A long way from the chaos and pollution of India's cities, Jane Memmler, finds (almost) perfect tranquility as she glides across lakes and lagoons on a houseboat in Kerala...
Sitting on the bow of the houseboat, I glide smoothly through the stillness of the Backwaters. It’s early in the morning, yet rural life is well underway.
Teenage girls, their long glossy plaits draped over one shoulder, are busy with last night’s washing up. Rinsing and scrubbing large aluminium pots of all shapes and sizes, they work until the pans reflect the palm trees overshadowing them.
A man ambles over to one of the coconut trees to retrieve his luminous green toothbrush from its safe-keeping place, a piece of string tied around the trunk. He joins the others standing on the muddy banks cleaning their teeth as they contemplate the gentle rippling waters below.
Others are bathing, women fully clothed in saris, men in their dhotis, the ubiquitous national dress of sarong-type skirt tucked up into a waistband.
Here on Kerala’s centuries-old Backwaters in southern India, the noise and chaos of the nation’s seething cities seems far, far away. Not only are the murky rivers crucial to those who live along them, the flow also irrigates the fertile surrounding mango orchards, and banana and coconut plantations.
Here and there, along narrow muddy paths reinforced by sandbags, children with neatly dressed hair and crisp white shirts carry their books to school with purpose.
Men with plastic bags, presumably holding lunch, sport wooden-handled umbrellas, looking for all the world like City gents off to the office. The effect is comical but the purpose serious – to keep the harsh rays of the sun at bay while they fish from crudely fashioned canoes or toil in the paddy fields.
My boat is the ultimate exercise in India-chic. The bow boasts a white cotton mattress with bolster cushions, perfect for lounging on, Bollywood starlet-style, and the bedroom even has glass windows, air-conditioning and an en-suite bathroom, including a shower. Its floors, walls and roofs are made from locally produced coir matting, making it extremely cosy.
I boarded the boat in Alleppey on the banks of Vembanad Lake. This is a bustling place catering purely for tourists embarking on river cruises, with dozens of shacks masquerading as travel agencies. Fruit stalls and people carriers jostle for position along the only road into the port.
The scene is typically chaotic, by contrast, with the serenity of life on the river – wheels bogged in potholes, travellers and sellers walking every which way – you wonder how anyone gets anywhere. But, of course, they do.
My journey began four hours away in Kovalam. A well-developed seaside resort, it is archetypal Indian coastline at its best: wide, palm-fringed sandy beaches are used as parking lots for fishing boats. Flanking it is greenery so dense you could be deep in a rainforest in Thailand’s interior. Instead, you are mere metres away from busy thoroughfares and teeming marketplaces.
Local folk, lifestyles unchanged for centuries, live among the vegetation along the labyrinth of dusty paths that weave their way to the coast. Their vocations have barely changed either – in the main they fish and farm, and bolster their incomes by occasionally selling lopped-off coconuts to tourists who quench their thirst on the refreshing milk within.
Down one such road, past dozens of stalls selling giant bunches of bananas, is the Taj Green Cove Kovalam resort. Set in landscaped gardens, dotted with giant stone statues, it is a tropical paradise. With its kidney-shape pool, outdoor dining and large, airy cottages, it is an oasis of calm from the cacophony beyond.
Southern India is dramatically different to the better-known north. The northern cities may have splendid elaborate palaces of marble and sandstone and grand forts, yet here is something more authentic and serene. Kerala is also fiercely proud of its 98 per cent literacy rate and as a consequence has a booming silicon industry.
Religion plays a huge part in daily life, with mosques, churches and temples all calling followers to prayer. I’d also expected to see beggars along the main arteries, yet I didn’t spot one. Perhaps this is down to the communist state government – only one of three in India – which is democratically elected. Hammer and sickle flags fly from bamboo poles and red bunting is strung across main intersections.
On the road to Alleppey we trundled over endless potholes, passing old rusty buses where women sat at the back, men up the front, and tuk-tuks stuffed with entire families squeezed in under the low canopy, hanging out the sides and back.
Risky? You bet – but it was the motorcycles that alarmed me. On one a toddler rode up front, draped over the petrol tank with mum, dad and baby sister stacked behind – and none of them with any form of protection. The safest vehicles for travel are the dinky retro Indian-made Ambassadors with their strong bodies and low speed limit. Any colour, as long as it’s white.
Passing vehicles, you’re encouraged to sound your horn, as slogans on bumpers suggest. Yet even though my driver did just that, most road users remained apparently oblivious.
Travelling by road is not for the faint-hearted. Our journey was one long game of chicken-and-egg, with the driver only daring to slip back on to our side of the road once we’d passed all obstacles – and at times, only just.
Yet once on the boat, all nerves quickly settle and the heart-stopping journey fades to a distant memory. As we drop anchor at nightfall, we hear the unmistakable sound of bingo numbers being called out in English from a far-away houseboat. Bollywood and Bingo – only in India.
As the sun sets, mosquitoes and midges rise with a vengeance. After dinner – a mouthwatering array of curried vegetables, rice and fresh fruits prepared in the surprisingly well-equipped kitchen – I retire early to the sanctuary of my air-conditioned room for the most restful night’s sleep I’ve had in years.
I wake to an early morning splash: my crew of three are taking a wake-up dip. Venturing out on deck, I watch hungry sea eagles diving for their fishy breakfast, piercing the glassy surface to emerge with their silvery catch. A far-off call to prayer breaks the otherwise silent dawn.
It is a simple life and one that I doubt will ever change; at least I hope it won’t.
• GETTING THERE: Kuoni Travel (01306 744 008) offers seven nights at the Taj Green Cove Kovalam in a superior garden room from £1,198pp (two sharing) B&B. Price includes return flights from Heathrow to Trivandrum (via Doha) and transfers. A one-night stay on a houseboat costs £240 (full board). India Tourism: 020 7437 3677/ www.incredibleindia.org