Fortune & Misfortune On Kerala’s Backwaters

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Partially submerged houses in Kerala, India last August. REUTERS / SIVARAM V

Any picture of a houseboat reminds me of our good fortune to live among the people of Kerala’s backwaters from 2010-2017. The photo below is no exception and I thank Fred Pearce, writing for Yale e360, for bringing to my attention the scale of misfortune facing our old neighbors from the most recent flooding. I knew about the disaster, but had not read in any detail until now what this implies for the future. Maybe this fortune could be applied to address those challenges:

In India, Nature’s Power Overwhelms Engineered Wetlands

The picturesque Kerala backwaters in southern India, increasingly popular with tourists, form a network of engineered canals, lagoons, lakes, and rice paddies. But a fatal monsoon deluge has highlighted the global problem of how developed wetlands often lose their capacity to absorb major floods.

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Floodwaters inundated much of Kerala’s low-lying coastal plain, including the village of Pandanad, pictured here. MANJUNATH KIRAN / AFP / GETTY IMAGES

In India, they call the state of Kerala in the country’s far south “God’s own country.” That wasn’t how it felt last August, when monsoon floods devastated its densely populated low-lying coastal plain. Around 500 people drowned, in an area best known to outsiders for its placid backwatersa network of brackish lakes, lagoons, and canals where growing numbers of Western tourists cruise the picturesque waterways aboard luxury houseboats.

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A luxury houseboat moored along Lake Vembanad near the tourist town of Kumarakom in Kerala. FRED PEARCE / YALE E360

Now that the floodwaters have abated, questions are being raised about whether the disaster was made worse by water engineering projects in the backwaters designed to feed the state’s population and attract tourists. Increasingly, Kerala residents are wondering if “God’s own country” is damned as well as dammed.

The floods came out of the Western Ghats. This chain of mountains down the west side of India is one of the country’s wettest places, drenched from June to September in monsoon. In early August, the rains there were exceptionally intense and unremitting. The rivers flowing from the mountains west toward the Arabian Sea dumped their water into the backwaters on a coastal plain that is largely below sea level.

Sixty-mile-long Lake Vembanad, at the heart of the backwaters, rose up and flooded surrounding wetlands and rice paddies, cities, and farming villages. A quarter-million people took refuge in 1,500 relief camps; 6,200 miles of roads and 115 square miles of farmland were damaged. Cochin International Airport was awash. Continue reading

Pathum Thani River Market

Climbing Wattle (sometimes called Acacia) with a charming banana stalk wrapping. In Thai it’s call “Cha- om ” and it’s mostly eaten fried in egg batter to accompany chili dip. (Thanks to Chananya from Asian Oasis for the wonderful explanation!)

Climbing Wattle (sometimes called Acacia) with a charming banana stalk wrapping. In Thai it’s call “Cha- om ” and it’s mostly eaten fried in egg batter to accompany chili dip. (Thanks to Chananya from Asian Oasis for the wonderful explanation!)

With the opening of Spice Harbour and Marari Pearl, life at RAXA Collective frequently is filled with a flurry of activities. But a current visit to meet colleagues in Thailand has reminded me of my love of markets. The first leg of our trip took place on the lovely Mekhala Rice Boat cruising up the Chao Phraya River from Bangkok toward the Bang Pa In Summer Palace. The overnight was lovely, but one of the highlights was a stop at the riverside market at Pathum Thani.

Although similar to markets I’ve experience in India, this one seemed to have a distinctive Thai flare, with more prepared items than I’ve seen in India.

Salted Edamame - I'm guessing steamed.

Bundles of Salted Edamame – I’m guessing steamed.

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Disconnected

A usual day in States starts out with me waking up to the ear-drillingly loud alarm on my Samsung Galaxy, checking my email and Facebook, surfing the web and reading the news. Then I soullessly get out of bed and proceed to breakfast, during which I also constantly fidget with my phone, jotting down everything I need to do for that day and texting my friends, usually to vent about how tired we are and who has gotten less sleep. Then in class, I take notes on my laptop as I constantly browse through my email and simultaneously type things I don’t understand into the Google search bar. As soon as I get out of class, I go back to staring at my phone, browsing through Instagram and Facebook, walking to my next class or lunch. (I have once literally run into a door because I had my head in my phone and didn’t see the door at all.) Bottom line, I am always connected, always online, and always ready to access everything on the Web. A ridiculous amount of my life is consumed by my phone and my laptop.

However, on my second day in India, I went on a houseboat—my fellow intern Jake has written about it a few posts back—and it did not have Wifi! I felt disconnected and nervous. I cannot even remember the last time I didn’t have access to Internet or my phone. After a couple of hours, I simply didn’t know what to do with myself. I didn’t even have music to listen to since I always stream it from Spotify or Youtube. In hopelessness, I lay down on the cushioned sun deck, hoping to take a nap, which would kill some time. So I sat there, directionlessly looking into the backwaters, the rice farms, and the tiny villages clustered up in the narrow grounds next to the river. I watched little naked boys taking a bath in the river and running away in embarrassment as they saw me staring at them on the boat. I also watched the birds hover right on top of the river surface, meticulously and gracefully snatch the fish out of the water, and fly away gobbling it down. I watched the sun slowly setting, painting the whole sky orange and pink with its radiance.

Before I knew it, it was pitch black outside and we were called down for dinner. Continue reading

Kettuvallom – Houseboats

Photo credits:Ramesh Kidangoor

Photo credits: Ramesh Kidangoor

The publishers of the most recent edition of the Lonely Planet India place Kerala’s backwaters as second only to the Taj Mahal in their “must do” list of the country. The houseboat experience is partially the reason why. Traditional Kettuvallom are thatch-covered barges built to carry rice and other commodities through the waterways that once formed the lifeline of Kerala’s transportation systems. Continue reading

Navigating the Backwaters of Kerala

Have you ever felt like you were in a book ?

 Traveling on a houseboat  in the Backwaters was a desire of mine for quite a while, and I had been told the monsoon was the ideal period to take a trip on the Backwaters. The boats are fewer on the waterways, you can see locals compete in spectacular snake-boat races, the rice-paddies fill-up with rainwater, everybody gets around by canoe or ferry. It’s as different to my everyday life as can be. Continue reading

Annual Champakulam Moolam boat race

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On Sunday, we joined our River Escapes colleagues and went to the annual Champakulam Moolam Boat Race. Champakkulam is a serene village in the district of Alleppey and this boat race is one of the most ancient in Kerala. During our lunch on board of the Pallanayar, a River Escapes houseboat, we saw, flocking on the river Pamba, numerous vallam (boats) including the famous chundan :the snake boat. Continue reading

Seasteading, Self-Reliance Utopia, And Our Shared Future

An article recently published in n+1 examines a utopian futurist form of an idea that seems oddly symmetric with Seth’s posts about the history of exploration using Iceland as a case study. Looking back, we see much in common with explorers, pioneerspilgrims and adventurous thinkers of all sorts.  Looking forward, we are inclined to embrace smart, creative, enthusiastic group efforts to resolve seemingly intractable challenges. Especially when they involve living on boats. We recommend reading the following all the way through:

To get to Ephemerisle, the floating festival of radical self-reliance, I left San Francisco in a rental car and drove east through Oakland, along the California Delta Highway, and onto Route 4. I passed windmill farms, trailer parks, and fields of produce dotted with multicolored Porta Potties. I took an accidental detour around Stockton, a municipality that would soon declare bankruptcy, citing generous public pensions as a main reason for its economic collapse. After rumbling along the gravely path, I reached the edge of the Sacramento–San Joaquin River Delta. The delta is one of the most dredged, dammed, and government subsidized bodies of water in the region. It’s estimated that it provides two-thirds of Californians with their water supply.  Continue reading

Beauty Of Kerala- Alappuzha

Photo credits: Ramesh Kidangoor

Sandwiched between the Arabian Sea and Vembanad Lake on a sliver of land barely 4 km wide, Alappuzha has the dual advantage of cheap inland water transport on its eastern end and calm seas suitable for an all-weather port on the west. Its criss-crossing canals, which were once busy waterways, historically evoked comparisons with Venice. Continue reading

Across Waters to the Mississippi River Adventure

Guest Author: Rania Mirabueno

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Adventurers canoeing 2320 miles of the Mississippi River.

As I recall my beautiful houseboat experience in the backwaters of Kerala with River Escapes, I cannot help but think across waters to four adventurers, who are embarking on a journey with two canoes and 2320 miles of rafting across 10 US states on the Mississippi River. Continue reading

Where Waters Meet


We were recently traveling by houseboat from Kumarakom across Lake Vembanad, the largest backwater in Kerala, toward Cochin and therefore the Arabian Sea.  This route requires passing through the Thannermukkom Bund, the largest mud regulator in India.

This barrier essentially divides Vembanad in half  – separating the brackish waters that flow from the Arabian Sea from the sweet river water that feeds into the lake.  For six months a year the dike is left open, particularly during the monsoon season, but historically the gates are closed on December 15th to assist agriculture in the Kuttanad District, where farming is done below sea level.

Like many areas of the world with significant geographical elements that effect both country and culture, the watery landscape is defined as either north of the bund or south of it. These discriptors are as elemental as global coordinates for people in the region.

We’d made this journey from North to South last year when the gates were still open, but this second, opposite journey required negotiating with the gatekeepers in order to continue our passage.

Even without understanding a word of Malayalam the process was fascinating. Continue reading

Rollin’ On The River

Our second excursion in India was heading from Fort Cochin to the backwater region of Kerala called Alleppey. (The actual Malayalam name is Alappuzha, the ‘zha’ letters forming the same sound as the Hungarian actress who I’m sure to date myself by mentioning.) Just the sound of these Indian names invoked a sense of the exotic and we weren’t disappointed. After a little adventure finding the River Escapes dock (a determined taxi driver made sure we arrived at the right location), we were welcomed with a refreshing drink of tender coconut and sipped away along with four other guests – a young Indian couple (honeymoon perhaps?) and an older English couple. As Dave and I began to settle in, we felt ourselves slipping into a lazy relaxation underlined with an excited sense of anticipation.  After a brief orientation, each group was escorted to the dock, where a row of beautifully maintained wooden houseboats waited for boarding.

The houseboat held a casual elegance with spotless wooden floors, wide wicker chairs and large open-air windows. The dining table had a bowl of fresh fruit and before we even got our shoes off, the staff of three – the captain, first mate and chef introduced themselves, integrating a slight nod of the head, a typical Indian gesture indicating friendship or often agreement (depending upon the exchange at the moment).  With the captain comfortably seated at the helm, the steward pushed the houseboat away from the dock and the chef headed to the galley.

Having been a chef on the high seas myself, a highlight for me was following the chef to the galley as he prepared our lunch. (At the end of this blog, I’ve included some of the culinary tips I learned and have repeated, with great success, at home.)  The chef, a tall, slender man in a clean white chef’s coat and tall toque (making him all the more imposing in height) was shy but friendly, explaining his preparations as he skillfully cooked with a deliberateness that conveyed training and personal pride. Our fish, a favorite on the Kerala backwaters called Pearl Spot or Karimeen, was trippy looking, resembling more of a skeleton than an edible item, but it was delicious – crunchy and spicy. As the chef cooked, the captain remained attentive at the helm, navigating through the waterways that would eventually (for someone else) lead to the Arabian Sea. And we were not alone. There were dozens of other houseboats meandering their way down the river  – some had two levels with expansive balconies while others stood out with ornate window frames and decorative wood designs. And we all just moseyed along, with passengers waving to one another as we passed modest homes on the shore with clotheslines holding colorful saris. As the waterway became narrower, we found ourselves being led off the houseboat and into a long motorized canoe.  We had arrived at the backwaters. Continue reading

Backwaters Home: Pampa Villa

Pampa Villa On The Pamba River

We have mostly shown images of life on Kerala’s backwaters from the perspective of boats, as in looking at and looking from.  As Milo’s recent post showed (at the tail end, so to speak), there is much more life on these waters than first meets the eye of the occasional visitor.  The view above is from the river, looking at a home that Raxa Collective recently took responsibility for.

This responsibility included modifications to the interiors in order to make it more welcoming to travelers.  It had served as the home of a prosperous resident of the backwaters, but now is open to receive visitors whose preferences in terms of privacy, decor and food (at least spice levels) often differ from those of locals, at least a bit.

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Water Resources

We are in constant search mode for methods to reduce the use of plastics in India.  Plastic water bottles are the big frontier to conquer for resorts–no matter how “green” they may otherwise be–in particular.  Travelers are educated from so many sources–guidebooks, travel agents, government advisories, etc.–to demand sealed plastic water bottles (or else not drink from any other source). Continue reading

Life Mein Ek Baar, Featuring River Escapes

Every minute of this is fun.  The 35th minute is particularly fun for those of us based in Kerala because members of our organization join the stage with the stars of this show.

About five months ago we were approached by a film production company about a show they were filming for National Geographic Channel.  They told us that River Escapes was recommended to them as having the best houseboats in the Kerala backwaters (a bit of music to our ears).  Then they proposed that their Kerala episode should be based on our houseboats (we danced to that music).

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