February 11, 2013

Cruising Kerala's Backwaters in the President's Boat

by Michael Travers

A Chance Skype chat and a mention of India was all it took to get the ball rolling on a sailing trip through the backwaters of Kerala. Michael Travers reports.

The Kerala Backwaters are a 900kmlong chain of brackish lagoons and lakes in southern India, which are interconnected by a labyrinthine series of canals fed by 38 rivers that snake their way down the Western Ghats to the sea. By providing transport, food, water, rice and livelihoods the waterways are the lifeblood of the millions of people who make their living in the cities, towns and villages that line their banks. They are also home to the hundreds of houseboats that, each year, depending on the season, see hundreds of thousands of tourists, both foreign and domestic, arriving in droves to take in the serenity and natural beauty of the never ending watery ecosystem.

With four others journeying out from London there would be six of us in total making the three-day journey on the houseboat, which from the website photos was a beautifully laid out classic with dark wooden timbers, Persian rugs and plush cushions, polished brass fittings, large state rooms with modern bathrooms, and offering a uniqueness that only good money could buy. True to developing world form, however, our best-laid plans took a knock the night before our departure whilst enjoying a slap up feast to celebrate our meeting of the ways. Our booker rang to tell us that the motor on our boat had blown up. “Oh bugger!” we thought. “Here we go!” Our boat was indeed out of action but she was offering a replacement that ‘was even better!’ and instead, she promised, we were to be sailing on the President’s Boat (my italics). We hoped she meant the President of India and not the head of the local fishing federation, but with few options at the eleventh hour we had no choice but to wait and see what the tide brought in the next day. Times like this call for a good long drink but, as (more) bad luck would have it, we were in a Muslim restaurant. Never mind.

Made of bamboo and thatch most houseboats look pretty much the same so as we waited by the canal’s edge the following morning we had no idea which boat sailing past was ours. Eventually, after about 45 minutes of playing the “this one, no, this one game” the aptly-named Venice Castle hoved into view; a fitting nomenclature for a trip along the canals and it definitely looked something worthy of a Head of State. It seemed the gods - or God singular in this predominantly Catholic state – was smiling on us as we slowly sailed out onto a vast lake in the company of a handful of similar looking snail-shaped boats and into the afternoon sun.

Not all boats are rigged the same and despite the lushness of our three-bedroom palace there were some things that weren’t ideal. We had a great upper deck but only semi-comfortable chairs and a bit too much shade. The downstairs was open-plan but the air-conditioned dining room just took up too much space at the expense of minor claustrophobia.

And the furniture? Meh! But, there was no sense in bemoaning the loss of our original boat’s hammocks and chez longues and it was ‘acclimatise or die’. After all, we all had king-sized rooms with en-suite bathrooms with windows over the water – loos with views. And of course nothing to do for two three days but sit back and chill the hell out.
The going was deliciously slow as we sailed up and down canals lined with villages, rice fields and church steeples, and of course Keralans themselves. Kids and adults going about their days oblivious to the tourist intrusion a few metres off their back doorsteps.

It’s extremely rural with vast horizons, big skies and endless groves of coconut trees lining the waters. Children carry schoolbooks home, they swim and yell and wave to us as their mothers do laundry and light fires while their fathers tend rice and catch fish for the evening meal. The waters are also home to myriad species of birds, both visitors and permanent residents; the paddy fields providing rich feeding grounds for squadrons of Caspian terns on loan from Siberia and local inhabitants such as herons, egrets, finches, eagles, cormorants and kingfishers with beaks the size of sewing shears.

Being February when we were there, the canals were relatively traffic free but there are times when we could see and feel a bit of a build up. Apparently peak season can be somewhat like a morning rush hour in Beijing. Lucky for us, around 4pm many of the boats, who were only doing a one-night trip begin to peel off in search of a mooring close to the following morning’s drop off point. We, who were doing a two-night trip (highly recommended), continued further out into the wilderness in the company of just ourselves.

After watching the longest sunset ever we pulled up against the canal bank, tied off on a coconut tree and negotiated the vending of some fresh prawns and fresh fish for that evening’s dinner and slunk off for some Ayurevedic oil massages. Who would have thought that in the middle of nowhere one could find a massage centre with six therapists ready to go. Only in India! After dinner we sailed off in search of a deserted stretch of canal to spend the night. After going to bed well fed and massaged into a state of near zombification we (well, two of us) woke before the dawn in time to see the sun rising through the coconut trees and reflecting off the waters and a gentle morning mist filling the fields as the birds sang their morning greeting.

While my yogafied friend saluted the rising sun I wandered far out into the rice paddies where the stalks were tall and strong and only a few weeks from harvest as the birds and farmers looked on from a distance.
It doesn’t take long to break a sweat in this heat and the canal water looked too good to be true so the crew told us to just jump right in. One of our party was a doctor and (when he woke up) advised against it, but we ignored his words and kept on swimming coming up feeling healthier and more alive than ever; this was the water we were showering in on the boat, after all.

Swimming in the flat calm waters with the sounds of nature and the reflections of the palms and the early morning stillness felt like we were in Eden before the Fall and the full beauty and importance of what we were doing sunk in. A large breakfast followed before we cast off knowing that we had absolutely nothing to do that day except kick back and relax and wait for lunch, dinner and more of the same.

Ahh, the food. To complement the otherworldliness of where we were the food that was served was truly out of this world. From a tiny galley at the back of the boat we were served some the most amazing displays of cuisine we had ever set eyes upon. It was of such gastronomic quality that we discussed kidnapping the chef and taking him with us when we disembarked. Vast quantities and varieties of curries, vegetables, fishes, dips, sauces, different rices, breads, fruits and juices kept coming four times a day until we were fit to burst. But still we had room for more. These journeys are as much about feeding the stomach as they are about nourishing the soul.

As to the claim to be the President’s Boat, was it true? Sure enough, on the dining room wall was a signed certificate and photo of India’s first woman president, Pratihba Patil, who had spent time on this very boat. Sitting alongside her photo is a religious image depicting, in a Hindu style, the Baby of Prague, a Catholic guardian who brings good luck to the Venice Castle and all who sail on her - Man cannot live by politics alone it seems. We speculated that she stepped on board for a quick cup of tea rather than overnighting (where would her bodyguards sleep?) - this was confirmed by the crew. Still, it made no difference to the owners who have been using it as a marketing sweetener ever since to great effect.

India is a place to lose and find yourself and there are a hundred ways to do both. Some do yoga, some meditate, some visit ashrams and change their names and religion, while others like to take illicit drugs on the beach in Goa and dance the days away dressed like reincarnated refugees from the 20th century. It’s all each to their own, but it’s all about trying to find simplicity - something we have lost in our post-modern pursuit of the cult of the individual. It is what calms us and replaces the stresses of our day to day and the silly importance we place on the immaterial. For me, being in the Keralan silence of that boat, sailing past simple people doing simple things and simply being a community, was enough to calm whatever Western excess I had brought along for the ride. If we could just get a grasp on the little things that make a village a village, and if we could each take a little bit of it home with us then the modern world would be that little bit happier – at least as happy as we six became on our journey through a very special place with beautiful surroundings, great food, the company of good friends and best of all, the time to enjoy it.

Interested? See: www.keralahouseboat.co.in

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