A day at a Boathouse in the backwaters of Kerala

There are these bucket lists people have. Some may be filled with all exotic stuff such as climbing the Everest, visiting Manchu Picchu, maybe Antarctica or even expeditions to moon or mars for the more ambitious. For the ones of humbler aspirations, staying at a boat house is probably there somewhere in the list. Now I won’t go into figuring where I fall or even if at all I have a bucket list for that matter. But the point to note is that staying at a boat house has been crossed out of my existent or non-existent list thanks to our recent trip to Kerala.

Well, like Oliver Twist let us begin from where it all began – the booking of the boathouse. When we were initially planning our itinerary, we had thought of staying a night at the boat house. What joy! Sleeping out there in the middle of a water body being rocked to sleep by the rhythmic sway of the boat, waking up in the middle of the night to look out of the window to see water all around! The complete sea gypsy experience! But that is all the stuff of books – reality sometimes is stranger than fiction but most times is just drab and devoid of glamour. So we discovered – there were packages to stay at House boats – a day costing what it would cost for a week at a regular room. But the boat apparently would not be in the middle of the water. Sharp at 5.00 pm, the boat would return to the bank and be moored there till next morning. How difference would the experience be from staying at a regular hotel with a back water view we thought, unless of course we were one of those who believed the value of an experience derived from the price we paid for it. I am sure many would have heard the story of the king who to prove his love for his beloved presented her apples purchased at hundred times their price. We unfortunately did not have such princely passions. Being the typical Indian middle class family that we were, we decided we would opt for just the morning to evening ride which would be much easier on our wallet.

We did not have to book the day ride in advance – it could be booked on arrival. So we reached Kerala and then began to ask around. We were told that usually rides were available between Allepey and Kumarakom. We were told Allepey was supposedly the Venice of the East and it would be an ethereal experience traversing the city through the canal criss crossing the city. The Venice of the West we had missed due to unsuitable weather conditions during our honeymoon in Europe. This seemed like just the opportunity to expiate for the same. Also some of the rides advertised an experience of traditional village life as part of the package- again my mind was filled with visions of Sea Gypsies.

We spoke to one of the boathouse agents and stuck a deal. The boat would start at 10.00 am and get us back before 5.00 pm with lunch thrown in as part of the package. The boat was waiting for us by the time we reached the backwaters. Our hosts were to be a father son duo in traditional Lungis – one would be steering the boat while the other would be cooking for us, we were told. The boat house was indeed like a small house with a hall cum dining room, a bedroom, a kitchen and a toilet. The boat apparently had electricity and we could use appliances like air conditioner and television inside. But were told the air conditioner was generally run in the night only. And who would spend all the money to travel to Kerala and then hire a houseboat only to end up watching the television. So the electricity did not have any utility value as such. But yes – it was cool to have access to running water and electricity in the middle of the waters cut off from civilization. I was reminded of the system Captain Nemo had set up in his submarine in Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea.

The houseboat chugged on for around two hours during which we managed to catch sight of some good scenery as we relaxed on the couch and looked on. The things I liked most were the floating beds of flora in the middle of the water and cormorants resting on wooden stakes closer to the banks. We saw what looked like a nice island as well in the distance but the boatman informed us that it was out of bounds for us. That is the problem with all these arranged package trips – anything that has an inkling of adventure element is typically out of bounds. But then this was a family trip and we were no Swiss Family Robinson or anything.

Sharp at noon, the boat came to a halt and the boatman announced that lunch would be served. It seemed a bit too early but the boatman said they had already prepared and if we didn’t have it, it would turn cold. So we decided to humor him and go ahead with our repast. Food was nothing fancy – there was rice, Sambhar, Rasam, two vegetables - one made of shallow fried potato and other of cabbage and of course curd to end the meal. But simple food has its own charm and there is this element Enid Blyton characters mention in many of her books – how food tastes extra special when had outdoors. Having food in the middle of water away from land added the extra flavor. As we were having our meal the boatman pointed to us what looked like a town in distance and told us that was Allepey. We began to look forward to the Venice of the East.

After an hour, the lunch was cleared and the boat was again on the move. Any moment the boat would be docking at Allepey. One strange thing we noticed was that the boat seemed to be moving away from the distant town the boatman had pointed out. Probably the area we had seen did not have an approach point for a house boat. We soon came close to some banks and passed right next to a line of houses – some Keralite women in traditional domestic attire were seen washing clothes in the lake. For the uninitiated, let me mention the said attire consists of just a blouse and lungi.

An hour passed by. Then two. We waited patiently. Soon our patience was rewarded by the sight of a bank approaching. Finally! Venice of the East – here we come. Then suddenly my wife spoke up – “Wait. This place looks familiar. And look at the person standing there – don’t you recognize him?”

Where did this familiar person come in Kerala? We did know anyone in Kerala and why would Allepey look familiar to my wife? She must have probably seen some photos on the net. That is why I say don’t spoil the excitement of travel by looking up all photos of the place beforehand on the next. As we came closer, I could see the person she was pointing to more clearly – I too recognized him. It was the driver who had dropped us off from the hotel in the morning. And yes – the place did look familiar too for it was not Allepey but Kumarakom. We were back to where we had begun our journey.

The boat men were smiling cheerfully at us. “Goodbye Sir. Hope you enjoy ride. Come with us again.”

Thousands of blistering barnacles! “What about Allepey, man?”

“We had lunch at Allepey, no, Saar?”

“What? Is that all? What about seeing the town and the canals and all that?”

“No inside Allepey in package, Saar.”

So much for Venice of the East. I placated myself saying possibly the place was just overhyped. How could some Allepey or whatever in the Indian hinterlands match the great Venice? How can the sour Indian grapes match the exquisite grapes of Italy used for making premier wines?

“And village life? What happened to that? Surely that was part of package?”

“You no see village woman in Mundu washing cloth?”

What the heck! Sea Gypsies indeed!

I made one last desperate attempt. “But the trip was supposed to end at 5.00, wasn’t it? Its only 3.00 now.”

“We drive boat fast and bring you home earlier. No extra charges, Saar.”

I realized any further continuation of this conversation would only serve to increase the rate of fluid flow through my veins. So I ended the conversation and made my way towards the waiting car with stoic dignity.


Suresh Chandrasekaran said...

Hahaha! We too took only the day ride at Kumarkom but no intentions of Venice of the East or whatever. AND, of course, I am not averse to either toddy or fish :)

Cart Hick said...

Toddy and fish! Family would have disowned me.

jaish_vats said...

Have been on that houseboat and stayed on the boat at night .... Aleppey is beautiful but yes the boat guys can take you for a ride :D

Cart Hick said...

Was the night stay worth it? Allepey we missed thanks to the boat guy.

Anonymous said...

Ha ha. We had taken the same boat ride almost 10 years ago and unfortunately spent the night in the boathouse where we were meal for the mosquitoes. Btw, you couldnt have had lunch.. you must have had 'lenj'

Cart Hick said...

Lol - Lenj indeed.! Maybe it didn't have air conditioned bed rooms at that time - hopefully that is not the case now with air conditioning.

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