A backwater oasis in Kerala. [Part 1]

Written on a houseboat
Alleppey, Backwaters of Kerala
Evening, Friday, March 21

Close your eyes. This is the sound of summer in your ears. Different insects chirping and singing their song. Vague voices raised far off, traveling and echoing across the water. Wild dogs yip and howl. The rhythmic thunk of a paddle meeting the water. The faint and indecipherable rustle of the breeze over your ears. The night is quiet on the backwaters of Kerala.

The backwater palms at dusk.

We moored a scant hour before sunset and watched the sun, a glowering fireball, set on the horizon. In this part of the backwaters, vast squares and trapezoids of rice paddy fields lie divided by narrow walls and spacious freshwater canals. The fields are slightly lower than the canals and can be flooded by opening gates. Along the confluence of two narrow canal walls are a few rectangular houses clustered together. When we moored, a villager came by unspooling an armful of electrical cords to hook up our houseboat. Accompanied by two of the enthusiastic young dogs (one who took up his post outside our houseboat, thumping the window with his good natured tail), we took a brief walk along the canal walls, making the acquaintance of a rooster hidden in a tree and two cows, or more specifically, water buffalo (with curved horns) who stared unblinkingly at us, as though daring us to come closer. One of the villagers hailed us, and upon finding out where we were from, excitedly told us his daughter was in Atlanta, GA and that a cousin of his operated a boat in Chicago on Lake Michigan. A very small world, indeed.

Sunset on the backwaters.

Dinner was a spicy chicken curry, dal, beets and coconut, over rice and chapatis, which we nearly devoured entirely. I took one of the leftover chapatis and gave it to the eager tail-thumper who ate it in three bites. After dinner, we turned out the lights and sprayed enough Off! on us to discourage all the insects in the subcontinent, and headed to our upper deck. We settled ourselves against the railings, did some stargazing contentedly, talking about our time in India, how this experience reminded us of camping, and eventually miscellaneous topics like Plato, architecture, homeschooling, and more. One of the best things about our relationship is that we like to talk to each other about everything.

How We Got Here

It has been a really long day. We woke up this morning at 6 am, while it was still dark outside, and got ready and packed in a hurry. Outside, we caught a tuk-tuk to Thorppumpaddy, ten minutes away, where Gini at our homestay had told us to catch a bus to Alleppey. We joined a throng of commuters at 7 am, and one gentleman directed us to the second bus which came by, and we sat down on one bench together, paying 82 rupees to the ticket seller. It was a 1 and 1/2 hour ride on this large bus which contained at least 60 or 70 commuters heading to work. I observed some women-only rows and how women mostly boarded at the front.

Arriving in Alleppey.

A little after 8:30 am, we arrived in Alleppey. Overconfident, we set off by walking to bargain for a houseboat, but found to our detriment that we had overestimated our ability to hike a mile and a half in the gathering morning heat. It was 9 am by the time we found the boats, and we were soaked in sweat, carrying our two bags. We quickly realized we should have headed over to the canal faster and walked up it looking at boats as we went, but now we were already tired and feeling icky. There was nothing for it but to shoulder our bags and to start bargaining. To our surprise, most offers we received were 5500 to 6000 rupees for a 2 bedroom houseboat with A/C. We had read estimates of 7000-12000 rupees for high season, and summer is definitely low season in Kerala.

Many different houseboats.


A handsome, fancy sort of two-bedroom houseboat. Note the large second floor deck.

As we walked along, we saw many more houseboats and only a few other bargaining travelers, so it was very much a buyer’s market. Some of the nicer ones were already taken, however. We ran into a tout or go-between, who turned out to be a mostly genial tuk-tuk driver. He helped us look at a few more boats. It was a funny experience getting on and off of these boats with our bags, and there were two near-misses into the water, which would have really ruined our experience! Finally, we found one with a comfortable upper deck that we liked, and began to bargain in earnest. We ended up paying 6000 flat for a 2 bedroom (only using one) A/C’ed houseboat with a neat upper deck. All meals, a tea-time snack, and water were included. Our tuk-tuk driver then took us to buy some breakfast and some beer (and hilariously made Steve cut a whole line of locals). Thankfully, the whole ride only cost us 80 rupees.

Prow of our houseboat with chef (left) and captain (right).

We returned to the houseboat a little bit later. Most houseboats are chartered from 12 pm to 9 am, so at noon sharp, there commenced a little parade of houseboats, which we joined. The houseboats generally go at a very sedate pace of 5-10 mph most of the time, but it’s perfect for admiring the nature of the Keralan backwaters we’ve come to see. Palm trees, palm trees everywhere, bordering the canal walls, a line of them on the horizon. Banana trees and the occasional mango tree laden with unripe green fruits also grew on the shores. We sat on the top deck enjoying some fruit juice and watched the wildlife, mostly birds. There were many black, curved neck duck-like birds who swam with only their necks and heads above water. Small white heron-like birds with broad white wings swept over the waves. Swallows, with their sharp silhouettes against the sky, darted to and fro. To our delight, we even saw two kingfishers. One was perched on an electric line, immediately visible because of its distinctive blue plumage, red crown, and orange-gold breast. We saw it dive abruptly into the water after a fish, spiraling in on its prey. There were also signs of life, of course — local homes brightly painted or just plain cinderblock. Women doing laundry, children playing, fishing, men at work.

A bird in mid-flight over rice paddies.
A man in a canoe, a bright yellow house, and laundry.
This boy had just caught a fish, and we exchanged thumbs-ups and grins.

Lunch when we docked was a muted affair. The crew of three (chef, engineer, and captain) had made far too much food for us, and stuffed, we beat a hasty retreat for a nap. By the time we were awake again, we were once again sailing. I took out my watercolors and in the golden afternoon sunlight, began on a picture of the palms on the shore. I had bought these watercolors in Kuala Lumpur, and they have been wonderful. It is a soothing experience, and doubly so on the calm of the houseboat, and forces me to look more closely at the proportions of the trees and the coconut palm crown to its trunk, their reflections on the water,  and their exact shades of green and brown. The crew were very curious about my work, and were very amused by my palms.

Steve reading on the deck in the afternoon.

By the time I was done, we had moved away from the main waterways, where we were just one of fifty to sixty visible houseboats on the large lake. Now, we were down some more deserted canals and had the sunset all to ourselves. Bedtime soon, as we’ve been up for a long time. I hope to be up early tomorrow to watch a bit of dawn.


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