Bandipur -> Wayanad -> Kozhikode -> Guruvayur -> Cochin -> Periyar
When we were planning a Kerala trip, the backwaters was something we had in our mind. The backwaters seem to be Kerala’s most prominent attraction, and I had heard every one who visited the backwaters raving a lot about it.
A bit of research revealed that the houseboats – fully equipped boats in which you can spend a day or two in the backwaters, are expensive and can leave a hole in the pocket. The next option was a much inexpensive day-long shared boat trip from Aleppey, but many reviews said it can get monotonous and boring after sometime. We looked around in Fort Kochi about our options and finally took a package that gave us a two hour chartered trip on a small boat, along with Ayurvedic massage and a special Kerala lunch.
The place where we would start our backwaters journey was a good thirty minutes drive from Kochi. As we drove, we noticed that we were driving through small, narrow landmasses surrounded by water all around. Ubiquitous coconut trees donned the landscapes. Occasionally we saw water bodies isolated from rest of the backwaters by mud barricades. Our driver told us that these are private properties barricaded to grow fish or prawn. We talked between us and wondered if a person’s value in Kerala is measured by how many acres of water does he own, like it is measured in acres of land elsewhere! The drive that took us amidst endless spread of water and coconut, and was very pretty.
Our journey on the backwaters started from a small channel of water intersecting one of the roads. The boat could take four travelers, a guide and the boatman. Water Hyacinth had conquered a good part of the channel, and the guide and the boatman had to struggle a bit to get through them to reach an open area.
Our guide was a friendly man who smiled often and talked as much as he can. He spoke broken but easy to understand English. And he had two versions of it – one which he used to converse with us and the other when he acted as a guide. When he spoke to us, it was more natural and casual. And when he switched himself to being a guide he became serious, seemed like a robot taught to repeat what had been taught, with no expressions or emotions whatsoever. He would once chat casually, then sit silent for a while and suddenly transform himself into the ‘guide’ mode:
“This backwater is having six months fresh water six months salt water. When rain is coming fresh water is coming.. when summer is coming, sea water is coming inside and it is becoming salty. The water is black but not dirty. The soil color is black, so water color is also becoming black. But clean.. not dirty.. This water hyacinth is growing in fresh water and dying when salt water is coming.. You see these are Chinese fishing nets.. they are putting this in the water and taking it out.. and fish is coming in the net when taking out.. you understanding..?”
It was great fun listening to his ‘guide accent, as he repeated with a machine like non-chalance the same thing that he would have been telling many travellers. But he was informative too, and knew well about all the information that a tourist would be interested in. We went through a wide ground(of water!) where snake boat races were held annually. We saw several Chinese Fishing Nets that were abandoned because they could not function effectively in dense Hyacinth population. He took took us to a place where they manufactured different products from coconut fiber(coir). Not that we wanted to visit one such place, but he said with this ‘guide’ accent –
“Now I will show you coir manufacturing.. understanding? Are you interested in seeing coir making…?”
and without waiting for our answer he jumped out of the boat and started moving on. We followed him mutely like sheep herded in a pre-planned route. We had started our backwaters trip around 4.30pm, spent the sunsets hours in the water and a good 30 minutes after that till it got really dark, and returned back. It was a worthy experience and an excellent introduction to Kerala’s most well known attraction.
The backwaters of Kerala, also called Vembanad lake, spread on a large area from Kumarakom and Aleppey in the south to Kochi in north. Though this region is primarily filled with water, has many landmasses in the middle of it. Boats are as much a means of commute as are the roads in this area. The lake will be filled with freshwater during the rainy season and a few months after that; and salt water comes in during summers. Water Hyacinth grows quickly and fills up the surface of the lake when there is freshwater, but they die when the water becomes salty.
Traditional economy of this area is fishing and coconut trees, but now backwater tourism contributes significantly to the economy. Aleppey is a hub for backwater tourism where you can hire houseboats or take day trips. Houseboats or Kettuvallam are generally expensive and start only at prices above Rs.2000 per night, but a day trip starts at as little as Rs.350. You may be able to find people offering shorter rides at lesser prices, as the one we took. A backwaters trip is one of the most important experiences of Kerala and is a definite must do.
To be continued..