January 2007




January 2007

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* Wooden houseboats of Kerala

A first person account of the joys of floating in a wooden hotel in Kerala


Thomas Abraham

Slicing through foliage growing in water


The much awaited trip on a Kettuvallam finally happened. We were on the popular Kumarakom-to-Alleppey route with Deepu the Navigator, Peter the Engine man and Johnny the Cook.

Despite being a Malayalee with roots firm in Kerala, I had not done the rice boat thing before. Ostensibly this seemed reserved for dollar-paying tourists. It was a pleasant surprise for the boat crew when a Malayalee arrived with a Punjabi wife and a son with heaps of luggage. After having spent the previous day at a Kumarakom resort and experienced an exhilarating speedboat ride in the Vembanad Lake, we were raring to go.

We arrived at the Kumarakom jetty at the appointed time – 12.30 hrs to discover at least 20 more houseboats waiting to set sail. The moment we stepped aboard the boat we were greeted by the resplendent luxury--two comfortable air-conditioning bedrooms and a great view to boot. The attached bathrooms were a delight for city dwellers like us.

But that wasn’t all. There was a tastefully furnished living-cum-dining area with a sun deck at the bow. In the stern was a fully equipped kitchen with modern amenities. Power was supplied by discrete solar panels hidden on the roof, and the boat was propelled by an outboard motor and a silent generator ran the air-conditioning.

Having completed the conducted tour we retired to the living room as the boat set a-sail. Johnny the cook kept the conversation going and I relished the prospect of polishing my Malayalam on him.

We stopped briefly at R-block, a man made island in Vembanad Lake in Alappuzah frequented by tourists staying in the nearby Kumarakom resorts. This is a 3000 acre stretch of land, once owned by the Murickan brothers who were the kings of the backwaters.

The unique fact is that the land is actually lower than the water and, as in Holland, dykes were constructed to prevent water from flowing in. Today, R-Block is best known for its sea food at Kerala style dhabas. You can get lobsters at prices starting at an unbelievable Rs 80 apiece.

Thought For Food

After a quick tour of R-Block, we sailed to the opposite shore and anchored for lunch. Food is always the high point of a Kerala holiday--more so for a Malayalee coming home after six years. There was Nemeen (fried fish) with Puzhukal arri (brown rice), Cabbage and Beans Thoran, Sambhar, Pappadam and Payasam.

Johnny cooked most of the finger-licking food and we just ate and ate. Were we glad that post lunch the boat docked and we instantly knew it was time for a stroll across the adjoining Kandams (paddy fields).

Our boat set sail after lunch and started its journey across 14,000 canals snaking through Puthencode canal down to Kavalam and Pulicunnu villages. The journey is in picturesque settings and these are wonderful waterways unknown to city dwellers and efficiently connecting islands and villages. The sight of coconut palms swaying in the breeze amidst vast expanses of paddy fields, children bathing in the canals and their mothers washing clothes on the banks reminded me of my childhood holidays in the interiors of Kerala.

The Kettuvallam halted at Pulicunnu, ostensibly for some sightseeing, shopping and general leg-stretching. It was a nice walk though the streets of Pulicunne. We strolled for about half an hour, bought some brightly colored umbrellas and reached our boat at the far end of the village.

Even as the boat moved on we were treated to hot tea and banana fritters and headed towards our night halt at Onnamkara. Since the boats are not permitted to sail at night as it disturbs the fisherfolk who are out fishing most nights we anchored at the fringe of a paddy field with coconut palms on the edges. We ventured across the paddy fields yet again careful not to jump across the bunds. The sunset was a photographer’s delight.

Heady Toddy Experience

No trip to Kerala is complete without sampling fresh toddy. That was to happen later in the evening. Suresh the toddy-tapper came alongside in his boat with freshly tapped toddy which is sweet and turns into alcohol after some hours. Johnny the cook kept some for breakfast to cook Appams---I had no clue Appams have toddy as an ingredient.

By 8 p.m. we had run through our activities but it was still early to bed. When the dinner menu was presented our gastronomical juices rebelled against anymore food, however exotic. Imagine going to bed on a heavy stomach in a bobbing boat with breezy waves.

We survived the night simply because we skipped dinner. Early mornings are great on the boat with a cool breeze blowing across and lots of hot tea and the sight of the rising sun.

Day-2 was devoted to Mangamba, Moothattumugham and Kainagiri villages en-route to Alleppey. The canals on this route include Multayilthode, Swamithode and Villakumaramthode which are unique with narrow stretches, almost 10 feet wide. We had to shut the window flaps to prevent any damage to the boat. Deepu, the navigator took great pride in explaining the technical skills required in navigating these canals.

As we crossed Punnamada Lake at Alleppey what greeted us was the most amazing sight of the water world---a canal full of water hyacinths. It was the most befitting finale to a journey of a lifetime. Though born a Keralite, the picturesque backwaters on a Kettuvallam would remain ingrained in the memory all my life.




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