ron rothman.ron rothman
selectively conformist

The Roach Story (Kerala)

sharing a coconutIf there’s one thing I hate more than The DaVinci Code, it’s… people who drive really slowly in the left lane (with apologies to my wife and my mother). But if there’s one thing I hate more than people who drive really slowly in the left lane… it’s cockroaches.

That said, here is our cockroach story. (Warning: not the Cliffs Notes version.)

houseboatAlmost three weeks into our trip (and one week after the tsunami), we found ourselves deep in the heart of beautiful Kerala. One of the main attractions of Kerala is its backwaters–a series of breathtaking rivers and canals which tourists meander through on staffed houseboats. Houseboats are smallish traditional wooden/straw boats (which are now engine-powered); they have modest sleeping quarters and a deck (sometimes several decks). They usually sleep one couple; sometimes more.

Some houseboats (notably those of the luxury hotels like the Taj) are splendid, looming large and lavish (and somewhat out of place) over an otherwise rustic setting.

houseboatOurs… was not lavish. But, it was definitely charming–and I don’t mean that euphemistically. (It was also a quarter of the price of the Taj houseboats. $-) Having booked the houseboat from the U.S., we didn’t know what we were getting til we saw it. After the initial slight disappointment, we warmed up to the charm of our little houseboat. (We had drooled over the Taj houseboats the day before, and we sort of expected ours to be as droolworthy. Seaworthy, yes. Droolworthy? No.)

houseboatIn any case, we boarded the boat at noon and were greeted warmly by our captain (“I am Captain Babychan. B-A-B-Y-C-H-A-N.”) . The sun was out, the scenery lush; we sat back and enjoyed a truly magnificent ride through the Keralan backwaters.

You are thinking, “Where is the Roach??? I signed up for a roach story, and you’re just yammering on about boats and backwaters and babychans. Gimme my roach!” Patience, for the roach cometh.

For the rest of the afternoon, we cruised around the canals, enjoyed the shimmering blue kingfishers that swooped overhead, stopped for coconut milk, waved at children we passed; it was a wonderful day that neither I nor Sara will ever forget.

• • •

indian childrenEvening came. We anchored alongside some huts and tried to ignore the local childrens’ loud, playful requests for pens from us. (To this day, the reason they all wanted pens is a mystery.) After a yummy Keralan dinner (coconut in everything) by candlelight, we played cards for a while and then headed to bed.

We went into our bedroom, and Sara proceeded to unfurl the mosquito net which was hanging over the bed. As she undid it, a small cockroach that was hiding inside the ball of netting fell out of it. Sara may have yelped; I’m not sure. Being the new Man of the House[boat], I stepped in and shmooshed the little roachie.

Now is a good time for me to mention that this was the second roach we’d seen on the houseboat. I found the first one in the late afternoon and crushed it with a book. Didn’t think much of it, at the time.

While Sara was changing for bed, I went into the bathroom to brush my teeth and use the toilet (too much chai?). That’s when I heard a little scurrying sound to my right; looking over, I saw a medium-sized rat (not roach) running along a ledge on the wall. He quickly ran through a tiny gap in the wall and left me there alone–slightly open-mouthed, I’m sure.

Now, I’m from New York City. I took the subway 90 minutes–each way–to school every day. I know rats. This one was neither big nor scary, by NYC standards. Nonetheless, I thought that my new wife (perhaps because she was not from New York?) might not take to our uninvited guest quite as nonchalantly as I had.

I decided to break it to her tactfully. “Honeybunch, love of my life…” Bad choice of opening words; she knew something was up. I switched to a more direct approach. “Don’t be alarmed if you see a rat in the bathroom.”

“Did you say a rat?

“Yeah. Just a small one, though.”

I’m omitting the rest of that short conversation; for this is The Roach Story, not The Rat Story. Suffice it to say that my brave new wife (trooper that she is) went in there and brushed her teeth, presumably only a few feet from the rat.

We went to bed. The mosquito net tucked tightly around the mattress on all sides exacerbated the problem of a 6’0″ man trying to fit in a 5’10” bed. But (trooper that I am) I didn’t complain; I just bent my knees and cuddled with my hunny. Yes, things were a bit cramped; but hey, who would I rather be cramped in bed with than my hot new wife?

• • •

Nighttime on the backwaters of Kerala is two things: it’s dark, and it’s quiet. So you can imagine our reaction when, maybe 30 minutes after going to bed, we heard a scurrying noise coming from the general direction of the bathroom. I could sense Sara’s fear that our furry friend would come busting through the mosquito net and gnaw our faces off while we slept. She had our flashlight under her pillow, and, sensing that I was getting out of bed to do my husbandly duty and fend off the intruder, she handed it to me. :-S

As I made my escape from our mesh fortress of a bed, we heard more sounds from the bathroom. Shuffling sounds. The pitter-patter of small feet. Almost a faint “flapping” sound. Odd. I turned on the flashlight, made my way to the bathroom door, and turned on the bathroom light. I was not prepared to see what I saw.

Cockroaches. Lots of cockroaches. Big ones. Big scary ones. (And remember–I’m from New York City.)

There were at least 7 of them. They ranged in size; the biggest were almost the size of… I dunno, a kiwi? They were so large, when the walked, there were footsteps. Can you imagine? Their feet actually made the sound of footsteps. And the worst part of all? They also flew! Well, more like glided… but isn’t that bad enough? The one nearest to me–it was high up on the wall–leapt off the wall and floated down to the ground with a whirring, flapping, rustling sound, finally landing with a muted thud. I shivered, and left the bathroom (and closed the door behind me!).

“Honey, I have good news… and bad news.”

“What is it?”

“Well, the sound we heard isn’t a rat, so no need to worry…”

“Oh no. Then what was it…?”

I explained what I’d seen. I think I even used gestures (like flailing my arms wildly) to give her an accurate picture of what we were up against.

In the end, she we decided that I should be the one to handle this. :-| I grabbed my roach-smashing book and went back in. The book was promoted from a roach-smashing book to a roaches-who-make-footsteps-smashing-book (good thing we had a hardcover with us!) and I left the bathroom triumphant. The battlefield was strewn with the dismembered parts of my enemy. And I was completely unharmed. Final score: New York Man, 7. Kerala Roaches, 0.

Needless to say, we neither slept nor went to the bathroom for the rest of the night. It was a horrible night that neither I nor Sara will ever forget.

• • •

houseboatWe awoke to another gorgeous, sunny Kerala day. If not for the shriveled insect parts in the sink and on the bathroom floor, there would be no testament whatsoever to the previous night’s battle. A lovely breakfast was served to us (fried banana, mmm); we hardly ate any of it.

houseboatWe disembarked and bid an ambivalent farewell to our captain and crew. Bye-bye, Babychan, Captain of the charming Floating Zoo. We shall miss you by day, but good riddance at night!

13 Responses to “The Roach Story (Kerala)” [Leave yours »]

  1. Irina said:

    Now, this is a gggreat story that will keep me up at night!

    Good job, R!

  2. Ron [author of post] said:

    :) thanks for the kind words! (but we actually think the story is kind of boring. (:| we like yours better.)

    and hah, in fact my goal is to keep you up at night! ;)

  3. K. Pramod Krishna said:

    Well, I liked the roach story… But being a Keralite who has spent the last one year in Western New York, I found there was no way i could stop myself from writing a comment. There is one difference which i have noticed thus far in the size of roaches… Kerala roaches are big ones… atleast 5 times the size of a NY roach. But NY roaches exceeded even my worst nightmare in numbers. The story goes like this… My apartment was a roach infested one and we didn’t notice this when we moved in…, but when we brought this to the notice of the apt company later, they would charge me $150 for extermination. Being students, we set out on a fumigation/spraying/baiting drive of our own and took a whole 27hrs (keep in mind that there were 3 of us fighting this for 27hrs)… and alas what did the scoreboard look like??? Needless to say the Keralite won it… but the margin was big…something like 400 – 0.

    Hmm… i should write my NY roach story in more detail. Well… no complaints otherwise… i am enjoying NY state very much!

  4. Ron [author of post] said:

    excellent–i’m glad you liked the story! (also glad you proved to everyone that we were not exaggerating when we described the -enormous- keralan roaches.)

    it sounds like you had quite a traumatic roach event too. 81 man-hours of roachfighting. we feel your pain. (but… just try to think of it as a small, familiar piece of home. :D )

  5. hi Ron and sara

    hope i have suggested a day trip on the house boat .

    it is hightime to popularise the day time house boats in kerala .or a sunset cruise or full moon curises .


  6. Gram said:

    Just found this GREAT FUN site of the left brained bog. Had I known he was so crazy I would have had second thoughts about giving #1 granddaughter to him!!!!!!!

  7. Ron [author of post] said:


    i could say the same about sara’s family! ;)


    hi! good to hear from you! hope things are good on your beautiful farm; we have such wonderful memories from there–and from our entire honeymoon. (yes, even the roach story is endearing in its own way :) )

    did you see our trip photos? here’s one of me outside our cottage on your farm:

    by the way, we recently recommended Haritha Farms (along with Olive Brook) to someone who inquired about places to stay in Kerala. they’ll be visiting you in january–and we’re sure they’ll have as fabulous a trip as we did!

  8. Ron,
    Stumbled on to your site. Cracked up reading the roach story. I am from Kerala, and my wife is from St.Louis, MO. She – this is the girl who let out a blood-curdling scream when she saw a house lizard while we were in the Keys – and I were in Kerala and lemme tell ya, I had so many of those funny moments. Lets just say a house lizard barely even gets her to raise an eyebrow anymore.

    And to give your story some more veracity – I attest to the size of those roaches. Although I have to make one distinction. I think the NY variety differs from the ‘footsteps’ variety of Kerala in that, the latter tend to make the coconut trees (which are abound in the state) their home base and periodically conduct air-raids of nearby houses. Since almost all houses in Kerala are hugely ventilated, this do tend to result in those pitter patter in the middle of the night. I am not sure unhygenic situations play as much of a role here, as I would suspect the case for the NY variety. I know – when I was in grad school, we were made quite unwelcome by the resident roaches of our shabby student quarters.

    I wish I had travelled in India as much as you and Sara did. And Kerala is enchanting. I am hoping for a visit this coming September during Onam.

    Keep writing!

  9. Carolyne said:


    This story made me laugh so hard for an early Sunday morning! I’m also from NY (but currently live in Australia). I’ve been to parts of Asia where you feel have to clear way for the cockroaches to pass on the sidewalk (and they can be just as large in Australia, too). I’ve struggled to figure out which is worse- the small NY roaches in plethora, or the monster Asia roaches in less quantity. Still haven’t decided which is worse. At the end of the day, they are equally repulsive.

    We’re going to India for 6 weeks in August. Kerala is our first stop for a wedding. We’ll be spending two nights on a houseboat, as well. Up until reading this article, my thoughts were consumed with real fears of being a victim of mosquito-fest. After reading your story, I now see that I have additional concerns to occupy my before-bed-thoughts, which are sure to carry on into my sleep… no doubt, in the form of nightmares! I’ll be sure to pack hard cover books instead of soft covered ones. There will be the burden of extra weight in my backback, but I’m sure it will prove to be a necessity during those late nights in the dark, quiet canals of Kerala….


  10. Ron [author of post] said:

    carolyne, i’m glad you enjoyed the story! (and if it gives you nightmares, i’ll be honored–i can call myself the Stephen King of the blogosphere.) i’d like to recommend some good hardcover books which will make good reading and also effective weapons. in general, think heavy; War and Peace should do the trick.

    your trip sounds exciting; we wish we could go back to india soon. it’s great that you’ve got 6 weeks to explore the vastness of that wonderful country.

    we’d love to hear more about your asia adventures, not only out of idle curiosity, but also because we’re in the middle of planning our next trip–laos, cambodia and thailand–and we could use some tips! :)

  11. Pramod said:

    It’s great to see that the roach story is still livid. However, the roaches spoiling an otherwise wonderful trip to God’s own country makes me feel bad. Well… I am sure that all houseboats does not have this problem… may be one of those poorly maintained one’s in which our author happen to ride the serene waters :D

    Anyway… hope we gets the update from Carolyne after her trip… Have fun!

    Btw… those who are a little more adventorous should try visiting the north Kerala region of Malabar. The tourists generally stick to the more tourist saavy South Kerala… so if you want to trek through some wonderful untouched beaches and hills… check out…. Malabar :)

  12. I had been to Kerala recently. Fortunately we did not encounter roaches of the magnitude which you described.
    You may want to take a look at my travelogue:

  13. Bala Chandran said:

    Though bit late in the day ,it was really interesting reading your’wonderful day horrible night’roach story.The story is still very hot,as roaches are,here with us,though not in large numbers,as west-inspired insect killing spreys are now so common.Comparing to those,your trusted weapons ‘Anna karenina’or even’kazanstakis’ is almost stone age stuff.Well,being a journalist ,professionally trained to see a ‘man attacking a roach’, the real story rather than ‘a roach flying down on a man,I think your strong sentiments against the’alien’ roaches are fully justified.I still have a doubt,isn’t there a possibility that some charity exsists that looks after the welfare of roaches,that may possibly be helping to keep the environmental balance.(You haven’t really thought about it, in your premodial frenzy to finish off the enemy,have you?)Don’t forget that after a nuclear holocast the roaches would be the only living creatures left in this world.

    Though your writing is every bit evocative and out and out hilarious,you seem to be a bit politically incorrect, looking from the point of view of cockroaches. I still dont understand the big fuss about cockroaches honestly,as we in India (and all Asians) have been in peaceful co-existence with them(like myriad other creatures,some harmful,and most otherwise).I have the same wonderment when my British born sis-in-law now living in Austin TX, jump up and howl on seeing some puny little creature we don’t even notice.
    I read the essence of the story thus”inspite of the roaches Kerala is wonderful”.Thank you for being objective.So when you are in Kerala next time,dont miss Trivandrum,where I am sure we breed not that much roaches.


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