Friday, November 07, 2008

Kettuvallam Houseboat Ride

Serenaded by the auto rickshaw driver, we arrived at the spot where we would start our houseboat ride aboard a kettuvallam. To get to our boat, we passed through a slightly bigger one that was receiving its annual maintenance. With the old thatched roof covering removed in some spots, one could see the framework created out of bamboo and tied together with coir coconut fiber ropes. Our boat had two bedrooms (each with a small bathroom), a back kitchenette area, and a sizeable covered balcony in front. It was here that we spent most of our time.

Once used to ship rice, spices, and other goods in the region, these beautiful boats later became living quarters for royalty. Riding the modernized kettuvallams down the backwaters is now at the top of the list for tourists coming to experience Kerala. Although the basic design is similar with curved roof/sides dark Anjili wood for the main boat portion, variations did exist in look and amenities. Some had a “double-decker” with an upper balcony. Others went beyond the average 67 feet (20.4 meter) length, accommodating an extra bedroom. For those demanding luxury, boats with air conditioners and satellite TV could be rented.

After pushing off with a long bamboo pole, we were now sailing smoothly through the rather still waters, with the motor barely discernable. Other kettuvallams dotted the waters, their relaxed passengers waving or busy recording the experience with a camera. Also sharing the water were boats of various sizes, including some canoes hitching a ride behind kettuvallams. Throughout our boat trip we spotted locals wearing umbrella hats, which provided shelter from the sun and also the rain.

We had entered an environment dominated by water and lush groves of coconut palm trees. Through breaks in the groves we could see large rice paddies. In the fields people could be seen hunched over, sickles in hand. In one field I saw a combine at work. The smell of freshly cut rice grasses reminded me of cut hay on our farm. People expertly walked along the boundaries of the paddy fields and river banks – from where they came or where they were going was hard to tell, as there often weren’t any buildings in sight. Small villages dotted the river edge.

Just as I had on my magical boat trip up to Timbuktu, meals were eaten on board. Fish, was a common element, just as it had been on the Niger River. Coconut was used in many dishes, including a cabbage salad, the main dish sauces, and dish of green beans. In the afternoon a small boat pulled up to our kettuvallam. Our boat’s cook selected a giant prawn for each of us, a wonderful filling treat for supper. Somehow we managed to find room for tasty chicken curry.
In between chatting, reading, and eating, some of us decided to test out the waters. The waters were refreshing, and being able to swim in our bathing suits without being stared at was welcomed. While jumping into the cool water was easy, it took a bit more strength and effort to get back on board.

For the evening, we docked at a village in the region of Kuttenad. While two teachers got an oily Ayurvedic massage, another teacher and I opted to take advantage of the late afternoon light and walk through the village. Children in school uniforms soon gathered around us, some asking for pens, chocolate, or money. (In Mali the villagers also asked for pens “bics”, candy “bon bons”, or medicine).

As the sun began to set, we got into a canoe piloted by an old man. A teacher was asked to paddle at the other end. From the vantage point in our canoe, we were able to glimpse into the homes of people lining the canal edges. Through the open doors we could see the single ceremonial brass candle lit, with the sounds of chanting gently accompanying the sounds of nature. In other homes, the flickering illumination of a TV dominated the room. Rather fancy homes were scattered in between simpler ones. Litter was rare.

Nearly finished with our canoe trip, our boatsman pulled up to a “pub” to get some toddy, the local alcoholic beverage made from coconut palm sap. A teacher even had to provide a plastic water bottle for the milky white-colored drink. Back on our houseboat for the night, we tried a very small amount of the toddy, which had now caused the bottle to expand to alarming dimensions. Just putting the glass up to my nose was enough to turn me off. I did take one sip just to humor the purchasers; it was more than enough, as the taste was disgusting. Dumping the rest of our glass’ contents into the river, we offered the bottle to our boat crew. Docked for the night, we figured they could have a drink – that is, if they could handle the assault on the olfactory and taste senses.

The now quiet village and pleasant temperatures provided a great sleep environment. The next morning was just as tranquil. A light fog enveloped the village and its waters. Kettuvallams lined the river edge. In the small cement niches of the river banks in front of homes people were taking a bath, washing their hair, or brushing their teeth. These rituals were performed fastidiously.

Reluctant to leave our serene village but eager to continue our journey to Munnar, our houseboat set off for Aleppy.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Alcohol contains substances which can cause illnesses. If you notice its reaction to the plastic bottle when the container expanded because of alcohol. The results shows that drinking alcohol must done with extreme caution due to its harmful effects.