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Water palaces in Alleppey

House boat on the backwaters

Alleppey, or Alappuzha, town is not noteworthy, and hardly the “Venice of India” that it is sometimes called by people who have never seen Venice. The reason it is so popular is its strategic location in the middle of Kerala’s backwater area, which makes it the main entry point for boat trips.

The Keralan backwaters are a huge chain of interconnected lagoons and lakes that spread on an area of maybe 400 square kilometers, starting around Cochin and ending about 200 km further south around Kollam. They are extremely popular among tourists, who typically explore the waters by hiring a houseboat for a day. We came for the same reason, and my boyfriend came to join us.

In line with my usual compulsive optimization frenzy, I had done excessive research before booking our accommodation in Alleppey. I had studied all reviews, examined uploaded photos on Tripadvisor and Agoda, carefully compared it to several other options, and discussed with all involved family members before finally settling for “Ayana’s Homestay”. Ayana’s was the most expensive, but also the safest choice – located right at the backwaters, idyllically surrounded by greenery, and located on the same river as Rama’s property, which I had planned to visit by boat from there. I expected a similar experience to that at Poopally’s Heritage Homestay or Malayalam Resort, and was looking forward to adding another accommodation to my list of Keralan favourites.

But far wrong. Ayana’s was not the peaceful, idyllic and tastefully furnished little water paradise surrounded by tropical forest that I had imagined. Instead, our homestay was one of many modern residential houses seaming an unpaved quayside, and greenery could only be seen on the other side of the river. Its rooms were simple and the common balcony overlooked an untidy parking lot, before giving way to the river view. The few review photos I had seen had in fact been rather detail oriented, and left room for imagination, which in this case had clearly tricked me. When our car turned right into the entrance of the property, Rama said “I hope it’s not this one”, but so it was.

To be fair, Ayana’s was not a bad place – the house was in a good condition, our hosts were friendly and the food was good. What we disliked, I think, was the lack of care that one expects from a guesthouse. It was like staying in the spare rooms of an average house – there was no hot water, linens and towels were not changed, the interior was a bit chaotic, the closet in our room was used for the family’s personal belongings and the curtains didn’t draw properly. Lunch and dinner were charged extra and served in the “main house” on the other side of the river, where we had to go by boat (which turned out to be a nice touch though). However, it was certainly an authentic experience in the sense that we lived in a real family’s house. Overall, Ayana’s would have been fine for half the price, but not at the premium it came at. Anyway, we made the best of it and focused on our programme.

We started off by visiting Rama’s property, a 4000 square meter land at the backwaters with a 100-year-old dilapidated house that we had been renovating for the last year. Or at least, tried to. Naively assuming that our architect would have similar ideas of project management as me, I had prepared an excel file with To Dos, which he was supposed to check for their feasibility, and add a time and cost frame. I had even prepared several maps with “Floor Planner” outlining new walls and electrical lines, and a PDF with images of design and colour details to give the architect an idea of what we wanted.

But all my efforts were sucked in by a black hole and never responded to. According to his mood, the architect would sometimes commission works to contractors, but mostly not pursue them at all and not return emails and calls. When we returned in person in August and saw that very few had been done, we decided to discuss the To Dos together on the ground. Maybe, we thought, the distance or the communication channels had been the problem. So we gathered him and some contractors and shooed everyone through the house for hours, explaining every little detail of our plan. Our meeting at the house had been so comprehensive and intensive that one of the group said “We got rid off the English, and now we are being ruled by the Germans!”. At the end of our meeting, I had emphasized once again that the renovations would have to be finished within the next three months, as my family would be staying in the house in December.

By now it should be clear that that did not happen. In fact, again, only few of the works had been done, and most of them not according to my ideas, but the architect’s own – almost like a rebellion against my strong will (some of the readers who have worked with me may understand this impulse). When I had told my family that the house would not be ready to live in and we needed to change plans, I think they had expected a bit more completion than the half-ruin that they found. However, everyone agreed on the big potential of the house with its three water sides, which further fueled Rama’s and my grand plans for its future as a palace at the backwaters.

While my brother and his girlfriend left to visit Alleppey town, and my mom adventurously explored the surroundings of our homestay on foot, Rama and me continued to a town called Changanacherry to spot tiles and bathroom fittings, a task that ended inconclusively because of the mismatch between local designs and my sophisticated ideas. It did however keep us long enough to miss Ayana’s complementary village tour that all of us were supposed to do together.

We rejoined instead at dinner in the main house. Judging from my family’s good mood and my brother’s unwanted lengthy explanations on local plants upon their return, the tour had been very pleasant and informative. The highlight of the evening was our adorable host, who introduced every dish on the table by holding its bowl and saying “This is called…”, explaining its ingredients. He did the same for rice without a hint of irony, which became a running gag between Rama and me.

After several days without real highlights, we all attached big hopes to the boat trip of the next day. Rama and me had been to Alleppey twice without doing a houseboat trip. Watching the many houseboats slowly passing by our previous stay Malayalam Resort, this activity had looked rather boring, which made us go for shorter boat tours instead. Because my mother had specifically asked for a houseboat trip, we went down the typical tourist path this time.

We now gratefully admit that we had been totally wrong in our judgment. The relaxation I enjoyed in Goa was nothing compared to the tranquility of our boat trip.

A local friend of Rama’s had graciously arranged for a spectacularly big and affordable houseboat through a contact. It was more than twice as big as the average houseboat, with 4 bedrooms and a huge second floor that would have been big enough to host a waltz festivity. It took my family some time to understand that nobody else would join us on our water palace and we celebrated that fact for a while by exploring all bedrooms, the living room style open-air area around the captain, and running up and down on the huge deck. My brother and his girlfriend soon discovered the only uncovered part of the deck that could be used for sun-bathing and occupied it until the end of our trip, while my mom and us took turns lying on parts of the 40 m bench on the deck or the “living room”. The boat was so big and had so many sitting opportunities that we had to make a conscious effort to sit close to each other in order to talk.

Starting at Alleppey’s main boat jetty, we drove up north to Vembanad lake, where we could watch eagles, cormorants and dozens of other birds whose names I don’t know. (There is an entire thick book on the birds of Kerala only which my mother later bought in Cochin). Sitting on our balconies at Kannur’s KK Heritage, we had already been able to witness some of Kerala’s birds. But the variety of birds we saw now, the unobstructed view, and the proximity at which we passed by the birds made parts of our backwater trip feel like a bird safari. We watched red headed eagles catch snakes, cormorants dry themselves and king fishers majestically sitting on cables or branches. Although I am not much of a nature fan, this experience was truly enjoyable.

I had thought that the sight of palm trees, rice fields and small houses would become boring after a while, but that was not the case. The trip provided just enough movement and change to fall into a deep, trance-like state of relaxation without feeling restless or lethargic. Lying on the top deck of the boat, almost unnoticeably rocked by the motor’s vibrations, I actually fell asleep for a while, something that never happens to me during the day otherwise. The rest of the time, I could not get enough of the lush green landscape and did not take my eyes of it while I contemplated on one thing or another, or talked to Rama. The houseboat trip was definitely a big highlight of the trip, and my mom was even so enthusiastic that she suggested another boat trip after we had just un-boarded the boat after 12 hours.

But it was time to leave our water palace. We had yet one last stop on our list that everyone was keen to see – Cochin, Kerala’s most popular townlet.

***

Freshly retired and suddenly benefiting from the otherwise rare combination of time and money, my mom had given me the task to organize a family holiday in India, a country that I had visited often enough to act as a tour guide. My favourite state Kerala was set, and I added Bombay for a city experience and Goa as a classic tourist destination on the way. Starting in Bombay, we would work our way South to Goa, Kannur, Alleppey and Cochin.

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