I took a deep lungful of air and dived through the thick brown water to the river bed, clawing blindly at the sticky mud. The swift current was dragging me downstream, and my lungs began to burn. Finally, I felt a smooth round shape in the slime. I shot to the surface and proudly held my prize aloft.
Watching children on the bank just giggled. The boat cook didn’t look impressed either. Mussels, not pebbles, were on the dinner menu.
Two other members of the boat crew bobbed up beside me, their hands full of mussels. I took another breath and dived again. A few hours later I felt just a little guilty when I wolfed down quite a few more mussels than the half dozen I’d finally managed to bring to the surface.
Taken out of their shells and fried in spices, the mussels were delicious. Food always tastes better when you (almost) catch it yourself. And it tastes even better when the view from your table is stunning. My girlfriend, Carolyn, and I were on a houseboat in the Kerala backwaters. The dark red sun was dropping quickly behind the line of coconut palms across the water as we tucked into the mussels, plus vegetable curries and rice.
Perfect setting, perfect food. So far, so predictable – these waters have been a tourist favourite for years. But our houseboat, the Goodearth, is part of an initiative launched by people trying to do something a little different.
The backwaters of Kerala have become a victim of their own success. Hundreds, probably thousands, of houseboats (kettuvallams) full of tourists chug round the beautiful lagoons, canals and rivers. Some are multi-storey, air-conditioned affairs, blaring out music and belching fumes – a far cry from the simple traditional boats being gently poled through beautiful scenery which first attracted visitors.
Tourism is now big business and the environment has suffered. Engines and toilet waste are serious polluters. Many boats are owned by big companies so villagers here literally watch the tourist dollars sailing by while their young people are forced to move to towns and cities for job opportunities.
That’s where the Goodearth comes in. Late last year, four villages south of Kochi (formerly Cochin) set up the Keyal Gramodhaya (Backwater Self-help Group) with the help of ecotourism specialist Village Ways, which provided a grant and a loan (repayable over 30 years). The villagers (of Vayalar, Chenganda, Perumbalam, Kodamthuruthu) traditionally fishermen and boatbuilders, constructed the Goodearth and it’s they who run the boat, working as crew and guides. Other local people provide services such as laundry. A portion of any tips from the boat’s guests are shared round the villages for projects including bridge and path repairs.
Chinese fishing nets Chinese fishing nets line on the Kerala backwaters
The Goodearth is small and has a correspondingly small environmental footprint. There’s an engine but certainly no air-conditioning. All toilet waste and used water is held in tanks and discharged safely on shore. The villages we visit are off the usual kettuvallam route – we didn’t see another houseboat during our four nights on the Goodearth.
So we stepped aboard at the village of Vayalar with a fairly clear conscience. The crew were waiting for us – Ponnappan, a fisherman, would be our guide. (British volunteers had been here, teaching the villagers English, in the run-up to the initiative’s launch late last year.) We would travel during the day and moor at the Keyal Gramodhaya communities at night to explore and get a taste of village life.
We cast off. The busy main road to Kochi was only a couple of miles away, but the little river along which we were slowly drifting couldn’t have been more tranquil. Great clumps – armadas – of floating plants advanced towards us in the strong current and coconut groves lined the green banks, with just the occasional house to be seen. Chinese nets – this method of fishing is thought to have arrived with explorers from the Ming dynasty in the 15th century – studded the water. Some were the size of a truck, but not all were in use – others were missing a spar, like a giant daddy-longlegs which had lost a limb to a schoolboy.
Our first day took us a few gentle miles to Chenganda village. Ponnappan led us off to explore, passing little wooden and stone houses among trees. It soon became clear this little village was a hive of activity, all of it coconut related. In the yard of one home an elderly woman had a big bundle of coir fibre, made from coconut husk, at her waist. She attached a few strands to an electric spinning wheel and started walking backwards, paying out the fibre. Back and forth she went on her 30ft-long production line, creating rope which would earn her 100 rupees (about £1.30) a day.
Down the lane, the lengths of rope that the woman, and a multitude of others, had made were being joined together on madly spinning reels. Women raced to keep them fed, while we watched, horrified, as their saris swirled within inches of being snagged and dragged into the machines.
We stopped at a workshop where three young men were working on a giant wooden loom to make heavy rolls of matting. Stripped to the waist and glistening with sweat they sent the shuttle flying through the threads, all the while dancing with perfect timing on the control levers at their feet. In the yard of another home, children just back from school were making simple bags from coir rope, then stuffing them with coir fibre, to be used in stopping soil erosion. A group of men squatted on the road surrounded by thousands of coconut halves, laboriously carving out the dried flesh with a wooden tool straight out of a museum.
Map of Kerala and villagers shelling coconut Villagers carve out the flesh from dried coconut shells, and a map of the backwaters
Ponnappan seemed to know everyone – we were met by smiles, some shy, some cheeky, but always warm. I joined a kids’ cricket game and, despite a run-up that was intended to scare the pint-sized batsman, was smashed for several sixes into the trees. The villagers had heard of the Goodearth project and seemed happy, and curious, to meet some of its first guests. We soon got used to explaining to faintly incredulous locals that, no, Carolyn and I weren’t married, and, no, we didn’t have children.
We got back to the boat just in time for the arrival of two members of the Keyal Gramodhaya’s ladies’ committee, who were responsible for cooking some meals for guests. Cousins Ranjini and Sudha unceremoniously shooed the cook out of his galley and showed us how to make green papaya curry and banana flower curry, attacking the phallus-shaped bud with some enthusiasm. Turmeric, onion and chilli were thrown in, along with lashings of coconut oil, naturally. It was great fun, and there was lots of laughter – although I wished, nosy as I am, that the lesson had happened in one of their own kitchens. A couple of gorgeous children from the village came on board and quickly lost their shyness. I introduced them to Angry Birds on my phone – they were hooked immediately. Was that bad? Should I have given them a pencil instead?
Our meal was great, if a bit tame; not the fiery Keralan food I’d been expecting. I suspect the women had been warned to tone down the heat for tourists. I spent the rest of our time on the Goodearth trying to get the cook to bring the chilli up to local levels.
We set off again mid-morning, setting the pattern for the next few days. We’d cruise for a couple of hours, settling in at the front of the boat, picking up our books, but really not managing more than a few sentences before looking up and being sucked in by the landscape. We’d stop for lunch, then move on again, reaching our night stop by late afternoon in time for yet more friendly encounters and shamefully poor attempts at beating small children at cricket.
We learned that mussels were just as important to the economy as coconuts. They are scooped up from the bed of the rivers and lagoons by the bucketload: after the flesh is removed, the shells are burnt in simple kilns (fired by coconut fibre) to make lime.
I hitched a ride with a teenage crab fisherman in his simple canoe. We pulled up two or three crabs, which he dropped into the bottom of the boat, leaving them to scuttle around snapping their claws angrily at my bare toes. I got my revenge at dinner later.
The Goodearth’s guests may be trying to do the right thing but they don’t need to pack a hair shirt along with the factor 20. The boat is a beautiful example of traditional craftsmanship. The hull is of local anjali wood and the superstructure, including two en suite guest rooms, is of woven palm leaves and bent bamboo – it felt like sleeping in a very comfy and stylish treehouse. The crew were tremendously friendly and accommodating – even agreeing to the crazy foreigner’s request to go diving for mussels in a fast-flowing river.
Manisha and friends Guests at a local wedding – the girl in green is Manisha Mattel, who took the photo of the cook below
The trip gave us an amazing insight into the authentic village life and lovely people of Kerala. But one incident brought home to us the risks involved in taking visitors to an area largely untouched by tourism. One evening, when I was in our bedroom, a woman walked unannounced up the gangplank and gestured to Carolyn. She didn’t understand what the woman wanted so she found Ponnappan. He explained that she was asking for money and suggested giving her 100 rupees, which Carolyn did.
The incident left us both uncomfortable. What if the woman told the rest of the village she had been given the equivalent of a day’s wages? Would the villagers’ behaviour to the Goodearth’s guests change? Would the children who had loved having their photos taken start asking for money? Would the project actually harm the communities it’s meant to be helping?
Hopefully it was just a one-off, or perhaps the well-organised Keyal Gramodhaya will be able to manage the impact of the project on their community. Contacted this week, Village Ways, which has set up similar schemes across India, said its local co-ordinator had spoken to the guides about the incident. Village Ways’ director, Richard Hearn, said: “Our experience with other projects is that this can (rarely) happen in the early stages but quickly fades as the villagers begin to appreciate the long-term benefits that the project brings to the whole community.”
Keralan cook Preparing a huge pot of chicken biryani for the wedding feast
Besides, another episode was much more representative. On our final day we stopped at an island, barely more than a couple of hundred yards long, where preparations were under way for a huge wedding feast. Children, and adults, gawped at us, and the bride and her family plied us with food. I took a few photographs but my presence made their poses too formal. Instead, I gave my camera to a young girl who went off for 15 minutes or so and came back with some of the best pictures of the trip. There is one printed here. Thanks, Manisha!
This article originally appeared in The Guardian