Posted by: Tommy | February 25, 2011

Backwaters Houseboat Trip

We have our first visitor from home – Sarah Halloran, a friend of ours and former co-worker of Anna’s from our time in New York, came to meet us for two weeks in India.  She was excited about India and had definite things she had researched and wanted to do while she was here – and Anna and I were very happy to leave the trip planning to someone else for a short while (ok, Anna was happy – I don’t help much with trip planning).  And the number one thing Sarah wanted to do while she was here was take a houseboat trip in the Kerala backwaters.  According to Lonely Planet (says this guy we met, Jay), it is one of the top 10 things to do in the world before you die.

We spent our first 3 days in Varkala, a beach town an hour north of the Trivandrum airport that we’d flown into.  After recovering from the stress of Cape Town to Doha to India with three days relaxing on the sand, we were ready to move north and actually start doing stuff.  We had inquired at our hostel (apparently one of the few proper hostels in India) and found out they could make houseboat arrangements, complete with train tickets and taxis to and from the boat.  Unfortunately, taking a houseboat overnight in Kerala is one of the most expensive things you can do in India.  Fortunately, that means it costs $200 – India is cheap!  Or actually, $210 – we opted for the rooms with A/C.

We booked the houseboat and were told to be ready to go at 6am the next morning.  We convinced Jay (a Jewish accountant from Chicago who’s been in India for 5 months so far…and on the road for a year and a half, with another year and a half to go) to travel with us and split the cost of the boat 4 ways.  A hostel employee picked the 4 of us up at 6 and drove us to the train station.  We were told by the attendant to get on the 2nd train – this would take us to Alleppey, houseboat capital of Kerala.

We got on the train and rode for about an hour.  We hadn’t had time for breakfast, so when a guy came by selling food (for $1) I jumped at the opportunity.  He handed me a foil box containing a masala dosa (thin, giant pancake filled with potato and vegetables).  And it was delicious – easily the best train food I’ve ever had.  I wasn’t quite sure how to eat it – Jay (5 months experience made him our expert on all things India) was talking to another American in our train car, so I couldn’t ask his advice.  In the end, I did what I know – I folded the dosa into a burrito shape and ate it like a breakfast taco.  It worked really well, but then we noticed the people around us looking horrified.  In fact, Anna was sharing a seat with a father and two sons – and the father was pointing at me and saying something to the kids that was clearly along the lines of “Never, ever eat like that.”  The kids were laughing – they thought my burrito-ing of the dosa was hilarious.  Later, I saw an older couple get a masala dosa – you are supposed to peel off the dosa into strips and use them as scoops to get out the masala.  They should consider going burrito-style – my fingers were clean in the end and theirs were filthy.

After the dosa experience, we got to talking with the people around us on the train.  And it turns out the train we were on was definitely not going to Alleppey.  Sarah was concerned about this turn of events – while Anna, Jay and I kind of shrugged our shoulders.  So India is just like Africa…we’re used to it.  We just got off the train at the next stop and found a different train to Alleppey.  No one checked our ticket on either train, so no big deal.

In Alleppey, we were met by Bennie Raj, the guy who’d show us to our boat.  He let us stop for breakfast first, and we found that what everyone said in Varkala is true – it was expensive.  In Varkala, we were eating breakfast for $2 each.  In Alleppey, the 4 of us ate breakfast for $2 (I love India).  Afterwards, Bennie took us by tuk-tuk to the houseboat.  The boat was large, much larger than I expected, and sheathed in bamboo.  It had 2 cabins, each with its own bathroom.  There was a kitchen area with a cook working on preparing welcome drinks for us.  In the front, a small dining area with a table and 4 chairs, plus 2 deck chairs.  And on top, a small covered patio with some plastic chairs and a long bench that was padded and uncovered for sitting in the sun.

We were introduced to the captain, the cook and the deckhand – 3 crew members for 4 people – and headed immediately for the roof deck.  Sarah claimed the padded sunbench and Jay, Anna and I set up in the lawn chairs.  And that’s pretty much where we spent the next 8 hours.  We’d brought a bottle of vodka with us for the trip (again, just to flavor the tonic and keep the mosquitoes away) and we added it to the lime juice drink the cook brought us.  After an hour, we asked and received a second one.

It’s hard to really say what we did – mostly just sat, talked and watched the scenery.  But what amazing scenery.  The area of Kerala around Alleppey uses canals instead of roads – it resembles Venice, basically.  We’d pass villages along the banks of the canals with older women washing their laundry, naked children playing or taking baths, cows and goats eating along the banks and other snippets of village life.  It was quite interesting and not like anything we’d seen in the tourist areas we’d visited.

Around 1 pm, we stopped for lunch.  Whole fried fish, pineapple curd, samba, cucumber and tomatoes, an okra curry, tons of rice, pappadans and mixed vegetable salad.  We were stuffed – so we went back to the roofdeck to lay around.  I fell asleep for a bit, lying in the warm sun with the cool breeze coming off the water.  When I came to, the cook was back with a platter of fried bananas.  Mmmm.  It’s no fried Oreo or fried Twinkie, but I think a fried banana would hold its own at the Texas State Fair – it beats the hell out of the deep fried bacon that was selling like crazy a few years ago.

So that’s how we spent the rest of the day on the boat – sitting on the deck, eating fried bananas and sharing stories.  Thank goodness Sarah and Jay were there – Anna and I already know each others stories.  Sarah has been transferred to Boston from NYC, but she still keeps up with a lot of the same people Anna knew in New York.  Jay reads most days while traveling, so we were able to talk sports and, more specifically, the challenges of watching sports abroad.  I don’t have high hopes for my NCAA tournament watching chances in India.

As the sun went down around 7, the boat pulled up alongside one of the canals and the deckhand jumped out and tied us to a tree.  Apparently, that’s how docking is done in the backwaters.  They informed us we were parking for the night before the sun went down, but we were welcome to get out and explore the village on our own.  We walked for about an hour before returning to the boat for dinner.  This spread was as immense as the first one – we again couldn’t finish the whole thing.  After dinner, we cleared the table and got out the cards.  Sarah taught us to play Pitch – we fought the mosquitos and the heat for a couple of hours before calling it quits and heading to our air-conditioned rooms.

And that’s where a top-10 day turned into a bottom-10 night.  The cabins, intended to be air conditioned, had no screens on the windows.  The windows were not meant to be opened.  However, the crew had set the air-conditioners to 22 degrees Celsius (80 Fahrenheit) and then gone to bed.  On top of that, the power on the boat was inexplicably resetting itself every 4.5 minutes, like clockwork.  We tried playing cards in the hot, stuff room – but the lights would go out every 200 seconds, interrupting the game.  Sarah was lucky – her jetlag was still in effect so she passed out at 9 and slept through the night.  The rest of us didn’t.

Jay claimed that mosquitoes don’t like him and it was cool outside, so he opted to sleep on the roofdeck instead of in the room.  Mosquitoes most definitely like Anna and I, so that wasn’t an option for us.  So we did something we’d talked about before in rooms with no nets and no window screens – we erected our tent in the cabin, set it on the bed and crawled in.  We’d opened all the windows and doors in the room – the cold air came in and cooled everything down immediately.  I’m sure the crew thought we were crazy when they woke up and saw a tent set up in the middle of our room.

We slept, sort of, for about 6 hours and then got up to eat breakfast and spend the last hour on the roof deck.  Breakfast was another feast and it ended as we pulled up to dock the boat in Alleppey.  All in all, an enjoyable experience.  It was beautiful, no doubt, but I’m not sure I understand “Houseboat the Kerala backwaters” as a top 10 thing to do before you die.



  1. I learned pitch as part of my union with Dale – that is what they play in Nebraska. So when you come back, we’ll have to get together and play some pitch. We’re headed to bridge tonight, and will print some of your blog to share with your bridge family.

    • Thanks! Pitch was fun – we would love to get together to play when we get back. I don’t feel like I played enough to really understand the strategy completely.

  2. What fun to have Sarah with you. The houseboat trip sounds truly unique. Hard for me to say top ten because I don’t know what that really means — top ten experiences before you die. Hard for me to classify experiences like that. Amazing places certainly contribute but the people who are there make it top ten for me. Like Monet’s Garden with Anna during our Paris trip or Carlsbad Cavern with Jack on our New Mexico trip. Those are top ten experiences for me.

  3. I just read this now (8 June 11) and completely agree with “It was beautiful, no doubt, but I’m not sure I understand “Houseboat the Kerala backwaters” as a top 10 thing to do before you die. ”

    Also, and more importantly, go Mavs/Dirk

  4. […] Worst Nights: Kerala boat trip – we paid extra for an A/C room – but the power was out, so there was no […]

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