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Another Side to India: The Kerala Backwaters

Life played out along sleepy waterways, colourful homes camouflaged by swooping foliage, wooden boats punting silently past – the Kerala Backwaters are India, but not as you know it.

By most accounts a daytrip to the Kerala Backwaters from Cochin is not enough. If you are short on time, however, it’s long enough to give you a taste of what goes on beyond the crazy roads of the city.

Being short of time myself, I had arranged via email with the highly efficient Mr Walton of Walton’s homestay to be booked on the daytrip for the morning after my late night arrival. After a quick breakfast of fresh fruit, toast and eggs we were loaded up with more plantain and water by the motherly Mrs Walton and picked up a by mini bus outside the house.

I had expected road chaos in Mumbai but it was even worse than I could have imagined in Cochin. Winding roads, potholes the size of moon craters and drivers constantly dicing with death. Our minivan swerved from one side of the road to the other, avoiding holes but not oncoming traffic. At one point we were caught out by an unexpected barrier, stuck on the wrong side of the road, heading straight into oncoming lorries. On the hard shoulder were a group of school girls, clean and starched uniforms, identical pig tails, the driver made a quick decision between the lorry and the children and swerved violently towards the girls. Thankfully they heard us coming and dived into the bushes. I put my hand in my mouth to prevent a scream. They dusted themselves off and carried on their journey non-plussed.  I decided to close my eyes for the remainder of the drive but it was estimated by the rest of the group that we almost killed 12 people that day. Standard commute in India apparently.

Arriving in the Backwaters it’s a different story. After the roar of the road, settling into a wicker seat on a traditional wooden boat is bliss. No motors are allowed on the vehicles that traverse the backwaters, surprisingly agile old men use giant sticks to push the boats along instead.

Our first stop of the day was to meet some women rope makers. With water soaked coconut shells and simple tools these women produce surprisingly strong rope. After that we punted along to a shell factory where it looked like the men were working in a snow storm. We passed men with rudimentary equipment diving for sand and depositing it into a boat, I’m not sure for what purpose but it sure looked like hard work.

Stopping at a lonely shack on a tiny island, a traditional Keralan lunch was served to us on a leaf. Curries, pickles, popadoms and dosas just kept coming from the kitchen hidden somewhere within the hut.

Bellies full we were then transferred from the larger houseboat to a narrow row boat to easier navigate the smaller canals. After the early start it was tempting to have a snooze! To close your eyes, however, would be to miss out.

Miss out on schoolchildren swinging their lunch boxes as they skipped along the riverbank on their way home. Miss seeing women washing themselves in the stream, fully clothed, a bar of soap the only product. Slapping their thick, black, wet hair over their shoulders to continue with laundry using the same soap and murky water.

I think of the products in my bathroom, how I wince and moan if the water changes temperature even slightly, what a chore it is to simply load the washing machine. The boatman points out a skinny snake sneaking along the riverbank, I recoil from the edge of the boat, the ladies carry on washing regardless. Talk about getting some perspective.

Our last stop is to a spice plantation. I reflect on a similar trip I took in the Amazon jungle, there we tasted exotic fruits, here we nibble on pepper and cinnamon. The fun is momentarily interrupted by a curious Indian member of our tour who goes to take a closer look at the plantation owner’s dog. It seems the dog was tied up and hidden for a reason – after a prod from our inquisitive friend, the animal lashes out and sinks his teeth into the fleshy part of the man’s arm.  The owner rushes over and convinces the dog to let go. I expect to see flesh left hanging from the dog’s mouth but luckily the victim is just left with a few bloody holes. He and his family separate from the group to seek first aid, I overhear the mother muttering about rabies vaccinations.

The dog incident aside the day in the Backwaters is one of my most peaceful experiences in India.  Like Brahma himself India has many faces and the tranquil backwaters are one you will definitely enjoy seeing.

Photo by kyran low on Unsplash

About Author

Travel blogger and freelancer writer who loves boutique hotels and brunching. I've been blogging for 10 years, visited 60+ countries and called London, Sydney, Melbourne and (oh so briefly) New York home at various points during the last decade. Now travelling with a baby and trying to make it as stylish and stress-free as can be!

21 Comments

  • Vippie
    December 22, 2010 at 12:59 pm

    Once Again An Interesting Blog From You About India.. AND I Need Not To Add Anything In My Comment As Its Covers Everything Nicely.P.S. Going To Recommend It To School Children, I'm Specially Teaching Tomorrow About Coastal Region And Tourism Of India.

    Reply
  • Jayne
    December 22, 2010 at 1:12 pm

    I always love to hear your reactions to my posts about India Vippie as despite coming from such different countries we seem to share a lot of similar views, which is wonderful! As for the school children I hope it is interesting for them to get a westerner's insight into the coastal region but ultimately it would be better if one day they can go and see for themselves. I hope that day comes soon….Best WishesJayne

    Reply
  • Vippie
    December 22, 2010 at 1:28 pm

    Thanks.. And Its Always Pleasure To Read Your Blog Posts.

    Reply
  • Global Butterfly
    December 22, 2010 at 3:44 pm

    This is one of my most favorite places in the world. I did a bunch of posts on the backwaters, because I become completely enchanted by them! Gorgeous post and pics!!!

    Reply
  • elleswim
    December 22, 2010 at 8:46 pm

    India has always intimidated the crap out of me. It is so different than anywhere I have ever traveled to, I'm afraid I would be completely overwhelmed.

    Reply
  • Jayne
    December 23, 2010 at 10:02 am

    Ha thanks Elle, your comment made me chuckle as I can totally understand where you are coming from. I read and researched an awful lot about India before going so I think I loved it before I even got there. My friend who I took along for the ride was not so enamoured. She talks of 'surviving' India and her most frequently used phrase out there was 'it's different'. I loved it but it was MAD. Andi's posts on Kerala paint a very beautiful picture of the place.

    Reply
  • Lindsay
    December 23, 2010 at 10:37 pm

    Your last few posts about India is making me get the travel bug and I've only been home for a week!

    Reply
  • Connie
    December 25, 2010 at 2:15 am

    Even though I spent several months in India, I never did manage to travel further south than Mumbai. I keep hearing great things about the south though and particularly the Kerala Backwaters. I'm already itching to go back and your pictures are making me realize just how much I should go back!

    Reply
  • Jayne
    December 26, 2010 at 3:22 pm

    Thanks Lindsay – that travel bug is hard to get rid of isn't it?! I hear the only cure it to book another flight and India would be a great choice!!Sometimes a country is just too big to do it all isn't it Connie, I need to go back and do Delhi and Agra as I completely missed out the Taj Mahal. There is always next time :)Happy travelling in 2011 ladies..

    Reply
  • ~Holly~
    December 27, 2010 at 4:18 am

    I love your 40 before 30 idea!! What an amazing thing to experience! Travel on!!

    Reply
  • Rebecca
    December 27, 2010 at 4:33 am

    The Kerala backwaters seem so romantic – what a great place!

    Reply
  • Jayne
    December 28, 2010 at 11:10 am

    Thank you Holly, I will try my best to travel on :)The Backwaters are very romantic Rebecca which can't necessarily be said for much of India, it's a great experience if you can get there.

    Reply
  • Camels & Chocolate
    December 28, 2010 at 5:08 pm

    Found you via Caroline–I'm excited to read about your adventures!

    Reply
  • Jayne
    December 28, 2010 at 5:55 pm

    Hi Kristin – welcome. I love the look of your site too! I shall have to thank Caroline for introducing us 🙂

    Reply
  • Appu
    January 3, 2011 at 10:51 am

    I say: more I travel more I want to travel.

    Reply
  • Jayne
    January 3, 2011 at 11:43 am

    Here Here Appu!Thank you for reading 🙂

    Reply
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  • Sarah Chamberlain
    October 19, 2011 at 1:20 pm

    I am itching to get back to Kerala now! Thank you for letting me know about this post, I really enjoyed reading your account, since I don’t really know anyone else that has been to the back waters. You conveyed the tranquility and the simplicity of life here really well, thank you, Sarah 🙂

    Reply
    • Jayne
      October 19, 2011 at 2:08 pm

      I thought the same thing when I read your post. Glad you enjoyed it!

      Reply
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