Escaping India’s chaos and eye-watering smog, we set sail aboard a houseboat on an Alleppey backwater cruise in Kerala. Located in the southwest corner of India and covering the Kollam, Kottayam, Alappuzha and Kochi districts, the waterways snake for 900 kilometres. As the Arabian Sea washes ashore, you’re about as far away from the manic pace of India as you can get without leaving the country.
Located in the heart of Alleppey, 85 kilometres from the Kochi airport, and with a range of companies to choose from, I’ve opted for Rainbow Cruises; the same one Anthony Bourdain used during an episode of No Reservations. Fulfilling my floating fantasy, our air-conditioned houseboat has two bedrooms, each with a four-poster bed and a private bathroom with hot showers and flushing toilets. An open dining room captures the breeze or can be closed to keep out the heat and any stowaway bugs. But it’s the lounge deck and its view that captivates me the most on an Alleppey backwater cruise.
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.
Palm trees lean over the water’s edge to greet us. Breaks in the foliage provide glimpses into a world of rice paddies where every shade of green is startled by iridescent saris in blues, oranges, reds and pinks.
Chants in the distance and snippets of broken chatter are punctuated by wood chopping. Narrow cottages line the river and we savour voyeuristic glimpses into the locals’ daily lives, often dominated by manual labour imposed by the land. Little did I know I would soon become part of the show. Outdoor kitchens offer wafts of frying bread freshly kneaded before dunked in coconut oil. This 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 a steady flow of ferries, barges, canoes and houseboats along the waterways. 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 on an Alleppey backwater cruise. Every meal our personal chef prepares is a banquet of curries with freshly ground spices of cardamom, cloves, cinnamon and chillies adorning locally caught fish and the coconuts that 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 on a quest to buy tiger prawns for dinner and coconuts from Uncle John’s seafood company.
Our afternoon massage is also the other reason we’re pausing, which I anticipate being as relaxing as the cruise. I’m led to a wooden hut where an Indian lady gestures to disrobe and lie face up on the wooden table. I had foolishly assumed the language of massage to be universal, but as she covers me in slimy 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.
While obeying her washing instructions, I not only hear the villagers chatting and giggling nearby, but I catch glimpses of them through the planks in the wooden walls. I suspect my white flesh is the topic of their conversation. Despite my bucket bath, my hands are still slippery and as I fumble with the latch on the hut door, I hear more giggles as my masseuse comes to my rescue.
With my dignity somewhat restored, the day ends to the sound of laundry slapping on the rocks. Light fades into a feast of paneer sambal, lady fingers, chicken mughali, tiger prawn masala and chapatis. Sleep comes easily.
The following morning, while putting along the river, we spy two fully clothed women washing their heavy black manes at the water’s edge. A short time later, we alight in the tiny town of Malabar and visit Champakulam Klloorkkadu St Mary’s Church, integral to Kerala’s Christianity. The church is believed to date back to 1151, although given its pristine state, it must have 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.
Neighbouring swanky houseboats glide through water hyacinths with upper decks sporting Jacuzzis, undoubtedly providing as much entertainment for the locals. How indulgent we foreigners must seem to the locals donning muted saris 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 enchanting fireflies 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 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 on an Alleppey backwater cruise. 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 Keralite idyllic existence.