Well it’s still a developing country. In another fifty years, who knows? Maybe things will be cleaner and the water clear again. Little by little.”
Johnson and I paddled a long time to escape the main rivers used for most of the traffic. But eventually we reached the backwaters where the rivers were only twenty feet wide and colorful houses sat just off the banks.
Women did laundry in the river. Men brushed their teeth. Parents held their naked children by their armpits and dipped them in the river. The children laughed at being dunked and laughed again when their siblings were dunked. The older children jumped into the water. One did a cannonball which threw water onto me. The father laughed, the boy surfaced and smiled to me. There was no ill-intent, only families having fun in their river.
I spent a few hours in the backwaters. I was out long enough that I felt a satisfying soreness in my back from all the paddling.
There was a lot of variety back there. It was a world unlike any I’d seen; entire lives lived out on the narrow strips of land beside the rivers. Kids took boats to and from school. A man sold ice cream from another. Building supplies were ferried and fish caught and cleaned.
When I sat sweating under the fan of my hotel room I found a plethora of incredible photographs. And yet I could think of nothing other than the diver.
She was unique. She was a story.
How many places had I been? How many lives had I seen? And yet I’d never encountered a woman quite like her.
In front of the hotel I talked to the manager, Nimu, a lanky and exceedingly friendly man about my age.
“Do you think any of the men know her?” I asked.
“I’m not sure. I doubt she is out there everyday. And it seems she is only there early.”
“Can you see if one of the men would come out with me to talk to her? I want to photograph her throughout the day. Start where she lives and see where she sells the mussels and everything else. I would only need someone for thirty minutes, just long enough to reach her and talk with her. Then I’ll just take the kayak out alone.”
Nimu called the kayak company then updated me.
“They know her, though she is not there everyday. But they said you can take the kayak out yourself. You’ve already been out twice and you’re a strong kayaker.”
“Did they say if someone would come out with me in the morning?”
“I thought you didn’t want a guide.”
“Only to talk to her, then I want to kayak alone so I can explore some back channels.”
“Okay. I’ll talk to them and we’ll see tomorrow morning.”
“Okay. Thank you. Tomorrow morning then.”
In three days I’d been kayaking twice with the guide. Once in the morning when it was only me and Johnson, then on a sunset ride with about ten other tourists. We took the same path both times and though the light was different each time I wanted to find different areas to photograph.
To find a different route I tried a guided canoe tour which only ended up being ridiculously overpriced and didn’t offer me any freedom of mobility. After that I decided I was either sticking to the kayak or ferrying between islands and walking their banks.
The backwaters was a difficult place to photograph. Kayaks were probably the best way to get around. They could be exhausting but at least I had total freedom in them. The other decent option was to ferry between islands. The benefit of that was I would be on the islands, interacting with people in front of their homes. The downside was the ferries were generally just a guy with a canoe. That meant sometimes I caught him and other times I was left waiting an hour.
So to photograph the backwaters I mixed and matched, but on my fourth morning in Alleppey I was excited to wake before sunrise because Nimu and I had spoken with the kayak company again and they promised me a guide to talk to the diver and then I’d be allowed to shuffle off on my own.
As I held to the back of Nimu’s motorcycle on our way to the kayaks, I prayed the diver would allow me to photograph her throughout the day. Figuring out how best to photograph her throughout the day would be a great test to my photography, but I knew if I was up to the task she would make a wonderful story. She was living a unique life amid a stunning backdrop.
But when I reached the home where the kayaks were stored there was no guide for me.
“I’m sorry but we don’t know her schedule. She probably won’t be there.”
I thought if it came down to it I could use the translator on my phone.
And so I pushed off on my own, paddled out of the inlet and into the river. My muscles were feeling the difficulty of moving myself across the water almost immediately. Not having someone to talk to sapped my excitement.
But I pressed on, across the dark waters and towards the painted sky of a rising sun.
At the growth of water plants the diver wasn’t there.
I drifted for a minute, part of me wanting to turn back, then I dug my paddle into the water and continued to the backwaters.
There would still be good photographs. I’d find different back channels and different people. To photograph you needed to exist out in the world. That was the first rule of photography – put yourself in interesting places.
I just had to put the time in. I wouldn’t get to photograph what I was hoping for, but I was still in a wonderful setting where there were plenty of stories to be told.
But each stroke felt like a weight and my progress felt nonexistent. I’d already seen all this. How long would it take-
It was her! The diver!
She was paddling towards me!
She sat at the end of her long canoe and used a splintered oar to paddle slowly along. She was wearing a full sari, bright red and yellow. When she reached me she smiled and I spun to pursue.
I snapped photographs as we went. This was perfect. I was getting her in a different setting before she was in the water.
When we reached the growth of water plants she tested the depth with her bamboo pole then jammed it into the clay floor.
I photographed and she was a natural, so at ease, giving looks to the camera but not caught by it.
She sat on the edge of her boat, removed her sari then dropped into the water.
Once she was in I pulled out my phone and opened Google Translate.
“Thank you for letting me photograph you. I’m a photographer and I think you have a wonderful story. Do you think I could follow you today and photograph you?”
The translator kicked out Hindi and I held it towards her ear.
I waited for a smile, or a nod, but her face was blank.
Maybe she didn’t hear.
I turned up the volume then tapped my phone for it to repeat the translation.
But again, no reaction. She looked at the phone, wobbled her head and smiled noncommittally.
And then I realized.
She didn’t speak Hindu. She was a local.
I couldn’t remember what the local language was and Google Translate couldn’t translate to it anyway.
She waved at me as a sort of dismissal then dove below. I drifted backwards. The gulf of information between us was too vast. The river took me away from her until eventually I paddled slowly on, out to another river and into the smaller backwaters.
There were photographic opportunities to be had in the backwaters, but my heart wasn’t in it.
Maybe I managed a few decent shots, but everything I saw felt cheap now. I was just floating along the surface. I wanted to photograph a life. I wanted to reach something deeper, to capture something with meaning. And now what was I doing? Photographing people from a distance.
I returned to my hotel in a funk.
I knew without the diver there wasn’t anything to warrant me staying. It had already been four days and I had plenty of images of life on the backwaters.
It was time to move to a new setting.
I told Nimu to book me a taxi for the next day then I sat on my porch and read into the late afternoon.
Because I couldn’t let the good light slip past I decided to go out one last time before leaving. After all it’s why I was here. I’d captured most of daily life in Alleppey, but the next great photograph could be waiting just around the bend. I just needed to exist in the world and maybe I’d happen upon it. I doubted I’d find anything new, but nevertheless I had to put in the time. That was key.
On a pier I waited an hour for a man to ferry me to an island.
On the island I walked along the dirt path worn in front of houses, across the island’s center and back to its banks. I photographed children playing soccer and a woman carrying her child, but I couldn’t see the photographs with any clarity. I was shooting out of instinct.
Gradually the light dimmed to the point that the world was a deep blue. I didn’t know how I’d catch a boat back to the mainland but I was unconcerned. After four years of finding a place to sleep in foreign places I had no stress about finding someone to take me to shore.
I capped my camera and hung it over my shoulder.
Perhaps I was putting too much pressure on myself. Once I stopped looking for photographs I was able to relax. It was a beautiful evening. The sky was turning purple. The path through the palms was narrow and magical. All the houseboats were docked so there was no noise of motors. I could hear birds and people chattering in their homes.
The voices carried into my heart and made me think of my family and Savannah.
I’d been away for two years then return home for two weeks before jetting off to India.
What was wrong with me?
Did I have some terrible need to always be somewhere else? I should be with my family. I should be walking with Savannah. How much did I spend on this camera and this trip? It was a gamble that probably wasn’t going to pay off. I could barely pay for my walk. So why couldn’t I just have been content at home? Why did I need to run off?
Watching my step on the narrow path I noticed the feet of someone in front of me and stepped aside.
When I looked up I saw it was her.
She was bathed and dressed different and holding a huge palm leaf with flowers in it.
“It’s you.” I pointed down the path to the river.
She gestured a dive.
“Can I take your photograph?”
She didn’t understand but I pointed to my camera and she smiled.
I guided her to a place free of palm trees where the light of the full moon shone through then snapped a few photos.
It wasn’t the full day with her that I was hoping for, but I’d managed a full circle. I caught her on the canoe, in the water and at the end of the day. Beginning, middle and end. I’d existed long enough in the world for serendipity to run its course.
After the photographs the diver walked home and I went in the opposite direction.
A little further up a man met me on the path and I showed him the photo of the diver.
“Do you know her?”
“She’s my neighbor.”
“Do you have an email? I’d love to send her her photos.”
We exchanged emails and I walked on in the dark, in search of way to reach shore.