Pretty well everyone we’ve spoken to who has been to India and visited Kerala has been on one of the famous houseboat experiences, and they’ve all said it was a highlight so we have high expectations as we leave Kochi. It’s day 14 of our Indian adventure, and we’re aware that we’re nearing the end.
Our journey takes us south along the coast, and it’s a delightful road. It’s not as busy here and it feels more laid-back for some reason. It must be the presence of the sea, which we keep glimpsing behind the row of properties and woods to our right. I ask Biju to stop and we get out to walk up to the ocean. There’s a barrier of heavy grey rocks all along the front, suggesting that flooding is an issue, but today it’s beautiful, with blue sky, golden sand and swaying palm trees, even here near someone’s back yard.
Later on we stop again to take pictures of a small harbour full of brightly painted fishing boats, men standing within them organising their nets. Further on we take another detour to Mararikulam Beach, a few yards off the main road and a popular location. It’s got the same attractions as beaches the world over, with ice creams, sun loungers and souvenirs available. We’re tempted to have a paddle in the breaking waves, but getting sand in our toes doesn’t seem a price worth paying at this moment.
We continue and turn off the road straight into the boat stop. We make our way to their reception office and are greeted in typical Indian fashion with cold flannels to revive us from our journey, although they seem a bit superfluous today after our air-conditioned car. This is clearly a slick operation, with several boats coming and going, and the office manager explains our route on a map on the reception wall. After completing the inevitable paperwork we are ushered outside to our boat. We have three crew, the captain, engineer and chef, and we exchange ‘namaste’ greetings with them all. Before long we’re off and heading north along the Kerala Backwaters.
We feel like Tim and Pru setting off on one of their Great Canal Journeys as we chug gently along. The Backwaters cover a sizeable area in the centre of Kerala state, with a network of man-made canals and natural lakes. They are surrounded by acres of rice-paddy fields, which are unusual in that they are 2 feet below the navigations, making them lower than sea level. The banks of the waterways are lined with houses large and small, and trees and plots of crops or foliage, and it’s all very lovely. There’s no access by road to most of these, and we pass properties under construction with canoes moored on the adjacent bank loaded with piles of sand, stone or building blocks being unloaded one brick at a time by hand. Some of the homes look modern and attractive and we wonder how they manage to create them working under these limitations.
We pass men and children bathing in the water and women washing themselves and piles of clothes. We can sometimes hear them too as the garments are slapped on the bank stones as part of the process. The people here always look clean and colourful yet the water, whilst not exactly opaque, has a greenish tint to it. The water flowing through the Backwaters is fresh, coming down from the mountains and out into the sea, but there are clearly other users of it before it reaches the local residents, not least the many houseboats just like ours.
Later I do some research into the area, and come across an informative article describing the conflicts that need to be managed here. There are over 1,000 houseboats, half of them unlicensed and therefore strictly illegal. However the tourist revenue that they bring far exceeds the economic value of the local fishermen, whose way of life is under threat from pollution, diminishing fish stocks and loss of habitat, as well as the disinclination of younger generations to follow the family fishing traditions. It’s a problem that is all too evident in many places around the globe. The fishermen are fighting back, though, by creating segregated no-go areas where fish can breed and grow, helping to replenish stocks and nurture their environment.
Wandering the Backwaters in this well-equipped floating home is a delight. These houseboats are obviously built for tourists, with an air-conditioned bedroom with ensuite, a dining room and kitchen at the rear. The main event, though, is the large open area at the front of the boat, looking forward in the direction of travel behind the pilot who steers using a large ship’s wheel in the centre of the bow. The layout affords a brilliant view of the surroundings, and ensures a gentle cooling breeze as we travel, very welcome in the Keralan heat. We feel very grand as we sit in pride of place on comfortable chairs surveying our progress, like Captain Kirk on the USS Enterprise.
We are told that lunch is ready, and we retire to the dining room to enjoy a delicious meal prepared on board. We’re already taking a liking to the Keralan cuisine, and this is really good food. The centrepiece is a whole round cooked pearl spot fish each, and the chef shows us how best to separate the flesh from the bones as we tackle them. It’s a really tasty treat and another unique experience for us.
The crew are locals who know the area well, and one of them tells us we will be visiting his village. We pull over and moor, as do four other houseboats alongside us over the next few minutes. We walk from boat to boat and then lower ourselves down into a motorised fishing canoe, along with two other couples. Our steerer takes us across the wide canal and then into a narrow channel, maybe 30 feet wide. There’s an overhead pipe across the mouth of the channel and we all duck low to glide under it in our already low-profile seats.
We pass more people washing, kids in uniform walking home from school, and a variety of pedestrians on the bank, and share greetings with many of them. A man walks along with a large fish dangling from his arm, and he graciously holds it up for a photo as we pass.
The clouds are gathering overhead, and then lightning starts to flash and thunder booms beside us. As we continue the storm gets nearer and the booms get louder, preceded by loud cracks and vivid forks of light not far away. The rain starts, slowly at first but increases in intensity as we return to the moored houseboats. Fortunately we’ve been provided with umbrellas and they hold off the worst of the torrent, but we’re still pretty damp as we clamber aboard. It passes over as we set off, and we gradually dry off in the breeze as we go.
We pull in to the bank, and it looks as though we are stopping for the night. As we do so, the sky turns a thousand shades of pink, making a glorious end to the day. We sit in the calm enjoying this special moment, until it’s time for our evening meal. We return to the dining room and are served a lamb dish in local spices with the usual range of accompanying vegetable in sauces and rice. The food here is not hot spicy but more subtle, varied and flavoursome. What a treat.
We eventually head to our room for the night, and are pleased to have the benefit of modern aircon and bathroom facilities. The crew sleep on deck after spending the evening playing cards in the kitchen. We feel very pampered, and not a little privileged.
It’s been another amazing day in our Indian adventure.