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Houseboating, India Style

05/06/10 0 Comments

Cruising in Style on the ­Ultimate Eco-Trip in Kerala

“Sumitra,” a huge double decker house boat, curiously seemed to be topped by a most extravagant Chinese hat. I had never seen anything like it, and was totally flabbergasted by the elegant allure of the curvaceous lines of its body, covered entirely with palm leaf and bamboo solely tied together with coir rope.

It was already late in the afternoon so the sun didn’t make its hand-woven bamboo palm cover shine as much as it did when I saw it again the next day, upon boarding it. It had glided ever so slowly towards the shore, after dark the night before, and its majestic silhouette was already quite impressive to look at, but not quite the same as when discovering it in the first golden rays of a morning sun.

“Sumitra” as I learn later, was part of a fleet of 12 former rice barges made from the anjali variety of the jackfruit wood which were born again in the form of cruise vessels for tourists wishing to immerse themselves totally into the beauty of the surrounding nature in the backwaters of Kerala in South India.

Cruising in one of them is the ultimate eco-trip, as nothing can possibly interfere between you and the bountiful nature of rural Kerala. You may pass by some water buffaloes trying to cross the river right in front of you, surrounded only by egrets which are as immaculately white as they are black. You may see Malayalis giving the last hand to rice harvesting in an adjacent paddy field, their dark skin and colorful attire contrasting superbly with the vivid color of the crop in a mid-afternoon sun. You’ll find yourself happily floating amidst gorgeous water-lilies and lotus ponds while watching cormorants.

Like the well-written script of a movie scenario, the river life unfolds in front of your very eyes, day by day without anything to hide. Women stay simply busy with their everyday chores by the canal or engaged in a search for the shy but delectable “Karameen.” They look for this fish with their toes, since the karameen hide in the mud at the bottom of these waterways. Other people might be fishing more conventionally; others bathe themselves at prayer time directly into the water; still others carry precious loads of coir from one side of the canal to the other in order to have them transported by most colorful hand-painted trucks to the nearest coir factory. In Allappuzha (Allepey), they know how to process this raw material and turn it into handsomely woven mats or carpeting for export.

Journeying through the “back­waters” seems the perfect anti-stress cure. It is an intricate system of canals, lagoons and lakes that lace the interior coastline southwards of Kochi (Cochin) and almost down to Thiruvananthapuram (Trivandrum). A crew is usually composed of four: a captain, an engine driver, a cook and a guide. These houseboats vary in size, having either one, two or three bedrooms inside, aside from a dining-living area, a kitchen and an upper deck cum terrace from where to witness nature at its best.

Bedrooms with their en suite bathrooms have queen size beds canopied with mosquito nets, thus adding to their already romantic appeal. They also have open windows, dissimulated by pull up curtains when night falls, that ensure a cool breeze is constantly flowing through. And when the sky starts to metamorphose itself from light pink into deep purple, oil lamps are lit by the captain, creating a “chiaroscuro” worthy of a Georges de la Tour painting, before setting them in the bedrooms or living areas.

Waking up before dawn, amidst the serenity of placid Vembanad Lake, I found myself surrounded by a gently rolling carpet of green and lavender water-hyacinths, an amazing sight of complete novelty to me. It is so peaceful and quiet that time seems almost to stand still for a short while. Through the large oval shaped windows with bamboo bars, I can witness the magical awakening of the day and suddenly see, piercing through the yet opaque sky, the first rays of sunlight slowly turning the nearby palm grove into a blaze. It’s all but for a fleeting moment before a profuse light prevailed upon us. Soon after, signs of activities could be heard, as the cook was already busy getting our breakfast on the way.

Breakfast, or any other meal we had on the boat, was lovingly prepared and served “kerala-style,” directly on a cleaned and opened plantain leaf, and eaten with one hand. The Indian etiquette with one hand is to use the right hand only, because the left hand is used to clean oneself and therefore considered too impure to touch food. The right hand mixes rice, “dhal” and curries together to form a moist ball which is deftly popped into the mouth. It’s a simple art, mastered with a little practice, but for those who do not want to go through this, there are forks knives or spoons available on request.

The chef’s cooking is absolutely delicious, and how he does it in his tiny kitchen is something of a miracle. He is eager to see the reaction on your face after you have tried his dishes, and willing to please you with the greatest variety possible in such a short time.

The abundance of coconut and seafood, along with a host of exotic fruits and vegetables helps of course. He composes his menu after having bought his ingredients in the nearby villages or markets on route, whenever we happened to stop for a visit. This ensures the absolute freshness of everything we eat. Most meals were composed of different curries, such as potato curry, fish and rice curry accompanied by papaya thoren (green papaya, shredded), coconut mixed with fried lady-fingers, or bitter gourd thoren, or ”Aviyal” (mixed vegetables) with some pickles, either lemon, mango or cauliflower for instance, and always served with puri, pappadum or roti (Indian types of bread). Dessert could be local fruits, like perfectly ripened pineapple or bananas and finally a spiced milk tea (Masala tea) with the fragrant aroma of cardamom would end a meal appropriately.

The entire crew worked as a team, but also much like a family, and although I could not understand their language (Malayalam), I could sense their profound joy of working together as a unit. It was obvious by the occasional pranks they pulled on each other during their break, with everyone ending up in a joyful laughter. If I asked through my guide what it was all about, they would gladly let me in on it. But while you may be engulfed in everyday new discoveries, you can relax with the assurance that the staff will not fail to take care of every single detail for you, making sure that you are perfectly content.

Should the sky darken dangerously, announcing an imminent shower, they would immediately start to cover the roof with a huge plastic sheet. This made sure that no rain would enter any of the boat’s many openings. Meanwhile, on the upper deck, in the seating-lounging area, books were at hand should you feel like reading. One such book was the prize winner of Kerala-born Arundhati Roy, "The God of small things." But soon the sky would clear up again and a gorgeous sunset would already be on its way.

Among the many discoveries that we made, we witnessed the making of coir rope by village ladies, from the grandmother to the granddaughter; saw fishermen throwing their nets into the sea to get lobster; the weaving of cotton to make bed sheets; saw Hindu temples and colorful churches. We had our palms read and were even offered flowers as a sign of welcome by local children. When we stopped at a shrimp peeling place, or were shown the opening of coconut shells (in order to let them dry and later turned into oil), none of these activities were rehearsed especially for us tourists. It was the genuine daily life of villagers. Colorful markets were especially intriguing with their well organized row of vegetables or fruits, some of which we had never seen before. Our nostrils were inescapably attracted by the like of jasmine or spices vendors stalls.

If You Go
The Kerala tourist office website is a good place to start looking for houseboats: www.keralatourism.org

Tourindia Holidays for being the ­pioneer tour operator who first ­introduced “Kettuvallam”(rice barge) for cruising the backwaters is still ­offering the most genuine eco trip such as the one described here: www.tourindiakerala.com.

PHOTOGRAPHY BY DANIELE AUVRAY