We chose to go to the southern state of Kerala for one main reason - to tour the pristine backwaters for a few days on a private houseboat. The small beach town of Alleppey is the hub for accessing the backwaters (coastal glades) of the region. It was highly recommend by a few people we had met traveling and also by our guidebook.
Getting to Alleppey was an adventure to say the least. The day we traveled to Alleppey there was a two-day labor strike going on, nationwide in India. We saw posters in Mumbai but thought that it was a citywide strike affecting only the taxi drivers. However, when we landed in Thrivundrum, Kerala’s capitol, we realized the strike was indeed nationwide and most public transportation workers were on strike.
When we arrived at the airport in Thrivundrum we were told that no trains or taxis would be in service and to just wait it out there for a few days before trying to go to Alleppey. Outside the airport we were accosted by a swarm of tuk tuk drivers telling us that the trains weren’t running but we argued and made them take us to the train station anyways. To our pleasant surprise the train was actually running and we hopped on board in a sleeper-class car.
Our train worked its way north up the coast of Kerala through lush rice paddies dotted with water buffalo, thick coconut groves and small grass thatch roofed villages. When the train finally stopped at the Alleppey train station six hours later, we were again confronted by a group of eager men asking if we needed a taxi. After looking around we saw there were no taxis or tuk tuks in sight, only motorcycles. It dawned on us then that we were going to have to hop on the back of a motorcycle, with our heavy backpacks. So we did what seemed appropriate and prayed to the Hindu gods that we would arrive in one piece.
After an exhilarating ride with a few screams and shouts we rolled into town and circled the main drag where the houseboats were supposed to be docked. The place looked like a ghost town – no stores or restaurants were open, everything was closed and locked up. It was like a scene from a western movie, except instead of rolling tumbleweeds and horses there was trash and meandering cows.
At that point we had been up since 4am and were exhausted from traveling. One of the moto drivers told us he had a friend we could stay with at his house. With everything closed, we had little choice but to accept. The moto drivers dropped us off at a small guesthouse a few blocks away with a bunch of other backpackers (who were also stuck in Alleppey). The place was pretty nice and they cooked us a delicious lunch since all the restaurants in town were closed.
On our second day we met two young women from Israel who were staying at our guesthouse and they told us about a canoe tour they had signed up for the next day. After a little more research about the houseboats and responsible travel, we discovered the houseboats are hard on the environment. Most of the operators dump waste directly into the water instead of offloading at treatments centers. Being eco-conscious travelers and seeing the already polluted state that India was in, we decided against renting the houseboat. We decided to go the green route and jumped on board with are new Israeli friends.
Our tour started at the public ferry harbor on one of the small rivers leading out to the surrounding villages that are only accessible by water. After a short ferry ride the four of us hopped off and were escorted down a small dirt lane to a village house where we were served breakfast. It was our first experience eating idly (spongy, fermented rice cake), coconut chutney and samba (a spicy sauce). Our breakfast was served on a fresh banana leaf where we had the fun of trying to eat with our hands and sipped sweet masala chai tea. The breakfast was superb!
Afterwards we were shown to our wooden canoe where the four of us leaned back, with our stomachs full to the brim, and relaxed while our driver paddled his way down the river. We glided across an expansive lake past noisy houseboats and ferries until we came to a narrow passageway only a few feet wide where houses were built on either side.
As we glided through murky channels we saw people carrying on with their everyday lives; women beating and scrubbing laundry on stones near the edge of the river, men shaving, children bathing, people washing their dishes, their hair and brushing their teeth – all in the same murky water. It was like we were walking straight through their bathroom and they didn’t seem to care at all. The people were all very friendly, smiling, waving and little children yelling hello. We saw water snakes, fish and turtles. After a few hours we stopped in one of the villages for a fresh coconut and a stroll through the lush rice paddies where villagers were bent over, cultivating the land in sweltering heat.
The tour ended with lunch at another villager’s house. We were again served our meal on a banana leaf but this time we ate sitting on the bed in the master bedroom. Our lunch consisted of big fluffy Kerala rice (grains about an inch long), mango chutney, fried fish and coconut chutney. Everything was lovely and we asked for seconds! After we finished, the woman showed us her prized possessions – photos of her family and other visitors.
After lunch we waited for the local ferry to pick us up and take us back to town. When it arrived a swarm of giddy school children in matching uniforms jumped off as we jumped on. We later found out after talking to one of the kids that they have to take a 30-minute ferry ride everyday to get to and from school.
At the end of the day, we were happy with our decision to forgo the houseboat and take the canoe tour instead. We got a glimpse into the lives of the local villagers and how they live everyday. It was amazing to see how the water is such an important resource for them. They use it to produce rice and food, for cooking, bathing, laundry and even for drinking (untreated!). It made us grateful for the abundant clean water that we have access to at home and really opened our eyes to how people live in this part of the world. Sometimes we don’t realize how good we really have it until we see life through someone else’s eyes.