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Published: November 20th 2009
CruisingWednesday 18 to Friday 20 November
An everyday scene during our journey through the backwaters
How can I best describe our experience here on Kerala’s backwaters? Umm, well, it’s rather like a cross between a luxury cruise on the Nile and a pleasure boat on the Norfolk Broads. For readers who’ve never done either, perhaps I should explain...
On Egypt’s River Nile, large, luxurious, air-conditioned cruise boats glide from temple to tomb while the palms and desert are wound past your window and waiters cater to your every whim. On the Norfolk Broads of East Anglia, you can rent small, self-drive pleasure boats with small cabins and cruise around largely man-made waterways, cooking your own meals in a small kitchen. I exaggerate, of course, but the boat on which I’m writing this while sipping a cold Kingfisher beer and waiting to be served another scrumptious meal, looking across clumps of floating water hyacinth towards coconut palms on the opposite bank, is neither basic nor luxurious.
Our kettuvallam - for that is what this houseboat, styled like the rice barges which used to ply these waters, is correctly called - is an 85-feet long by 14-feet wide floating hotel room. Actually, it’s two hotel rooms, air-conditioned at night,
Preparing to leave from Kollam
and each with a compact bathroom of shower, wc and handbasin. My bedroom has a double bed and Lajpal’s has twin beds; fortunately, both have mosquito nets as, with so much water around, there are lots of biting beasties here at night.
There’s a very comfortable, covered, outdoor dining room and lounge where we while away the hours looking, drinking, eating, dozing and generally doing as little as possible. At night, this area doubles as sleeping quarters for our crew of three - 28-year-old captain Sajith, engineer-cum-waiter Yohannan, and cook Murali. Aft, there’s a kitchen, the diesel engine and the crew’s loo. The boat, one of four owned by the very efficient Southern Backwaters
, is made of oiled jackwood and has a canopy of plaited coir and palm thatch. These Keralan houseboats come in all sizes from small, one-bedroomed ones to large double-deckers, and I hear tell that some have Jacuzzis. We’ve even seen a juggernaut with ten separate bedrooms! They’re handmade by craftsmen and, therefore, expensive to build, which - together with the fact that they’re usually in great demand by tourists - explains why they’re costly to hire and why most people opt for just a one-bedroomed boat
Welcome on board
Scented garlands around our necks and fresh coconut drinks
and a one-night cruise from Alappuzha (Alleppey) to either Kochi or Kollam. As I don’t expect to be here again in this lifetime, I decided to push the boat out, so to speak, and for around Rs23,000 (£330) all-in, we have this private two-bedroomed boat for two nights, all the way from Kollam via Alappuzha to Kochi.
By day, we meander lazily through lakes and man-made canals running parallel to the sea, the captain steering by a traditional ship’s wheel from a hard wooden seat on the boat’s prow and controlling the speed with his hands or feet on the throttle and reverse levers. On either side are the sights, sounds and smells of people living simply among the coconut groves by the waterside. Here, a child waving, there another brushing his teeth, here a woman washing the family’s clothes in the water or cooking a meal in a large silver-coloured pot over a smoky fire, there a man taking a bath up to his waist in the gently flowing water, cows and goats grazing, and coconuts piled high ready for removal of their husks for coir. Fishermen, coconut farmers and sand-collectors paddle past in small punt-like canoes with
sides barely inches above the waterline. White-throated Kingfishers, Little Egrets and both Little and Indian Cormorants sit in the trees and among the water hyacinths, disappearing in a flash as we pass. Domesticated ducks preen and feed beside the banks - and, in one or two places, vast farmed flocks of them are shepherded from land to water. Overhead, Black and Brahminy Kites ride the thermals and, where the detritus of human living accumulates, they whirl around in large numbers, like gulls over waste tips.
The scene is constantly changing. I’ve just glanced up from my laptop and suddenly, on both banks, beyond a line of small coconut palms and rushes, stretching away into the distance, are bright green paddy fields dotted with white egrets and women in colourful saris and little umbrella hats. Small, unidentifiable birds sit on telegraph lines and skim across the rice paddies.
Yesterday morning, when we joined the boat at Kollam (Quillon), it was overcast and that’s how it stayed all day as we journeyed north through the vast Ashtamudi Lake into a labyrinth of backwater channels. We passed dozens of the Chinese fishing nets that we’d first seen in Kochi, but these
The only way to see the Backwaters!
were very much in use and not just a tourist attraction. We didn’t stop at the pink, high-rise Mata Amritanandamayi Math ashram as Amma, the “hugging saint” - the guru famed for giving hugs to her followers, was hugging in Australia. We moored at a pole in the middle of a small lake for a lunch of grilled fish accompanied by rice, and okra, carrot and bean curries, and singing from a Hindu temple a few hundred metres away.
Continuing north, we motored up broad waterways to near Karthikapally, where a fresh-water river meets the sea-water of the backwaters and, when the tide comes in, a barrier is erected to protect the fresh water that’s used on the rice fields. The barrier was up, so we moored for the night within earshot of Muslims being called to prayer, and did some fishing with a fully-equipped, collapsible rod I’d brought with me. I caught two inedible fish and the cook, using a length of line attached to an empty plastic water bottle, caught three! Dinner was more fish cutlets, this time in an excellent spicy masala with side dishes and chapattis.
Woken at dawn by the muezzin’s call, we
A ferry and Chinese fishing nets
The ferryman uses a pole, punt-style, to move the boat from one side of the backwater to another
discovered a bright and sunny Thursday morning. There was a cooling breeze as we ate a traditional Keralan breakfast of what sounded like ‘diddly pom’ but which turned out to be idiyappam (see the picture - they're made from roasted rice flour, mixed with water, put through a mincer-like contraption, curled into balls, flattened, then steamed and topped with grated coconut). They came with a vegetable curry, masala chai, and fresh pineapple.
Later, we stopped in the middle of nowhere to see coir rope being made but, as there was no electricity to operate a machine that had been converted from a hand-operated one, we just had a walk through a nearby settlement spread out among the palms, identifying trees and plants used in herbal preparations as we went. We called into a village to look at some giant prawns (we bought two) and for Murali to buy some himself some paan - a digestive and mild stimulant made from chopped areca palm nut with added spices and flavourings that’s then wrapped in a betel leaf and chewed; the resulting red stuff looks like blood and is frequently seen being spat onto the street. He also bought some toddy,
A typical scene
Washing clothes beside the fishing boats
a sort of beer made from fermented coconut sap that, to me at least, smelled and tasted sour, like vinegar, but which Lajpal and the crew seemed to enjoy. A relaxed lunch followed, with the boat nosed into a bank side. Two giant prawns, a chicken curry, boiled rice, and side dishes of sweet banana sauce, dhal, spiced cabbage, beetroot and diced aubergine, washed down with an iced Kingfisher beer, all conspired to ensure that we needed a nap afterwards.
Tonight, we’re promised fried chicken for dinner, by which time we’ll have moored in Alappuzha. Our journey early on Friday morning across Vembanad Lake to Thannermukkom, then by taxi to Kochi Airport for our flight to Mumbai will see the end of our expedition in the backwaters - and, alas, there’ll be just two days left before our final flights home.
Meanwhile, here comes Murali with our afternoon tea of banana fritters and masala chai...
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Sand collecting in the shallow lake
Sand is collected from the lakes and loaded into the boats until they almost sink!
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P.S. I've added a few photos of the Dharavi slums kindly provided by Reality Tours & Travel to my Mumbai's extremes blog
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