From the sleepy beaches of Varkala I made my way up north to Allepey in about 3 hours by car. By lunchtime, I was on a houseboat floating down a river in the watery spider web of the backwaters of Kerala. I didn’t make it to the town of Kottayam described by Arundhati Roy in “The God of Small Things” but the slow pace of the backwaters certainly brought back the feelings I had when I was reading the book. I could imagine how hot and sticky the air would get during the monsoon season, and I thought I could almost smell the masala tea spices in the air. Some years back, an enterprising tour operator expanded and renovated a cargo boat, kettuvallam, into a mock hotel on water. I read that a kettuvallam is made from jack wood or ironwood, sealed with fish oil and black resin, and tied together with ropes made out of outer shells of coconuts. Unbelievably no nails are used at all in the boat’s construction. They are kind of like a Chinese junk boat or those boats you see in Halong Bay, but smaller and with these charming domes.
Having an entire houseboat to myself made me feel ridiculously pampered. The passenger to crew ratio for my trip around the backwaters was 1:3. Me and three very quiet and gentle guys- the captain, chef, and first mate. They only spoke to me when it was absolutely necessary; “are you hungry?” “some tea?” “look there, a kingfisher!” (yes, they helped me spot my first kingfisher) “what time would you like to have dinner?” I think I may have said less than a dozen words while I was on board the houseboat. I loved that they were attentive but completely discreet, unlike everyone else I’ve met so far (they all want to know where I’m from, how old I am, why I’m traveling alone, etc). As for the food, both lunch and dinner were southern Indian, Keralan to be specific. For lunch I had two very delicious vegetable dishes, a vegetarian stew, plus my first piece of fish in India. The chef brought enough food out to feed two people and I did my best to show him how much I liked his cooking by eating most of what he gave me. For dessert I had what I can only describe as vermicelli noodle soup with raisins, cashews, and cardamom. I think it’s called payasam which is normally made with rice but so far, I’ve only had them with these vermicelli noodles (iddiappams). I had this dessert twice before at the ashram so it wasn’t new to me. I’m not a fan of desserts but I liked this hot, sweet, slippery, and yummy treat. For dinner, the chef presented all new dishes- okra and cabbage, lentils, and chicken curry which I didn’t eat since I’m keeping vegetarian (actually pescatarian) and alcohol free in India. The chef asked me if I wanted any wine or beer with dinner and I actually turned down the offer!
The houseboat I rented had two bedrooms with attached bathrooms, a living room, a small dining area, and there was a small kitchen in the back. The captain took his seat at the very front of the boat and I was able to sit on a platform right behind him on large cushions and just be. There are so many of these boats now you can hardly avoid seeing them but they float and glide along so quietly that you don’t notice them much. Luckily most of the inhabitants along the rivers also didn’t seem to be disturbed by these houseboats and went about their business. All afternoon I watched people swimming, children coming home from school, neighbors chatting, and old fishermen on their skinny canoes rowing by. With miles and miles of calm water reflecting nothing but coconut trees and the sun, my mind cleared and seemed to sync up to the easy-going pace of the backwaters as well. I felt as if I was meditating with my eyes wide open.
Late in the afternoon the captain and I got off the boat in Champakulam to visit a Syrian Christian church and to walk around a small market. I wasn’t so interested in shopping or sightseeing so it was a quick stopover. But the church was interesting- it’s over 500 years old and like an Indian temple you had to take your shoes off before going inside. There are a lot of Christians in Kerala; in fact, the crew of the houseboat was Christian and there were some leftover Christmas decorations and a picture of Jesus over the dining table. Aside from this church in Champakulam, I saw at least a half dozen more along the waterways as well as some large mosques. Once we returned to the houseboat, we set off again slowly making this turn and that. Our boat barely made any waves as we moved along. When was the last time I spent a day doing absolutely nothing? My mind usually races around a mile a minute but I think it’s the magic of the backwaters that helps you just take in what is around you and nothing more.
It was so calm and relaxing that even doing balancing poses on the boat wasn’t so difficult. I practiced right after I saw the glowing orange sun go down behind some coconut trees and then again in the morning before sun rise. My very first time doing a headstand on a gently rocking boat. What an experience… We tucked in for the night away from a few other houseboats next to huge rice fields. With no one and no lights anywhere near us, it was so dark that you could barely see your hand in front of your face. I turned in early to read a bit and slept peacefully under a large mosquito net flowing down from the ceiling.
It was quiet in the morning when I woke up. I could hear the gentle hum from our own boat, “plop, plop” from the ladies who washed their clothes by bashing them against the riverbed, “hoo, hoo” high pitched calls from men on canoes who had something to sell, and an occasional rooster far away. I had a delicious western breakfast of toast, chai, spicy green pepper omelet, and pineapples. After an hour or so of navigating in and out of more waterways, the captain quietly pulled up to Emerald Isle where I was to spend my next 24 hours. Door to door service. The three guys were kind and professional to the end. Thank you for making my houseboat experience a special one!
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