1/5/11 - Enjoying the Backwaters of Kerala on a Houseboat

One of the contributions I was able to make by reading the guidebooks was a strong recommendation to spend a day on a houseboat, navigating the backwaters of Kerala.  Fortunately Shobhana and Tricia agreed to add this to our itinerary; it turned out to be a highlight of the trip!

Kerala’s “backwaters” comprise a web of waterways.  A series of rivers open out onto the ocean along the Kerala coast.  Somehow the pressure of the river water keeps the estuaries free of saltwater.  Over the centuries, humans have modified the natural environment to create a network of rice paddies and canals in this interstitial zone.  The transition from ocean to freshwater is not visible – it all just looks like a lot of water.  It’s also hard to tell from the surface what is a canal and what is a submerged rice paddy.  

As you move inland, eventually the scenery shifts from being mainly water to a mix of water and land, as the boats move into canals that traverse rural towns.  Houses are built along the edge of the canals; you can see children playing, families taking a bath, and clothes being washed.

On these watery surfaces, schools of picturesque houseboats swim through the canals.  These days, they all house tourists.  The houseboats share the water with local water taxis and canoes.  We did not see a single Western looking motorboat on our whole trip – the illusion of inhabiting another world was complete!

We looooved our houseboat so much!  The front area was an open-air living room and dining room, with nice furniture.  In back were three bedrooms and the kitchen.  We had use of two bedrooms, each with a bathroom.  So luxurious!  Plus, the boat came with three staff members: the pilot, the cook, and a guy who helped both of the other two.  The level of service was incredible.  We ate gourmet meals, and the staff were extremely attentive to all of our requests.

I had had the dream of living on a houseboat for over 20 years, ever since I discovered Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody mysteries.  In these stories, the heroine and her archeologist husband live on a houseboat that travels down the Nile in 19th century Egypt.  I loved the descriptions of their dahabeeyah, and had dreamed of traveling on a houseboat ever since.  I was amazed to find the dream coming true in India rather than Egypt!

We stopped for lunch at the edge of a rice paddy, near a couple of other houseboats.

After lunch, I spent some time reading Arundhati Roy’s God of Small Things (which I hated); Tricia read Sarah McDonald’s Holy Cow (which she liked), and Shobhana worked on her conference paper (when she wasn’t steering the boat).  We saw several kingfishers, a famous local bird.  Later in the day, we moved into more populated areas.  

After sunset, we anchored near shore for the night, and were served another fabulous meal.  The whole day was like a dream.