A day trip worthy of the Amazing Race
Ask anyone who knows something about Kerala what the "must-see" or "must-do" things are, and you will always be told that renting a houseboat for a trip through the backwaters region of Kuttanad is a must-do. Since learning that I was coming to Kerala, the boat trip through Kerala's sub-sea level rice belt has always been one of the trips that I most looked forward to. A truly unique experience, we had been for weeks discussing when the best time to go would be. After prolonged debate and hesitation, we decided that this past weekend was the right time.
Why now? The month of October marks the fringe of the high season for tourism in Kerala. Accordingly, prices on these boat tours rise and continue to rise to their highest rates during the Christmas through January period. As most people do, I had mentally pictured boarding our very own two bedroom house boat at noon on Saturday, slowly drifting through the canals of Kerala's own Venice (without the buildings) until sunset, anchoring and enjoying a dinner on board centered around freshly caught fish before retiring for the night in our cozy little bedrooms, lulled to sleep by the gentle lapping of the waves against our bedroom walls. After a filling breakfast, our vessel would slowly chug back to our home port with many fond memories.
However, the above itinerary does not come cheaply. The best price that I was quoted was 12000 rupees or about $266.00, not including the cost of transportation of the 150 km trip to the pier and then back. Having just charged a bunch of flights and hotels for our upcoming
Christmas break excursion, the thought of paying that kind of money to sleep in a bed on a docked boat diminished in appeal. For a day trip, we could get a boat for 1000 rupees/hour and sleep in our free beds at home, so that is what we decided to do. Seemed like a good plan...
The above picture gives a view of what most of the houseboats look like - ours was no different. Most people book them for a 22 hour period that includes sleeping on board. Our boat had two bedroms had we wanted them.
The boats, called kettu vallams, are converted rice barges previously used to transport the main crop of the region. From what I've read, the techniques used in constructing these vessels are hundreds if not thousands of years old. Our Rough Guide travel guide adds, "Amazingly, no nails or any other artificial substances are used in the construction process. Seasoned planks of anjili (angelin) wood, a local relative of the breadfruit tree, are lashed together using cotton or coir ropes soaked in resin before the hull is waterproofed with cashew oil". The boats chug along during daylight hours but tie up somewhere as soon as the sun sets until the morning. One of the first unexpected surprises was revealed as we pulled away from our pier and needed to plow through a dense blanket of water hycinth, an invasive species that appears to be a real problem in the backwaters. It seems there is no place on the planet these days where aquatic ecosystems aren't under stress from some sort of invasive species.
The bow section of the boat provides a large mattress for reclining (Mari claimed this turf early on) as well as a couple of viewing chairs just behind the pilot. The boat chugs along slowly and offers a very relaxing glide along the shore of Lake Vembanad. The geography of this area is truly unique. It's known as Kerala's "rice belt", nothing particular about that except that the rice paddies are mostly below sea level. How is this possible in a coastal environment? A whole lot of canals! As we plowed along the waterways that jut off of the lake, it becomes quickly apparent that the water level of the boat is higher than the rice fields on the other side of the long walls lining the canals. It is on these narrow strips of wall and supporting earth, in most places not more than 10 feet wide, that the local people build homes.
This video clip gives a better feel for the geography of the area:
The Kuttanad region is sandwiched between the Arabian Sea and the mountain range known as the Western Ghats. Monsoons blowing in from the west over the ocean encounter the mountains which wrings them out of water and flushes a whole lot of slit and nutrients into this region, thus its fertility. Historically, those that don't raise rice and other crops made their living by fishing.
We were underway about an hour when it was time for lunch to be served, so we pulled lakeside and enjoyed a meal prepared in the back of the boat.
Regrettably, there seems to be no escaping the general trashing that the Indians perform across their amazing country. Even out in this pristine area, the collective lack of an aesthetic sense of environmental cleanliness results is piles of trash and rubbish scattered wherever there is space to dump. I was chatting with an equally disgusted Indian colleague just yesterday about this issue and he expressed a hope that as more Indians are able to afford to travel to developed nations and observe the general cleanliness that is typical in these places, they will return with an interest in rectifying the problem. In the short term, I'm not hopeful.
The ride was a lazy stroll through a beautiful area. However, we were not the only tourists enjoying this experience. As roads spread across the region, the need for "water trucks" to haul rice diminished and the boats seems to be headed to redundancy and obscurity until a few cleaver entrepreneurs started using them to haul visitors and toursts around. Soon after, bedrooms, dining room, and viewing platforms were added and the success of these boats led to wide-spread repurposing of the boats. Today, over 500 of them ply the waters and the waiting list at the shipyards for a new boat is years long. The result, of course, is heavy traffic filling the canals and rivers.
It's hard to deny the hypocrisy in resenting the other boats out there diminishing my experience. Unfortunately, there seems to be little regulation of the houseboat industry at the present time with respect to numbers of vessels permitted. Overcrowding is a problem throughout this country - the backwaters region is no exemption.
When I first contemplated our houseboat cruise, I was certain we were going to be overnighters. After a four hour cruise, I think we all shared the feeling that it was long enough to get a feel for the region.
As we disembarked, we left satisfied without a feeling of regret for not having booked a longer tour (although we actually had). Our backwaters cruise was relaxing and enjoyable, a special interlude in what was a truly memorable day, memorable for many of the wrong reasons. As Paul Harvey used to say, "Now for the rest of the story..."
Part of our reasoning for making a day trip of our cruise was not only to save some rupees on the boat cost but to also save on having to hire a driver for two days. 3.5 hours up, 3.5 hours back, 6 hour cruise = 12 hour day, right? Wrong. We left at 8:00 am and returned to our apartment at 11:30 pm after only a four hour cruise. Do the math - 15.5 hours away from home - four hours on the boat = 11+ hours in the car. Jenn, who is a big fan of The Amazing Race on TV, reminded us that sometimes you get the good drivers, sometimes you don't. We had been pretty lucky up to now, we were due for a dud.
Shaji, a new driver to us, arrived on time at 8:00 for the 3.5 hour trip to Kumarakom in order to reach our boat in time for our 12:00 pm sailing. Jenn noticed early on from the back seat that Shaji was working hard to keep the car going straight. There was a fair amount of play in the steering column - the captain of our houseboat had an easier time keeping it going straight than Shaji had with our car. Perhaps it was the steering that slowed him down, maybe he was just a slow poke, we're not sure, but unlike previous drivers who spent much of the time on the road in the passing lanes (there are several of these on every Indian road regardless of width), Shaji took his time chugging along at around 30 mph - he even pulled over to stop for tea. Back on the road, we continued our slow crawl towards the backwaters region. At about the time we were supposed to be arriving at our boat, we discovered that the route taken by the driver took us an extra 25 km out of the way. That doesn't sound like much but on Indian roads, it's another hour anyway under the best of conditions. It's comparable to driving from Amesbury to North Conway via Portland, ME. What you would not encounter on our way to North Conway is a significant traffic jam due to a religious procession several miles in length nor would you likely encounter a rocky mud track that was barely passable . Once past these trials, we approached our fifth hour in the car. Jenn informed him that we were already an hour late for our boat and asked if he could drive faster. He understood that request - the switch was flipped and he went from 80 year old granny driving to Hollywood stuntman. I was sitting shotgun in the front and simply closed my eyes and prayed. After 20 minutes of Deathrace 2010, Jenn added that we were hoping to make it to the boat alive to which he laughed and slowed down again to previous jaunt.
I thought we were getting close, but it wasn't over yet. As the roads grew smaller and narrower, Shaji twice paused at forks in the road to seemingly flip a mental coin in his head for guidance. I asked "Shaji - do you know where you are going?" The big smile and nod that I received gradually dissipated as we continued into the thickening tropical forest on a road that progressively narrowed like a funnel onto a tiny bridge barely wide enough for a single car. It was at this point that he finally asked for directions. Personally, it was reassuring to know that males across the globe share a common bond in their resistance to stop and ask for directions. We finally arrived at the boat with close to two hours shaved from our planned cruise itinerary but with deep gratitude for having arrived. Fortunately, the distance from the car to the boat didn't tax our atrophied legs too much.
After the cruise, the ride home followed the route we should have followed in the morning, between Kottayam and Trivandrum on one of the nicest, most freshly paved highways I've seen in India. Still, after watching sleepy-eyed Shaji continuously tug on his mustache and wrap his knuckles against his side window, I started interviewing him about his wife and family, childhood memories, favorite cricket team, anything I could think of that a limited-English speaker might understand with the intention of keeping him awake. In desperation, Jenn passed forward the potato chips for him to munch on. Despite the favorable road conditions, this trip that everyone told us took 3.5 hours still took five hours.
It was certainly a day to remember and hopefully once in a lifetime.