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The Silk Route - World Travel: Kerala Backwaters, India
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India: Kerala Backwaters
March 2018

Emerald Isle Houseboat
Kerala backwaters


The peaceful backwaters of Kerala are perfect for relaxation, walking along the canals, discovering village life.


Emerald Isle

Kerala backwaters
Water hyacinth, a highly invasive plant, is a real problem on the waterways - there's water under all that greenery!
Kerala backwaters
Emerald Isle
On the left is our first room and behind is the cottage we upgraded to, also below.
Kerala backwaters

We stayed at the Emerald Isle Heritage Homestay, an extremely peaceful place south east of Alappuzha. There is very little to do in this region but relax and explore the local culture, sit by the waters and spot birds, take long walks or bicycle rides.

Kerala backwaters
Traditional canoe.
Waterways are, naturally, the main routes for getting around.

After a four hour drive from Kumily we parked by a wide river and shortly the family canoe was paddled over to pick us up. The people here were all so nice, very friendly and ever helpful. We were given very refreshing nutmeg juice, made from the flesh surrounding the nutmeg, it was gorgeous and we had a lot while we were here - we just had to ask.

Kerala backwaters

We had been given the Granary Mini Suite which is unusual - the bed is on a wide platform that fills an alcove which is reached by steps. There is a lot of dark wood - wood panelling on the walls, the doors and ceiling. There were no cupboards or anywhere to put things really. The air conditioner unit was right above the bed and very noisy, I had to switch it off at 2am and turn on the fan. It was extremely hot while we were here.

Kerala backwaters
Our first meal was served on a banana leaf which is done on special occasions.
The fish looks dry, and it had little flesh, but it was actually very good. Otherwise nothing too exciting, and the vermicelli milk cardamom dessert I found horrible, though Andrew ate it.

The following day we discovered that the cottage was empty. It has vast amounts of space and its own small garden so we decided to upgrade - we didn't regret it except the AC kept malfunctioning and someone had to keep coming to repair it. All of the rooms have outdoor bathrooms. It's quite pleasant to shower in the open air - they are screened!

Kerala backwaters
Kerala backwaters

We had been told that Emerald Isle served really great food but I'm afraid we didn't find that to be the case - Windermere Estate in the Western Ghats was much better, as was the food we'd had in Kochi.

All meals were served outdoors under a shelter, but it was so hot that we needed electric fans on, even in the evening.

After lunch that first day we were given a short tour of the gardens which have many spices and lots of shady trees. They lead to the watery rice paddies, alongside which are shaded benches which catch the cool breeze from the water. We stayed here in the shade on cushioned benches enjoying the scenery, before going out with a guide and other residents of the hotel (there's only six rooms so not many of us!) on a walk around the area.




Kerala backwaters
Kerala backwaters
There were many kingfishers in the backwaters - these are common kingfishers.
Kerala backwaters
Kerala backwaters
Kerala backwaters

In days gone by the patriarch of the family would lie here in the shade watching his workers in the rice paddies.

 

The hotel is right on the shore of the Manimala River. Walked on the path here down to a small canal where the local temple is located. To our surprise there was an elephant in the grounds of the temple. Our guide said that there were temple celebrations for the second anniversary of its enshrinement and for the first time they had hired an elephant which was a very big deal for them.

Kerala backwaters
The temple elephant was chained and closely shackled, so that it was impossible for it to walk.
Kerala backwaters

 

Kerala backwaters
A local vegetable shop - the long green veg are snake gourd.

 

We continued on along the canal and out into the watery landscape.

 

Kerala backwaters
Indian Laburnum or Golden Shower Tree - the state flower of Kerala.

 

Kerala backwaters
Early in the morning and all through the evening the air resounds to the slapping sound of women washing clothes, energetically whacking the wet garments onto the stone steps.
Kerala backwaters
Kerala backwaters
Kerala backwaters

The waterways are used for much more than just transport. People bathe in them, wash their hair, brush their teeth, wash their pots and clean their clothes. And the kids swim and muck about in them!

Kerala backwaters
Kerala backwaters
Snake god shrine hidden amongst the trees.

 

We came upon a couple of small snake shrines surrounded by trees. Worship of the snake god is very common in Kerala and there are a number of snake god temples, typically situated in a shady grove of trees.

Kerala backwaters
Another snake god shrine.


Kerala backwaters

 



Kerala backwaters
Kerala backwaters
Kerala backwaters

Mostly it was a very peaceful walk, but we did have some drama - a couple of locals attempting to get their two buffalo out of the water and onto a canal path.

Kerala backwaters
Kerala backwaters
Kerala backwaters

 

It was getting quite dark at this point so low light for action shots!

Needless to say I was smothered in insect repellent!

Kerala backwaters
Kerala backwaters

As we came full circle we again passed the temple and saw that a ceremony was in progress. We were allowed to watch. The dancers and music were great, really interesting to see. But the elephant was also here, all dressed up and still in chains and shackled. I don't know how long it stood there but I couldn't see any water for it.

Temple elephants have been used in celebrations for centuries, and it is very prestigious for a small temple to have one, but this doesn't make it right. The "training" these elephants undergo is cruel, to say the very least, beaten to break their spirit and force them to obey. They are hired out, sometimes with punishing schedules, to make money.1


Video: temple celebrations.

I saw no open wounds on this elephant, none on its ankles where it is shackled. But this is no life for such a magnificent creature.

Kerala backwaters
Temple dancers, all young males.

Video: temple celebrations.

 

The temple dancers performed inside before the shrine, and then outside.

Kerala backwaters
The sringa player.
Kerala backwaters
Performance over.

 

Kerala backwaters
This wind instrument is called a shehnai.

 

The musician playing the shehnai was really very good - it sounded very like freeform jazz

After the dancers had finished we talked to the musician who played the sringa, the large curved horn. He told us that the temple dances were related to martial arts.

 

We were woken very early the next morning by creatures scampering around on the roof, probably monkeys. So we went for an early morning walk, really the best time as it is cool.

Kerala backwaters

The elephant was still at the temple, being washed with a hosepipe.

Kerala backwaters
Peaceful early morning on the Manimala River.

Video: washing the temple elephant; the music blaring from loudspeakers started early in the morning and went on all day!
Kerala backwaters

Breakfast was a bit of a disappointment: chick pea curry and sticky noodles - we ate a lot of toast and marmalade!

Kerala backwaters
Kerala backwaters
Water hyacinth is a real problem, smothering the canals.

We hired a tuk tuk to take us around the local area, first to the lake and then to a 500 year-old temple which, as non-Hindus, we are not allowed to enter. The driver was also supposed to take us to a market, but took us straight back to Emerald Isle so we had to turnaround and go back. There wasn't really a market where we were taken, just a row of shops. I explained to the driver I was looking for cool cotton clothing and we hopped back in the tuk tuk and he took us to a very good shop where I bought pants, tunic and scarf and a second pair of pants for around 1000 Rp - about £10. The tunics are sold with the sleeves separate as some women like them sleeveless. The shop girl said there was a tailor next door who could do it, but then our driver said his father was in hospital and could we go back, which of course was not a problem.Sam at Emerald Isle said he should be able to organise someone to sew the sleeves in but we never did get theme done - one woman had moved away, another was sick. There was a little shop near the homestay stuffed with women's clothes and shoes - I got some things there too!

Kerala backwaters
The homestay chef with a snake gourd and carrot dish.
Kerala backwaters
Dinner with "my" chicken curry and what looks suspiciously like dahl - we had a lot of dahl.
Kerala backwaters
Kerala backwaters
Kerala backwaters
These lovely youngsters were being washed and dressed, probably for going to the temple celebrations. The little girl was posing madly for photographs!

Kerala backwaters

 

Kerala backwaters
The spicy chicken that I cooked.

Lunch on our second day was almost identical to the previous day's but with a dark green, wheat jaggary dessert which was very sweet. We'd seen jaggary being made from sugar cane in the Western Ghats so it was good to get a chance to taste it in a dish.

Kerala backwaters
Beetroot and coconut dish.

That afternoon we had a cooking demo outdoors. I cooked a chicken dish, under supervision of course, with onions, garlic, ginger and lots of spices. There was also a snake gourd and carrot dish and a beetroot and coconut dish - they would all form part of our meal that evening - the chicken dish was excellent, and we had ice cream for dessert which was the first time we'd had it in Kerala.

Later that afternoon, when it had cooled off a bit, we went on a boat trip on the river and canals on one of the long local canoes. The boatman, Tom, cut the engine and paddled us down a long canal - mercifully the music from the temple had stopped so it was very peaceful.

Kerala backwaters
Fishermen with nets on the Manimala River.
Kerala backwaters
These men are also catching fish, though with a different technique. They loop the huge net out into the river, the floats can be seen in the image above, then haul it in from the river bank.
Kerala backwaters
Kerala backwaters
Kerala backwaters

We saw a number of people making their way in the direction from which we'd come. They all looked to be dressed in beautiful clothes so we supposed that they were going to the temple for the celebrations.

Kerala backwaters

 

 

Eventually the canal became impassable, completely choked with water hyacinth. We got out and walked a little, seeing a beautiful sunset and about a thousand ducks being herded off the lake and into their nighttime corral.

A couple of dozen escaped into the canal and we were all rooting for them to get away!


Video: ducks on the move.
Kerala backwaters

Video: ducks on the move.
Kerala backwaters
The temple entrance decorated for the celebrations.
Kerala backwaters
Kerala backwaters
Kerala backwaters

Kerala backwaters
Kerala backwaters
Kerala backwaters
Rufous Treepie

Our final day at Emerald Isle was perhaps a day too much. We'd done practically everything on offer and it was so hot we didn't want to go into any other nearby villages, so it was enforced relaxation.

Kerala backwaters

An early morning walk before breakfast (appam and the usual suspects) then reading or photography down by the paddy fields where it is coolest.

Kerala backwaters
Kerala backwaters
Kerala backwaters

 

 

 

 

Lunch was a variation on all the others with the fish making a reappearance.

Kerala backwaters
Kerala backwaters

Another walk later on before dinner. The elephant was still there being fed from a huge stainless steel bowl. The mahout shovelling handfuls of some white substance directly into the elephant's mouth.

Dinner was a good fish curry but only three small chunks of fish, vegetable curry dishes including a mixed veg with cabbage - the pumpkin and lentil was nice.

They seem to make a curry out of anything available but I can't say they have very distinctive tastes. Some are hotter or sweeter than others but mostly just a curryish taste. They put a huge range of spices all into the one dish but nothing much seems to dominate.

Kerala backwaters
The toddy man collecting sap from a palm tree to make the fermented toddy.

 

Kerala backwaters
Gourds and a plastic bottle collecting sap for the toddy.

We'd heard about toddy before we came here. There is a local toddy man who collects the sap from palm trees in the area -the owners rent them out but I'm not sure what they charge, or whether they just get some of the product!

Kerala backwaters
The toddy man.
Kerala backwaters
Magpie Robin

I spent a long time down at the waterside trying to get decent shots of a white-throated kingfisher. We'd been told on our walkabout that there are three kinds of kingfisher here: the largest is the stork-billed, then the white-throated and the common, which is the smallest.

Kerala backwaters
White-throated kingfisher.
Kerala backwaters

I don't really have the lenses for bird photography but I was quite pleased with the results.

Kerala backwaters
Kerala backwaters





 

Kerala backwaters
Purple heron and cormorant.
Kerala backwaters
Final breakfast before leaving: idli - steamed spongy rice cakes, served with chutney and a curry, probably sambar.

 

Houseboat

Kerala backwaters
Our houseboat, moored up later in the day.
On the left with the blind down is the bedroom, central shower, bathroom, etc., right the dining room.

We crossed the Manimala River in the Emerald Isle canoe to a taxi waiting to take us to the house boat. A bit of an uncertain journey as the taxi driver didn't seem to know where he was going, but we made it.

Kerala backwaters
Inside the houseboat.
Kerala backwaters
Kerala backwaters

The houseboat was departing from the Punnamada Resort in Alappuzha, a beautiful hotel on the lakeshore where we were checked in and made our way to the the waterfront bar for an extremely welcome ice-cold beer.

Kerala backwaters
A lot of houseboats were heading in as we headed out.

Our houseboat, a converted rice barge, was private and fabulous: a large bedroom with a small sitting-out area at the back of the boat, a large shower, toilet, and dining area at the back - it even had air con in the bedroom! Plus the whole of the upper deck with lounging chairs for watching the world go by. It was heaven. We had three crew just to look after us, and they were really great. Welcomed with tender coconut as we cast off into the lake where there are lots of similar traditional boats, but they all look beautifully restored or converted. Couldn't help but make a comparison with the junks in Halong Bay which had all been painted white, spoiling their traditional look.

Kerala backwaters
Kerala backwaters

Up on the deck with a cold beer we were soon into smaller canals and peaceful domestic scenes - lots of women washing clothes by bashing them on the stone steps at the side of the canal as we'd seen while at Emerald Isle.

Kerala backwaters
The man in the canoe has, among other things, a box of tender coconuts which he might be selling to other boats.
Kerala backwaters
Kerala backwaters


Kerala backwaters

 

Kerala backwaters
Superb lunch.

We headed roughly south and east following different canals and then east and around the southern edge of Meenappally Lake. North along its eastern edge and about halfway headed off into another canal which led us to the Pamba River. It runs north-south and we explored more canals off its eastern side in a local canoe after lunch which was fantastic, very high quality, one of the best of the whole holiday.

 

Kerala backwaters

A great chicken curry, fish (the same as we'd had at Emerald Isle), and lots of vegetable-based dishes, a gorgeous yoghurt-based sauce (not cucumber raitha) for dipping roti, lime pickles - very good but very hot, and a green dish which included coconut and actually tasted of coconut, unlike the one at Emerald Isle! The milky cardamom vermicelli for dessert - not a favourite but couldn't detract from the meal at all, it was excellent and we ate far more than we should have!

Kerala backwaters
Waterweed a problem here too.

Kerala backwaters
Kerala backwaters
Kerala backwaters

There was a very strange mix of housing along the canals - very lovely large houses right next to very poor dwellings.

Kerala backwaters
We almost lost the houseboat brolly (borrowed to protect from the sun),
but this lovely young girl who had been washing her hair retrieved it for us - she thought it was hilarious!
Kerala backwaters
Vast expanses of paddy fields alongside the canals.
Kerala backwaters
Kerala backwaters
Brahminy Kite

 

 

We returned to the houseboat and a welcome beer and snacks of deep fried battered banana and cookies (perhaps they were expecting us to have tea but it's much too hot).

Kerala backwaters

The rest of the afternoon was spent cruising around the edge of Vembanad Lake and a couple of very wide canals before mooring overnight on one of these off the south east corner of the lake. Surrounded by paddy fields, brilliant green and brown where they have been harvested, one vast area was covered in smoke, no doubt where they were burning the stubble.

Kerala backwaters
This woman is probably cutting dry vegetation for fuel. Everyone seems to have a machete.
Kerala backwaters
Kerala backwaters

 

Kerala backwaters

 

Kerala backwaters
Liquid gold sunset.

We were treated to a glorious sunset, the waterways very peaceful.

Kerala backwaters

 

Kerala backwaters

 

Dinner was not quite as good as lunch, I think part of the problem was we'd eaten so much then! Dahl, paneer (not something we like but this was the first time we'd had it that the cheese itself actually tasted of something), chicken and fish in a very astringent sauce.

We slept extremely well.

 

Kerala backwaters

The following morning I woke early and went out onto our little sitting area at the back of the boat to watch the fishermen on the wide canal. There were two or three boats nearby, all with a single fisherman and seeming to use the same technique which involved manipulating one or two long poles, maybe to stop the boat from drifting, and a net.

Kerala backwaters
Kerala backwaters
Kerala backwaters
Kerala backwaters
Gorgeous fresh fruit and omelettes for breakfast.

After breakfast we motored back to the hotel and disembarked - a day and night were enough for us but we'd thoroughly enjoyed it.

Kerala backwaters