Kerala is a small state in south western India. Andrew and I came to Kerala as our first stop in India to explore the channeling waterways along the coast, which are similar to the bayous of Louisiana in the United States. Our destination was the small town of Alleppey, where the "Thing To Do" is to take a 1-3 night all-inclusive houseboat trip on local boats called kettuvalams.
A Downgrade Pays Off
Selecting a houseboat involves a little bit of know-how; usually you have to go down to the docks the day before, inspect boats for the one you want, and bargain hard for a good price. As we contemplated our approach, however, a couple of Swiss guys at our guest house told us how they had managed to book a day trip on a smaller canal boat for a fraction of the houseboat price.
With this new option, we vacillated for a few hours. On one hand, we'd been very excited about a kettuvalam trip and didn't want to short change ourselves. On the other, we have had a lot of recent splurges (elephants, diving, Tao Philippines, etc.) that if we could get something, say, 85% as good, shouldn't we take the deal?
In the end, we decided to take a canal boat day trip, reasoning we still had time for a one night kettuvalam trip if we felt the urge. At 9am the next morning, we were picked up by our expert guide Sandosh ("What kind of doctor do you want to be Andrew?" "Not sure yet, maybe pediatrician." "No, no, gynecologist.") in a small 2-4 seat wooden boat. It had a cozy day bed in front for just us two, a thatched roof cover for sun protection, and (ooh!) dangling tassels for a bit of luxury.
So how did we like the canal boat? The decision paid off BIG TIME. Aside from the obvious financial savings, we quickly realized that being in such a smaller boat allowed us to explore much narrower channels than the bulky kettuvalams can go through. Secondly, by traveling in a paddle boat, we were saved the double pollution (noise and environmental) that we observed from the larger tourist-filled boats choking through the main waterways. Lastly, with only Sandosh and his thin paddle, we moved much more slowly through the water, allowing time for more thoughtful and detailed people watching and photography. We were thrilled with our choice. The lesson: flexibility with something we had our minds set on paid off, especially when it involves opting for a slower, less flashy, and small-group form of travel.
I am utterly enamored with the communities that live on the canals and tiny back channels of the Kerala waterways. There's something beautifully intimate about a slow boat ride in this environment. In communities that live along waterways, activities that are usually reserved for private spaces, such as bathing, doing laundry, rinsing rice, and brushing teeth all take place out in the open. All generations of Keralans are outside repairing their canoes, fishing with home made bamboo poles, buying fish, delivering newspapers by boat, painting their homes, and rinsing their breakfast tiffins. Best of all were the colors: saris, houses, floating flowers, and boats were all painted in the most vibrant shades, complementing the laid back warmth of each family we floated past. I was also struck by a readiness of smiling, waving, and reciprocated hellos that has been almost unparalleled in our world travels so far.
As spectators into so many private moments, we were privileged that the people we passed allowed us so many glimpses into their daily routines. As a photographer wanting to capture these moments, it made for some unique dilemmas: on one hand, I wanted up close pictures of people being themselves in their home spaces, but on the other, I wanted to be a respectful intruder about where, when, and of whom I took photos. Usually I compromised by using my long distance lens to take photos from far enough away that I would not be noticed, but for close ups, I'd ask permission by first waving hello and gesturing cautiously to my camera.
Food (of course)
Our guide, Sandosh, also took us to his home for breakfast and lunch cooked by his wife. Breakfast was usually rice and coconut noodle patties with a lentil or vegetable curry, while at lunch we were treated to the larger and more varied banana leaf Thali (a variety of vegetarian curries, salads, and pickles served with rice), our favorite form of Indian dining. Unlike the northern Indian food more common in the US and Europe, South Indian food features a wide variety of fresh ingredients, especially fresh coconut, in most of the dishes. It's easily our favorite among the many styles of Indian cuisine. And the saying goes, it tastes better when you eat with your fingers!
We loved our canal boat trip so much that we decided to book a second day with Sandosh, which was just as wonderful as the first. Our time in Alleppey was easily among the very top highlights on our trip so far.