With jet black hair that defies her age slicked back in a tight bun, the woman wrapped in a midnight blue sari, caked in dirt smacks her lips over her gums. Pointing curiously to the beedi I’m holding, she takes it in her skeletal hands and carefully inspects it, pulling it close to her piercing black eyes.
As the familiarity of the Indian cigarette slowly sinks in, the gentle wrinkles that life has etched on her face take a new form as she cracks a smile, throws back her head and lets out a cackle. “You smoking?” she asks in broken English, laughing at the thought of a white woman indulging in a “man’s habit”.
Still clutching the beedi, she turns to her friend to retell the tale, chattering manically in Hindi, only pausing to fire a burst of her sharp laugh before passing it back and retreating into the shadows of the jungle to return to her chores. Adi is just one of hundreds of friendly faces we met on the banks of the twisting backwaters that are the veins of the Indian state of Kerala, and one of an abundance of hospitable characters that make India well worth a visit.
The previous day, we’d decided to hop onto a houseboat at Kollam for a tranquil trip along the southern state’s backwaters. The calm was a far cry from the chaos of cosmopolitan Mumbai, or the heaving palm-fringed shores of party-region Goa that we’d already sampled during our Indian adventure.
After an 18 hour train journey that involved a sleepless night spent inches away from an air vent that belched out bugs with every grumbling breath followed by a frantic hour in a tuk tuk trying to stock up on bottles of Kingfisher in the fairly dry state, stepping on board the kettuvallom – traditional Keralan houseboat – that was to be our home for the next three days was like passing through the Pearly Gates.
Under the command of our jolly crew, made up of a cook, captain and helmsman, we started our journey along the winding waterways, and as our wooden house headed towards the horizon we settled into the plump cushioned seating and slumped into silence as we greedily lapped up the serene landscape that lazily passed us by.
As the boat cut through the backwaters that are the lifeblood of its people, luscious coconut groves flanking either side, broken only by flashes of blues, reds, yellows and greens from washing hung out to dry, we were treated to a glimpse into laid-back Keralan life.
Men’s heads dip below the water as they scrub away the day’s dirt, women gossip loudly behind the cloud of soap suds erupting from the heap of clothes being washed, the slap of them being beaten dry on the banks rudely interrupting their chatter, and children chase the boat, waving frantically, faces lit up with smiles as they cry out hello.
Slim canoes carved out of surrounding trees meander past, weighed down by a mountain of precariously balanced coconuts, stones, sand – anything and everything. The only sound is the boat weaving through the calm waters, the twitter of the colourful kingfishers and egrets dive-bombing in the sky, and the soft chanting mantra from passing temples dancing in your ears.
A couple of hours later, we came to a standstill and our helmsman, Adesh, clambered onto the front of the boat and slung a rope around one of many battered poles that stood, lonely, in the middle of one of the five large lakes that the endless network of backwaters link.
After eating a hearty meal of freshly caught fish, curry sauce and rice, rustled up in the tiny galley and served on a palm leaf to be eaten in traditional Keralan style, with our hands, we watched the shadows of the coconut trees swallow the sun.
As the blanket of dark descended, the full moon lit up the sky, its reflection piercing the black mirror of water that surrounded us, we spotted a wooden canoe silently slicing through the lake towards one of the stalk-like structures that dot the horizon.
“Fisherman,” our captain explained as the narrow boat moored next to one of many Chinese fishing nets that line the waters. As he reached his resting place for the night, we watched him disappear, minutes later reappearing with a globe of light that he attached to a net and gently lowered into the water.
Retreating into the dark, the lone worker patiently waited for his net to fill with prawns, drawn to the magnetic light, before returning to the ledge several hours later to check on his haul, which we were told we would probably end up buying in an English supermarket. As he repeated the process, we called it a night and went to bed wondering what gifts tomorrow would bring.
The next day, we continued on our travels, making several stops along the way. Our first port of call was a small village nestled in the groves. After passing through a camouflaged hamlet made of tiny wooden homes with roofs delicately woven from palm leaves, complete with flapping hens and a circle of women balanced on their feet with their knees hunched up to their ears as they prepare food, we came to an opening where a team of men slaved away through the sweltering midday heat to make rice barges like our temporary home.
With hard work carved on their hands and faces, it takes them three months of labour to make one carefully-crafted boat from lashed and sewn anjili wood, bamboo poles and coconut fibres woven into Samson-strong rope by women’s hands and a home-made loom. Eager to show off their craft, we watched as the men lovingly hammered, bashed and sanded the base of what would soon be sailing on the water.
A little further up the river, we moored again to see one of the famous snake boats sleeping. As the thirsty grass snapped under the weight of our feet, Adesh turned to us, his thick black eyebrows knotted together as he took a serious tone. “Be careful where you step. Many snakes live here,” he said, before flashing us a broad grin, turning on his feet and carrying on his way.
We never did find out if he was joking or not but we were reassured that the snake boats get their name from their appearance rather than the number of snakes slithering about, and it’s easy to see why. Stretching to 120ft in length and just a few feet wide, these boats are the highlight of the Keralan calendar.
In August, the backwaters leap into life as each village dusts down its lengthy canoe and decorate it with colourful paints, ribbons and ropes before the 100 rowers leap on board to race down the river in front of the sea of people who flock to the shores to watch.
Our next stop was at one of the many small fish markets that sit on the banks, given away by the greedy flock of gulls circling above. Taking fresh food to a whole new level, karimeen and pearlspot flap lifelessly on a mountain of melting ice and the juiciest king prawns swim in a bucket of water. Haggling is a skill that’s expected in India and after a bit of friendly bartering, we walked away with a bag full of prawns that our chef later transformed into a mouth-watering meal that was fit for a king.
By the afternoon, the dense jungle was replaced with green paddy fields stretching for as far as the eye can see, and as the backwaters opened up they suddenly resembled a bustling shipping channel, with houseboats clogging up the horizon.
With houseboat tourism rapidly rising, we’d been warned that tranquillity on the water was difficult to find. We’d laughed that off when we boarded one of only six boats that awaited passengers at Kollam but now the reality sunk in – most people clamber on board at our final destination, Alleppey. And when we arrived at the bustling port, we found swarms of people waiting for one of the hundreds of houseboats that crowd the docks.
So if you want to experience the serene peace that the backwaters have to offer, make sure you jump on board at Kollam, and while a backwater trip might be one of the most expensive things you splash your cash on in India (we managed to haggle the price down to £250 for four of us), the trip is priceless and worth every single rupee.
Guest Author Marissa Baranoff-Rossine is at her happiest when she’s wearing her moustache of freckles as it means she’s escaped her homeland of England to explore hotter parts of the world. When she’s not travelling, you’ll find the self-confessed lover of words with her head buried deep in a book or crouched over her computer trying to capture all the crazy thoughts spinning around in her head before they escape. After spending the last decade as a print-based journalist, Marissa is gearing up to go freelance and hit the road. Who knows where she will stop. Check out her blog and follow her on Twitter.