Messing about on the water (part 1)

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by koshkha on April 10, 2012

When we first went to Kerala as part of a two week tour of southern India about ten years ago, one of the highlights should have been taking a boat trip on the Kerala backwaters. In fact it turned out to be a massive disappointment. We got shoved in a nasty boat with a noisy, stinky engine and I got a bit travel sick from the diesel fumes and the humidity and felt rotten for the next two days. As we chugged along in our nasty little boat, we couldn't help but notice how the other half lived. Beautiful converted rice barges were gliding elegantly along the waters, their occupants lounging in recliners, sipping beers and reading magazines. The contrast was shocking. I was determined that if we ever went back to Kerala we would do the backwaters with a bit more style. I wanted to be the one in the recliner with a crew dancing attendance on me.

I asked a company called to come up with a four day Kerala itinerary for us and they offered to include a day and night on a rice barge. I leapt at the chance and said yes. After three days in the mountains around Munnar and Thekkady, we left the high altitude behind and headed for the coast near Alleppey to meet our boat. As we approached the jetty where the boats were waiting for their clients, I started to get a bit nervous. Most of them were enormous and looked like they could easily accommodate six or eight people. Suddenly I started to worry that we might be about to get shut on a boat with a large, rowdy family group. By this time we'd had rather a lot of exposure to noisy Indian kids and their overly-easy-going parents. My image of paradise on water started to morph into a nightmare of screaming, running, yobby kids. To say I was relieved when we reached our boat would be an understatement. Noahsark (presumably intended as Noah's Ark) was one of the smaller boats and the only two by two to be boarding would be us,.

Rice barges come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes and with different degrees of luxury. In the days when the roads were poor and vehicles were primitive (which wasn't SO long ago), the quickest way to transport the rice crops was by water on broad beamed rice barges. When the roads got better and trucks came along, the barges were converted into house boats, either for living in or more typically for ferrying tourists around. The boat converters use local wood to construct the accommodation and then cover the outside of the barges with woven coir matting. The barges range in size from our two double room configuration up to double decker mega-barges with up to eight or ten bedrooms. Whilst the big ones were impressive, we were more than happy to have ours all to ourselves.

There are narrow spits of land and barrier islands along the Kerala coastline which separate the backwaters from the sea so the water is brackish (effectively a mix of sea and fresh water). A series of large lagoons forms the bulk of the water and land has been 'reclaimed' from the water a bit like you see in some areas of the Netherlands. I did wonder if the historic presence of the Dutch in some parts of Kerala had brought the technology of land reclamation to the backwaters. The square blocks of land with dyked borders reminded me of Holland but with much better weather. In total there are more than 900 km of waterways and the land that's been reclaimed is good farmland so many local people have built their homes alongside the water – often illegally. The backwaters have their own ecosystem and are home to many birds and water animals, many of which are pretty chilled about tourists chugging past on the barges.

We walked the plank onto our boat, took off our shoes when we spotted the crew weren't wearing theirs and then watched as our bags were passed over. The captain showed us to our cabin which was much nicer than we'd expected. We have spent a lot of time on scuba diving boats being accommodated in cabins not much bigger than cupboards, typically with bunk beds so we were more than happy to have a bit more space. We had a large double bed, enough space on either side of it for our bags, and a small amount of storage space. A large window looked out onto the water and there were both a fan and an air conditioning unit. The lighting was surprisingly good which isn't something you can take for granted in most Indian hotels. Our bathroom was also a pleasant surprise with a proper toilet, a sink and a hot shower. It's not a five star hotel but for a boat, it was more than acceptable. At the front of the boat were lots of sofas and chairs, a large coffee table, a dining table and lots of padded benches. There was a small flat screen television and DVD player as well as a shelf with books and maps though we didn't use any of these.

The captain has a seat at the front of the boat with a large steering wheel although the engine is somewhere at the back so the noise level is quite low. We set off shortly after going on board and headed down a wide channel past a small white church with a bell tower. We were soon in chugging along on a wide lagoon, contemplating the flatness after being in the mountains. The only height came from coconut trees along the edges of the water. We passed a couple of very luxurious hotels including one with private swimming pools for each cabin. Luckily the inhabitants weren't too snooty to wave at us as we chugged past.

After about an hour we moored for lunch which the crew had been cooking ever since we left the jetty. The food was copious but we didn't eat too much as we were never sure if the crew had more food or would eat what we left. I hoped there was more in the galley at the back of the boat but I wasn't totally sure so we held back from over doing it. Most of the guests are Indians so the food is made to the local spice level which is milder than most of India but still packs a punch. For lunch we had 'Kerala fish fry' with a small bony but ultra-fresh fish, bitter gourd, veg curry, the evil nasty south Indian runny sauce called sambar which turns my stomach at a dozen paces, a hot tamarind curry, a carrot dish and green beans all served with rice. Bottled water and juice were also provided
The Kerala Backwaters
Malabar Coast
Kerala, India

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