The rice boats of Kerala
The undoubted highlight of our recent holiday was the day/night trip on one of the rice boats of Kerala. And in many senses, it was truly unforgettable.
The backwaters are a network of canals, rivers, lakes and inlets which together form around 900 kilometres of waterways, centring around lake Vembanad which is the longest lake in India and the second largest by area. Ten rivers flow in to it and the backwaters system stretches from Kochi in the north to Kollam in the south, and the principal centre for the rice boat tourist industry is Allappuzha. A feature of the backwater system is the Thanneermukkom salt water barrier which effectively divides the waters into two, brackish still water in one part and water fed from the Ghats and the sea in the other. Whilst it has assisted agriculture by reducing silting and the effects of the salt from the sea water, it has also had some adverse ecological effects, mainly stopping marine life migrating upstream and encouraging the growth of inimical water weeds.
Until roads were developed it was natural for a people living in a land where water was so predominant to move their goods, rice being the staff of life, by boat. The kettuvallams, Malayalam for boats tied together with rope, are literally just that. They are made from Anjali wood, each plank being tied to the next by strong rope and then coated with black resin which is obtained by boiling cashew kernels and fish oil. They fell into disuse as road transport increased in popularity and then some bright spark had the idea of converting them into vessels capable of transporting ETs to marvel at the sights of the backwaters.
Atop of the wooden boat there is a bamboo structure which divides into three parts – the front area which has a lounge and is where the captain steers from, a middle section which houses the overnight accommodation and the rear area which houses the crew. I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the accommodation on board. Our room was en suite with hot and cold shower, powered we were informed by Thomas the captain and leader of our band of three matelots by solar panels on the roof of the boat. The crew would sleep overnight in the boat putting at rest one of my concerns that we would be alone, prey to the Keralan version of the Bullingdon Club and grateful to escape without out throats being cut.
Our houseboat turned up at the jetty of the hotel we were staying at bang on time and we had only just set off when Thomas received a phone call and turned back. It seemed I had left some money in our hotel room which had been found by the cleaner and unlike what would have happened anywhere west of the Suez in such circumstances, the cleaner handed it in and then a well-worn, Indian bureaucratic machine wheezed into action. A security guard met our boat, handed over the contents for me to check – all there natch – and a dusty ledger which must have recorded the senior moments of guests since at least the time of the Raj to sign, itemising the denomination of each note I had forgotten. All this was accomplished in less than ten minutes.
Of course, to the casual observer it looked as though we had sailed off without paying our extras bill but never mind. We settled down to a wonderfully relaxed potter through the backwaters towards Allappuzha, enjoying the scenery, the bird life and the serenity of it all. We were treated to an enormous lunch cooked on board – we normally don’t eat lunch but ate our way through various curries. A local fisherman rowed up to boat and sold us some freshwater prawns for our supper. All was well with the world and then events took an unexpected turn….