Cruising Kerala's backwaters

in Kainakary, India
899 words, 5 minutes to read

The lazying around continues. We moved away from the open sea and onto the backwaters of Kerala—900km of waterways spread along 200km of the Indian shore. Our home for the next two days is a kettuvalam—a houseboat with two bedrooms, a captain, and a cook—surrounded by water, small villages, palm trees and rice fields.

These waterways have for centuries been used as “highways”, before the ones on land were built. To this day some of the villages are accessible only by water, and rice harvested at this “Kerala's ricebowl” gets shipped via small tugboats, nearly submerged under the load of piled up brown bags.

The kettuvalam are the region's major tourist attraction, for locals and foreigners alike. We're told there's over 1,500 of them floating around here, and in the tourist season most waterways get literally jammed. Our boat is average-sized. One deck, with two bedrooms for the four of us, plus our own captain to steer it and a cook to cater to our culinary needs.

Kettuvalam, a Keralan houseboat

Kettuvalam, a Keralan houseboat

Our crew is very hospitable. Fifteen minutes after we took off, the cook served us a welcome snack of fried bananas. We had a bar of melted (did I mention it's hot?) chocolate brought from Kochi, which proved a perfect companion for the bananas.

All food's included in the price (sans beer—that's paid extra, or any other alcohol we'd like we'd need to bring ourselves) and it's traditional Keralan cuisine. There's lots of fish on the menu, some soups, a bit of chicken, no thick sauces. And thankfully, it's all more spicy than what we had back in Kochi.

The captain doubled as our guide. He speaks decent English, well enough to explain some history and intricacies of Indian culture. Apparently, he learned all of it on the job, chatting with foreigners like ourselves. He finally explained to me why Indians won't use GPS. Some of them don't know how to, but many will simply expect to get better directions from another person than from some unreliable computer. As in many southern countries, personal relationships matter here a lot.

We have air-conditioning at night, when the boat docks somewhere and we connect to mainland current, so as long as we keep the mosquitoes out we can sleep fine. The humid, hot weather isn't an issue during daytime either, when we sit on our covered deck with a very pleasant breeze coming from the water. There's no WiFi, but the excellent Indian cellular network has a steady 3G/4G signal even out here, so I can publish these here posts uninterrupted.

We spend days cruising the waters. A bit in the open of the Vembanad Lake—the largest in Kerala, we were told—which is nothing to write home about, just a vast amount of water with a few houseboats like ours floating around pointlessly. Most of the time we're in the narrow waterways though.

These are captivating scenes. I must've shot a good two hundred photos here, out of the eight hundred total. Small, colorful cottages, children playing cricket, people waiting at the jetties for ferry transportation, women doing laundry in the river, soaking every piece of clothing then hitting it with a loud SMACK! multiple times against stones laying on the shore.

Kerala's lush green scenery

Kerala's lush green scenery

Locals happily will cater to the tastes of, mostly white but also affluent Indian, tourists. Multiple shops, restaurants, and cafes are open for business along the channels. We entered one woodcarving shop, making religious statues to order, mostly for churches. A crucified Christ was waiting ready for pickup, another one was work in progress, and in a corner was a statue of… John Paul II, “our” former pope.

The workshop also had a small store offering some standard Indian figures, including Ganesh, Vishnu, elephants, houseboat models and other. Prices were quoted in US Dollars—for the convenience of tourists—and obviously credit cards were accepted. I want to get myself a statue of Shiva as Nataraja, the Cosmic Dancer, but I want one from Tamil Nadu, where it's the most characteristic expression of their Hindu culture, and their long history of bronze casting.

Following our houseboat adventure, we'll he heading for our last stop in Kerala—the tea plantations of Munnar. Let's hope we'll actually get there as scheduled, because exactly for the day of our travel, April 6, the opposition party of Kerala called for a hartal. It's a local form of protest, much like a general strike, when everything stops. Not even any vehicles are allowed to move between 6AM and 6PM.

This being the opposition party's call, we're told it's only their supporters who normally follow. The region we're in with the houseboats isn't affected, being one inhabited by the ruling communist party's supporters. But we'll be passing through other areas and may be stopped and questioned on why we're breaking out of the hartal. It shouldn't affect us, because our car clearly has a Karnatakan registration, so the locals will know that we're from out of state. Plus, we're plain-to-see white tourists. That is our hope at least, otherwise we may have to improvise.

Kerala's waters—the open seas and the closed backwaters—have been really good to us. The food is great, the people are kind, the lush green vegetation is enchanting. Time to cool off (literally, it's 25C tops there) in the mountains of Munnar, then off to the grand wedding in Coimbatore.