Kerala, India’s Float Tank
A filigree of canals, lakes and rivers, the backwaters cast a watery web over the flat inland of Kerala, one of the most likeable and relaxed of all the Indian states. Drifting through this liquid landscape on a houseboat attended by a cook and captain has become one of the staples of Keralan tourism – but you won’t be alone. On a two-day excursion on a rice barge, we passed hundreds of similar vessels. Much better – and far cheaper – is to base yourself at a hotel somewhere in the region, and Raheem Residency in Alleppey would be a prime choice – and hire a boat to do some day trips along the backwaters.
The backwaters exist to provide water for the local rice-growing industry, and the word “lush” doesn’t even come close to describing the waterworld of the paddy fields. Rucked up between the fields, earth walls sprigged with coconut palms form swooning corridors. There are chugging pumps that are used to drain the rice paddies, people fishing and washing, children playing cricket and shouting across the fields – “One pen, one pen” – drifts of Hindu music and ducks. In flocks of a couple of thousand, ducks are herded along the rivers and canals of the backwaters and let loose in the paddy fields to clean up after the rice has been harvested, leaving behind a valuable layer of fertiliser as well as a few rupees for the owner of the rice field. The flip-flop of several thousand webbed feet is one of Kerala’s distinguishing sounds. At one of the stops along the way I fall into conversation with Jai and Anita, visitors from Mumbai. “Ruddy ducks everywhere, but do you think I can buy one for the dinner table?” says Jai. “No. Those fellows say they’re much too valuable to sell.