My reason for wanting to visit India’s southern state was to experience Kerala’s “backwaters,” an intricate network of narrow canals, lakes, and waterways that run parallel to the Arabian Sea for hundreds of miles. I have long been intrigued by the romantic notion of plying these narrow waterways via houseboat, a very popular tourist attraction in the southern state.
Plying the backwaters of Kerala evolved into a tourist attraction in the nineties as old boats once used to carry cargo across the backwater towns became obsolete, replaced by trucks as roads into the canal villages improved. These thatched roof cargo boats known as “Kettuvalloms,” loosely translated to mean “roofed boat,” once used to carry rice and spices up the narrow waterways were gutted and fitted with air conditioned bedrooms, modern bathrooms (at least by India standards,) lounging areas, and rooftop observation decks. They run the gamut, the largest containing as many as eleven bedrooms, to the luxurious options featuring sundecks and soaking tubs.
While houseboating in the backwaters is prevalent along the entire coastal region of the southern state of Kerala, the hub is considered to be Alappuzha, more commonly known by its anglicized name of “Alleppey,” also known as the “Venice of the East.” I decided to wait until I got to Alleppey to book locally in order to save some money.
Only 45 miles south of Fort Kochi, I could easily reach Alleppey by car and driver, door to door for only $20, a small price to pay for not having to schlep my luggage down the long pedestrian path, cross the waterways by tuk-tuk to the train station, and beyond. Being the “shoulder season,” I was not worried about getting a space on a boat, and knew a last minute booking would be considerably cheaper.
Due to my typical lack of research, however, I hadn’t realized the larger houseboats would not get me to the more interesting, scenic areas of the backwaters. Local village life along the narrow canals centers around the water, as people come outside along the waterways to fish, do laundry, swim, and even cook. The larger Kettuvalloms, too wide to fit down the village canals, stick to the larger waterways on their way out to Vembanad, Kerala’s largest lake.
But I wanted to see more of the local daily life in the small villages, which can only be done in a “shikara,” the long, narrow wooden boats under man-power as opposed to horsepower. So I was torn in making the decision between the two options. As prolific as the houseboats are on Vembanad Lake, Alleppey is also known for its narrow wooden boats powered by an oarsman using a long paddle, which also serves as a pole to guide the boats in the shallow waters. These boats can navigate the smallest of canals, providing a more intimate glimpse into village life. It was Anoop, my kind and helpful guesthouse host at the Rain Tree Guesthouse who suggested “Why don’t you do both?” and offered to help arrange them.
Anoop arranged both my day trip through the small villages in a shikara, as well as my overnight stay on a larger, one bedroom Kettuvallom. Not only did he confirm the bookings, but he drove me down to the dock on the back of his motorbike to introduce me to Captain Rubin and my own personal cook, “TikTok.” Anoop wanted to make sure the photos of the boat he had shown me were a true representation in exchange for the 7,000 rupees ($100, including three meals) I had paid for the overnight cruise.
While I thoroughly enjoyed my time cruising the Backwaters of Kerala, it didn’t take long to realize the impact tourism is having on this area. I was stunned when it was time to depart the dock, and it looked like 8:00am rush hour traffic. Leaving the canal headed for the lake, I counted twelve boats in front of us. Not exactly the serene, idyllic experience I had envisioned.
While my guidebook states there are around 500 houseboats to choose from in Alleppey, my boat captain tells me it’s now more like 1,500, a fact that causes me to feel a little twinge of guilt in hiring a boat, captain, and cook, all for my own boating pleasure. It’s a toss up on how one chooses to look at it. Am I part of the problem by feeding the demand? Or part of the solution by “feeding” the supply?
A recent environmental-impact assessment found that houseboat operations on Vembanad Lake have exceed its carrying capacity. Some signs of ecological responsibility are starting to emerge as the top of the line houseboats are converting to electric motors, but that’s a feature few can afford. Conservation attempts are underway by the government of India to protect Vembanad’s wetlands from houseboat motor pollution, dumping of raw sewage, and pesticide residue from paddy fields seeping into the backwaters causing dangerously high levels of heavy metals, all which threaten the fish life that sustains the villagers. May the circle be broken.
There have been times in my travels when looking back in hindsight, I feel a little sense of shame in having patronized a place. Maybe it’s a case of animals being used for bizarre forms of entertainment like swimming with the dolphins in Mexico, or visiting the Jumping Cat Monastery in Myanmar. Or places that are just trampled to death like Nepal’s Annapurna circuit where the path was literally paved with blue plastic water bottles. Places where visiting caused me to question my decision, or make me wish I had done a bit more research as to the sustainability. Backwater cruising was one of those times.
I have read several articles recently about how pollution is clearing up and the earth is getting a much needed rest through this time of COVID-ity. If one place needs such a rest, it is the backwaters of Kerala. It’s impossible to accept the loss of livelihood in a prosperous country such as ours during this unprecedented time, let alone an impoverished country like India. But at least if there is a silver lining to this impenetrable globe-enveloping COVID cloud, it’s that places like the canals of Alleppey and Vembanad Lake are getting a much needed break.