Kerala, India

Have you ever been to Paradise? Well, I have and it’s called Kerala.

Statuesque herons silhouetted against lush green rice paddies. Elegant coconut palms leaning languorously towards the water’s edge. Here the smiling locals move slowly and gracefully in the noon-day heat. The contrast after busy, throbbing, dusty Delhi is staggering.

We have boarded a traditional houseboat or kettuvallam for a 24-hour trip in the Kerala Backwaters – 1500 kilometres of canals, fed by 38 rivers that drain into the Arabian Sea. The houseboat is constructed of wooden planks held together by coconut fibre ropes, using no nails. The roof covering is made from bamboo poles and palm leaves. The exterior of the boat, which is painted with cashew nut oil, glistens in the sun.

We are greeted with a fresh fruit drink in a coconut shell. Three young Indians buzz around us doing preparatory chores. We set off and our eyes devour the rich diversity of our surroundings: ancient Chinese fishing nets, Hindu temples, Catholic churches, coconut groves, coir villages.

Chandu, our ‘navigator’, is dressed for comfort. Barefoot and holding a parasol over his head, he is wearing a westernised polo shirt and ballooning dhotis.

We pass the villagers engaged in their every-day activities. As a concession to the intense heat, many women wear loose-fitting ‘housecoats’ rather than the traditional sari. Some are washing clothes. A man has waded in waist-deep, soaping his upper body and splashing himself with water. People live along these waterways so transport is by boat, a‘water taxi’, which carries them to and from the jetties at spaced intervals along the canals.

We spend the day watching the cormorants and egrets, fishermen and flowers. As we drift along in the Kumarakom waters, we pass delicate, mauve waterplants that wave to us like bouquets of welcome.

Venkat, our ‘chef’, brings us lunch – fish, cucumber and tomato, rice and dishes cooked in coconut – all freshly prepared on board. He serves and we applaud his presentation. We do not speak each other’s language but the communication is irrefutable. His response: a beautiful, flashing white smile.

On the wall above the table are two coloured reproductions, one of Christ and the other of the Hindu god, Ganesh – reflecting this area’s two strong religious traditions. We know we are well-protected.

At dusk the insects descend. Venkat comes to our rescue with a powerful spray. We then sit comfortably, enjoying a leisurely meal as the water laps rhythmically, almost hypnotically, onto the sides of the houseboat. We are suddenly tired. We bid the young men goodnight and enter our cabin, manipulating the mosquito netting as we get into bed. The gentle rocking of the moored boat puts us straight to sleep.

We awake early as the waterway comes alive with other houseboats, fishermen and ‘taxis’. We hurry out on deck to enjoy our last few hours in Paradise – revelling in the vibrant colours and evocative sounds of Kerala.

All too soon we dock and our devoted crew, hands pressed together, murmur a farewell ‘namaste’. We leave the houseboat with great reluctance but are eager to experience more of our Indian adventure.

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