We drifted, slowly; the sun hanging heavy and swollen in the sky like an overripe citrus fruit. Coconut palms swayed in a haze on the shoreline, the thrumming chirrup of insects the only sound. A bird dipped gracefully towards the water, wheeling, and then soared upwards again, wingbeats shattering the stillness of the surface with a cascade of ripples that glittered in the late afternoon light. The lightest breeze stirred the hair around my face and caused my hammock to sway ever so gently.
I was lying on the viewing deck of our private kettuvallam, a traditional houseboat hired to explore the backwaters of the Keralan region around Alleppey. The morning had been spent sailing through the open lagoons and larger waterways, watching other boats navigating the waters in formation, like large and ponderously graceful dancers. We had eaten lunch overlooking a lush green rice paddy lined with palms; our table laden with lemon-scented rice, colourful plates of dahl and chutney, and river fish grilled until the scales blistered and turned to gold.
Now we drifted into the narrower backwaters as the heat of the afternoon became rounded and full, and turned to nod languidly in the direction of a tangerine sun. The boat made only a quiet puttering sound as it sliced through the swampy water, tiny bright green algae parting before its hull. The tranquility was absolute, and at odds with the raucous, riotous glare of the India beyond the shore line.
Early that morning, we had taken a rickshaw to the harbour at Alleppey, where I had read that we could browse the houseboats on offer. The dock was busy with morning traffic, although at the tail end of low season we were the only Westerners there. The breeze tasted of oil and salt, and carried the scent of burning paper. The ground was sodden with great pools of sticky mud and water the colour of over-stewed tea, and we picked our way gingerly to the dock in the wake of our enthusiastic driver, jumping puddles and hopping over thick rusting chains.
The houseboats stood to attention in a line along the dockside, their captains polishing their already pristine wooden wheels with oiled cloths. We took our time walking up and down the line, appraising each boat, treading creaking gangplanks to have a closer look at some. Finally, we chose a boat with a single fan cooled bedroom, full of light from the viewing window that filled one wall. It had an upstairs deck with hammocks and cushions, and a beautiful open lower deck with a polished dining table and cushioned bench seats for reading.
We slept that night moored to the bank, the darkness sticky with heat and full with the low humming of winged insects; and woke the next morning to a sky that spilled dawn in pink and orange and gold across the water, India once again riotous with colour.
Puttering serenely back towards Alleppey that morning after a breakfast of eggs and fresh fruit, we passed villages and houses lining the banks. Barefoot children ran and waved from dirt paths that wound amongst the coconut palms, and lines of washing hung between concrete houses painted in peeling red and yellow and turquoise paint. Boat taxis glided back and forth, carrying neighbours and supplies. The banks bustled and shouted with the comings and goings of daily life, seemingly self-contained with no need for anyone to ever leave. We sailed on, waving at the passing boats, reluctant ourselves to leave this idyllic, emerald and gold river world of which we had merely scratched the surface.
How to book a houseboat in Kerala
We stayed on a houseboat in Kerala in November, at the end of low season. I spoke to many people who had arranged their houseboat stay through a tour company, with mixed results – some people loved it, others ended up on boats or tours that weren’t what they thought they would be. All of them payed above the odds.
To find a houseboat in Alleppey, simply take an auto rickshaw to the dock as early in the day as you can (after 10am many boats will already be out on the backwaters so you won’t be able to view them). Take your time viewing the boats and make sure you are happy with your choice – then haggle to make sure you are happy with the cost! We paid around 7,000 rupees, or $120 for a one night cruise with all food and drink included. For two of us, including the beers we brought on board, we paid about £40 each, so while this may be one of the most expensive things you do in India, it’s still not exactly breaking the bank, and it was definitely worth it to see a facet of India that I didn’t experience anywhere else.