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Cruising the backwaters

Twenty-four hours on Kerala's scenic waterways

sunny 35 °C
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When we were finally ready to leave Varkala, we took the train north to Alleppey, headquarters for boat trips along Kerala’s renowned backwaters. The backwaters are a 900-kilometre network of waterways that edge the coast and flow quite far inland as well. As in the Mekong Delta, these waterways were used as roads by villagers in the centuries before motorized transportation, and some still paddle their way (and their wares) back and forth. The most interesting canals are the palm-fringed narrow ones, where you can view shore life up close and see people going about their daily chores and business, which in this part of India usually involves the production and transportation of copra (dried coconut meat), coir (coconut fibre), cashews, and palm toddy.

Because our guidebook described an extensive backwaters tour as “one of the 10 things to do before you die,” we rented a houseboat for 24 hours for a leisurely cruise of the area near Alleppey.

These houseboats are converted rice barges, and come in all sizes, shapes and conditions. Ours was called the Angel Queen, and had two bedrooms, each with its own attached bathroom. There was a small deck area out front with a dining table and four chairs plus an area for lounging. The boat also came with three staff just for the four of us—a captain (driver), a supervisor and a cook.

The cook introduced himself and served us four tall, cold glasses of lemonade at the table before we even left the dock. The kids ran all over the boat, checking out the bedrooms and bathrooms to decide who wanted to sleep where, and eventually they settled down at the front of the boat, where they dumped out their entire bag of Lego and got busy.

Setting off from Alleppey, we cruised along Vembanad Lake—Kerala’s largest—before making our way down some of the smaller channels. This trip really was everything it had promised to be. The staff were friendly and fabulous, the scenery stunning, the food delicious—the whole experience was unforgettable.

Shortly before dinner, we pulled up to the shore so we could hop off and go for a short walk through a backwater village as the sun went down. We meandered down a path alongside the canal for maybe half an hour, taking in the beauty of the water and greenery on our left and the small houses with their yards and lines of laundry on our right. At least half a dozen children ran out asking us for pens (“One pen! One pen only! You have pens?”), but since I hadn’t anticipated this, I had nothing to offer. They didn’t seem too disappointed, though. We expected people living in the area to be more indifferent to tourists, if not openly hostile, because the houseboats are a big business in Kerala and we were certainly not the first people to get off one of them and walk around taking a nosy look at people’s lives. But instead, it was the opposite—people were friendly and curious, and when they weren’t asking for pens, they were asking where we were from and what we thought of Kerala.

Just before mooring here, we had also stopped at a small group of rustic stalls to buy fresh tiger prawns for the cook to add to our dinner. We had also arranged for a couple of cold Kingfisher beers to be put in the cooler for us before we left Alleppey. So when the sun had nearly gone down and we were starting to think about those Kingfishers, we jumped back in the boat and cruised a little further until the captain found a good anchoring spot for the night. Dinner was excellent: basmati rice, spicy shredded beets, marinated barbecued tiger prawns, a curry of prawns, a different seafood curry, a salad of shredded cabbage, coconut, mustard seed and peppercorns. For dessert, fresh pineapple sprinkled with sugar and cayenne pepper.

The only distressing moment in the entire trip came in the middle of the night. It was desperately hot outside (as it has been throughout Kerala), and we had chosen to use fans rather than the optional air-conditioning. So when I went to bed, I left our window open to the night air and turned the fan on. This was the noisiest fan I’ve ever been subjected to anywhere, ever, and only seemed to operate on one speed and volume no matter what I did with the buttons. (I found out in the morning, from the cook, that there was no problem with the fan itself—apparently all that noise is caused by the fact that the fan is powered by a generator. I didn’t fully understand the explanation, but it has something to do with a DC current and mismatched frequencies.) In any case, the noise and heat prevented me from getting much sleep, which is probably why I was already awake around 3 a.m. when I heard an alarming scratching and thumping noise coming from inside our attached bathroom.

I had read rumours of rats living on board these houseboats, and although I had no reason to think there were any on ours, it was hard to imagine what other kind of creature might be flinging itself against my bathroom door in the dead of night. Since we were out in the middle of the water, I reasoned, the only animal that could possibly be on the boat would be one that was already living on it.

I had closed and locked the bathroom door before going to bed, so there was no chance that whatever was in there could actually get into my room, unless, of course, it was big enough to break the door down—not likely. Still, it was a hair-raising sound and I sat up in bed, wide awake and then some, waiting for it to subside. And it did—but when the noise finally left my bathroom, it migrated to what sounded like the ceiling. More scrabbling, thumping and scratching from what sounded like right over my head. I still wasn’t really worried about this—there were no holes in the ceiling, after all—until it dawned on me that the window of my tiny cabin was wide open, and anything that could cling to the side of a boat could amble right through it, should it desire to. So I leapt out of bed and started flinging the windows shut, then locked every one of them. Ciaran slept right through all of this commotion, incidentally. When the room had been shut up tight, I crawled back underneath the mosquito net to sleep, but now it was so hot in there that sleep was virtually impossible. The adrenalin rush created by the rat lock-out frenzy didn’t help either, of course.

So I was a little tired the next day. If I were going to do the trip again, I would get the A/C.

I suppose there was one other disturbing development. In the morning, Mark asked the cook, half-jokingly, whether or not people often get lost overboard—expecting that the answer would be no. But the cook told us that a staff member on another houseboat had just died the night before after falling off the boat. Yikes.

Other than the invisible rat and the bad news about the lost crew member, the whole experience was fabulous. Below are some photos from the trip.


Rice field

Kids playing on the shore

The houseboat again

Chloe takes the helm

Transporting bricks

Sunset reflection

A rare, fleeting moment of cautious affection between siblings

Posted by The Rymans 09:41 Archived in India Tagged family_travel

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