Sometimes it’s a green world; shady green palms arching over the canals, emerald green sun-bright rice fields beyond, and a rich velvety green of mossy banks.Then we round a corner and the houseboat eases from a small canal into a large lake and suddenly all becomes blue, wide-sky blue, the silver blue of shining water and shadowy blue of distant hills.
And for an exquisite 15 minutes, when the sun is setting, the world is rose-tinted as we chink together glasses of Kingfisher beer and slouch in comfy cane chairs on the front deck of the houseboat.Exploring the backwaters of Kerala in a kettuvallam houseboat is one of life’s exquisite experiences. Sandwiched between the sea and the hills, hundreds of canals, lagoons, lakes and estuaries and the deltas of 46 rivers make up the backwater network. The state of Kerala is in the Malabar Coast of southwestern India, and the waterways stretch 180km from north to south and includes 900km of navigable waterways.
In this maze of shimmering water, village life has evolved completely independently from the world that depends on roads. Hundreds of villages string along the banks between paddy fields and canals, and all travel is by water transport. People walk or paddle their family canoes to intersections with bigger canals, which have regular passenger services.
The school boat picks up and drops off children, regular ferries shuttle people to and from the nearest towns, and there is a speedboat ambulance. When needed, government waterboats provide free drinking and cooking water to the thousands of backwater families. Door-to-door fishmongers, icecream sellers, and men selling pots, pans and plates gently peddle their wares, paddling along the canals and calling out for buyers.
We lounge on the deck day-bed as our boat noses its way through this living, vibrant movie.The backwater houseboats are still made in the age-old way, without nails. Big planks of jackwood are cut to neatly jigsaw together, then tied in place with coir rope made from coconut fibre. Gaps are caulked with beaten coir and the hull is coated with black resin made by boiling cashew nut shells.
The top accommodation deck is made mainly from bent and tightly woven bamboo.Kettuvallams can be as long as 30m, with three bedrooms and a top-storey viewing deck. But ours, Rainbow Ruby, is a modest one with a bedroom and bathroom attached. Captain Jayesh, sits at the wheel near the bow. During the heat of the day he holds the wheel with one hand and a big black umbrella with the other. He speaks excellent English and has a particular interest in birds, pointing out sea eagles, five kinds of kingfisher, white herons in the paddy fields, long-legged brown egrets and Jesus birds walking on waterlilies.
A footpath runs the length of the canal in front of the houses and each has stone steps into the water where women wash and slap their laundry. Neatly uniformed children walk along the paths and women, who have been visiting in their best saris, stop and chat with neighbours doing laundry.
A cow tethered to a coconut palm is milked into a silver bowl, families pole themselves across the canal to spend time with neighbours. Others, knee-deep in water, plant rice seedlings in the fields behind.Long boats, low in the water, loaded with sacks of recent harvests are slowly punted to the main canal to meet traders.
We pass a boatbuilder’s yard where the workers are hammering their chisels to the rhythm of their singing. Toddy tappers doing their rounds, checking pots attached to the palm trees which contain a liquid that will be turned into tiger’s-roar liquor. In contrast to the intensity of the canals, the lakes have wide-open water vistas, islands of plate-leafed water lilies and fishermen cast their gossamer nets.
The spectacular sunset is followed by a splendid dinner. Chef Ranjit sets the table formally and delivers a feast of pumpkin curry, sambal, dahl, long beans cooked in coconut cream, okra and onion and a beautifully presented salad. Dessert is a wonderous concoction of vermicelli and cashew nuts cooked with cardamom, sugar and milk, and served with sliced grapes.We sit and listen to the night noises – wind in the palms, the occasional call of a night bird.