Backwater bliss

Written by James Mathew | Updated: Jul 26 2010, 05:19am hrs
The skies were ominous but the mind was clear. The entire family was together after several years and the rain had no right to take the fun out of a Kerala vacation. Both brothers and their respective wives were eager to explore the state's waterways, and I was only too willing to join. The sister signed up too, and it didn't take long to book a houseboat over the phone.

At 10 am, all six of us piled into a Maruti Alto and headed for Kumarakom, about 20 km from our residence in Kottayam. We reached our appointed spot after half an hour, where our contact man turned up. He accepted the payment in cash, made a short phone call and told us to wait. We were on the banks of what looks like a river, with some canoes in the distance paddled by village folk. A breeze swayed the rain-swept coconut palms, showering a fine spray of water on us. Ducks and herons squawked from behind bushes and the bank. We couldn't wait for the cruise.

There was a low-pitched honk around the canal and soon a houseboat made a stately entry, sliding gently into view. She pulled slowly over to the bank, when the deputy captain of the ship hopped out and secured the boat to a coconut tree with a rope. The boat gently rocked against the banks, heavy tyres fixed on its sides protecting it from impact. The engine powered down and soon, the captain appeared at the starboard, welcoming us inside. Each houseboat has a name, and ours was Puthuveedan. All Keralites, rich or poor, have a family name all of their own, inherited from father to son. Puthuveedan, the family name emblazoned on the boat's flanks, translates to 'the-one-with-a-new-house'.

In the olden days, houseboats (called kettuvallam in Malayalam) used to be part of a well-oiled inland waterway cargo transport system. They used to ferry large amounts of farm produce, including coconuts, paddy and vegetables from the backwaters' islands to faraway markets, navigated by expert oarsmen. Many old Malayalam movies are set in the backdrop of the calm backwaters, with several romantic songs pictured on houseboats. Songs sung by oarsmen as they commandeered the bulky boats across distances, sometimes over several days, became part of the state's folk history. As road transport developed and trucks appeared, the humble houseboats bowed out of the scene. With the rediscovery of Kerala's backwaters, houseboats made a dignified return, their traditional oars replaced by powerful diesel engines, the exteriors dressed up in unique, pleasing designs and the interiors overhauled to suit human habitation. Houseboats were designed for cargo, and often, the whole superstructure had to be redesigned to accommodate travellers.

We examined our very own cruise liner and were suitably impressed. Puthuveedan had a spacious living area equipped with wooden sofas, a centre table, a dining table and chairs and other assorted furniture. The colour television in the living area was connected to a DTH antenna on the deck, and there was a music system as well. A corridor leading from the living area opened into a well-appointed bedroom (air-conditioned, thank you), with bamboo-paned windows giving an excellent view of the placid lake. Next to it was a little toilet-cum-bathroom. The corridor had lifebuoys fixed to its sides. At the end of the corridor was the mini-kitchen, administered by a chef who doubled up as engine room assistant. The corridor opened out into the houseboat's stern, where elementary machine tools, a water pump, a generator and the split AC compressor unit were placed. The captain took his position at the bow, pulled some levers, pressed some buttons, and diesel engine came to life with a barely audible throb deep inside the ship's entrails. The voyage begins!

Our captain negotiated Puthuveedan along narrow canals among other houseboats softly bobbing in the backwaters, before entering the wide expanse of the mighty waters of the Vembanad Lake. Vembanad Lake, which joins the Arabian sea on Kerala's west coast, stretches across several districts of Kerala, spreading its offshoots deep inside land in the form of backwaters. What are backwaters like To the uninitiated, they look like very wide but static rivers. The backwaters meander along the length of central and south Kerala, linked to the Vembanad and Ashtamudi lakes, forming a complete inland water transport network. Unlike rivers, backwaters are mostly static, and deep, features they share with lakes. Every year, snake-boat races, including the Nehru Trophy, are conducted in these 'shipping channels', where teams from different parts of the state compete. We left the hustle and bustle of the boat jetty as Puthuveedan slowly made her way into the 'arterial' backwater route towards Alappuzha, often called the Venice of the East for its canals and waterways. Dense gardens of coconut trees line Kumarakom's backwaters on both sides, dotted by unobtrusive hotels and resorts. We pass by Taj Kumarakom, where tourists lazing outside the picturesque resorts barely glance by as our houseboat glides by. The captain informed us that the villagers who owned property along the banks of the backwaters have left long time back, selling their property to astute resort developers. As we move further south, there are fewer and fewer settlements, and Puthuveedan is pacing along at a steady clip.

The chef-cum-engineer, a diminutive, introvert guy, reluctantly made an appearance. What would we like to have for lunch He offers to prepare Kerala thaali with fresh fish catch from the lake, three vegetable dishes, plus pickles, sambar, curd and papad. Puthuveedan, built for a family or two, did not have a large menu, but we weren't too fussy. Many houseboats agree to cook several dishes and delicacies for you, if you have made a deal for that before booking the boat. After placing our order, some of us move to the sides of the boat, while some join the captain at the bow. I look around the stern and in the kitchen, trying to glean some information from the engineer-chef about the working of our cruise liner.

Despite the heavy truck engine powering them, houseboats are remarkably quiet and the only sound they make is the splash of water as it slices through. Backwaters are mostly traffic-free, but captains stick to their shipping lanes and honk to alert oncoming boats. There are hardly any signs of human habitation, but occasionally, massive houseboats pass by, each flaunting its own unique design. We spotted a double-decker houseboat, a fully-AC houseboat and some which seemed to be built specifically to hold conferences. We also pass by small canoes, some government-run boats ferrying passengers from Kottayam to Alappuzha and many fishing boats.

We are curious to know how Puthuveedan works. The boat is powered by an inboard Ashok Leyland engine made for trucks, informed the captain. Puthuveedan was built from scratch to ferry travellers, unlike many others that were converted from cargo boats to houseboats. While the hull is made of wood, the exteriors are decked up in bamboo panes and matting. The bamboo, reminds the captain, is good only for a single season. Rains spoil bamboo's visual appeal, and the exterior is replaced after every rainy season. The state transport authority issues motoring licences to drivers after a test just like ordinary motor and boat driving licences. It's not an easy test to clear, and the tests are not frequent, informs the captain. After an hour or so of gentle cruising, the captain pulled the ship to the shore and moored it to a coconut tree. We are led to a shack, selling fresh country toddy in Bisleri bottles and spicy delicacies of fish, tiger prawns and lobster. Take your pick from a tray of lake fish, says the cook-cum-manager, and it's cooked right in front of you, just the way you like it. During the half-hour halt, we chow down fried tiger prawns and guzzle toddy, and with much reluctance, return to the boat.

Puthuveedan purrs along, passing by tiny islands and some paddy fields. Occasionally, out of nowhere, a kingfisher darts into the water, picks up a fish and climbs into the sky. Herons and ducks, too, frequent the waters, though there are no wild animals here. A colourful speedboat swishes ahead, raising a plume of spray and vanishing around the corner.

It's close to lunch time now, and the aroma from the multiple dishes under preparation in the kitchen is hard to miss. Our engineer-chef sure seems to relish his work. In a short while, he announces that lunch is ready. Piping hot and a visual treat, the best part of the day soon starts arriving in large vessels, trays, plates and tumblers. The captain helps his deputy arrange the mountains of food on the table and reminds us that we should have it hot. Sure we will! Houseboat cuisine, without doubt, beats expensive hotel fare hands down. The salt, spice and flavours are just perfect, and we eat in total silence; you can't talk while wolfing down food, you see. At the end of our lunch, the chef serves sweets and mango juice.

Puthuveedan coasts along, unruffled by occasional water currents where it meets rivers or streams. Fed to the gills, some of us have little energy to stay up and lie down for a nap. Some settle in the open doorway of the boat for a smoke, others pick up books to read, while I prowl around with my camera. Backwaters never disappoint the amateur photographer. If you're going there for the first time, make sure to carry spare batteries. My camera gave up after clicking about 250 photos, but thankfully by then, I had clicked enough to cherish the memories.

Puthuveedan is a single bedroom houseboat, but there are larger houseboats too. Many take you on overnight trips too, though after sunset the houseboats are anchored near the shore. Despite their ability to sail in all weather and during day or night, the night is usually spent by the banks.

We pass by the renowned R-Block near Alappuzha, an island below water level. Islanders at R-Block have built walls all around this tiny sliver of land for hassle-free living and cultivation. Further down, the captain informs us that we are turning around, taking a different route to return to where we started. It is nearly 3 pm and we are expected to be back at Kumarakom by 4.30 pm. Around 4 pm, when we are back to activity after a nap or reading, the engineer-chef brings hot banana fry and coffee, which is polished off in no time.

In the distance, we can see the exit from the backwater channel to the canal that takes us to the drop-off point. Our houseboat enters the canal, takes a turn and keeps close to the shore, finally pulling close to where we had boarded earlier in the day. With some sadness, we collect our books, toddy bottles and our bags and exit the cruise liner. We say thanks and bid farewell to the captain and his chef, who took us on this wonderful voyage. All good things must come to an end, but we promise ourselves that we will return for more.