A November 2005 trip
to Kerala by MichaelJM
Quote: A backwater cruise is a must when you visit southern Kerala. We enjoyed every second.
Attraction | "Cruising the Backwaters"
Backwater cruises are big tourist business in Kerala and although competition is tough there are allegedly countless fiddles that take place. Apparently some don’t include food or mooring costs so you’re constantly being “tapped up” for extra cash. Ours was all-inclusive and I’m delighted to report that none of the 5-strong crew attempted to levy extra charges. Indeed they made no sycophantic gestures to “work for” tips. We in turn felt comfortable and relaxed.
The first view of the boat was positive and it looked in good condition and “river worthy. We boarded our wicker-clad houseboat by timidly balancing on a narrow plank of wood. It was held at the bottom by the foot of one of the “boat boys” whilst another two grabbed for our arms to steady our approach. It actually felt an achievement to have got on board without incident and we were delighted to find that our accommodation afforded us plenty of space. This was a two-bedroom boat with a lounge cum dining area and an upper covered viewing deck. Access to the upper deck was by way of a basic ladder and the roof of raffia and coconut rope ensured protection from the mid-day sun. Initially I thought it was incredibly cramped on the upper deck but when the crew saw we were interested in sitting upstairs the roof was raised, with bamboo canes. It was still not possible to stand fully upright but there were some great of life on the river views from our bamboo chairs on this upper terrace.
Our en-suite bedroom was just big enough for the comfortable double bed and was kitted out with a fan (air-con was an added extra that the guy arranging the trip had suggested was an unnecessary additional cost) and perfectly adequate lighting. The lounge area with its comfortable chairs and coffee table afforded great views of the countryside and a large dining table completed our on-board facilities. All-in-all the facilities were extremely comfortable and we had a great 24-hour cruise down the canals of Kerala.
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on December 27, 2005
The Kerala Backwaters
Attraction | "Kollam"
The most prolific are the “big boys” and the Chinese fishing nets that, on some stretches of the river stood proud like a phalanx of sentries on river patrol. This ancient method of fishing was introduced to India by traders from the court of the Chinese ruler Kublai Khan in the early 13th Century and Fort Cochin is the only place in India that you’ll be able to see them. I guess the locals think if it ain’t broke don’t fix it! The nets are mainly worked at high tide and it seems quite a feat for the fishermen to operate the complicated counter-weight system to raise the full nets out of the water. It looks a cumbersome process but they tell me the catches are goo 7 the equipment maintenance is low.
By contrast, we observe the odd lone fisherman dangling a simple rod in the river. I suspect that this is a fairly unproductive process and speculated that it was more to do with passing the time of day rather than being a serious attempt to feed the family. What seemed extremely productive, however, was the search for shellfish on the riverbed. We presume that it was mainly mussels but we never got close enough to inspect the catches. We saw small canoes with a couple of fishermen hanging off the outside, fully immersing themselves in the murky river and then emerging triumphant with handfuls of shellfish. This seemed like an intense industry as these small boats littered the shallower parts of the river. Just off the riverbank we observed numerous smaller activities, we presumed domestic fishing, as single men immersed themselves, grabbed handfuls of mud and shellfish and emptied the content into bright shiny cooking pots.
Larger ships made their way ponderously out to the open sea and along the river, men conscientiously repaired well-used fishing nets – a labour intensive activity that seemed to have a high level of social intercourse at the same time. Certainly it did not seem to be overly pressurised – after all they do seem to have “all the time in the world”.
The riverside fish markets were hives of activity with the large boats off loading their catch and small canoes being paddled to set up makeshift stalls on squares of cloth on the floor. Above the fishing boats hovered the beautiful golden plumage of the river eagle, looking for an easy catch of any discarded fish. Although pickings might look cheap from their great height I suspect that the local fishermen didn’t give the birds even half a chance to rob them of their hard earned catch.
I’m certain the river supported many a family with direct food for the table or a source of income for their daily catch from restaurants or the local fish markets.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on December 27, 2005
Attraction | "A road trip - Kovalam to Kollam"
What surprised us greatly was the fact that even though we often seemed to be miles away from any village there were always people walking alongside the road. Children seemed to walk miles to the nearest school and despite the heat they looked cool in their immaculate uniforms. Adults walked barefoot on the verges carrying heavy loads balanced on their heads whereas the more affluent pushed handcarts or sat regally on the oxen pulled carts heavily laden with goods. It did surprise how placid these animals were when lorries, buses and cars thundered past them pipping their horn with gay abandon. That was one experience that we don’t wish to repeat in a hurry, as the local drivers seem to forget that they drive on the left hand side of the road. We were often overtaking a tuk-tuk overtaking a van overtaking a moped with another vehicle hammering down the road towards us. It seemed that leaning on the horn was perceived as a way of stopping a collision.
Despite this erratic driving we were able to appreciate the irony of Kerala’s cautionary road signs with key messages emblazoned on them for the road weary traveller. Here’s some that we particularly liked: “An accident is not accidental”; “Speed thrills but kills”; “Dim and bright, do it right, go slow”; “Mind your brakes or break your mind”; “don’t mix your drink with drive”. A garage also sported a pithy slogan – “Garage – neat and clean toilets”. Are there any other types of toilet? “Well, yes” – so I guess that’s a notice worth looking out for!
As we pulled in to the garage two proud lorry drivers, seeing my ever-ready camera, called me to take their photograph of their colourful and extravagantly painted vehicle. As we clocked up the miles it became clear that these lorries were not the exception – indeed they became features of the Keralan landscape.
We crossed over several large rivers and lakes as we headed north to Kollam – stopped at a couple to take in the sights. Now we understood the added advantages of having our own chauffeur, rather than being one of several on an organised bus tour, as we were able to ask our driver to stop whenever we saw a half decent view. At one point I saw a superb view of the ocean and asked that our driver pulled over. Frail coconut raffia houses were a stone’s throw from the beach with waves crashing aggressively onto the sand and a group of men-folk crouched in a circle “chewing the cud”. This is India!
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on December 28, 2005
Driving from Kovalam to Kollam
Throughout Southern Kerala
Attraction | "Daytime on the river"
It’s a superb way to spot the birds of Kerala and although I’m not great at naming birds even I could not fail to recognise the bright flash of turquoise of the Kingfisher, the Great Egret, Little Heron, Bittern, Cormorants, Eagles, Hawks, Snipes, Plovers and Storks. There were a range of seabirds and at a couple of places we saw huge groups of ducks. It turned out that duck farming is quite an industry on the river and “the duck shepherd” was seen ushering the ducks out of the river by encircling them in his canoe. The ducks obligingly clambered the river bank an the “dry land shepherd” moved them towards their “grazing land. This was a fascinating sight and I was just amazed and how compliant these birds seemed to be.
The riverbanks were awash with bright colours - the vivid flowers of red, yellow and purple, and the vibrant clothing of the local inhabitants set alongside the dowdy flimsy wicker-walled dwellings. Excited school children waved at us from the riverbank and proud parents posed readily for photographs. From early morning to dusk the river openly displayed its micro-culture to us. We saw parents bathing their children in the river and tenderly washing and brushing their hair; women beating clothing against rocks (that’s a real aggressive washing machine!); shiny silvery cooking utensils were scrubbed clean at the water’s edge; adults washed in the river, cleaned their teeth; and we did see evidence of water being taken from the river and drunk. This is a multi purpose river – a working river.
Whilst all the activity happened around us we were being molly coddled on board the boat. There was five staff in total, a couple out front responsible for steering, a cook, a kitchen assistant and the “captain”. For lunch we dined on rice, beans and onion, a couple of delicately spiced curry dishes with additional red hot chilli (our host was horrified as I chomped on one of them), a scented dish with coconut and mustard seeds was a superb accompaniment. We were initially surprised to not see fish but within a few minutes of devouring our first few dishes a couple of large sea fish (the name escapes me) were presented to us. These were mighty fine and the bones were lifted easily from the flesh. Whenever it looked like we were about to finish the waiter ladled more food onto our plate. This was a great lunch – with the perfect setting and food admirably well cooked.
We then settled to being pampered on our river boat. Feeling like royalty as enjoyed the lush scenery with its proliferation of palm trees leaning over the watery route and surveyed the busy rural life around. This is the life!
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on December 30, 2005
Attraction | "Dusk & Beyond"
There was great activity in small villages as the women folk seemed to be frantically sweeping out their dusty homes and smoke from fires began to dominate the evening sky. The bird life was less frantic with Bitterns casually walking along the riverbank and Egrets descending onto the rice fields.
Just as the sun began to set we arrived at our overnight berth. What a great sunset with the orange sky reflecting over the river creating spectacular silhouettes of the palm trees. We tottered down the precariously balanced plank to a narrow stretch of land and wandered a short distant taking in the full impact of that sunset. The transition between dusk and nightfall was rapid and so we made our way back to the boat, which was dimly lit by a couple of hurricane lamps. I put on the electric light and within seconds there was a swarm of insects flying around us. Mosquito repellent was duly applied and we settled to enjoy our evening meal. This was a simple but tasty affair with loads of rice, dahl, a bean curry, carrot melee, chicken (I use the term advisedly) curry and chapattis. There was plenty of it and we savoured each mouthful in the tranquil setting of the river. We could here occasional music from the village on the other side of the lagoon.
Despite our calm and leisurely day we were quite weary so after dinner we retired to our bed to catch up on some holiday reading and a game or two of sudoku. Later on the whole sky was regularly lit up by lightening and the tranquillity interrupted by rumblings of thunder. “I’ll never sleep in this”, thinks I, but the gentle motion of the boat rocked me to sleep and I didn’t wake until the next morning as the hazy sun mystically reflected it rays onto the calmness of the river. Fish were jumping, water lilies flowered proudly in the foreground, goats gently brayed, roosters crowed and local inhabitants prepared for another days work. Fields were full of cranes standing apparently aimlessly in the rice fields and other birds flew gracefully above us.
And then our boat spluttered into action and we were once again cruising the river, being served breakfast of a beautifully prepared onion omelette with piping hot coffee, freshly buttered toast with a delicious conserve. To finish off we had pineapple - you just can't beat the explosion of sweetness of freshly cut fruit. What a perfect finish to a superb 24 hours.
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on January 1, 2006