Saturday, May 22, 2010

Boating the Keralan backwaters

The 18th was the day of our house boating trip in Kerala. I’d read about them in Lonely Planet and, when we’d been in Goa, our travel agent had been promoting them. We’d booked one through her and were optimistic that it’d be good.

Our taxi picked us up at 8:30. We tried to grab a cup of coffee at the Indian Starbucks knock-off, Café Coffee Day, but we were the first ones there in the morning and they couldn’t figure out how to run their espresso machine. Jumping back in the car we asked our driver if he knew another good coffee shop nearby. He stopped at the first restaurant up the street, where they served watered down coffee with loads of sugar in a plastic cup. I dumped it at the first light.

The drive was from Fort Cochin to Alleppey. One thing that gets confusing around here is that all of the cities seem to have two names – the first is often perhaps an English name (e.g. Bombay) and the second is often the renamed / original name (e.g. Mumbai). We were driving for quite some time before I figured out that Allapuzha was Alleppey, and that that was our destination. The drive was about an hour and a half, and when we arrived our driver seemed to have no idea where he was going. We were supposed to have connected with the boat operator Faisel, but every time I had tried to reach him I had only ended up with people who said they were “friends of Faisel”. It was all quite confusing, but I decided to just go with it and hope for the best. Eventually, our driver connected with a FoF, who met us with a rickshaw, and we found our way down to the boats.

We were pretty nervous driving through Alleppey. All along the waterways were loads of boats, in various states of disrepair. They ranged from large canoes with roofs, to tourist barges, to pretty exotic converted barges. One thing that LP said to do when booking a houseboat was to get down to the water and see what you were booking. We’d booked in Goa, so we hadn’t done that. We’d have to hope for the best.

Our rickshaw driver dropped us off at the waterfront that was covered in houseboats. They all seemed pretty nice, but huge. The guys told us to board the first boat and just have a seat and wait. Colleen and I weren’t even sure if we’d be sharing a boat with others or if we’d have it to ourselves. I thought I’d booked the latter, but the more I saw the more uncertain I became.

After a bit of a wait, we were told our boat had arrived. It was at the end of five boats that had been tied up to one another. (It was a very busy docking area.) We crossed the four and found our boat. It was terrific. It had an open bow, where our skipper would drive from, a large room with a bathroom for Colleen and I, a kitchen in the stern, and an upper deck for sitting and watching the world go by. It was just Colleen, me and our two crew, the captain and a cook. It was a great size for a day’s adventure.

We got going immediately, puttering along the waterways outside of Alleppey. They call this area the Kerala backwaters, and it’s an amazing maze of canals and waterways that seem to go on forever. If you didn’t have an experienced captain you’d certainly get lost. However, if you did get lost, there was never a shortage of other boats to ask. This house boating seemed to be a very popular activity, even in the so-called offseason, and on our way out we followed dozens of other vessels doing the same thing.

The boats were amazing. They’re designed like rice barges, and many of them may be converted commercial boats. They seemed to range from 40 ft to 80 or more. They range in design, with most having a main central sleeping/eating area, and an open bow. Many have top decks fitted with chairs and chaises. Some, like ours, have AC in the bedrooms to keep things manageable when the days get too hot, but the AC only goes on at night. And they’re all covered with woven palm roofs in various shapes. They’re quite lovely.

We spent the afternoon just heading up and down the many channels. It was a lovely day, overcast to keep the extreme heat down just a bit. Our cook put together a nice lunch of fish and various curries and local Keralan dishes. Afterwards it was impossible not to nap on deck as the world floated past. All along the shore were houses of the families that made their living fishing and farming in these waters, carrying on their daily tasks. It was a surreal experience to relax on our boat and take it all in.

Late in the afternoon our captain, who, like the cook, didn’t speak English, pointed to the shore and said “Fish market” and “prawns”. He seemed to want to know if I was interested and, knowing how much Colleen loves a good prawn dish, I agreed. We pulled over and bought 5 massive prawn beasts. I got robbed on the deal, and I’m sure the captain got a good cut, but it seemed worth it for a locally caught prawn dinner.

That evening we moored against one of the waterway’s banks. It was such a busy area that we were right behind another houseboat, which wasn’t really a bother except they seemed to want to watch loud Bollywood films late at night. Our cook served up a very good dinner of prawns, chicken curry and a variety of Keralan veggie dishes.

After dinner we retired upstairs, where we could watch the sun set and talk as it got dark around us. It was pleasant, although not perfect due to our neighbours. Eventually the lack of light and the abundance of mosquitoes got to us, and we retired to our cabin for the night.

A Keralan backwater cruise had been highly recommended by all the Indian guidebooks and they hadn’t steered us wrong. It was a lovely way to spend the day.

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