We were having way too much fun and the houseboat stay loomed ahead of us. I would have gladly cancelled it at that moment. After all there were bound to be a few discomforts while living in a houseboat and even though it was only for a single night, I was in no frame of mind for any discomforts. So we plodded on. Our check-in time was at 12:00 in the afternoon but the journey from Munnar to Alleypey (where we were boarding) took so long that it was almost 13:30 when we reached.
Our luggage was quickly taken care of. An old motor boat then came up to transfer us to our houseboat, where we would be spending the night. The ride on the motor boat was quick and painless. We passed several moored houseboats and each time a luxurious one came up we would wonder whether that was the one. We finally reached our boat – a decent sized two bedroom houseboat with no visible trappings of luxury. The boatmen helped to transfer us from the motor boat to the houseboat.
The houseboat had an open air deck area at the end of which sat the boatman, with his back towards you (thereby giving you full privacy to do what you want), steering the boat on the lake. There was a chef, a helper and an assistant – a total crew of four. The deck area had a table with chairs and a cupboard with a TV and a DVD player on it. We were definitely not going to be needed those, I thought and for once, my pre-teen daughter agreed with me. There were two bedrooms- a master bedroom, which controlled the air conditioning of both the bedrooms and a smaller one. Only the bedroom area was air conditioned (switched on at 9 at night) as the deck area was open to air. Each bedroom had an attached toilet and a shower. There was a folded mosquito net attached to the ceiling of each bedroom.
Lunch is usually served when the boat is moored but since we had arrived late, they decided to serve lunch with the boat in motion. The chef had whipped up two delicious dry vegetables, fried fish which was amazing with chapattis and Keralan rice. The assistant meanwhile was keeping up the conversation answering our questions (and as always, we had plenty). Surreptitiously (as always) I steered the conversation to the Indian elections and tried to find out which party he was planning to vote for. He shook his head laughing and said that he would not be telling us. Later when I tried to ask him again, he still refused to tell us. Curiosity will kill the cat, some day, I thought and did not ask him again. Though I’m very much aware that we Indians vote in secret, I have never actually met an Indian who refused to discuss – animatedly- their political affiliations. I still remain intensely curious about his vote and I am not proud of saying that.
Meanwhile life was going on – on the banks of the lake. There were mothers shoulder deep in the water, bathing their children. Some of the women were washing their long hair. A group of men were chatting and bathing together (that is India for you). Women were washing their pots and pans. There were tiny shops and pretty bungalows that we passed. We saw the tourism police on another boat taking their rounds and were told that they would prosecute anyone who was caught littering the lake. Amazingly for an Indian lake and for everything that went on its banks, the water was extremely clean. It led me to believe that Keralans definitely take rules and regulations a lot seriously than other parts of India. In Munnar for instance, our taxi was stopped by a policeman, who made the driver undergo a breath test for alcohol. In all the years that I have lived in Pune or even Mumbai, I have never ever seen that happening.
It was a lazy ride taking in the slow village life as we passed. Children waved to us, ladies smiled at us, delighted tourists waved to each other from the other houseboats as we crossed each other. Motor-less fishing boats slowly did their rounds, their amazing catch visible, even at a distance. The crew meanwhile was ever attentive without being intrusive. They asked us if we wished to purchase prawns which they would fry for us. We purchased some coconut water instead and sipped on it as we watched life go by in the villages that we passed.
A tour of a village was included in our itinerary and as soon as the Champakulam village approached we got off the boat. I was eager to watch toddy being tapped but unfortunately a toddy tapper was unavailable during our visit. (I was eager to sample the Toddy as well but I will have to leave that for another day). The village tour consisted mostly of art stores selling artefacts until we came across this gem (shown in the picture above) – a reading room established several thousands of years ago (I’m pretty sure that the date was listed somewhere on the building but simply cannot remember. My camera too seems to have missed it). There were some newspapers inside and a few scattered books but I marvelled at the fact that the villagers had considered this reading room important enough to preserve for so long. Our guide did not know much about it and seemed to think that it was inconsequential. I tried to find out more about the origins of this place but could not find any details recorded anywhere.
We then had a narrow canal boat ride to look forward to. This smaller boat allows you to traverse the narrow canals where the larger houseboats are unable to go. We got into a narrow boat, which wobbled dangerously (to the loud laughs of my delighted daughter) whenever anybody moved. The boatman handed over oars to us and we took turns in rowing the boat. The boatman, who did not speak English or Hindi very well, nevertheless kept the conversation going, pointing out various interesting things to see and showing us fascinating things to do. He plucked out a water-lily from the water (wobbling the boat dangerously as he leant into the water to pluck it), deftly made a necklace and handed it over to us. It was the mango season and we could see the branches of the mango, laden with the raw fruit, almost touching the water, as we passed. He plucked out a couple of raw mangoes for us to eat. Later he conjured up another flower with the most intoxicating smell ever, from the lake – I wish that I had asked him what it was called. Meanwhile life was going on in the villages around us. Children were playing cricket and waved to us as we passed. Women smiled shyly. They must have been used to seeing tourists in these boats all the time but they still had the willingness to indulge us. The boatman pointed to a small bungalow on the banks and told us that that was where he lived. It was a neat little place, which led us to another piece of information that is unique to Kerala and which managed to reduce the differences between the rich and the poor. The Land reforms act may have been controversial but if that means that a simple boatman can own a tiny bungalow on the sides of the lake then I am all for it. Kerala was governed by the Communists for a considerable time and with schemes like abolition of tenancy and exploitation by landlords, pension for farmers, good rate of provision of jobs for lower castes and subsidised rice for poorer households Kerala managed a social equality that cannot be seen in the other parts of India.
After the truly enjoyable boat ride, it was back to the houseboat. We waved goodbye to our boatman who had entertained us so thoroughly in spite of not being able to speak the language – I will always remember him. It was the twilight hour and activity around the bank was slowly diminishing. Our houseboat was parked for the night. We could see the lights twinkling on the banks as we sat on the deck chatting. And that was when the insects attacked. As darkness approached and lights were switched on, the insects multiplied and were all over the deck. My daughter, not having grown up in India, was not used to the insect brigade and was even more horrified as she spotted a total of four lizards somewhere in the dark corners greedily trying to attack and eat the insects. We tried to switch off the lights to deter them – we tried to switch on a mosquito repellent (they were not actually mosquitos just lake insects that were attracted to the electric lights) to repel them but all to no avail – my daughter simply could not relax after that. The rest of us were fine. Insects and the like do not bother me too much and all this was very much a part of the deal.
When another delicious dinner was served, some of the insects started to fall on our dinner plates. We had switched off the lights and ate in darkness. A tip to potential houseboat enthusiasts would be to have dinner when it is still light outside. That way you can finish your dinner before the insects come on. We somehow managed to finish our dinner but my daughter, who could not take it anymore, insisted on having dinner in the bedroom. Since the bedroom was air conditioned there were no insects there and she could eat her dinner in peace.
We decided to retire soon after that and could feel the sound of insects all around us, as we slept. We were protected by the mosquito net, which I tucked firmly in the mattress to prevent any insects that were planning to spend the night with us, from getting in.
We rose early the next day. Having read reviews of a lack of hot water in houseboats, I was all prepared for a cold water shower but the water was hot and the shower refreshing. Our breakfast consisted of piping hot dosas, which the chef bought for us in a big pot from which we could have as many as we wanted. My daughter was satisfied after keenly scanning all the nooks for insects and lizards – there were none. Throughout the concern of our crew was overwhelming. It was as if they genuinely cared for our well-being. My daughter is the only one, out of us four, who does not like spicy food. I had requested the chef to prepare food that was not overly spicy for her. He had done just that. They would keep glancing at my daughter to ensure that she was enjoying the food as well and seemed genuinely pleased to see the way she was tucking into her dosas. All this was done in a totally unobtrusive way. They would keep checking on us from time to time and then leave us alone. Their warmth and friendliness was beguiling. It was one of the reasons why we enjoyed our stay in the houseboat and rated it as the best experience ever. After having experienced genuine hospitality from our crew, our next stay at a posh resort in Kumarakom simply did not match up. Yes, the resort had everything – it had slick professionalism but it did not have the thoughtful graciousness of the boatman or our crew.
It was therefore with somewhat heavy hearts that we left the boat. Leaving a tip for all the crew, who had made our stay so pleasant almost seemed like doing too little for their thoughtfulness but it was the only way in which we could show our gratitude. We left them a huge tip and my daughter kept turning around for last glimpses of the houseboat where we had spent the night. We watched the boat until we could not see it any more.