We were picked up after a breakfast (of Appam, to Steve’s delight, as it’s gluten free and he’s been looking for it on menus with no success so far), with chickpea curry, plus an enormous bunch of tiny bananas which Steve ate nearly all of.
Steve and Jack in particular will miss the tiny bananas – they must have eaten hundreds between them in the last few weeks… (And it’s noticeable that ‘this is the last time we’ll have/do/see…’ thinking is creeping in as we near the end of our trip…)
We have a half hour journey to Alleppey, where we are due to board a houseboat.
I had done quite a lot of research before we came, as houseboats can be very expensive (anything up to around £5-600 per night and typically £250 for anything air conditioned, and a lot of reviews had negatives which seemed to imply that the boats can be a bit ramshackle to say the least, and not in a good/characterful way. Common issues seemed to be mosquitoes (and lack of nets/decent windows), the occasional cockroach, decrepit toilets. I’d even read a review where one sank.)
I had found ‘Elite Houseboats’ who appeared to offer a combination of alright cost (1300 INR, approx £150 per night), which I managed to justify on the basis it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and also that three meals are included (lunch and dinner on day one, and breakfast on day two). Also alright reviews. And they list the route you can choose as well – one of them said it would take us past paddy fields and show us some ‘real’ village life instead of just a circuit of the biggest lakes and this sounded good.
So we arrive, and are shown onto an enormous houseboat, which we have to access via a really clean and new looking boat (I take my shoes off, ready to move in, then am ushered immediately off and onto another boat tethered to it…) It is a big step (both physical and metaphorical) from one boat to the next. It seems like an enormous expanse of green water to get across, but is probably only a couple of feet. We have to hold on to a dangly rope and take a bit of a leap of faith. I manage this in an ungainly fashion, fully convinced I’m going to lose a shoe or a bag (or self) overboard before we even set off.
We are then led to the front part of this boat, where we sit, wondering if I’ve got it right that this is indeed just for us. It’s enormous. We are half an hour early, and start looking for clues as to how this is going to work out.
There’s a sign saying ‘passenger capacity 35’ which doesn’t bode well. The kids start deciding who their ‘ideal’ 31 passengers would be to share the boat with. Judy Dench gets a mention. I’m mildly hopeful though, as I can see four place settings at the table, that the anticipated 31 passengers won’t be joining us. I was pretty sure when I booked it that it was for four people… but… it does seem a very large thing for just four of us. Much as it would be fascinating to meet Judy she might just be the kind of person that keeps herself to herself anyway, so all in all I’m happier if it’s just us.
After a 10 or 15 minute wait, a young couple are brought aboard and we immediately start readying our false smiles (whilst simultaneously judging). False alarm though, a third boat pulls alongside, and they are ushered on there and disappear again to our (slightly too audible) relief.
Eventually we set off, and now it’s clearly just us and the crew, so we set in to relax and watch the world go by.
Other things I’ve read about houseboat tours are that the backwaters are absolutely heaving with these rice barges (the houseboats are converted from them), and it feels far too much like a load of tourists each taking pictures of each other’s boats. None of that is seeming too much of an issue though – the lake is huge, with acres of empty water, and palm trees around the edges. It starts to feel pretty relaxing pretty soon, but I can see the kids might run out of enthusiasm for this level of nothing to do very soon… In fact, within about 20 minutes Ella’s broken out the schoolwork.
We make an (optional) stop to buy some fish for tea. Jack deems the enormous river prawns ‘terrifying’ (as well as expensive, at about 1600 rupees for 6) and we settle on a snapper, which is overpriced, and I can only persuade the fish-seller-guy to knock it down by 50 rupees to 1000. ‘These are not tourist prices’ he says. I say that all the evidence is to the contrary and walk off, affronted. He’s annoying me, but he’s also very busy and doesn’t particularly need our custom, so I send Steve back to pay.
We are served a big lunch with vegetarian dishes, and some ‘small fish fry’ on the side. Jack eats two of the fish, about 8 more of the tiny bananas ,and little else.
As we cruise through the backwaters, from time to time we see evidence of what appears to be ‘real life’, like fishing for mussels, boats taking kids to school, partying Indian youth, something that looks like water polo, people washing clothes, or children, or themselves…
We play a few games (cards and some little pocket sized games Josie has sent for moments just such as these) and I finish a book. Then some banana fritters unexpectedly arrive, with a cup of masala tea (we’ve managed to get this right first time – we’ve noticed it’s important to do this, as, once someone has decided that ‘black tea’ is what you’ve asked for then you continue to get that for the duration of the stay. He’s understood our request for the masala bit to be left intact, so the next bit of time on board is looking promising in this respect at least). The banana fritters are fresh and hot, with cardamom and cumin seeds we think, and are a real treat…
Steve also keeps his eye out for any birds as yet un-ticked in the ‘Birds of the Indian Subcontinent’ book. The ‘racket-tailed Drongo’ remains elusive, but he’s spotted a load of Bee Eaters, and some form of Drongo which might be cross-tailed or fork tailed or similar.
Another hour’s travelling or so, and we seem to be ready to dock, around 5.30pm.
We are now allowed off the boat for a ‘village walk’. We are offered the chance to get in a ‘small boat’, which seems to be a long craft, paddled for us. We turn this down though as we’ve literally just been on a boat all day, and from what we’ve seen it’s a chance to see the same water but from slightly lower down, and we can’t massively see the point.
We head towards the ‘village’ and pass about four lake-side shops, selling soft drinks and prawns, and then the path ends. We are shown a route via someone’s garden (offered a massage on the way through), and the kids wander along ahead of us. I’m just having a mild anxious moment about whether the kids are OK taking the lead, when Jack takes a tumble – he slips on some newly laid concrete and falls enough into the water so that one half of him is now soaked in a generous portion of some of the famous Kerala backwater. ‘I’m alright’ is shortly followed by needing to go back and sort his bleeding knee. Visions of hospitals follow for the second time in two days…
Back on the boat, (after what can only have been a 15 minute walk out), and the first aid kit is out, Germolene liberally applied and a dressing – the only one we have, so I’ve cut it into a few bits… The cut is just borderline whether we need to worry about stitching or not – if we were home we’d definitely apply a steri strip… Some time later we dig out Scott and Josie’s first aid kit, and find, by a small miracle (or more likely a bit of forward thinking), that it not only contains a second sterile dressing, but also some steri strips. Keeping Jack’s knee together becomes a bit easier, but I still do worry about keeping it clean in this humid, backwatery environment. I’m obsessively re-applying things to the poor boy, whether it’s aloe vera to his face or Germolene/clean dressing to his knee. He’s improving though, but feeling perhaps a bit ‘why me?’.
While we patch Jack back together, Steve goes on a hunt for a close up of a Bee Eater (his new favourite), and ultimately stands knee deep in mosquitos in a field at the back of the would-be masseur’s garden, to watch the sunset.
There are some big mosquito nets pulled down around the seating area. It’s pretty boiling on board, and I’m starting to see the point of having the ‘deluxe’ experience where you can ask for air con whenever you like. We’ve got the ‘aircon 9pm til 6am’ option which was significantly cheaper. The aircon only exists in the bedrooms though, so I’m not sure it would have been helpful to have it for longer.
We notice a gecko/lizard on the ceiling and wonder how on earth he got on board. Then we notice another, and then another… One of them is quite cutely hanging around the light fitting and seeing off the midges which are gathering there.
Later in the evening we are politely told by the chap who’s been delivering our food that he sleeps in the lounge, so the implication is that it would be somewhat helpful if we make ourselves scarce now. This is something else I’d read in the reviews, and is a shame – I had hoped the boat would be big enough for all of us to have a room each…
I have a pretty awful night’s sleep, waking to switch the air con on, waking to find the air con isn’t working, etc etc… In the morning, I’m first up at around 6am and hang about wondering if our friend has finished his sleep in the lounge. He emerges after a short while and I debate whether to wake the others to watch the sunrise as it’s something you are supposed to do on a houseboat. I decide that the kids really won’t care but Steve might, and we are delivered another black masala tea and watch the sun come up. I think I’m a bit fussy about sunrises and sunsets – I do feel the major point of them is to have the sky turn orange, and thus far on our travels it’s not really happening (apart from perhaps the one I missed yesterday evening)… the sun literally rises in the sky, like a big pale orange yoyo. (A slowish one).
Still, it’s nice to get the last bit of relaxation on board. They serve us a good breakfast and it’s time to disembark, and head off to our last destination, Fort Kochi.