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.
9 thoughts on “Waterworld: gliding through Alleppey’s murky green canals”
The joy of travel is often as much about the difficulties one encounters, as it is about the amenities. That may sound counter-intuitive, but I find those difficulties instructive, and see them as opportunities for personal growth.
It’s so true – you learn what it means to cope when you are out of your own environment. There is always Plan B. We have the luxury of time, which lends a sense of adventure to everything. It’s all a story.
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Lovely post. Oh, when you find out how Indian women keep themselves calm and unruffled in the heat and humidity, please pass on their secret! It’s one of the things I find so very hard to cope with when travelling…and at home, for that matter 🙂
Hugs to you and Steve xo
They don’t flap their hands in front of their face – I’ve noticed that. They don’t complain or constantly state the obvious. Also, this is their country and their climate – this isn’t necessarily hot for them. Same with Mexico – I used to marvel at the women wearing tight jeans in sweltering temperatures.
I’ve never been a hot weather person – my ideal weather window falls between 15 and 26 degrees, with a light breeze.
Hi guys! Just loving your pics and stories! It’s like reliving our trip all over again. Although I must say you are more adventurous than us. You’ve really had some wonderful homestays. You are right, the houseboats have become very touristy. I remember being so intrigued in the 70’s reading about living on a houseboat in India complete with a live in for $12 a day!| That even included some cooking etc. When you are surrounded by 5 feet of snow and minus temperatures in the north it sounded pretty inviting! When we visited four years ago that option had changed quite a bit. I can imagine it is even pricier now but like you said every price range is available……from frankly frightening to luxurious is how you described it…perfect! Loved your boat for your half day tour. We opted for a local man and his dugout canoe. He was so proud to show us the neighbourhood and so proud to show off his new found Canadian friends. Everyone was shouting “wecome” as we glided by the homes and people washing their clothes and bodies. The sound that remains burned in my memory is the groups of children laughing, splashing and having so much fun. I remember thinking about my grandchildren in their sterile bathtubs and asking myself….which was better… it was that moving. It was just at sunset, absolutely beautiful. I was leaning back in the canoe and I was thinking how wonderfully serene was this experience? At that moment right at my eye level floated a huge bloated dead rat!! My immediate thought was please Lord….do not let this canoe tip. I rethought the sterile bathtub for the twins!
You are hilarious with your sweating descriptions! You look amazing in your pics so I wouldn’t give it another thought. Keep sweating and enjoying such a wonderful country. Keep the pics and narrative coming, loving it. Getting very antsy here, slow but sure rehab.
Linda & Gary
Oh, the children here are so beautiful and joyous (the lucky well-cared for ones). We find them like the kids in Mexico – much-loved and cherished, but not spoiled. Well-behaved, self-possessed and curious. I would love to have taken a photo of Jose’s children on their way to school – flowers in their hair, white blouse, blue skirt, knee socks, little backpacks – but I didn’t want to ask Jose and put him on the spot.
Funny about the notion of your grandkids in their sterile tub – they might have fun splashing in those canals, but I’m not sure how clean they would be – everything goes in there (including rats, obviously).
We are having a wonderful time in India – the people here are making our trip so special. We have a lot to learn from them.
You may not feel like you are representing western female tourists as you think you should but hats off to you for being so brave as to stand still for a photo op with an eagle resting on your head!
Heather, I had a funny conversation with a young Aussie the other day. She is studying Fashion Business in Melbourne, and from that piece of information, we discussed the challenges of long-term travel on our personal presentation. Haircuts, manicures, wearing clothes that require an iron, wearing shoes that require a flat surface – all of these things fall by the wayside for a while.
There are times when I would love to wear an immodest summer dress, skinny little sandals and mascara without smearing it off in the heat. Not bad problems to have to do without these things – you can’t have it all.
Ginny: you are a terrific story teller and writer. I just can’t wait for the next post. You see all things so positively and you are so open to everything that surrounds you. Thanks for sharing India with me as I will never go there. Through your eyes, I am having a wonderful trip. Stay safe and healthy. Xo