The backwaters of Kerala have been compared to the American Bayou and billed as “Venice of the East”. This area of low-lying barrier islands is linked by five lakes, 38 rivers and hundreds of canals, both natural and man-made.
Kerala backwaters have been used for centuries for transportation, fishing and agriculture; the dykes built to keep freshwater and saltwater from mixing are similar to those in the Netherlands. In places, houses run along a narrow strip of land on one side of the canal with rice paddies, and fields of bananas, cassava and yams on the other.
This dreamy, languid region has attracted tourists for years. Drawn by the irresistible notion of rollin’ on the river, (albeit in a comfortable fully-outfitted houseboat, complete with A/C and staff), the hordes have arrived. Sadly, tourism has grown to the point where there are serious environmental threats from over 2000 houseboats and untold numbers of smaller vessels.
Alleppey is one of the two main hubs where one can arrange for boat tours. There are half-day and full-day tours on double-decker boats, small canopied Venetian-style boats and low wooden dugout canoes. Heavily promoted as a “must-do”, overnight houseboats come in a staggering range of price points and amenities. They all offer bedrooms, bathrooms, dining facilities, lounging facilities and on-board staff, and quality ranges from frankly frightening to quite luxurious. Prices correspond accordingly. This was one of the nicer houseboats that passed by – we waved at one another, as you do whenever you are onboard any boat.
To step back for one minute – we chose to stay right in the city of Alleppey, instead of one of the more rural canal-side resorts, as we had a number of housekeeping issues to take care of – laundry, ATM, assurance of good wifi, etc. It was perhaps not as authentic and laid-back as we had hoped, so we are tacking on another few days in the backwaters further south, after we leave here. However, we had yet another fantastic homestay experience with our host, Jose, his wife Tiny and their two adorable small girls – Angel and Annie. Jose and his cousins Jiju and Simpson run the homestay; his wife is an elementary school teacher.
Jose, Tiny and Jiju, heading out for the evening.
A side note here: I want to figure out how Indian women deal with heat. They are unfailingly elegant, unruffled and covered from neck to toe in layers, complete with floating scarves and gold jewellery. I, on the other hand, am panic-stricken and cannot find a way to calm myself. Red-faced and beaded in sweat; my damp, wrinkled clothes cling to me like saran wrap – I am not doing a good job of representing western female tourists.
Our homestay neighbourhood is fun – on our street we have a mosque, a recycling depot, a girl’s school and a ruby financier. One narrow alley leads into another and by now we have figured out the labyrinth.
On our first day, we wandered around the town of Alleppey without much success. Our bodies were coping with the shock of being plunged back into dripping humidity and temps in the high 30’s. Like a scene out of High Noon, we arrived at the lighthouse, an Alleppey landmark, only to be urged by the caretaker to “run – we close in 10 minutes.” The purpose of the lighthouse visit was to climb its many interior stairs and enjoy the panoramic view of the city. We could no more have run those stairs than run a marathon, so on we trudged down a shade-less street toward the beach. We became so dispirited by the broad stretch of dirty sand that we hid out in a small cafe and drank lemon soda.
Just prior to that, we had visited the other Alleppey attraction, the Revi Karuna Karan Memorial Museum. The widow of the late wealthy businessman (second-generation owner of a massive coir factory, among other ventures) housed their personal collection of porcelain, ivory, precious stones, furniture, crystal and art in a spectacular white columned building. She was hoping to create her own Taj Mahal, as a testament to their love.
It was interesting enough ( she has the world’s largest collection of Swarovski crystal), except we were followed by a “guide” who kindly read the plaques on the wall for us (“this is a table with ivory inlay”), and rushed us through, then hinted at a tip.
Note to self: not everything listed in Lonely Planet is worth visiting.
Back to the main event – our boat trip. We arranged for a half-day tour on a private boat – just us and our captain, Sudo. The sarongs Sudo and Jose are wearing are very common in southern India. The men endlessly unfurl them and wrap them up to miniskirt level, then drop them again. I’m sure they are cooler than pants.
We met up at 9:00, and soon we were underway – happy to sit back in our rattan chairs, a light breeze on our faces and watch life on the river unfold. Contrary to what we had heard from other tourists, we witnessed no bathroom habits, but we did see people brushing their teeth, bathing and washing their hair.
Many women were washing clothes, scrubbing them with soap, then pounding them against the stone steps.
Commerce is conducted waterside – we passed a number of boats carrying a variety of goods.
Homeopathic medicines delivered right to your door
We stopped for breakfast at Tasty Land, where we were greeted by a very warm woman who brought us coffee and pancakes and watched us carefully as we ate every bite.
Sudo brought us round the side of the restaurant, where there were two eagles with wings clipped, posting on a perch. This seems to be a thing in India – this is the third or fourth “pet” eagle we’ve seen. Sudo wanted the eagle to sit on my shoulder, but it kept hopping onto my head – perhaps confusing my hair for a nest.
Our boat, tied up and waiting our next adventure.
Like any neighbourhood, there are homes of all types.
A modest houseboat:
A modern, newly-built two-storey home:
A luxury resort:
And most of the services you would expect to find in a small town.
A school. Jesus has been thoughtfully outfitted with an umbrella to guard against the harmful rays of the sun.
Lots of people-watching. This family waved at us as we glided by.
A stern-looking woman standing sentry.
And, as we’ve seen everywhere in India, such brutal manual labour. We watched men fill and carry massive baskets of dirt and stone on their heads, from the boat to the yard behind.
As you would expect in this environment, there is regular ferry service.
One last beautiful scene before we headed back.
The entrance to our boat tie-up is pretty grim – where old boats go to die. It would appear that derelict boats are not hauled away – there were dozens like this and it is obvious they had been there for many years.
This was an extremely interesting introduction to life on the backwaters. We’re heading to Munroe Island tomorrow, which is about two hours south of here. It is isolated, rural, and promises walking, cycling, canoeing and napping. Sounds perfect – expect more backwater photos in a few days.