Sunday 20th November
Accommodation-Duration: Paradise Inn Guesthouse-2 days
Alleppey (also known as Alappuzha), one of the main gateway’s to the acclaimed canal network known as the backwaters of Kerala, is an invitation to witness south Indian nature at its best. Navigating the 900km wide network, you come across isolated villages surrounded by palm trees, rice fields and stunning wildlife. The peaceful waterways are blanketed in lilac water lilies, reflecting the lush vegetation of the surrounding land. Beyond that, busy farmers harvest rice from the fields, and men dive under their canoes to collect small white shells for cement manufacture. There is a tranquility like no other, as we peer in on local Keralan families going about their daily business. We meandered down the smaller waterways which became even more beautiful, watching a lady cut up her catch and others washing their clothes against rocks on the waters edge. You can only imagine the simple yet beautiful lives they lead. This is exactly what I was hoping to find in Kerala. The area is teaming with exquisite birds; cormorants, kingfishers, eagles and swallows. They are the face of the wildlife here. The traditional backwater boats known as houseboats, were originally used as rice barges to export the harvest from the many surrounding fields. Although we were aware they were one of the most expensive trips you can do in India, we decided it was vital that we experience one whilst in the backwaters.
Staying in the vibrant terracotta house named Paradise Inn Guesthouse (which was oddly quiet), the owner Antony made it very easy for us to book our houseboat trip. This seems to be the case with a lot of guesthouses, so it is worth doing your research beforehand, to stay in a guesthouse that provides the option to do a trip that suits you. Due to not being able to get onto the Eco run houseboat until the following morning, we were advised to visit an area named Marari beach which was 15km outside the town of Alleppey. On our way to find the bus station, we inevitably got enticed into a real Indian gold jewellery shop, selling all of the jewels every single woman embellishes themselves with. We were like children in a sweet shop, trying on bangles (which are always so minute), intricate earrings, tikka headpieces, chain earrings that drape over the top of your ear, and nose pins. Having realised we could end up spending a lot of unnecessary money in this shop, we removed ourselves from the situation. Arriving at Marari beach was a very pleasant surprise, having felt a little reluctant having waiting around for a day. The soft white sand beach lined with palm trees was like we had arrived on a deserted island. Our only company were coconut ladies, stray puppies and a few local boys. It felt like we had hit the jackpot! Finding solitude, we relaxed on the beach and got talking to a few young Indian guys who had just opened a beachfront ‘restaurant’. Agreeing to taste their culinary delights, we realised it was just a small wooden shed. There was something incredibly special about this place; men played cards as we sat under the palm trees and tried our first coconut white puttu steam cake (a dish local to the region). We also found the steps made by the local men to climb up and collect the coconuts on the palm trees; pieces of cut up coconut shell are tied around the trunk at intervals. It was great climbing upto the top to find bottles of coconut beer brewing, until we were ushered down by an anxious local. As the sun set we made our way back to Alleppey, which was when we were summoned into local Indian snack shop. There were canvas bags lining the floors with all sorts of dried and fried, fruits and nuts. We were given samples of every single thing in the shop until we realised dinner was no longer necessary.
The following morning we began our ‘Antony’s Eco Houseboat’ trip around the backwaters. Meeting our ‘captain’ Anil, Imogen and I were transported through the waterways by a gorgeous wooden canoe with a wicker roof. It was tranquil and more beautiful than I had ever imagined. Having been on similar sounding trips in other countries around Asia, I can confirm this exceeded them all. I completely underestimated this place. We pushed our way through dense collections of water lilies, strangely feeling like we were the only tourists. As we came off the small waterways and onto the main ‘street’, it was then that we were inundated with streams of tourist houseboats ploughing through by motor. Fortunately we had chosen to go on an eco trip which meant there were no motors used and on the houseboat we stayed on in the evening it was even powered by solar energy. Beyond the pollution of the tourist boats, I noticed that the backwaters also have a lot of rubbish in. This really surprised me, being such a beautiful natural area that is visited by tourists all over the world. I suppose in these times you realise the major differences between an under-developed country and your own. Halfway through our adventure we stopped off for some chai at a small riverside cafe. To our complete surprise there were several eagles perched on the fences, however we later realised that their wings had been tied so they couldn’t fly away. A saddening thought after seeing such an incredible creature. After a bit more canoeing, Anil told us we had a little time to kill before our lunch would be ready on the main houseboat, so we got off into the village which lines the backwaters, and took a walk around the area. Passing a tiny school, we peered over the wall to see these beautiful young Indian children all nattering to each other, sat in circles. As soon as our presence was noticed, their faces lit up and they all ran to the doorway in sheer excitement. This is one of my favourite things about India; the beautiful children are so fascinated by you as a foreigner and have probably never seen anyone like it before. Arriving at our houseboat, we felt like we were in heaven. This was all ours for the whole night! The gorgeous woven banana leaf boats are fully equipped with a kitchen, bedroom, bathroom, living area and upstairs balcony. We were treated to a traditional Keralan lunch by our chef Sirdu, which had lots of coconut infused flavours of the south. After relaxing on our private and secluded houseboat in this peaceful part of south India, we jumped onto the kayak’s with Anil. He took us down small waterways and introduced us to his family. Anil was very curious about our own family and lives at home, he taught me things to say to greet his sisters in their local village dialect. It is incredibly interesting to find out how many dialects are spoken in this huge country, I have felt a little dismayed not being able to practice the little Hindi I have learnt. Hindi seemed to be more widely spoken in the big cities and in places like Rajasthan. As we meandered over to a rice field we were followed by a young local boy who seemed to know Anil, he then insisted that he came on the kayaks with us. Further down the waterway we then picked up some more children. What a lovely end to the day. That evening we were served another hearty meal by Sirdu, as we watched the fire flies dance over the calm water. You could hear a pin drop. The following morning we woke just after sunrise to see locals practicing for the famous Nehru Snake Boat races that they hold here annually. Having paid 4,000 rupees (eep) for our 24 hour backwater trip, we agreed it was definitely worth the money and one of the best memories of south India. I will be back to see you again Keralan backwaters.
At the beginning of my trip I was given the infamous book ‘Shantaram’, which I embarrassingly did not know anything about until meeting travellers in India. Having really delved into the book now, I have been learning so much about India and the culture and the people. It is the best possible novel to read whilst travelling this diverse and vibrant country. I won’t ruin the story too much as it is something definitely worth reading, however it is the story of an Australian man living in Mumbai and is based on truth. I finally learned that the famous head-wobble that every Indian does, actually means yes and is also a gesture of coming in peace. It was always so confusing when every question is answered with the head-wobble which, for all you know, could mean yes, no or maybe. I have also learnt of the holy ‘Standing Baba’s’ who take a vow to stand their whole lives. For support they are known to lean on small swings with their elbows, relieving them of a little weight, and at night time have hammocks to support their bodies from toppling over. They spend their lives in pain, with little muscle in their legs. In India, religion overrules everything.