Having reached the northernmost point in India that foreigners are allowed to go to (in the Nubra Valley in Ladakh about 60 kilometers from the Chinese border), we made the turn and started heading south again. The first seven kilometers of our return journey was walking across sand dunes accompanying some Bactrian (2 humps) camels, their handlers, and two German architects, but that’s another story. After flying first to Delhi and then to Goa, we made our way south by train and bus (did you know that they made buses without windows?) to the heart of the state of Kerala and a small city called Alleppey. This is the gateway to the famous backwaters of Kerala, a 900 kilometer network of waterways that extend from the coast of the Arabian Sea inland.
We arrived by bus at 8:30 AM after a very early morning departure from Cochin. We were surprised that the tourist office was open and we went in to enquire about renting a houseboat for a trip into the backwaters. The man, who didn’t speak much English, said that the Keralan state government (which is communist incidentally, and has as its flag a yellow hammer and sickle on a red background) had houseboats for rent. He phoned a man to come to show us their boats, who instead walked us back to the office at the government guest house nearby. We spoke with a manager, who looked like he’d just woken up, and agreed to go to see two boats, one of which was available for a single night, and the other for two nights. He called an auto-rickshaw driver, and we agreed to pay 20 Rupees (50 cents Canadian) for the ride if we didn’t rent a boat, and nothing if we did.
After a ten minute drive that concluded down a tiny dirt lane barely wide enough for the rickshaw, we saw the two boats. The first one we saw had recently been renovated and looked brand new. The other was smaller and older. Both were available for 3500 Rp a night (about $87 Canadian, including a crew of two, a cook, and all food and water), but the nice one was only available for one night and we preferred two. After much discussion, walking up and down the waterfront to view another boat, and at least five cell phone calls to the boss, they agreed to rent the nice boat to us for two nights at 4000 Rp a night. They would make other arrangements for the people who had booked it (a party of thirteen who were renting three boats).
After a quick trip back to town to place our deposit, have breakfast, and buy a case of beer, we boarded our houseboat at 11 AM and were greeted by the friendly crew bearing glasses of pineapple juice. Our houseboat is about 15 meters long (50 feet) containing a large living area in the bow (complete with TV and DVD but no disks), two bedrooms with ensuite bathrooms, and a large kitchen aft. Its curved roof is made of woven reeds over a bamboo frame. Up top there is a small, covered seating area that is reached by a ladder from the bow. The engine is in the rear but the driver sits up front steering with a small old-fashioned wheel. The houseboats are modeled after covered fishing boats and come in sizes up to 150 feet!
We set off and made our way through smaller channels broken up by low islands and breakwaters covered with palm and banana trees. The weather was hot, but the breeze from our movement across the water made it pleasant. We crossed Vemdanad Lake and again headed down smaller channels, passing other houseboats, small houses and the occasional village. Occasionally we’d pass a small church as this area was a Portuguese colony in the 16th century and has a significant Catholic population.
It was very beautiful and very relaxing. Enjoying a private houseboat trip through tropical canals with warm breezes and sunshine, enjoying good meals, and having everything looked after for us gave us a small sense of what the rich and famous must enjoy on their yachts. Here’s our dinner one night, complete with four freshwater ‘lobsters’!
It is only a rough approximation though, as our trip was not without its challenges. Our house boat passed under a small bridge, but the recent addition of the upper deck made it slightly too high, which was easily corrected as our momentum bent back the entire viewing platform sufficiently for us to pass underneath. On the plus side, it did give the boat a more streamlined look. The metal poles that held up the viewing platform, the hand rail and the roof all sustained damage, which it turns out could not be repaired without the boss knowing about it (despite stops by the crew at two boat shops to see if something could be done quickly and more importantly secretively). At first they asked us not to tell their boss, a request which was later changed to tell him, if asked, that it happened on the morning of the second day, once it became clear that they would need to notify him by cell phone and didn’t want it to appear that they had delayed their report in an attempt to conceal the damage. I suppose they didn’t want to get in trouble, especially since the houseboat had recently been renovated and was damaged on its maiden voyage.
There were a lot of mosquitoes at night, and we hung our own mosquito net because our newly outfitted boat didn’t have them. We needed it to be able to open the windows at night, even after which we were still too hot. Our room had an air-conditioner, but we didn’t think that we would need it, and so hadn’t paid the extra $25 to have it turned on. Do you suppose ‘J-Lo’ and ‘P-Diddy’ have these problems on their yachts?
The sunset on our second night on board was spectacular. A warm breeze blew over us from the water as we enjoyed a ‘sundowner’, and waited for dinner to be served. Tough to take…
These issues aside, our guide book says that a houseboat trip on the backwaters of Kerala is probably the most expensive thing a budget traveler will do in India, but it also says that it is one of the ten things you should do before you die. We agree with both.