Cruising the Kerala Backwaters

January 13, 2008

One day at work during lunch a co-worker asked if I’d like to visit the Kerala Backwaters. I wasn’t sure exactly what that was, but on John’s recommendation I said yes.

I soon learned that the Kerala Backwaters are a series of brackish lagoons (a mixture of saltwater and freshwater) formed by rivers and streams of the mainland as they fuse with the Arabian Sea.

Don’t bother looking on Google maps for them because this place, like so many other wonderful places in India, it isn’t listed. I stole this map from Wikipedia to give you an idea of what they look like…

Due to their massive size and location relative to the equator tide changes are almost undetectable. That combined with plentiful fish and topical weather has made this an ideal place to live throughout the ages.

In fact, according to most historians, around the 100BC when the first Greek and Roman traders visited Malabar (now known as Kerala) they dubbed this “The Venice of the East”. …One can only imagine that at the time Venice was much more similar then that modern city is today.

Today life on the Kerala Backwaters doesn’t seem to have changed that much. At least it hasn’t for many people who still live in the small huts of villages that dot the shoreline. There are of course modern resorts now; fully furnished with AC and all the necessary modern conveniences. But I digress, back to me and my trip…

The drive to Kollam was a bit of a journey, as most road trips are in India. Traffic here lacks the rules and order of western infrastructure, but what they lack in guidelines they seem to make up for with common sense. With few signs, lights or stripes on the road Indians defer to their personal judgment and do a fine job of getting from A to B with much less drama then one would expect.

Upon arriving in Kollam we strolled unto the nicest boat in the backwaters and got comfortable while the crew stocked supplies and prepared for our trip. This is what the boat looked like…

After a few minutes we were given Coconuts with straws in them to sip while we passed the time. I took my first drink expecting milk only to be surprised by a sweet-somewhat-salty flavor. That didn’t go with that mental image, but I believe in trying everything at least twice, so I chanced another sip. This time the flavor met my expectations and I soon realized how much I enjoyed coconut water.

As we pushed off shore and cruised out to the open water Amit (an employee of the company I’m working with here) started talking shop with John (my traveling companion and co-worker) about our project. I kept to myself, enjoying all the new sights and sounds.

Glancing around I spotted what looked like an elementary school built on the shoreline, it looked pretty great. There were plenty of trees to provide ample coverage from the sun, lots of room to play tag, places to relax along the water, even a roller skating ring!

What an awesome setting for a school. My good buddy Derek and I would have killed to go to school here when we were chillen.

Looking towards the other side of the water I spotted a series of restaurants cast in the shadows of the hot morning sun. Just behind a railing that snaked along the shore was a series of tables speckled with patrons enjoying their meals. The picture (below) really doesn’t do the scene justice. (My camera really failed me on this trip. It’s just a compact digital and obviously my hand did a poor job of shielding the CCD from the glare of the sun).

I was surprised how clean the water was. I thought it looked dingy in the picture above so I decided to take a close up (below). It’s green of course because of the ample life in the lagoon, but honestly it looked very clean and inviting.

About this time the crew distributed some King Fisher Premium, one of India’s “premium” beers. It wasn’t my favorite pint, but it really hit the spot.

After a few sips I was very relaxed, soon John and I found ourselves in the middle of a heated discussion about PC security. John claimed his XP machine was “secure enough for most businesses” while I took the position that it was one of the biggest failures in IT security. Adding that Vista was the only Microsoft OS I recommended for businesses.

I love talking geek, especially with someone brilliant like John, but I’m constantly amazed at how little some/most people know about Vista. I think penguin lovers (Linux users) and fruit cakes (Apple users) are blinded by their rebellious nature, but I digress. Getting back to my trip…

In the distance I saw what looked like a small version of the statue of liberty rising from the shore-line. Upon closer inspection I realized it was in-fact, “The Goddess of Light” (pictured below). Having been lost on large lakes before I can only imagine how helpful this is on a moonless night. I would have loved to stop at the adjacent hotel and learned more about its history and myth, but we had to push on.

A little further along the way I spotted what looked like an empty canoe. As we approached a head popped out of the water. Apparently this local fisherman was hot and wanted to go for a dip. I can’t blame him; the brackish water was very inviting.

Another real treat was watching this ancient canoe sailing along. I’ve read about these sailboats in history books, I’ve even seen a few in museums. That was nothing compared to watching one in action.

Apparently these sailboats aren’t complicated to build, one simple needs to find a large tree and burn/carve/hack out a channel to sit in. If there are no large trees, you can bind thick reeds with thin ones. People have been making boats just like this one since the dawn of written history, and they’ve been used to sail just about everywhere.

The next familiar site was a series of fishing nets (above). Judging by the color of the water one can only assume that the fish here have an ample supply of phytoplankton. I’ve eaten a lot of fish on this trip, I’ll bet at least one of them came from this place.

It seems fishing here is very popular. Below are some fishing boats owned by Amma (a local spiritual leader and “universal mother” to millions). I don’t know that much about Amma, but I’ve only heard good things. Apparently she’s fed over 7.5 million people (among many other good things) and still lives in a humble home, so I’m going to give her charity the benefit of the doubt.

In the distance below you can see one of the many temples, churches and mosques built along the shoreline. I was keeping track of how many there were, but I lost count. Some of them were playing pleasant Hindi music, others were silent. Closing my eyes I tried to imagine what it would be like to paddle to church. …That made me smile. My family was usually late and rushing to get to church on-time. I my mind I could see my brothers and I padding tirelessly to try and get to temple on time.

Eventually we rounded this corner and floated into a narrow channel, about 30 meters (100ft) wide. There really isn’t a point to the picture below, I just thought it did a fair job of representing the tropical setting I found myself in.

As you can see (below) we spent almost the entire trip chatting, snacking on spicy cashews and sipping King Fisher Premium, naturally I thoroughly enjoying myself.

In the picture above Amit was telling John why he returned to India. Apparently Amit lived in the states for some time, and his brothers still live there now. I was curious why someone leave the US so I listened attentively as Amit told of his love for India, his family/friends here and his passion for giving back to the place he came from. Hearing this Amit’s stock went up in my book. I dig people who are crazy enough to follow their heart, especially when that comes at a high price.

Above you can see a family of four pushing their canoe along with long poles. When the water is shallow enough this is how the locals get around, it looks a lot easier than paddling.

The picture above shows one of the more common views on this trip. This glimpse into the local’s word gives you an idea what life must be like here. In the long grass by the water are children at play, in the background a simple cinderblock house. Most the homes here cinderblocks or cement, a few were wooden. The more meager abodes were simply made of palms like the one pictured below…

Below are a few more of the local sights, honestly life here looked pretty inviting to me…

One thing I wasn’t thrilled to see was that, even on the backwaters, communist (Marxist) propaganda was quite prevalent. Personally I’m very opposed to socialism in general, especially this flavor. I think Marxist prey on the uneducated and misinformed. Then again I’m very pro-expression so I appreciate their freedom to share views and opinions.

Every once in a while we’d pass by a small group of the locals. Usually they’d stop to wave and smile. I wish we’d had time to stop and mingle, they probably spoke Malayalam instead of English but I think we could have managed. …That’s defiantly on my TODO list for the next trip.

Eventually we stopped the boat at a dock adjacent to a simple church. They had a well and we ran out a garden hose to refill our boat’s fresh water tank.

We hadn’t been still for 10 minutes when John asked the locals if it was safe to swim. They seemed shocked but he was already undressing before he got an answer. Without hesitating he dove off the boat plunging into the cool green water.

John stayed underwater for some time. After a long 20-30 seconds I was starting to wonder if he hadn’t got stuck on the muddy bottom or been impaled on a sharp stick. But apparently he was playing with our minds, a few moments later he popped his head back up and we all exhaled. I have to admit that I was completely jealous of John. It was hot and, as I already mentioned, the water looked very inviting. …I told myself I didn’t jump in after him because I’d promised my sister that I wouldn’t swim in India. …I’d like to think that was the only reason, but I’m not sure I would have even if I hadn’t made that promise.

After John had tried off and we’d settled down lunch was served. I was pleased to learn that our crew included a local gourmet chef. I thought his spicy fish fillet (pictured bottom-center) was especially tasty. The carrot/pepper/etc veg item (pictured top-center) was a foreign melody of flavors that I really enjoyed. I want to try cooking something like that back home.

After lunch we returned to wondering the water ways. It’s difficult to make-out, but that dirt along the shoreline above was a road with people, cattle and motorcycles. Seeing someone my age ripping along the pathway made me realize that I would love to tour the backwaters on a dirt-bike. Unfortunately I’ve found it almost impossible to borrow a bike here, maybe next trip I’ll just buy one.

Well, that’s about it for pictures. I decided to put the camera down to enjoy what I supposed might be a once in a lifetime experience. I spent most of the ride back in silence, listening to the music pouring down from the nearby temples, watching children play along the shore and wondering through the ship’s guest log. It was filled with a variety of languages and pictures, even some mirror writing. Reading between the lines I could understand every page, “We had a great time!”

2 Responses to “Cruising the Kerala Backwaters”

  1. Maria Says:

    Brien… nice pictures…….

  2. jwalker Says:


    You got great pictures on your trip.
    Thanks for posting.

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