KERALA, INDIA — Sandals off, my sandy feet are resting at the helm of a boat as I’m laying back on the deck, sun on my legs, watching the world ever so slowly drift by. It’s lush from my vantage point — under a canopy of palm trees and coconut trees. And it’s so serene — fishermen quietly tending to their catch of the day, other boats infrequently puttering by and the soft sound of waves lapping into the shore. Life is calm and still. So relaxed, I could be lulled to sleep by the movement of the boat, yet I’m so transfixed at the sights before me.
I’m on a Keralan houseboat cruising through the narrow canals of the Alleppey backwaters along the Malabar Coast in South India. Kerala, this special part of South India, has been nicknamed God’s own country and for good reason: the landscape is made of dense forest, beautifully scented tea plantations and the country’s prized flora and fauna. They’re spoiled from the richness of the land, too – think of bananas, enormous mangoes, peppers, and Kerala’s top export, coconut. Kerala is what God thought paradise ought to look like, as the story goes.
Left: Carmen enjoys a quiet moment among the tranquility. Right: She encounters a local traffic jam during an excursion.
The backwaters of Kerala are a 900-km maze of interlocking canals and lagoons and sailing through them takes you through picturesque green paddy fields and windy mangrove forests to steal glances of the daily rituals of village life along the shore dotted with colourful huts, children hopping onto their school boats and busy moms hanging their laundry to catch the afternoon sun. They always smile and wave.
Houseboats were once used to transport produce — from rice to spices and fresh seafood, fruits and vegetables. In the past few decades, they’ve transformed into floating hotels, from rustic to luxurious, so travellers can relax and enjoy this part of South Indian hospitality.
Travelling down South India on a Keralan houseboat had been on my travel bucket list for years. Our houseboat for two for the next few nights comes with a bedroom, kitchen, dining area and a seating area at the front to soak in the sunshine and take in the tranquillity — and expansiveness — of the waters. Each boat comes with a captain. Ours is named Sami, who takes you through the windy paths. We even have our own personal chef, Gagan, on board.
Chef hands us each a cold beer and sets out our lunch. It’s a feast — crisp fish and grilled prawns we’d just selected from a fisherman pulling by, mixed curried vegetables, a delicious lentil dip called sambar, and rice, naan and chapati to soak it all up. We take a few bites and sigh with pleasure. It’s delicious. This is the perfect respite after weeks on the go in India.
Travelling through South India has awakened my senses. We have gotten lost on foot in the endless tea fields in Munnar’s mountainside, searching for elusive elephants. (Spoiler alert: we didn’t find them.) We have raced through the notorious hustle and bustle of the roads in rented scooters, with our bravest faces on to keep up with local traffic in Kochi, and we have tried our hand at negotiating fares with rickshaw drivers, who know when to bump up prices once they’re alerted to North American accents.
We have travelled via overnight sleeper buses and trains to make headway as we cover ground through the country. The overnight sleeper trains are the real deal: you get your own private cot complete with pillows, bedsheets, blankets, curtains for privacy, power sockets and tea and breakfast in the morning with the newspaper. The air conditioning is so strong, we layer up in yoga pants and thick socks to sleep and wake up to watch the landscape transform outside our window.
Above: Floating on the backwaters around Kerala is a great escape from the hustle and bustle of real life.
And then there’s the adventure of South Indian cuisine. Dining on smoky chicken straight from the tandoor, piping hot curries and garlicky, chewy naan, always alfresco along the beachfront, with my toes blissfully digging into the sand. There’s the street food — the low maintenance snacks like dosa (a lentil pancake filled with curried potatoes and garnished with a series of sauces for dipping) and panipuri (a classic street vendor staple of chips filled with chickpeas, onions and masala potatoes). With the street food vendors, we are often tended to by plump ammas — or moms — wrapped in colourful saris, who immediately seat you at a makeshift table or bench, pour you a cup of Chai and hand you a plate with what’s on offer. Their cooking never disappoints, and we’ve been consistently in shock when it’s time to pay – about 70 rupees or $1.30 (Cdn) feeds two, as amma gives you a bundle of mini bananas for the road.
My wanderlust is satiated here. South India is such a far cry from home, with alarm clocks, cramming onto the subway, morning meetings, rush-hour commutes. Life is at a different pace here and the power goes out at least three times a day and it doesn’t really matter. My beachfront home is a little hut with four walls, a bed and a mosquito net and I’m tanned and covered in bug bites.
There are the daily routines here too: fresh fruit juice each morning (my go-to is pomegranate and orange) to safely stowing away all snacks into your backpack lest a pack of monkeys cross my path. And each day has been a blank slate for adventure — shopping for handmade gemstones and jewellery like a sultan’s princess, wandering through ancient ruins and temples and receiving blessings from priests, to testing my flexibility in yoga classes (another bucket list item crossed off for me!).
Back on the houseboat, Sami has retired our vessel for our second night, tying it up to a post on a quiet canal.
I’m falling asleep under a bed of stars and I’m so thankful for the past few weeks. South India has taught me that life is great at both fast and slow paces, in extravagance and in simplicity, the exciting and the mundane, the ordinary and the novel, and, of course, the comforts of home and the rewards of adventure.
We’ve grown accustomed to waking up to the sound of birds chirping just before sunrise, followed by the cacophony of monkeys.
Something’s different this time though: our noses have picked up on the scent of something delicious. And just as we step out of the bedroom, Gagan is at the ready with a spread of cinnamon Chai, fresh pineapples, mangoes and apples, and a plateful of coconut banana pancakes. Kerala may truly be as God intended paradise to be.