Go to Kerala and not do a backwater cruise? Well, thats exactly what we planned to for 2 reasons: Firstly, the backwater cruise is what everyone who goes to Kerala does. Secondly, being imprisoned with a hyperactive 5 year old on a narrow country boat for 8 hours was not our idea of an ideal vacation.
The boat was spic and span, with a coir carpet in case you decided to sit on the floor. 14 cane chairs were lined up in 2 rows, facing the front. There was enough room to move around, store your bags and even sit on the floor! There was even a toilet at the rear (what a relief!). The central area was cleared and used as a general social area, with our patron (our captain) holding a durbar, patiently answering our questions and entertaining us with amusing anecdotes, mastered over his 25 years as a guide.
Having covered most of what Fort Kochi had to offer on day one, we were at a loss of what to do on day two. After a lot of deliberation, we booked ourselves on a 6 hour backwater cruise with Destination Holidays. The itinerary was simple: pickup from the hotel at 8, cruise till 4 and then a drop back to the hotel.
We were picked up in a 13 seater TT and off we went, weaving our way through the crazy morning traffic. We were soon dropped off at a small village (whose name I missed) at the border of the Ernakulam and Kottayam districts. Here we were handed over to our guide aka Captain, who took us to the shore where our country boat patiently waited on the shores of the Vembanad lake. The Vembanad lake, one of the largest backwater systems in the country is the hub of tourism in Kerala.
The boat, made of wood, cane and jute appeared exactly like the souvenirs that we had picked up in front of the Dutch Palace the day before.
The crude but neat exterior belied the comfortable interiors.
After an extremely eloquent and animated introduction to where we were and what we were to expect for the rest of the day our guide helped us board the narrow boat.
And off we went, our two oarsmen, maneuvering the boat through narrow alleys. As you move away from the shore, the breath-taking beauty of the famed Kerala backwaters unfolds. We had a first hand experience of why the Kerala backwaters are so highly rated. The lush greenery, swaying coconut trees and marshy reeds are interspersed with little villages and sometimes island houses (houses that are surrounded by the backwaters on all sides), lending it all an almost postcard-like appearance. A water snake, more often than not, swam through the water right in front of the boat, disappearing into a coconut grove.
While the lake itself did not look too wide, it was the myriad little waterways that make you take your breath away. With most of canals and waterways barely 20 feet wide, the boat is a snug fit, the shores just a jump away. The maneuvers are a true test of the mettle of our oarsmen.
The way the oarsmen steered the boats was in itself unique. They used long bamboo sticks to cut through the water. The motion was mechanical: stand on the bow, push the bamboo stick into water, and then walk towards the main sitting area of the boat, all in a single fluid motion. And there were 2 of them, one at the front and one at the rear, matching each others movements with perfect synchronization. Their stamina is tremendous, doing this for atleast 5 out of the 6 hours that we were on the boat.
As we cruised through the accessible-by-canal-only interiors, we almost felt like intruders, watching from the sidelines as the localites went through their daily life, oblivious to our prying eyes.
Localites, busy tending to their little farms/gardens, making ropes, drying fish, dredging shells, washing clothes and buffaloes or just steering their little boats to the neighbourhood markets gave the place a busy feel. Not once did we run into an idler, no children were waving to us, all looking busy and industrious alike, on a mission.
While we, seated in the relative luxury of our country boat, saw the life of the localites as that of peace and calm, we were reminded by our captain that it all came with a price. The nearest medical assistance was often miles away and the only way to get there was a boat ride. The children traveled by boat to school and daily essentials, unless bought during those occasional outings to the town, were sold at inflated prices. Makes you think, doesn't it?
The day included a visit to an island factory that made calcium powder out of the river/sea shells dredged out of the backwaters, a visit to an island where families specialized in making ropes out of coconut husk and lastly, a simple vegetarian lunch on an island. More on this later.
At last, when after 6 hours in nature's lap, through some of the most beautiful of waterways, reasserting our faith that nature shall still find her way, despite man's growing greed, we were back to the world we know best: that of motorized transports, drab grey concrete buildings and incredible laziness!