I first travelled the Keralan backwaters back in 1998, when I took the tourist cruise from Kollam to Alappuzha, and I loved it. The serene waterways that lie just a stone's throw from the sea are relaxing, smothered in coconut palms and perfect for unwinding. Given my complete lack of ability to acclimatise to India's heat and noise without throwing a tantrum, the backwaters seemed like the perfect place to relax for a few days.
We hadn't meant to jump straight onto a boat, but India being India, things just fell into place (well, apart from some hiccups with my credit card, but let's leave that for another time). We took the train from Varkala to Kollam, fell into a rickshaw to the DTPC tourist information centre and started talking to a man about houseboats. He didn't have anything available until Saturday, which was far too far off, but he sent us round the corner to the office of the Visit Kerala representative, who produced photographs of a houseboat and a book full of glowing handwritten reviews from travellers dating from 2005 ('The current book is on the boat,' claimed the agent), and said the boat was available now to hire for as long as we wanted. We said we'd like three days, and he suggested an all-inclusive itinerary, costing Rs16,000 for three nights and four days, going from Kollam to a quiet halfway point on the first day, then to Alappuzha on the second day, and then around Alappuzha for the third day and night, ending in Alappuzha at the end of the trip. It sounded good, we checked out the boat and liked the look of it, and then I tried to bargain, which completely failed to work as he had 'already given you my very best price.' Too tired to argue, we paid up and headed for the boat.
Ah, the Keralan backwaters. They live in a time zone of their own, and although our trip from Kollam to Alappuzha followed the same route as the ferry I took back in 1998, there's something wonderfully relaxing and, dare I say it, decadent about doing it in your own boat, with the smells of cooking wafting up from the back of the boat while you sit in the shade of the veranda like kings and queens of the river. It's delightful, and even though it took a while to seep into my pores, it eventually took my black mood, tied it up in a bag, dropped in a big, heavy rock, and threw it mewling and whingeing into the luscious green waters of the backwater canals.
I should point out that, given the price difference – Rs300 for the tourist cruise, compared to a houseboat being of the most expensive attractions in India – the tourist ferry comes out of it very well. For the first two days of our trip, I saw nothing that I didn't see back in 1998, if you ignore the new developments that have sprung up in the meantime (such as the construction work surrounding a couple of huge bridges that will one day join the outer land spit to the mainland). But I remember the tourist cruise being, well, rather touristy and a bit too busy, and if you're a couple looking for a romantic interlude, or you're a large party who would rather hang out with each other in privacy, then a houseboat is absolutely the way to go.
Our boat, the Thamanna (or Expectation), was run by a three-man crew of smiling but relatively silent chaps, who ran the boat with the kind of relaxed efficiency that comes from working as a team for a long time. Anil, the chef, would prove to be a magician with food; Shaji, the engineer, charmed us with his smile; and Retheesh, who steered the boat, was quiet and slightly more aloof, perhaps because he was the new boy, having worked on the boat for just one year (the others were old hands, judging by the comments in the onboard visitors' books). They kept themselves to themselves, hovering around enough to make sure we were perfectly happy and to have little chats now and then, but without ever feeling clingy or invasive. Indeed, I wouldn't have minded if they had been more chatty, but perhaps on the backwaters, leaving the tourists to mind their own business is a sensible move.
For the backwaters are a drifter's delight, and it started from the very first day, when we set off from Kollam in the hot, early afternoon sun. As soon as we left the mooring, just round the corner from Kollam's somewhat fragrant abattoir, the breeze through the front deck blew away all memories of crowded trains and hot, sticky city centres, and just like that we reached the second largest lake in the backwaters, Lake Ashtamudi, whose waters stretch out into the distance, deep and green all the way to its palm-strewn fringes.
Soon after crossing the lake, we tied up to a pole in the middle of the channel, and out came lunch, the first of many spreads that we would both marvel over (I'm not ashamed to say that we took photos of our meals before ploughing into them – they really were that well presented, and they tasted as good as they looked). Our first lunch consisted of fat-grained south Indian rice, dhal, diced green banana, green beans, cabbage, soya beans and two whole fishes, which Anil said had come from the lake we'd just crossed. Whatever their origin, they tasted delightful, and each of the dishes was presented in its own red terracotta bowl, with its own unique recipe and mixture of herbs and spices. Indian cooking has a reputation for being fiery and spicy, but when it's done well – as it was on our houseboat – you can taste the individual spices, and the sum of the parts adds up to an inspiring taste of its own. Each of Anil's terracotta bowls was worthy of an ovation, and we did them justice as best we could (though each meal was so large, even two hungry mouths could only dent the mounds of food we were presented with, though I'm sure nothing went to waste).
After a short siesta to see out the hottest part of the day, we resumed our drift northwards, passing houses that lined the canal on both sides. One of the strongest memories of my previous visit to the backwaters was the insanity of the children, who would run along the banks, shouting, 'One pen! One Pen! Give me one pen, please!' in the hope that we would copy the hordes of tourists who throw pens at the locals, thus making things worse (the official advice is not to hand out pens to children, but to given them to a local school instead; throwing pens off your boat only encourages the children to yell, 'One pen! One pen!' every time they see a white person, which doesn't achieve anything). One child was so enthralled by his mantra that he kept running along the side of the bank, leaping along the tops of the concrete stumps until they ran out and so did he, his legs wildly pumping the air as he fell, still screaming, into the river; he kept shouting as he surfaced, determined to get his reward, though I think on this occasion his efforts were in vain.
The 'one pen' brigade are still in evidence some nine years later, but it feels to me as if they have calmed down in the intervening years (though perhaps this is because they save their biggest efforts for the tourist cruise, as the odds are better, and don't pester houseboats quite as much). Instead, the happy smiling of the locals is the most common sight, and people waved gleefully as we chugged past, happily waving back. All this waving and the smiling appears to be completely genuine on their part (it definitely was on our part), and the women and children reacted brilliantly when Peta said hello, something they were less keen to do with a solitary male all those years ago.
As the afternoon wore on, we sailed past a mineral factory and fishing boats moored on the shores, and the cantilevered Chinese fishing nets for which the area is famous. We finally arrived in the small village of Alumkadavu at about 5.30pm, where we pulled up by the Green Channel hotel – all but empty in this, the shoulder season – and Shaji said we were more than welcome to explore the village, if we wanted. And, of course, we jumped at the chance.
Again, this is something that you don't get from the tourist cruise, and it turned out to be one of the highlights of the trip. We wandered randomly through the village, along its main road with all manner of shops crowding the sides, from the ironmongers, the saree shop and the men's tailors, to the rope shop, the chemists, various food shops and, oddly enough, a shop selling western-style toilets. A lone television sat in a shop window showing Tom and Jerry battling it out in space, and children and old men sat around on the dusty ground, engrossed. Further on a line of auto-rickshaws gleamed in the afternoon light, their owners waiting for a fare, and all around people stared at us, some returning our smiles, and some just staring.
We took a right turn at a T-junction for no particular reason, and were soon overtaken by a small boy of about ten on a rather impressive bicycle. It had tinsel around the wheel hubs and the shiniest seat you've ever seen, and he slowed down as he went past.
'Hello,' he said.
'Hello,' we chimed. 'How are you?'
'I am well,' he replied. 'What are you doing?'
'We are just walking,' we said. 'What are you doing?'
'I am just riding my bicycle,' he said, and waved as he rode off. And that, we thought, was that.
A little further down the road the same boy popped out from nowhere and said, 'Hello.'
'Hello', we said.
'This is where I live,' he said, pointing to a small house just off the road. 'Would you like to come in?'
How could we refuse? So we wandered in and perched on the edge of the front porch, while our newfound friend said his name was Renju Bhavan, and introduced us to his mother, father and grandmother. We made brief and rather stilted conversation while slowly other boys wandered in, all giggling and hiding behind their hands. They let us take their pictures, insisting I appear in at least one of them, and while Renju went inside to write down his address so we could send him the prints, Peta went to talk to a group of girls who had gathered next door, and got taken off to see their home while I sat there, smiling and bobbling my head as if to say, 'I'm happy to be in your home, even if I can't speak a word of your language and you can't speak a word of mine.'
Before long Renju emerged with a pen and his school book, and decided that it might be quicker if he dictated his address to me to write down, so I jotted it down as best I could, and he then asked me for my autograph, which Peta and I both gave him. This opened the floodgates – everyone produced their own school books, which we dutifully filled with our signatures and, in Peta's case, a smiley face that went down particularly well, and after a few more photos and promises that we would send them copies as soon as we got home, we floated back to our boat, the smiles and happy waves of the locals of Alumkadavu a reminder of how genuinely friendly and open the locals of rural Kerala are.
And that evening we ploughed into a feast of masala chicken, rice and spiced aubergine, reflecting how it's always the unscripted parts of the trip that produce the best memories.
Unfortunately, our first night on the houseboat proved to be rather less tranquil than we'd hoped it would be. The noise of a small engine (or possibly a large transformer) throbbed throughout the night just beyond our bedroom wall, and although we started the night lying in our cabin with the mosquito net coiled up above our heads, I woke up in the wee hours with itches that turned to scratches, and we had to spend the rest of the night huddled in the still air under the net. After finally dropping into a troubled sleep around three o'clock, we both woke to the shock of the muezzin's call at 5.30am, after which the local Hindu temple decided to play catch-up with a woofer-blasting rendition of its own that went on all the way to breakfast, accompanied by loud, sharp bangs that we would later discover were firecrackers. Apparently our first full day on the backwaters happened to be a Hindu festival, and nobody sleeps when there are colourful gods to be celebrated.
So day two started in a haze of exhaustion, brought on by yet another difficult night adjusting to the heat and the noise of India. It can take the body up to two weeks to acclimatise to this kind of heat, and six nights in, neither of us had managed anything approaching a proper night's sleep. Thank goodness we were on a houseboat, then, because there is absolutely nothing to do except kick back and relax.
Giving up on our sweat-drenched bed, we spent the early hours of the morning watching the village wake up. Just in front of us the river taxi man punted his canoe back and forth between the banks, ferrying people and bicycles between the main village and the houses on the opposite bank. Back and forth he went, sometimes carrying sedate clutches of colourfully clad women, and other times carrying groups of men who seemed to be able to talk without drawing breath. Meanwhile, we enjoyed a leisurely breakfast on the front deck, consisting of masala eggs, nests of rice noodles, baked plantain and sweet tea. At dawn the air had been completely still, made hazy by the smoke from the morning fires, but over breakfast the air slowly cleared, the humidity of the early morning replaced by a feeling of impending high temperatures as the sun felt its way towards our houseboat. Setting off for the day's cruise not only brought something else to look at, but a welcome breeze that made life bearable once more.
After an hour on the backwaters, heading north along a wide canal surrounded by thick coconut forests, we stopped briefly at the Matha Amrithanandamayi Mission, where about 2000 people live and follow the teachings of one of India's few female gurus. Known as Amma ('mother'), she is best known for her darshan (or her 'blessing'), when she hugs thousands of people, one after the other, in long sessions that can go on all night. We wandered round, feeling slightly self-conscious, as this is one of the more popular ashrams for westerners, and there were plenty of white faces, decked out in the simple clothes of ashram devotees. They looked happy enough, though looking at the tall, pink tower blocks which house the throng, I knew that this wasn't for me. I like the bad things in life too much to become an ashram devotee, though if I ever feel tempted, a hugging guru is probably the way I'd go.
A little further on along the backwaters, we pulled up to a wooden pile in the middle of the canal, surrounded on both sides by thick jungle and the sound of Hindu celebrations. Firecrackers cracked, drums drummed, and it felt for all the world like the build-up to a cannibal scene out of an H Rider Haggard novel. We idly fantasised that we were being fattened up for the exotic celebrations, because lunch was truly something. Little bowls held masala prawns, beetroot with yoghurt, a lovely spinach dish, sambar, ladyfinger, beans, rice and crunchy poppadoms, and we polished off as much as we could to the tune of a cold beer while the drums thumped out a tune to aid the digestion.
After a siesta we struck north, and soon sunk back into a set of smaller waterways with picturesque houses dotted along the banks. People waved and smiled, with only a minority of the children shouting, 'Please give me one pen,' and after a short chug we pulled in to the banks and were whisked off to see the locals making rope from coconut fibres. This rope is made from coconuts that are submerged in water for three months, which makes it easier to separate the nut from the fibrous shell. The fibres (known as 'coir') are separated out into huge piles of thick, hair-like strands, each only a few inches long, and the ladies who make the rope weave the coir using a simple contraption that spins four large needle-like hooks along their axes (these days these machines are electric, though they used to be hand-cranked before the arrival of electricity). They attach a few strands to each needle and twist it to form a short rope, and then two of them take two ropes each, one in each hand, and walk backwards, away from the machine, feeding more strands into the twisted fibres and creating a thin string as they go. After 10m or so, they stop and join the ropes they're holding in each hand together, thus creating two loops, and they attach these to a similar machine at that end that twists each pair of strands into two lengths of twisted-pair rope. Considering that these ropes are made by simply twisting short strands of coconut fibre together, they are incredibly strong, and the ladies reckoned they could produce 25 to 35kg of rope a day, no mean feat in this weather.
It's a skilled job, too, as became quite clear when we tried our hand at making a short length of rope. It isn't easy to feed small strands into a twisting rope without losing the momentum, but the ladies of Kerala make it look like a breeze. Hats off to them, I must say.
As you approach the Alappuzha end of the backwaters, there's a sense that the waterside developments are, well, slightly more developed than their equivalents down towards Kollam. Although most of the houses are still small and modest, the number of larger houses increases, and you get the feeling that there's a bit more prosperity at this end of the waters. The landscape changes too, moving from the coconut forests of Kollam to a more open, agricultural layout, with large, flat paddy fields stretching out beyond the banks of the backwater. The paddy fields are separated from the canal by long, thin strips of land, with the occasional irrigation gate providing a means of flooding the paddy fields at the start of the growing cycle, when rice needs to grow in shallow water. Water pumps and large plastic pipes allow the farmers to pump the paddy fields dry, so that by the time the rice is ready to harvest, the fields are no longer waterlogged.
Rice growing is much in evidence in the northern backwaters, with canoes plying the water, bursting with huge piles of harvested rice, ready to head over to the threshing site where the rice grains are separated from the grassy stems. But there's an awful lot more going on than just rice growing, for this is still a bustling place where people live. Boys dive into the water as your houseboat floats past, racing to see if they can reach the boat before it passes (it's futile with petrol-driven boats like this, but it's the taking part that counts); women bathe by the banks, coyly clad in their sarees, while men bathe further downstream in just their lungis; further along, a group of boat builders is working on the skeleton of a new boat, its curves reminiscent of a ripe banana or a sultan's moustache; boys play cricket under the palm trees, yelling 'how is that' amid a torrent of Malayalam; men squat on their haunches in circles under the shady trees, embroiled in heated discussion while women walk past in pairs, their bright clothes looking immaculate in the bright sunshine; the thwack-thwack of wet cloth on stone fills the air as the women of the house stand knee-deep in the water, doing the washing in the time-honoured way of smashing wet clothes on flat washing stones; lone canoes paddled by wiry old men pass larger boats weighted down to the waterline with piles of sand, collected in the morning by men with baskets, diving down to the bed of the canal; a solitary tantrum rings out, the intonation of both mother and child instantly familiar to anyone who has children of a certain age; river taxis punt from bank to bank, some carrying bicycles, and some carrying women hiding from the sun under their umbrellas; the shrill sound of a saw rings out from a riverside saw mill, where logs are bundled onto the back of a waiting truck; women bend over in rice paddies, scything ripe rice into bundles that the men carry away on their heads; and a man in a small canoe makes 'oo-ee' and 'kak-kak' sounds as he herds a large flock of ducks from one side of the canal to another. Life on a houseboat might be lazy, but all around you can see the quiet pace of life unfolding before your very eyes.
And that night, as we dropped anchor in a quiet stretch of the river just south of Alappuzha, we finally managed to get a good night's sleep, after a week of trying. At last, we felt human...
Life on a houseboat soon becomes quite mantra-like. Breakfast starts the day, lunch punctuates it, and dinner rounds it off, and in the middle there are more drifting sights and chances to doze off as the sun climbs through the sky. The scenery around Alappuzha is almost entirely flat and made up of paddy fields, and as such is lacks some of the charm of the winding coconut forests of the south, but by this stage it doesn't really matter, as everything plods along in the manner to which it has become accustomed. People are just as friendly and are always happy to smile and wave, and although the evidence of labour is right there in front of you, rather than tucked away behind the palm trees, the atmosphere is still just as relaxed. The sun is hot, the breeze is welcome, and the pace of life is delightful. 'A perfect spot for a bit of romance,' you might think, as you flick through the visitors' book and read the comments of couple after couple after couple.
Well... yes and no. There's no denying that life on a houseboat is romantic, in a kind of 'just the two of us on a boat in the middle of a palm-encrusted tropical paradise' kind of way... except that reality isn't quite that simple. It's so hot and so humid that you break a sweat just by standing up, let alone standing to attention; meanwhile there are three burly men manning the boat, and although Anil, Shaji and Retheesh were terribly respectful of our privacy, these boats aren't exactly huge and the walls aren't exactly thick; or if you think a quick spot of fun in the middle of the night is a good idea, then beware the silent canoes that paddle past, just feet from your open bedroom windows, their candles and torches lighting up the inside of your room in glorious, high-definition night vision for everyone to enjoy, while the stench of ingrained fish wafts in on the still night air; and even if you close the curtains or decide the fishermen can get stuffed, you try getting romantic under a mosquito net without catching it with your feet and ending up like two dolphins in a tuna net. Luckily, what you do get are bottled memories that you can take away with you, ready to be cracked open on cold evenings at home and savoured in front of the log fire, far away from the crowded melee of modern India. Or that's my plan, anyway...
The only stop we made on day three was the village of Champakulam, 18km from Alappuzha and home to the Kalloorkad St Mary's Forane Church, which was founded in the fifth century AD, but now uses modern technology to get its own back on the local mosques and Hindu temples. When we visited, the loudest sound system this side of Mecca was blasting out a Christian service, and the church was jammed with a congregation that spilt out into the church grounds, men standing on the left of the church and women on the right. The service was clearly Christian, but the words were in the local language and the pace of the service was definitely Indian, bearing about as much relation to staid English church services as do the happy-clappy churches of Ghana. And although I'm used to mosques ruining the peace of the wee hours and Hindu temples being as noisy as the country of their origin, it's a shock to hear Christians before you see them. But who can blame them in a country where even the religions have to shout to be heard?
Our final evening passed like the others before – quietly and pleasantly – and all too soon morning had broken and, like the first morning, we arrived back into the chaos of India in the form of Alappuzha. After tipping the crew and saying goodbye, we hopped into a rickshaw to the bus station, caught the bus to Ernakulam, jumped on the ferry to Fort Cochin, found a room in a very pleasant homestay, and lay down for a bit of peace... though, truth be told, there are few places in India as peaceful as the backwaters, and that's all part of their charm. What a place.