A rice barge cruise in Kerala India on Kerala’s tranquil backwaters is just what the doctor ordered.
Our rice barge glides across Lake Vembanad towards a distant landscape of coconut trees. Lake Vembanad is a huge inland body of water that stretches through the Kottayam and Alappuzha districts all the way into the sea at Kochi. We’re cruising at a leisurely 15 knots, probably the fastest speed we will reach during the entire trip. Shaded by a canopy of palm thatch and coir, we flop into rattan arm chairs behind our captain Benny.
Our rice barge comfortably accommodates our group of six for a day’s cruising. It’s a floating home of dark-oiled teak and ironbark with a spacious lounge and dining area behind the wheel. And a long passage which leads past two en-suite cabins to the kitchen at the rear.
Traditional rice boats were known as kettuvallom and were once used to transport rice, coconuts and spices along Kerala’s navigable 900km backwater network of natural lakes, canals, lagoons and rivers. But since the 1980s, many kettuvallom have been converted into diesel-powered houseboats which carry tourists instead of goods.
For tourists, it’s a comfortable way to travel. Kerala’s network of rivers and canals are a passage into a whole different world. This is the world of Booker Prize winner Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things where “The river shrinks and black crows gorge on bright mangoes in still, dustgreen trees. Red bananas ripen. Jackfruits burst. Dissolute bluebottles hum vacuously in the fruity air.”
I join Benny at the front of the barge to try to work out our course but there are no maps or charts. It also becomes clear that the Benny and his staff are not trained tour guides. Questions like “are the nitrates from the rice fields killing the fish?” receive gentle smiles and blank looks. I soon give up asking questions and just sit back and enjoy the view.
Benny draws our attention to scenes from daily life. We pass a group of fishermen in long canoes with square sails fishing in the lake for Karameen (pearl-spotted fish) which our chef, Venu, has chosen to prepare for lunch along with a feast of other Keralan specialties. Our meal is delicious and includes a sambar of dal and vegetables, deep fried bitter gourd, mezhukupurathy (long beans sautéed in oil) and banana kalan (banana cooked with coconut paste and curd).
The river is teeming with boats; there are brightly painted timber boats ferrying locals along the river; there are boats laden with hay; and small colourful speedboats with blaring microphones spruiking wares from local stores. Some of the rice barges that float past are similar to ours but others are much grander.
Many homes along the river are painted in cheerful shades of pink, green and yellow. Giant billboards, some the width of a house, advertise modern living comforts like Duroflex mattresses and Vodafone services.
There are pastel-walled churches ornamented with painted gold crosses. Kerala’s many churches are a legacy of Portuguese, who arrived here in the 15th century, Dutch, British and Syrian Christian influences. The Syrian Christians believe they are descendants of the 100 Brahmins that Saint Thomas the Apostle converted to Christianity when he travelled through India in 52AD.
We cruise past a few Ayuverda Centres. One is a large modern building painted in a pleasing shade of mauve. Another is a shack plastered with signs in English and Malayalam, the local language, offering a menu of steam baths, yoga and Kalary massages.
The sounds are domestic and rural: the slap of a sari being washed against a stone, the shriek of a child splashing in the river and the gentle bleat of a goat tied to a gate.
Benny docks our barge by the river bank at Kainakari village and we climb into long canoes, rowed by two boatmen, for a detour along the narrow Thottuvalkala canal. The water is the colour of green tea and the river is overrun with water hyacinth which clings to our canoe as we float past. I volunteer to clear the way by pushing the weed aside with an oar.
Gliding so close to the river bank offers us a peek into village life. On both sides of the canal there are homes set in a lush tropical jungle of broad banana leaves and coconut trees.
Children run along the riverside trails waving and chattering. A boy cycles past ducking his head beneath low-hanging banana leaves. Drying in the sun are colourful clothes in ochres, blues and reds, beaten in the river by dark-skinned women.
We pass a red Communist Party of India monument with the hammer, sickle and star symbol on a fluttering flag. It appears that the Communist regime has been good for Kerala which has one of the highest living standards in India and the highest literacy rate (almost 100%) in the country.
As we cruise back to Alappuzha in our rice barge Benny points out a snake boat moored by the river bank. These long and slender vessels, 45m long with raised sterns shaped like rearing cobra hoods, are rowed by 100 men who compete on the second Saturday in August in the Nehru Trophy Boat Race.
Although the backwaters have been a tourist destination for over 20 years, I’m impressed by the cleanliness of the water and the absence of litter. There are lots of birds such as herons, egrets (we spot one with a wriggling water snake clamped in its beak) and Brahminy kites. Kerala’s marketers came up with the slogan God’s Own Country. And after cruising these tranquil waterways I certainly agree with them.