Palm trees lean over the water’s edge to greet us as breaks in the foliage provide glimpses into a world of rice paddies. Every shade of green is startled by iridescent saris in blues, oranges, reds, and pinks. Escaping the hassle, wanna-be hippies and eye watering smog we board a houseboat on the backwaters of the state of Kerala. Located in the south-west corner of India and covering four districts Kollam, Kottayam, Alappuzha and Kochi, the waterways snake across 900 kilometres. With the Arabian Sea washing ashore, you’re about as far away from the manic pace of India as you can get without leaving the country.
Known as Kettuvallom, the traditional wooden houseboats were once used as rice barges transporting spices and the odd passenger along the lush backwaters of Kerala. Not one nail is used as the boats are bound together using planks of jack-wood with coir rope and coated with black resin made from boiled cashew nut shells. The restoration of the boats, many of which have passed their century mark, have been given new life with the help of the tourism trade. A far cry from their humble beginnings these floating beauties range from cosy one-bedroom love pads to rambling villas.
Located in the heart of Alleppey 85 kilometres from the Kochi airport and with a plethora of companies to choose from, I’ve opted for Rainbow Cruises (www.rainbowcruises.in); the same one Anthony Bourdain used during an episode of No Reservations. Fulfilling my floating fantasy, our air-conditioned houseboat has two bedrooms with four poster beds, each with their own private bathrooms with hot showers and flushing toilets. The dining room opens to the breeze or can be kept closed to keep out the heat and any stowaway bugs. But it’s the lounge deck and its view that captivates.
Chants in the distance and snippets of broken chatter are interspersed with the sounds of wood chopping. On show are voyeuristic glimpses into the locals’ daily lives often dominated by manual labour imposed by the land. Their narrow cottages line the river and outdoor kitchens offer wafts of frying breads freshly kneaded before being dunked in coconut oil. The land is bountiful with rice, fish, mangoes, coconuts, grains, and home-reared livestock like cows, goats, and chickens providing milk, eggs, and meat. The villages remain relatively isolated from the chaos of India with the waterways having a steady traffic of ferries, barges, canoes, and houseboats. Apart from the odd boat behaving like a crazy bus in Mumbai, the pace is likened to its tranquil Sri Lankan neighbour; or maybe that’s because I’m in a food coma.
Much like the cows grazing along the river banks we eat constantly. Every meal prepared by our personal chef is a banquet of curries with freshly ground spices of cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, and chillies. Fish is caught locally and the coconuts were only just dangling from the trees. Lunch consists of vegetable sambal, bean curry, grilled fish, fried chicken, the woody tasting dish of Ayurvedic bark, papadums, and the ubiquitous steamed rice. My body joins the rhythm of the putting engine as we purr along to buy tiger prawns for dinner and to our afternoon massage.
Alighting at the water’s edge I’m lead to a wooden hut where an Indian lady gestures to disrobe and lie face up on the wooden table. Although the language of massage is universal, as she covers me in red oil and her gnarly hands adorned with gold bangles pummel me into the hard table, I suspect there has been some miscommunication. Once my ‘relaxing’ massage is over, she directs me towards two buckets of water and a bar of soap and indicates to use one bucket for lathering up and the other for rinsing.
Dignity restored, the day ends to the sound of laundry slapping on the rocks and fades into a feast of paneer sambal, lady fingers, chicken mughali, tiger prawn masala, and chapatis. Sleep comes easily and we awake to fully clothed women washing their heavy black manes at the water’s edge. In the tiny town of Malabar we visit Champakulam Klloorkkadu St Mary’s Church and integral to Kerala’s Christianity, the church is believed to date back to 1151; although given its pristine state has obviously has undergone many renovations.
Other side trips can be arranged like a visit to Sri Mata Amritanandamayi Devi, aka “the hugging mother.” One of India’s most famous female gurus, she hugs 1,000’s of pilgrims in all night sessions and after one of her cuddles, devotees swear they feel an overwhelming sense of calmness. Registering online (www.amritapuri.org) prior to your visit is recommended.
Swanky houseboats glide through water hyacinths with upper decks sporting Jacuzzis surely providing as much entertainment for the locals as they do to us. How indulgent we foreigners must seem, as their muted saris are bent over rice paddies or to those paddling by in their canoes piled high with their families and the day’s pickings.
Our second and final night passes by in a flurry of fire flies and fish molee (seared fish in spices and coconut milk), endless curries and smoky coconut pancakes for dessert. All washed down with the nectar of coconuts and the peppery notes of a Cabernet Shiraz by Sula Vineyards.
With my clothes slightly tighter than when I began my virgin houseboat voyage, it’s time to return to reality. Although I could have taken a day cruise, I’m eternally grateful for the opportunity for a lengthy exploration of this stunning pocket of India. Hiring a houseboat isn’t a cheap option, especially by Indian standards and even more so if you book out the entire boat, however the luxury of having no schedule and the time spent with your travelling companions is a price worth paying. As I begin to wonder how I’ll ever care for myself again, our luggage is carried off by the crew with kilo-watt smiles and head wobbles abound. The drive to the airport is an assault on the senses only alleviated by memories of a Keralan idyllic existence.