I have had romantic visions of the Kerala backwaters for over a decade. Ever since I first learned that you could rent a houseboat that looks like a kettuvallam (rice barge) to tour the back rivers in, eating Southern Indian food and sleeping on the water, I have wanted to experience this part of India. However, as most wonderful adventures go, popularity only increases demand, and changes what was once a unique and peaceful journey into a fiercely competitive and touristy trip down water lanes trafficked by hundreds of like boats. We learned that the amount of house boats available to rent had increased substantially in the previous years, with more than a 1000 boats now operating in the region. Despite the fact that there were so many boats vying for your business, the price tag had also increased.
We decided that we would first stop in the city of Kollam, a less popular starting point for a backwaters tour, in the hopes that we might be able to find a houseboat at a more reasonable price and also travel a route that would be less congested. Our trip to the local docks was grim, with only 3 dirty boats to choose from and rates triple what we were willing to pay. I was starting to think that it was time to bid farewell to my long-held fantasies of floating down a river watching the sun set over coconut and banana plantations. Surprisingly, this was not a devastating let down, as we still had ample opportunities to explore this region by water.
Firstly, we were staying in a lovely little guesthouse (Ashtamudi Villas) with tropical gardens abutting a lake. Here the children could swing, build fairy lands, climb trees and attempt to fish. The owner helped organize a trip for us to Munroe Island, where we were taken on a wooden canoe trip down the narrow waterways of a local village. This was a part of India that can not be seen by most boats which are too large to fit in its channels. In fact, we had to travel under some bridges that were so low that we had to lay in the canoe to fit under. It was an extremely mellow journey that allowed us to quietly observe village life around us. We spotted animals of agriculture – cows, oxen, chickens and ducks, and beautiful birds – turquoise kingfishers and cormorants perched on posts, drying their wings. We even watched a few water snakes swim in the reeds by our canoe. In addition to banana, cashew and tropical fruit trees, there were many coconut groves, which seemed to be the main industry. Our guide showed us how they used the stringy fibers from the coconut husks to make rope – called coir making, (after a long period of submersion in water to soften and break down the fibers which they can then roll into a continuous rope of various thicknesses). We also observed several prawn farms, contained in square plots of land. We stopped at a small tea shack to have some masala chai, and later at a coconut grove to have a very strong and lithe older man shake us down some coconuts to drink their sweet water.
That same afternoon, we went on a tour of Kollam’s coastline with our auto rickshaw driver/guide, Francis. He quickly learned how obsessed Gabriel was with fishing and made it his mission to educate us about the local fisherman’s life. We visited the fisherman’s beach which was bustling in the late afternoon, as fisherman brought in their haul. We watched the boats come to shore and the men carry their catch up to the open concrete market, where auctions took place to sell all types and sizes of fresh fish. There were also local butchers who would cut and breakdown your fish upon payment. Francis did not gloss over the mess that we encountered here, specifically the unspeakable amount of trash, all over the beach, and floating in the water. He explained that all of the housing that was directly in front of the beach had been built by the government to house an entire Indian coastal community that had lost their homes and village during the 2004 tsunami. As typical of Indian government, they had made zero plans for sanitation, and these people had no form of trash collection. They literally used the beach in front of their housing strip as one grand garbage heap. Further down the beach was a seaside enclave of fisherman huts, and a lighthouse that gave great views of the coastline. As we proceeded on our tour, Francis saw his father and brother getting ready to take their boat out for night fishing, and Gabriel got lifted aboard for a quick introduction. Francis then helped Gabriel get outfitted with the best hooks and lines at a local fisherman store, even tracking down another fisherman who was skilled at tying knots, in order to set the hooks and weights. Spoiled Gabriel!
When we left Kollam, we still did not know if we were going to have better luck renting a houseboat at our next destination, Alleppey, so we decided to take an 8-hour backwater ferry trip there, in order to not miss out on some highlights of this region. The long journey actually went by quickly, as we watched all of the activity both on and by the waterways, including boats of all dimensions ferrying goods or people, men in dugout canoes commuting or fishing with nets, villagers riding bikes along the water’s edge, women washing clothes and toddlers, big colorful churches on prime real estate, and vibrant birds everywhere.
Once in Alleppey, we got comfortable at Nova’s Homestay and sampled a little of Alleppey’s small canal town charm. Our main mission was to determine if the houseboat rental was feasible, so we headed to the main docks. There were hundreds of boats to consider, and all you have to do is walk up and down the piers, stopping to look over any potential candidate and get pricing details. We finally found a good 2 bedroom option, with an upper and lower deck, at the low-cost of $100. This price included the crew, one night’s sleep on the boat, and three meals for our family. It really was quite a steal. We headed off in the early afternoon, and got to traverse some of the deeper backwaters that passed villages and rice paddy fields, as well as over a hundred other touring boats. It was blissfully relaxing, just to read, write, or simply watch the world go by. Our favorite thing we saw was a thousand floating ducks that were being herded by several men in boats to waddle up a ramp onto their farmland. The ducks swam in one massive cohesive group, nearly filling a water channel until they had all ascended to land.
Right before sunset, our captain parked the houseboat near one family’s home on a raised narrow dirt path, adjacent to some rice paddy fields. Here, we were able to step on land and watch the sunset, until the mosquitoes forced us to seek shelter. The swarms of insects that came out at dusk and were attracted to our boat’s lights, kept us indoors, and insured an early night’s sleep. Although the houseboat experience was not as romantic as I might have envisioned, largely due to the presence of children(!), it was insightful and relaxing. I was thankful to get a taste of this part of India, as experienced from the water.