When hubby and I decided that we will have our first holiday as a couple touring Coastal Kerala, I instantly zeroed upon a houseboat stay. And the decision was worthwhile because we were the regal occupants of a houseboat that promised us amazing views of rural Kerala, the most scrumptious traditional meal, and an overall experience that is worth repeating, and recommending.
To get to the basics the Backwaters in Kerala is a semi-flooded land made of network of exquisite channels, lakes, lagoons and deltas of approximately 44 rivers that culminate in the Arabian Sea. The ebb and flow of the tides leaves sea-water behind the coastline and the water makes its way through the Kerala terrain to form this amazing series of inter-linked “backwaters”. Alleppey is the gateway to the backwaters and was described as the “Venice of the East” by English viceroy Lord Curzon. It is said that there is no comparison of the backwaters of Kerala in the global eco-system except for the flooded polders of Holland in Europe as its nearest equivalent.
The houseboats of Kerala were traditionally used for transporting rice and other trade from the agricultural areas to the ports on the coast at Kollam, Aleppey and Cochin. In the last twenty years, the boats have been converted into tourist houseboats of various capacities to take the traveler on a rural odyssey. There is a fleet of nearly 250 houseboats in this region. Alleppey is a centre for coir industries and you can see traditional coir production units lining the shore, along with houseboat construction facilities. Allepey is also unique in another way – it’s the only district in Kerala without a forest.
Houseboats can be upto 80 feet long and can even be double-decked. They are constructed using traditional skills by “tying” huge planks of jack wood together without the use of a single nail and coated with a caustic black resin made from boiled cashew kernels. Our guide told us that a single room houseboat, like ours is manufactured at a cost of Rs 12 lakhs. A typical houseboat facility includes:
• Room/s – enclosed single, double or even eight rooms depending on the size of the apartment houseboat
• Attached bathroom and shower
• An open living room, and a small sundeck. The living room has lounge seats, a dining table and a television with a DVD player, and in some cases we also saw houseboats fitted with Tata Sky dish TVs.
• A kitchen and a small common toilet at the back, which is also fitted with generators and air conditioner.
Our trip started at 9:30 am from the Alleppey Boat Jetty, also famous as the Finishing Point of the annual snake boat race, held on the second Saturday in August. We were accompanied by a cook, an oarsman and a guide. The oarsmen allowed hubby and me to try our hand at the houseboat steering wheel and it was quite an interesting experience to try and steer your way through the Kerala backwaters while preventing collision with any of the other houseboats that streaked the waters. The cook prepared traditional Indian food and we even procured coconut toddy from a vendor at the backwater shores.
Imagine, steering your houseboat towards a small patch of land covered by coconut palms, and then stepping out into the shore to the toddy shop and filling 1litre water bottles with the milky white intoxicant, climbing back into your parked houseboat and enjoying the rest of the cruise with sips of toddy. Toddy tastes like fermented litchi juice (that’s what I felt), while hubby said it tasted like Mirinda. Local fishermen row close to your houseboat and display their fresh catch – fish, crabs, tiger prawns – and the houseboat cook assures that if you buy the catch he will prepare a deliciously cooked meal. Incidentally, some houseboats also carry their own stock of beer, which they sell at double the market price. So you can also choose to carry your own beer along with other munchies.
The houseboat moves at a leisurely pace, allowing you to be awestruck by the amazing water life. I saw a swimming turtle, many different sea birds, and even a black crow pheasant catching a small water snake and then flying away with the dead snake hanging in its beak. We caught glimpses of the serene and difficult rural Kerala life – women washing from the ghats before their huts, fishermen busy with their daily fishing, local ferries shuttling people from one ferry stop to another, churches standing tall every one kilometer, paddy fields, coconut groves, local people spending their evening in fishing with indigenous fishing rods and proudly displaying their catch of the day – Karimeen fish, a family picking and drying mussels, teenage boys flying kite….
When you anchor by the shore, village children rush to you and ask you for “pens”. It’s a good idea to carry a tuck box of sweets, biscuits and pens, too, to share with these children. The smile on their face and their innocent “thank you” is enough to make your day. Your slow moving houseboat seems to meet the pace of this idyllic rural life that is dignified and active, even in the absence of basic amenities of life.
Nearing sun-down the houseboat is anchored by the shore, near a village. The moment the boat stops, a sudden feeling engulfs you, as if time has stopped. You have no where to go, nothing to do; just stay on the boat and relax, while the smell of dinner being cooked fills the houseboat. It is serene, silent, and maybe too silent for the pleasure of city-bred people like us, whose life becomes more tumultuous as evening approaches. But here on the houseboat, you have only the sky above and the water below.
Hubby and I felt lost. We didn’t know what to do with so much free time at hand. We managed to find an English DVD on the houseboat and watched an obscure movie, “The Pick of Destiny” that we would never have seen otherwise. If you plan to spend the night on a houseboat, then do carry a board game, or some DVDs of your choice.
At a place like this, you will realize how you have forgotten to live without clutter and noise. You will not feel lonely, neither unsafe but you may feel lost and distant from the world you belong to, and it can be an overwhelming feeling. For some it may be scary too; to be on a houseboat with three strangers on a strange land, with only water or the paddy fields as your escape route, if need be! We are so used to our comfort zones and clamoring social life, the peace that a night stay at a houseboat offers you can be very disarming. Maybe it is an appropriate time and opportunity to mull on our raucous lifestyles.
As night approached, we receded into our bedroom and let the breeze blow in from the window. The sky had darkened with storm clouds and there was thundering all night long. In the morning, we got up early to catch the sunrise, but alas, we were greeted by a heavy downpour. There was water all around and we enjoyed South Indian breakfast of Idli and Sambhar as the skies poured down. Then, suddenly, the rain stopped and the oarsman undocked the houseboat and we started steering back towards the Alleppey boat jetty. This time we moved fast and were soon at the boat jetty, our adventure on the water over, maybe too suddenly, too soon, and the King and Queen disembarked from their houseboat, towards their next destination by bus, Trivandurum.