Cruising on a houseboat in Kerala is a deliciously luxuriant way to take a step back from the chaos that is India, and experience a land relatively unchanged by modern life.
The Kerala Backwaters are a 900km-long chain of brackish lagoons and lakes in southern India, which are interconnected by a labyrnthine series of canals fed by 38 rivers that snake their way down the Western Ghats to the sea. By providing transport, food, water, rice and livelihoods the waterways are the lifeblood of the millions of people who make their living in the cities, towns and villages that line their banks. They are also home to the hundreds of houseboats that, each year, depending on the season, see hundreds of thousands of tourists, both foreign and domestic, arriving in droves to take in the serenity and natural beauty of the never-ending watery ecosystem.
We were eight friends in total, taking a three-day journey on the houseboat, which was a beautifully laid-out classic with dark wooden timbers, Persian rugs and plush cushions, polished brass fittings, large state rooms with modern bathrooms, and offering a uniqueness that only good money could buy. Made of bamboo and thatch, most houseboats look pretty much the same, so as we waited by the canal’s edge the following morning we had no idea which of the many boats was ours. But as she sailed into view in all her magnificence, it seemed the gods – or God singular in this predominantly Catholic state – was smiling on us, and we slowly sailed out onto a vast lake in the company of a handful of similar-looking, snail-shaped ships and into the morning sun.
The going was deliciously slow as we sailed up and down canals lined with villages, rice fields and church steeples, and of course Keralans themselves; kids and adults going about their days oblivious to the tourist intrusion a few metres off their back doorsteps. It’s extremely rural with vast horizons, big skies and endless groves of coconut trees lining the waters. Children carry school books home, they swim and yell and wave to us as their mothers do laundry and light fires while their fathers tend rice and catch fish for the evening meal. The waters are also home to myriad species of birds, both visitors and permanent residents; the paddy fields providing rich feeding grounds for squadrons of Caspian terns on loan from Siberia, and local inhabitants such as herons, egrets, finches, eagles, cormorants and kingfishers with beaks the size of sewing shears.
Life on Board
Being February when we were there, the canals were relatively traffic free, but there are times when we could see and feel a bit of a build up. Apparently peak season can be somewhat like a morning rush hour in Beijing. Lucky for us, around 4pm many of the boats, which were only doing a one-night trip, begin to peel off in search of a mooring close to the following morning’s drop-off point. We who were doing a two-night trip (highly recommended) continued further out into the wilderness in the company of just ourselves. After watching the longest sunset ever, we pulled up against the canal bank, tied off on a coconut tree, and negotiated the vending of some fresh prawns and fish for that evening’s dinner, then slunk off for some Ayurevedic oil massages. Who would have thought that in the middle of nowhere one could find a massage centre with six therapists ready to go? Only in India.
After dinner we sailed off in search of a deserted stretch of canal to spend the night. We went to bed well fed and massaged into a state of near zombification, then woke before the dawn in time to see the sun rising through the coconut trees and reflecting off the waters. A gentle morning mist filled the fields as the birds sang their morning greeting, while my yoga-loving friend saluted the rising sun. I wandered far out into the rice paddies, where the stalks were tall and strong and only a few weeks from harvest, as the birds and farmers looked on from a distance.
It doesn’t take long to break a sweat in this heat and the canal water looked too good to be true, so the crew told us to just jump right in. One of our party was a doctor and advised against it, but we ignored his words and kept on swimming, coming up feeling healthier and more alive than ever; this was the water we were showering in on the boat, after all. Swimming in the flat calm waters with the sounds of nature and the reflections of the palms and the early morning stillness felt like we were in Eden before the Fall, and the full beauty and importance of what we were doing was sinking in. A large breakfast followed and then we cast off knowing that we had absolutely nothing to do except kick back, relax, and wait for lunch and dinner at some point during the day.
To complement the otherworldliness of where we were, the food we were served was truly out of this world. From a tiny galley at the back of the boat we were served some the most amazing displays of cuisine we had ever set eyes upon. It was of such gastronomic quality that we discussed kidnapping the chef and taking him with us when we disembarked. Vast quantities and varieties of curries, vegetables, fishes, dips, sauces, rices, breads, fruits and juices kept coming four times a day until we were fit to burst. But still we had room for more. These journeys are as much about feeding the stomach as they are about nourishing the soul.
India is a place to both lose and find yourself, and there are a hundred ways to do both. Some do yoga, some meditate, some visit ashrams and change their names and religion, while others like to take illicit drugs on the beach in Goa and dance the days away dressed like reincarnated refugees from the 20th century. It’s all each to their own, but it’s all about trying to find simplicity – something we have lost in our post-modern pursuit of the cult of the individual. It is what calms us and replaces the stresses of our day to day and the silly importances we place on the immaterial.
For me, being in the Keralan silence of that boat, sailing past simple people doing simple things and simply being a community, was enough to calm whatever Western excess I had brought along for the ride. If we could just get a grasp on the little things that make a village a village, and if we could each take a little bit of it home with us, then the modern world would be that little bit happier – at least as happy as we six became on our journey through a very special place with beautiful surroundings, great food, the company of good friends and best of all, the time to enjoy it.