Friday, February 19, 2010

Kollam Backwaters, India

I think I’m in for some trouble.  Mohit’s really getting used to being spoiled.  We’re on a private houseboat (called a Kettuvellam) for two nights, drifting along the lakes, rivers, and canals around Kollam.  We have a cabin with a king size bed, AC, the biggest bathroom we’ve had yet in India (with a real shower!), and an open-air living & dining room with an ever-changing view.  We are outnumbered by the crew- there’s a pilot, a cook, and the third guy, well we’re not really sure what his job is.

Mohit’s sitting in a rattan armchair, a chilled glass of water in one hand, his feet propped up on a marble-topped table.  He’s wearing a local-style thin woven shirt that he bought in Varkala, and is sporting his aviator sunglasses.  He says “look at me, I’m just like a Bollywood Star”.  Uh Oh.  When we were in Bali, and treating ourselves to $5 hour-long foot massages every night before bed, Mohit said to me “boy, it would be really nice if I had a wife who would do this for me every night before bed.”  Yup, I’m definitely in trouble.

The food has been great on the boat.  For lunch we had five different kinds of vegetables (carrot, green beans, cabbage, potato, beets), each prepared Kerala-style, which seems to mean they are cooked with lots of shredded coconut, whole curry leaves, and cumin seeds.  We were also served fried whole fish and a basket of hot, puffy papadums (light and airy and spiced with the flavor of white pepper, these are different than the papadums we’re used to, that are flat and speckled with black peppercorns).

For breakfast we were served idli (steamed rice cakes) with coconut and tomato chutneys.  My favorite was the tea snack, warm banana fritters with cumin seeds embedded in the crispy coating.  I liked them best sprinkled with the sugar that had been set out for tea.

Most of our two days on the boat has been spent just watching the world float by.  We’ve seen lots of slender-necked white egrets and black cormorants perched on the water‘s edge.  There are schools of tiny silver fish that swim alongside the boat and jump into the air in unison, and a different type of long skinny fish that jumps out of the water and then skips along the surface for a hundred yards or so before diving back under.

Overhead, there are majestic rust-colored birds with white heads and a broad wingspan.  They look like American bald eagles, but we learned that they are called Brahminy Kites, and that the local Hindus consider them holy.  We glide by rubber trees, mango trees, and the climbing vines of pepper berries growing on the banks of the river.

We pass men mining sand from the bottom of the river, filling their wooden boats until they nearly sink, and then paddling to shore where dump trucks wait to be filled.  We also pass by small village houses, women are hanging laundry or squatting by the water‘s edge to scrub out metal cooking pots.  We float past a school just letting out for the day, and over a low wall I can just glimpse the tops of a hundred boys’ heads.  Suddenly one of them detects us, he yells out an alert, and now fifty boys all in matching blue uniforms have rushed to the opening in the wall and they’re all jumping up and down and waving their arms and yelling “Hello!  Hello!”.  This only feeds Mohit’s delusions of celebrity status.

Our first evening on the boat, we tied off to a few palm trees at a sleepy Auyervedic Resort.  We hopped off and went walking through the small village beyond the resort, in search of a spot to watch the sunset.  We ended up at a clearing, with a small Hindu temple at one end and a public ferry boat dock at the other.

As we sat on the edge of the dock dangling our feet in the water, a gaggle of kids came up to us, shy at first but then excited to try out their English.  “How are you?  What is your name?  Where are you from?  What is your weight?”  This last question made me laugh.  The kids asked us to take their picture, and we happily obliged.

The next afternoon, we explored the small canals running through a tiny backwater village on a wooden canoe punted along slowly with a bamboo pole by our guide, Vijeesh.  Vijeesh is in his early twenties (though he’s slight and looks hardly over sixteen) and he’s a joker.  He was very disappointed that Mohit didn’t want to try the local toddy (bootleg liquor, which Mohit declined since he’s now fighting the cold I just recovered from), and while I was in the front of the boat, he was whispering to Mohit, desperately wanting to know if he’s got any other girlfriends on the side (or just this one wife….)?

Vijeesh pointed out one house in the village that’s much bigger than the rest, multi-story with ornamental balconies, it’s painted bubble-gum pink and looks like a birthday cake.  It stands out dramatically since most other homes we’ve passed are only one or two rooms.  Vijeesh tells us that this family had eight kids, and they’ve all gone off to America for work, they’ve been sending money back to their mother, who still lives here in this big house all alone (with servants, I suspect).  He’s heard that one of the sons even married an American woman.  Imagine that!

At night we smother ourselves in bug repellant and sit out on the deck to read.  There’s a chorus of music off in the distance, it seems like there’s a party in every direction.  We hear the bang of far-off fireworks and see flashes reflecting off the fog.  It’s a festival night at all of the Hindu temples  in the area.  It sounds like we’re missing out on some big fun in this tiny backwater village!


  1. Kate, I don't understand how you can look so good out of a backpack! Is there an Anthropologie store in one of those wooden canoes? Love reading your stories...Heather

  2. Oh Heather, you clearly aren't seeing me up close! I am so used to being sweaty and covered in dust and diesel exhaust all day long since arriving in India. At least I *look* clean for the photos! Got you all fooled since you can't smell me! ;)

  3. Can you plz post something related to golden triangle tour in India.

  4. Very informative article. Thanks for sharing this details. Also I want you to share more information related with this article. Can you update in your website?
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