I rotate the wheel towards the right, giving it several turns at one go. Joseph chuckles at my effort to maneuver between an approaching houseboat on the left and a long canoe on the right. I succeed, and a carpet of bright green leaves greets us as though to applaud me. The backwaters of Alleppey (Alappuzha) are as picture perfect as I remember them to be from the last time I was here. Only this time, Joseph, our boat driver, happily hands over the wheel to me.
We float through a large stretch of still water dotted with rows of tall coconut trees, undisturbed by the scurry of household chores along the villages on the shore. I ask Joseph if the village folk mind that their backwaters are now infiltrated by scores of tourists every year. Nodding no, he explains that these waters were rather polluted before houseboat tourism picked up almost 10 years ago, and their maintenance is now complimentary to tourism. He talks about his life in the gulf where he lives for the large part of the year; driving houseboats is how he spends his holidays when he visits home. His well built physique and fluent English would barely do justice to turning wheels I imagine, but he insists he would do this any day if only it paid half as well.
A half-filled houseboat floats past, and the people on board smile as they see me (expertly) driving our boat. The villages on the shore are replaced by shiny green rice paddies, interspersed with banana plantations. Agriculture was once the primary source of income of these backwater villages, but low yield over the past years has increased the need for tourism-related income & ‘working in the gulf’.
As a small flock of sea crows appear in the water, a man rowing a large canoe from the opposite direction yells something in Malayalam to Joseph. Flustered, he immediately asks me to hand over the wheel and I comply. There might be someone inspecting houseboats ahead, and letting a guest take charge is an obvious no-no.
We ride along, now through narrow canals, now alongside palm-fringed shores, now past prawn-sellers. Our serene journey is occasionally interrupted by blaring music, and my friend spots the culprit in a tall coconut tree. A small canoe rowed by a fellow traveller passes us by and we burst into a little laugh at his painstaking efforts to propel the canoe forward. He laughs with us and poses for a snap!
As we alight from our boat after the round trip, I look back at the calm of the backwaters and the houseboats readying to set afloat on them, and wonder how visiting these backwaters 15 years ago would’ve felt, with no houseboats, no tourists, and perhaps no common language with the people who live ashore.
Have you journeyed through the backwaters of Alleppey? How long ago, and how different was that?