Ever dreamt of throwing it all behind, getting on a boat and cruising down a river on a hammock for the rest of your life? I did that. Well…for 24 hours at least. On the backwaters of Kerala.
I arrived in Alappuzha (Alleppey) on a 7-hour hair-rising local bus ride from Trivandrum around 8 at night. Wet, stinky and with sore arms. Sore arms from getting a window seat and constantly putting up and pulling down the steel window shutters from the minute downpours to outbursts of bright sunny. I hailed a rickshaw to the small hotel I had booked. I hate arriving after dark in a new place and as the rickshaw turned away from the lights of the town center, I felt the all familiar panic starting to bubble but thankfully the hotel sign came into sight. A good porter can make or break your stay especially in India. And this particular guy in Alleppey was excellent. He had me in my room within 5 minutes with cable TV hooked up and clean sheets. So clean were the sheets that no hot water was forgive-able. He got the cook on the phone and told him to fix me something to eat. Nothing fixes you up like a good chicken curry and when in the South, you have to have it with curd rice.
Next morning, the fellow was at my door waking me up bright and early. “Whaaaaaaaatttt?” “Madam you wanting houseboat?” “……………….” “Very goood! Let’s go madam!”. He was reading his newspaper with over his eye glasses perched on his nose when I finally made my way outside. He rolled out his motor scooter and petted the back seat. 10 minutes later we were down at the jetty where houseboats are docked for the night.
There are many traveler tips on the travel networks for choosing a houseboat and of course the first thing you must heed to is not to book one without inspecting it first. However as a solo female traveler, my utmost concern was getting on a boat which would be docked at a remote location at night with 2 men. Though Kerala is considered one of the safer states for tourists in India, one could never be certain and while I inspected about 5 houseboats, I went with my gut feeling and chose the one with 2 middle-aged jolly fellows who made this one of the best things I’ve done. Though it doesn’t come cheap. For what I spent to hire the boat for a day, I could have lived off for a week on land!
“Checked-in” onto the boat around 10.30.am. The houseboats, Kettuvallams were originally used to transport goods and to protect them from the elements through the waterways in the olden days. I sunk into the plush sofas in the front part of the boat and got into my copy of the Manuscript of Accra that I had bought on the sidewalk in Connought Place in Delhi. After a month and half of traveling through India, it felt blissful to be just still and quiet on Alleppey waters. Rest assured in no way is the backwaters a quiet, peaceful stretch. In fact it is just as busy as a highway and the waterways are part of a very important transport network in Kerala. We entered into the Punnamada Lake where the famous once-a-year snake boat race had just finished. There must have a dance or music school nearby and the strains of Carnatic music floating in the air and the blue stillness of the lake was pure mediation to my travel weary soul.
We stopped for lunch and the cook had prepared a typical Keralan fare for me. Fried fish, rice, sambhar. Yes, please! None of the commercial junk but pure, home cooked meal. The afternoon continued through canals, peeking at lives living on the banks. It felt a bit nostalgic because 8 months away from home and Kerala had the very essence of my Fijian home.
Late in the afternoon, we docked for the night. There was another boat docked next to us with a couple on their honeymoon (great). I walked over to the nearby village through the rice paddies, peeping into people’s lives doing their evening chores, getting ready for the next day. Dinner was another great affair. The TV was blaring from the next boat (don’t underestimate the power of Indian daily soaps. It even takes over honeymoons! I saw it first hand!) And I was so full and tired of pure pampering that all I could do was roll into my room and plonk onto the bed. I saw something just before I dozed off. Ahhh..India you have taught me well. 2 roaches on the corners of my room and being one who is petrified of roaches, casually walked out and asked for insect spray. I wouldn’t mark this against the boat company. Roaches are roaches. Flicked the buggers off and got into bed again.
And didn’t wake up till I heard pots clacking outside my window. Someone was washing last night’s dishes in the river. Waking up on the backwaters is an amazing experience. Beautiful sunrise, still waters, early morning fishermen and coffee….Kerala is a coffee state and after all this time in the tea-drinking north, hot frothy Keralan coffee on the front deck, gently cruising the smaller waterways was divine.
And just like that, we slowly pulled back into the same docks we pushed off from yesterday. It didn’t feel like it had ended too fast. It felt like the perfect amount of time to fall off the grid (travel grid for me!). I thanked my boat companions and with refreshed energy continued on further up the South Indian coast to my next stop, Cochin.