Kerala’s Backwater

Early morning – fishermen twirl the Chinese fishing nets by using huge stones as weights over Portuguese wooden structures. Life awakens in the colonial town of Fort Kochi. Locals open their stalls, the small cafés are about to perform their magic, offering a blend of indian an european cuisine.

As so many foreingers, I choose Kochin over other areas to set off for a decent Kerala exploration. My new friend Arafat hands me of his Royal Enfield – no paperwork needed. I flash a smile by picturing the upcoming weeks riding a vintage motorbike through the picturesque landscape of Southern India. My expectations are high, since the Oman Festival is currently celebrated as all over Kerala. Traditionally, the inhabitants of Kerala celebrate the Indian harvest festival in memory of King Mahabali, under whose rule the folks lived happily ever after. According to Hindu mythology, Mahabali was so benevolent that even mighty Vishnu envied him. (Vishnu, who is supposed to protect all the good in the world.) With a trick, Vishnu then trapped the king in the underworld. Once a year, Mahabali is allowed to catch a glimpse of how Kerala is honoring him.

Firstly, I drive towards nearby Alleppey, where roughly 1.500 kilometers of water canals flow through lush jungles and rice fields – The picturesque “backwaters”. Rice fields below sea level? Clever! So clever that even the world champions in stealing land-of-the-sea came over from the Netherlands for further investigations. Rice grows only in fresh water. Therefore, the locals built natural dams with dirt from the backwaters to keep the salty seawater away from the paddies.

Most visitors would decide to embark on a 2-3 days journey on one of the exclusive houseboats which float slowly through the canals. Doubtless, the shape is an eyecatcher – roofs are usually made of bamboo, cane, arecanut tree stems, and other eco-friendly natural materials. Thus, houseboating Kerala’s backwaters is a quite an obvious thing to do. But there is also an alternative way to explore the area off the beaten tourist track. Rent a kayak and get lost! After discussing over Indian simplicity and time clocks in Europan offices until late at night, coffeeshop and houseboat owner Antony fully trusts my promise that I will be returning his kayak in a few days. Apparently, nothing speaks against luxurious houseboating the Indian version of Venice with bumping party music and a 5 star chef onboard. But to feel the place and its inhabitants, I decide to venture out in slow motion. After some hours of paddling I already suspect the reason, why all the crocodiles and most fish left the area a while back. Thus, I feel convinced using a kayak here, since it is certainly the most sustainable mean of transport. It’s no secret, that the slow-flowing channels are heavily exposed to increasing pollution from agrochemicals and industrial wastewater. The fleet of houseboats certainly plays a role.

Days are passing by fast! As I meander through the canals, I’m being invited by rice farmers to join them for home-made coconut brandy and freshly marinated clams on small islets. The nights I would usually stay in homestays or just wherever I could pitch a tent. It feels quite nostalgic to observe other captains in their small wooden boats cruising the waters to sell tupperware to the people living ashore. Or the housewives who clap their clothes dry on rocks, or the children using water taxis to get to school and back home, or the postman in his little timber boat – I couldn’t identify how he finds the addressee (because their is no address). After all, some pristine moments for my long-term memory.

I set course for Kumarakom, to watch the To Sree Narayana Jayanthi, a rustic boat race celebrated in several areas. As I’m trying to find the action, Nithin intercepts me. „Travellers coming to this small town need to be investigated“ – he says, flashing a smile. Of course I’m keen to follow him. Surrounded by coconut palms and banana trees hides his small family house. Five people share the 50 square meters. Instantly I’m being walked into the small kitchen (alias bedroom, alias living room) and being fed with precious Keralan dishes. Atithi Devo Bhava (guest is god)! The say in India – and they mean it. Hospitality, is something India has a copyright for. I’m being introduced to the whole village, and their coconut booze of course. Nithin suggests, that we’ll be hopping into a “snake boat” to get better views on the race. Ship ahoy! Depending on the length of the South Indian boats if can fit up to a hundred enthusiastic rowers. I’m counting – our snake boat sums up twenty paddling drunks.

Note: Since 2016, Tourism is expanding rapidly with the arrival of a new international airport at nearby Kannur.