If you google “things to do in Kerala”, I can guarantee you that the backwater tours on houseboats will be one of the top results you’ll get.
The backwaters are a series of canals and lakes lined with paddy fields and local villages. The routes were originally used as a means for transporting and trading, but have become one of the highest tourist attractions in India–
–and for a good reason — the experience of floating on a peaceful canal, surrounded by coconut trees and colorful homes buzzing with local village life, and being in a boat with actual bedrooms, showers, toilets, dining spaces, kitchens and beautiful decks are something out of a dream.
My journey to the houseboats took me to Alleppey, or Alapuzha, a district in the southern part of Kerala. I was connected to a trusted boat company through a local friend. The houseboats are a luxury that not many middle or lower income families in India can afford, so the targeted customers are foreigners and wealthier Indian tourists who flock to the shores of houseboats in search for their promised ‘once in a lifetime’ experience.
This means that it can be one hell of a price to pay for a few hours on a pretty houseboat. If you’re ever looking to have the experience, but on a budget, there are public ferries and boats which cost significantly less and take the same routes, albeit minus the whole palace on a boat thing (who needs a shower on a boat anyway?)
Our captain, Baby Uncle (YES, THAT WAS HIS ACTUAL NAME) gave us a tour of the houseboat, which included all the beautiful facilities mentioned above (did I mention two freaking bedrooms on a boat?!) and let us know that a traditional Kerala-Style lunch would be served with fresh fish from the river.
The luxury, the beauty, the hospitality. It was all so perfect.
But something didn’t feel right.
As we floated down the canal, enjoyign our chayya and parampuris (fried bananas), I could feel the gaze of the local villagers following us. As a foreigner, I was naturally curious to crane my neck and take in as much of the ‘authentic villiage life’ as I could. But sitting up on my throne of a boat, looking down at uncles rowing away on their daily routes, and aunties washing their laundry on the sides of the river in their colorful saris,
it just felt wrong.
I asked Baby Uncle if it was possible to make a stop on the 7-hour scheduled ride so I could step onto the paths lining the sides of the canals, where the colorful homes of the locals lay. He agreed.
I had rather quench my curiosity by interacting with the local people face to face, rather than looking down at them from a 5-star palace-on-a-boat.
I wandered the road for a few minutes, occasionaly glancing into the homes that decorated and livened the canals with their bright colors. Some of the houses had families in them, eating their dinner together, and in some, children were playing and running around in the front yards.
I felt like an intruder.
I returned to the houesboat reluctantly and continued my joureny in deep thought, questions swimming in my mind.
what gave me the right to have the privilege of being able to be on this houseboat?
Is it wrong of me to be here?
the backwater tours definitely provided many of the local people with livlihoods and incomes, but were we unwanted tourists that were intruding in their lives, only reluctantly let in with the power of the dollars we hold, which they need?
why should we be allowed to parade through a local village, witness the daily, sometimes intimate, details of someone’s life?
These are questions which I still reflect upon when I come across pictures from that day, or when I’m asked about the backwater experiences.
While it was definitely an experience of a lifetime, I discovered it wasn’t an easy or happy one for me. The positionality of being seen by locals as a rich foreigner enjoying luxurious experiences in their area is not a comfortable one for me.
Don’t get me wrong, the houseboats are wonderful and their service is absolutely amazing. For those who enjoy relaxing vacations, luxury-style stays, and making most of your money, I would definitely recommend the backwaters of Kerala.
But I think the next time I visit Alleppey, I’ll sit beside the local auntie on the small public ferries and wave to the foreigners on the pretty houseboats instead.
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