On a houseboat in India, Carolyn Parfitt has little to do but talk, sleep and watch Kerala go by — in between feasts.
By the time we disembark from the houseboat that has been our home for three days and nights, we're vowing not to eat anything more for at least 24 hours, maybe 48. You could say we've been well fed. Floating around the inland waterways of Kerala in south-western India we were treated to a feast of the spicy, coconut-based traditional cuisine for breakfast, lunch and dinner, loving it perhaps just a bit too much.
At each meal, the three houseboat staff laid an embarrassment of dishes before us – an over-reaction, I'm guessing, to complaints we saw in the guestbook about not enough food on board. They seemed very concerned to ensure our happiness.
“You like lobster?” Yes, we like lobster. So we moored next to a narrow strip of land on the edge of a paddy field where a small, lone shack sold seafood. That night, we ate lobster – three small ones for about $10 each – which was totally unnecessary because we were also served a wonderful, dark, rich chicken curry with rice and a range of accompaniments.
The next day: “You like duck?” Yes, we like duck very much. Which led to a very different sort of adventure.
Thinking we were heading to a poultry shop, we traipsed behind our captain, Preshan, along the main road of a village to a duck farm, where a duck was chosen and ... off with its head! The bird was then placed into boiling water to make it easier to pluck and, while I looked away, suddenly uncomfortable about so directly causing a death, it was quickly cleaned, chopped and ready to be taken back to the houseboat in a plastic bag. The duck curry that night was one we'll never forget, as much for the superb taste as the adventure.
But enough, for the moment, about the food. Murray and I were in India to do some travelling with our daughter, who had been overseas for more than a year and was now on her way home from London. We planned a couple of relaxing weeks catching up with her before we lost her again to the swirl of friends and work-life that would happen soon enough back home in Sydney.
We chose India because we had fallen under its spell a couple of years earlier. That it's about halfway between Australia and Britain had an appealing symmetry about it, too. A lazy week at lovely Palolem Beach in Goa followed by swanning about on a houseboat in Kerala with nothing more to do than read, talk, sleep and be fed had the potential to be a great way to spend some time together – and it was.
We took a train south to Kerala from Goa, noticing the shift from dusty, arid countryside to a tropical lushness. Kerala is blessed with high rainfall and a network of canals and lakes on a backwater system formed from the 44 rivers that flow down from the Western Ghats.
Culturally very rich, it has a long history of contact with people from other civilisations, from the Phoenicians to the Romans to the Persians, Dutch, Portuguese and Chinese. The central part of the state has a strong Christian presence that goes back to the arrival of St Thomas the Apostle (the doubting one of the Twelve) who established several churches there around AD 52, giving Kerala an earlier Christian history than most other places in the world.
Today, the state is about 60 per cent Hindu, 20 per cent Muslim and 20 per cent Christian. Its history, combining a strong Christian schooling system with progressive rulers and various communist governments along the way, has led to it being the most educated of all the Indian states, with almost 100 per cent of its population literate.
Murray had booked our houseboat from Sydney and we met up with it at Alleppey, a buzzy, amiable town in which we stayed a night to easily make the houseboat check-in time the next day.
I know I'll always retain a mental picture of the smile of sheer joy and relief on Emily's face when she saw the flotilla of golden straw-coloured houseboats moored on the lagoon. She was finding it hard-going in India's heat after her recent chilly months in London and was also suffering the sensitive stomach that's fairly inevitable in Asia.
Remembering our stories of life aboard a crumbling old houseboat in Kashmir a couple of years earlier, she was also expecting to be roughing it. But this was sheer luxury by comparison: two pristine double bedrooms with western-style ensuites, fans and air-conditioning and an open deck at the front of the boat with dining table and chairs, a couple of deckchairs and a ceiling fan. It also had a television, which we didn't watch at all.
Each day we motored along the canals and lakes, where the bright blue of kingfishers flashed against the green of the palms or the brown of newly ploughed rice paddies. Their vibrancy was matched by that of the gorgeously coloured saris worn by women who seemed to appear out of nowhere on their way to somewhere else, as well as by the garishly painted, geometrically patterned houses that constantly surprised us along the way.
Families and merchants passed by in narrow canoes and small children ran alongside the boat when it veered close to the canal bank. “One pen. You give me one pen,” they called. Forewarned, we had brought a supply of pens to distribute, along with some small koala souvenirs.
On the Sunday, while moored to pick up a few supplies, smartly dressed children in shiny shoes stopped to talk to us on their way to church. They told us their names were Martin and Maria.
We continued cruising the canals, passing through Vembanad Lake, the largest in India, and eventually stopping at Champakulam to look at a historic Christian church established in the 5th century AD. It took a minute to adjust to the sight of women in saris crossing themselves in front of an altar in a Christian church.
Other stops along our way included the site of a one-armed 10th-century stone Buddha in a stupa at Karumadikkuttan, a 35-metre longboat that won four of the local annual "vallam kali" (in English, snake boat races) in recent years and, on our last day, a leisurely paddle through the narrower, water hyacinth-choked canals on a "country boat", the Keralan equivalent of a gondola, complete with gondolier.
Our cook, Mahesh – our hero – prepared “typical last day” meals for us, with lunch and dinner served on banana leaves and eaten by hand. His chickpea curry, okra curry, "thoran" (a salad of shredded cabbage, grated carrot fried with green chilli, shallots, dill, mustard seeds and a few curry leaves, all tossed with grated coconut) and spicy fried black pomfret were excellent (it was our fault if we ate too much). The local Kerala rice, not as heavy as brown rice but more nutty than basmati, had a great flavour.
Mahesh told us he usually cooked for a hotel restaurant on land but liked to take a break in the fresh air on a houseboat when the opportunity arose, even though the money wasn't as good. We tipped him and the other two staff – Preshan, the captain, and Serdu, the oarsman – well, we hope, and their smiles suggested we might have been on the mark.
Certainly, the three had been wonderful. Despite our limited ability to communicate in words with each other, they were pleasant company, accommodating, cheery and relaxed. Not to mention the food.
The online reservation site for Indian Rail is irctc.co.in. To negotiate it, it's essential to first Google “tourist tips + India rail travel” and follow directions. We paid about $60 each for first-class tickets from Mumbai to Goa and $45 each for Class 2A from Goa to Alleppey (also called Alappuzha), the starting point for most backwater cruises.
A houseboat in Kerala can be organised via keralamate.com. Three nights for three people on a deluxe, air-conditioned, two-bedroom houseboat costs $US600 ($685) or $US910 for luxury class.