When you mention Kerala to anyone who has travelled there, very likely they will ask, ‘Did you do the backwaters?’
For the unfamiliar, they are not asking if you partook of some form of extreme cleansing therapy, but whether you visited the network of lagoons and canals creeping their way inland from the Keralan coast.
The backwaters are well worth a visit, not just to witness the beauty of this unique landscape, but because it is a chance to experience a completely different world. Entire villages exist along narrow stretches of land, surrounded by a maze of waterways. The practicalities of living in such an environment mean that modes of transportation we would take for granted on land appear in very different guises. Instead of cars, motorbikes, or even bicycles, the canoe is the primary form of conveyance used by villagers to get around. Ferries chug their way down the major thoroughfares, with passengers hopping on and off as they would on a bus. Shops also adapt themselves to life upon the water; housewives don’t set out to the market to buy fruit, but merely wait for the fruit seller to float past their door. Junctions between canals are even marked with road signs, informing you of how far it is to various waterside towns.
Another common form of traffic is the houseboat. Usually a traditional rice barge which has been converted to accommodate overnight stays, they also feature many other modern conveniences such as televisions and hi-tech sound systems. The locals obviously feel such things are necessary to the comfort of foreign tourists who wish to fully enjoy the beauty of the surroundings. These exquisite monstrosities are the backwater equivalent to the RV on an American highway, and are about as prolific as the number of campervans you would find rumbling around Yellowstone National Park on an average weekend in July.
While I genuinely would have enjoyed spending a night on a houseboat, we instead opted for the more eco-friendly option of crossing the lake by ferry and exploring the quieter waterways in a guided canoe. It was here that we truly experienced how life proceeds at a very different pace on the water, with everything appearing calmer and surprisingly peaceful when you are away from the backwaters’ ‘traffic’.
Once you pass under an arched little bridge and onto an obscure branch of a small canal, you really do glide into a different world. The water-lilies on the surface diminish sound to a hushed whisper and the light softens as it is filtered through the leaves overhead. Houses are not cramped on top of each other, but spread out along the winding curves of the channels. The whole place exudes an air of tranquillity. Lazing our way through in a shaded canoe, it was so serene that on more than one occasion our guide recommended we get out and walk alongside him for a little, otherwise we would succumb to the somnambulant atmosphere and fall asleep ourselves. As if in a dream, we drifted through this world all afternoon, and it was almost a struggle to return to the reality of roads and tuk tuks after our wonderful canoe excursion.