Kerala has hundreds of miles of water channels winding through its coastal areas and the city of Alleppey is one doorway into this enchanting realm. The city itself is intersected by several canals, and if it weren’t for the abundant palm trees and scores of umbrella shops (essential year round thanks to both the monsoon and sun), you might be convinced you were strolling in Amsterdam. There is also a nice beach on one end of town, frequented by a mostly Indian clientele eating ice cream, flying homemade kites and braving the crashing waves in t-shirts and jeans.
From Alleppey we organized a cruise on a houseboat built to resemble the rice barges that traveled the backwaters not so long ago. Houseboats, or “kettuvallam” as they are known locally, are big business in Alleppey, with hundreds of them already plying the waterways and more being built all of the time. It was an expensive endeavor by India standards, but a steal by any other – for just $100 we got a deluxe boat with 2 beautiful bedrooms, the service of 3 crew members and a delectable Keralan-style breakfast, lunch and dinner. After roughing it in some pretty dingy rooms, it felt entirely luxurious to us, when we entered the boat and were handed coconuts (complete with straws and umbrellas) and told to sit down and relax. Heaven.
The backwaters are spectacular. Emerald green rice paddies butt up against rows of towering palms that cast undulating shadows onto the dark canals below as the sun dips toward the horizon. Children ride their bikes down the narrow stretch of land that connects them to their neighbors, excited to splash and play in the water with friends. Men propel themselves along in carved wooden canoes with paddles or a long pole, casting out finishing nets and waiting patiently. Women beat clothes clean with rocks or carve the flesh out of coconuts in preparation for the next meal. Kingfishers perch on telephone wires to stalk prey from above, while herons and egrets dip their long necks into the brackish water in search of fish.
The wetlands are a truly magical place – and an ecosystem in danger around the world. We feel lucky to have experienced the Kerala backwaters in this way, but hope that the local government will keep the desire to grow tourism in check with the need for strong environmental protections.