The ‘backwaters’ is the network of canals and waterways along the Kerala coast. These are mostly manmade, created centuries ago to provide irrigation and act as transport systems. researching our Kochi trip, we came across many mentions of backwater cruises. These run the gamut from a cruise lasting several days, taking you into the heart of backwater country—the town of Alleppey, the ‘Venice of the East’, to half-day cruises. The experiences range from luxury houseboats to small canoes, and the prices vary accordingly.
We settled on the full-day backwater cruise offered by the government-operated Kerala Tourism Development Corporation (KTDC). This, according to the KTDC website, would be a tour partly in a houseboat and partly on a canoe. A pick-up and drop from our hotel, and a traditional Keralan lunch (vegetarian) were included in the tour price, Rs 850 per person.
Although the information on the KTDC website indicates that bookings must be done by paying up in advance at the KTDC office in Ernakulam (mainland Kochi), we discovered that they’re more accommodating than that. Sending an e-mail to the KTDC booking office reaped good results: we could book online by sending them a confirmation, and they would then send us details of how to pay online by credit card. Simple, efficient, and convenient.
We made our bookings more than a week in advance (KTDC need about a week’s notice, in order to figure out the number of people for whom arrangements for travel and food will be required). On the day before the cruise, we also phoned to confirm. Punctually at 8 AM on the day of the cruise, a small 16-seater bus arrived to pick us up. The drive to the pier where the cruise begins took about an hour from our hotel, including a stop along the way to pick up our fellow-passengers. In all, there were seven of us: a German girl, an Austrian man, and a family of three from Hyderabad.
The bus took us well out of Kochi, and finally stopped on a quiet village road bordered by palm trees and flowering hedges. Beside the pier nearby was an impressive kettuvallom, the traditional Keralan houseboat. Past a couple of huts—one with coconut halves drying on a tarpaulin, the other with a woman at work, cooking—and we were met by Shajaas, the young man who was to be our guide. Shajaas welcomed us into the kettuvallom, and while we drank a cup of sweet, milky tea, he gave us a brief introduction to the backwaters, which spread across three districts: Kochi, Kottayam, and Alleppey, with 27 islands dotted across this stretch where the sea meets the river.
Shajaas informed us that the boat we were on was a one-bedroom kettuvallom (two- and three-bedroom ones are available for longer cruises). The kettuvallom is made from wood, and thatched with coconut fibre. Every year, kettuvalloms have to be polished and waterproofed, using either mackerel oil, or the oil from cashewnuts.
(Incidentally, since we’d be spending a few hours on the boat, we were shown the single toilet on board—dark and smelly, and approached through a messy bedroom that seemed to be in use by someone with no very strict rules about cleanliness).
The cruise: Once we’d finished our tea, at about 10 AM, the kettuvallom—steered by a local fisherman—set off into Lake Vembanadu, which is where the waters of the river meet the sea. Shajaas pointed out the distinct line of differing colours of water, where this phenomenon happens.
This stretch of water is very calm, so even though there were plenty of chairs on board, most of us spent a good bit of the ride standing against the railing and watching the islands go by. Shajaas (who used to be an Ayurveda practitioner, but gave it up to become a guide because "I love meeting and talking to people") gave us lots of interesting information. He told us that the largest island in the backwaters has a population of 25,000, and is well-connected by ferries that ply from several jetties. On the smaller islands, fewer people live, and they get about using their own canoes. We saw a few canoes moving swiftly through the water, and one or two bobbing on the waves, with a man, his head and shoulders visible, in the water alongside. "They’re fishing for mussels," Shajaas told us. Mussels abound in this area, and the fishermen use their toes to extract them from the seabed!
The island: We’d been on the kettuvallom about an hour when the boatman drew in to a mid-sized island with a chimney stack rising above coconut trees. We followed Shajaas to the factory—now closed, with only the empty shell of the building left—and he told us that it was a reminder of one of the major industrial uses of mussel shell: in the production of everything from calcium supplements to toothpaste. The mussel shells are burnt along with charcoal to start with, and then processed further.
A few yards further from the factory, we came to a tiny shed among the coconut trees. This, we discovered, was a toddy tapping area; the men who work here shin up a coconut tree and use a large cleaver to shave off the end of one of the branches. A thick bone from a water buffalo leg is used to tap this end, which makes the toddy rise from the root of the tree to its crown. An earthen pot is tied to the end, to allow it to fill—over some hours—with toddy.
For our benefit, one of the toddy tappers gave us a demo of toddy-tapping. The Austrian in our group bought a bottle (for Rs 50) and passed it around for anybody who wanted a sip—it was a fruity, low-alcohol drink, since fresh toddy is only about 2 or 3% alcohol. Interestingly, each of the trees in the plantation is legally a bar, so the bar license number (and other related information) is painted in white on the tree trunk!
Next, Shajaas took us to a small garden nearby, to show us specimens of plants indigenous to Kerala: cinnamon, vanilla, tapioca, ginger, turmeric, etc. He explained their uses—including unusual ones (hibiscus petals polish shoes very well, for example).
Lunch: When we’d stopped at the island, Shajaas had informed us that if we wanted to taste Kerala-style mussels, he would arrange that (for Rs 75 per portion). All of us agreed, so shortly after we returned to the boat, the cook (who, we discovered, had been working at the back of the boat) served them up, each on a ‘plate’ of banana leaf, with a stiff bit of coconut palm leaf to scoop up the mussels. They’d been cooked with turmeric, ginger, garlic, chillies and chopped fresh coconut, and were delicious.
This helped tide us over till lunch, which was back at the pier. Our kettuvallom docked just before 1 PM, and while we got out and stretched our legs, a very pleasant lunch was laid out: boiled rice, rasam, saambhaar, different types of vegetables cooked with coconut; papads, plain yoghurt, salad, and pickle, followed by payasam as dessert.
The canal cruise: Once lunch was over, Shajaas escorted us back to the bus and said goodbye. The trip wasn’t over; the bus took us, 7 km away, to the head of one of the many canals that crisscross the area. These are too narrow—sometimes only about 5 ft across—to be navigated by kettuvallom, so we had to get into a canoe, a long sturdy boat in which we sat down, one behind the other, with the boatman using a pole to punt the canoe.
The canals are very different from the lake. They’re as green and lovely, but this is where we really got to see life along the backwaters at close quarters. There are houses at the edge of the canal, and we came across women washing clothes, or children bathing (in one instance, even a dog being bathed!) as our canoe went past. There were many bright smiles and greetings. For most of the 3 km stretch of canal, it was quiet and very peaceful. The canoe went past plantations of bananas, nutmeg, cacao, tapioca, and coconut. The boatman pointed out birds—kingfishers, egrets, bee-eaters, and ducks (bred at some canalside houses). We saw water snakes, lots of wildflowers (including water lilies), and were taken ashore twice. Once, to see a village woman weave coir rope out of coconut husk, and the second time, to be served some more tea.
The canoe docked back where we’d begun after a ride of about 2 ½ hours. Our bus driver was waiting to take us back to our respective hotels. We got back at about 5.30, tired and sleepy, but pleased with the day we’d had. This isn’t, by any means, a luxury cruise, but we learned a lot, had a lot of fun, and thought it was excellent value for money.