LUSH AND UNIQUE, THE BACKWATERS OF KERALA
When I was a kid, reading travelers’ journals and travel writers like Richard Haliburton, one of the most exotic, phantasmagoric places I found on the pages was the Vale of Kashmir.
There, Haliburton told me, one lived on luxurious boats surrounded by servants, the peaks of the Himalayas looming in the distance and the sounds of sitars drifting from the shores.
Today, anyone thinking Kashmir might think twice, since the border wars between India and Pakistan are constantly in the headlines. But some five years ago, at the opposite end of the Indian sub-continent, houseboating (which bears little resemblance to that term as it is used elsewhere) was introduced to the lush, tropical wetlands called the Backwaters of Kerala.
Many of the traditional black, wooden-hulled boats used to ship rice out of the region’s rice paddies have been converted, adding graceful, butterfly-like structures of bamboo matting and coconut twine. The results vary substantially in quality and comfort, but drifting through the Backwaters can be one of the most exotic, unique travel experiences on the globe.
Two or three days on the two-bedroom “Sauvarnigam” near Alleppey are days of moving gently, quietly through the rivers and lakes, stopping occasionally at small villages or to visit Hindu temples. The boat is powered by a small outboard and helped along by poling in the shallow waters. Bedrooms are attractive, comfortable and fan-cooled, with plumbing up to western standards (not always the case on some of the other boats) and the food--ah! A three-man crew, dressed in starched khakis and whites, dishes out savory, tasty local cuisine. Delicately fried pomfret, mildly spiced vegetable curries, braised duck in malabar pepper sauce and conventional western breakfasts.
The Backwaters, where the sea meets the rivers coming out of the mountains, are a watery world of coconut palms and rice paddies, mango trees and bananas, ginger and water hyacinths. The water level is controlled by a system of dikes, pumping and flood gates, creating an environment in which women beat wet clothes on the rocks, children yell with glee as they jump into the water, and flocks of ducks are shepherded from one side of the river to the other.
Kingfishers and parakeets swoop overhead, water buffalo and cattle move slowly through the rice fields and fishermen work the huge, rock-balanced fishing nets lowered from high above the water, a system brought in by the Chinese some 1000 years ago.