Backwaters, Kerala – India (23.01.14)
In the next couple of days a two-wave winter storm is set to batter the Canadian Atlantic provinces, bringing with it 90kmph gusts and up to 40cm of snow. Further to this, 4,400 flights were cancelled across the Eastern Seaboard last Tuesday and Wednesday, as the eastern US suffered plummeting temperatures and 14 inches of snow. Meanwhile, parts of Europe are experiencing record flooding, and on the other side of the world the Australian Open tennis tournament is recording temperatures above 40C.
I know where I would rather be – in the Backwaters of Kerala, Southern India, floating on a traditional kettuvallam (Kerala houseboat) whose maximum power is walking pace, as it ever-so-gently plys its way through the glass-calm, palm-fringed backwater lakes, lagoons and canals. If I close my eyes I can imagine the pace of my day. After a gentle start – when the early morning bird-song bounces off the water like musical instruments – I would keep the day’s pace pegged to the gentle rise in temperature and still calm of the waters.
Things would remain slow all day: even the backwater’s rush hour only creeps above a babble, as a few extra craft head off towards market. Indeed the slowness of these waters is as calming as the size of the inland labyrinth of waterways themselves. Extending almost half the length of the state of Kerala, they cover over 900kms of lake, inlet and canal, along with 38 rivers all flowing down from the formidable Western Ghats mountain ranges that run inland, parallel to the coast and flooded areas.
No point rushing, as whatever the speed of my rice barge houseboat, I am never going to cover the whole of this unique ecosystem. The lush and tropical waterways offer local residents a rich and fertile soil to grow ample crops, removing the need to travel from everyday life. Referred to as “God’s own country”, it’s a place where visitors find it is easy to surrender to the backwater’s charms, so dominated by coconut trees, tasty spices and friendly local customs.
I have returned many times over the years, after first falling in love with the backwaters in the early 1980s, when by chance I caught a boat ride from Kottayam to Alleppey, en route to the Quilon. Although that was over thirty years ago, I still remember immediately feeling the hustle and bustle of everyday India fall away, from the moment I stepped onto the rickety barge that was to be my home for the next three days.
Since then, we at Nomadic Thoughts have sent a steady stream of guests through this most amazing of natural phenomena – a trip which they often regard as the highlight of their time in the region, country or continent. We never tire of hearing how our clients have surrendered to its natural beauty, 99% of the time on board one of the local rice barge houseboats.
Drifting along, birdwatchers have over 300 species of bird to look out for. Local community water traffic includes packed school-bus boats, snake boat races and floating markets. We also arrange homestay visits, temple festival excursions, wildlife trips and some of the best food on the planet. Aryvedic massages, which can be sourced across the backwaters, are regarded as traditional medicine and will calm the most fraught of travellers. Similarly the local Kathakali dancers, so prevalent in local celebrations, also play their part in preserving the local history and custom.
In addition the climate at this time of the year is perfect, with on average nine hours of bright sunshine, minimal rainfall, glorious sunsets and a daily maximum of 32C.
My advice is to take loads of books, a ready-to-relax-mind and an uncluttered diary. Forget the mobile phone, iPad or laptop – you’ve got your work cut out chilling on the kettuvallam foredeck.
Rest assured that the northern latitude winter blizzards and fierce desert-hot fires of Down Under are a long way away.