Cruising the backwaters: my holiday or their home?

VLE sureshAlison Stancliffe, Tourism Concern’s founder, describes her Kerala Backwaters experience:

My favourite photo, taken recently in the Indian coastal state of Kerala, shows me climbing a coconut tree. I didn’t expect to find myself up a tree, as I’d set off to do something rather more serious – to check out houseboat tourism in Kerala’s fabled backwaters, where Tourism Concern is championing a Houseboat Code of Conduct (read about it on the campaigns pages).

I’m a keen supporter of the project. So when I had the chance in late 2015 to go to India, I persuaded my two travel buddies to finish our holiday with a houseboat cruise in the Kerala backwaters. I knew the Code touched on many difficult environmental and social issues, but this couldn’t be a study tour – and in any case, the issues were already identified. Instead, I decided to see if we could contribute as tourists to solutions rather than add to any problems.

Houseboats are converted rice barges, ranging from small one bedroomed affairs to giant double deckers. The main hub for the 500 or so boats is Allepey (Allappuzha) on the east side of huge Lake Vembanad. From there and other points, they cruise the lake and the network of waterways spreading out from it.

I didn’t want to book a random houseboat as current certification systems don’t address many of the local concerns. So I asked Peter Bishop, Tourism Concern’s programme manager, for his advice. He suggested consulting Rupesh Kumar, one of the many Keralans grappling with how to put the Code into practice. And that’s how I came to be up that coconut tree.

Rupesh is the state field co-ordinator for Responsible Tourism Kerala(RTK). He’s put his heart and soul into building up this initiative, and it shows in the quality of the RTK’s flagship programme, Village Life Experiences. He booked us on a half day backwaters cruise in a small houseboat, then a half day Village Life Experiences package in a non motorised open canopy boat. Both trips started from the RTK office in the village of Kumarakom, a houseboat hub across the lake from Allepey.

Using the RTK website’s classified accommodation list I’d found a locally owned lakeside cottage complex within reasonable reach of the jetty at Kumarakom. This made for a relaxed start to the morning houseboat cruise. Rupesh knew the boat owner and trusted him to comply with the draft Code of Practice, so we were sure there’d be no illegal emptying of bilge water or mooring too close to someone’s house, and knew that the remains of the promised delicious lunch would be properly disposed of.

The boat had just one bedroom and a canopied lounge/dining area, with a skipper and a cook. Its size allowed us to travel along waterways too small for most houseboats. We felt truly pampered. Our skipper headed out into the lake and then along canals where there were more local ferries than houseboats. People along the banks were using the canal water – obviously a precious local resource – to clean themselves, their clothes and their cooking pots. Everywhere, washing was out to dry after some days of heavy rain, and a tapestry of daily life unfolded around us, captured on our cameras.

For the most part, we were ignored, just part of the general traffic along the river. But occasionally I could feel eyes staring back at me when I gazed too obviously at someone going about their work or merely chatting to a neighbour. The dividing line between a passer-by and a voyeur was uncomfortably difficult to draw. Which were we? We were paying the boat owner and his team for consuming this memorable experience. But was that enough?

After lunch we changed boats and set out on the Village Life Experience tour, accompanied by Rupesh himself, who had altered his busy schedule to spend the afternoon with us. This felt very different to the morning cruise. For a start, our two boatmen cum guides, Sabu and Suresh, also farmed the homesteads we visited. What’s more, they had a wider vested interest in the tours, as 95% of the tour fee, Rupesh told us, went to the villages bordering the waterways we travelled on.

Our canopied boat was punted deep into the backwaters. By the end of the afternoon we had learned the hard way that climbing a palm tree with a modern crampon contraption is less picturesque than in the old days but a lot safer. We also learned, among other things, how to tap the coconuts for toddy, and of course we had to drink the toddy too. Apparently it hadn’t yet turned alcoholic, though I wasn’t convinced about that on the unsteady walk back to our boat.

Of course we took plenty pictures in the afternoon too, hence my tree climbing souvenir. But goodness, I did so much more, including listening to Rupesh talk with a passion about the benefits Village Life Experience tours had brought to the communities he worked with.

‘What do people think’, I asked, ‘about us pointing our cameras at them?’

‘In this part of the backwaters they don’t mind at all’, he said. ‘They know you’re putting money into their pockets, and the guides come from their own community. They know you’re interested in a positive way about how they live’.

Passing through Sabu’s yard at the end of our visit, we saw his daughter and her friends about to begin what looked like a version of my old favourite, hopscotch. ‘How do you play it?’ I asked. ‘Can we stop and watch?’ As Sabu’s daughter jumped expertly over the squares drawn in the earth, we all – girls, guides and visitors – applauded in admiration, and I felt part of a priveleged joint enterprise, no longer just a passer-by.

The proposed Houseboat Code of Practice is about all stakeholders respecting the culture and environment of this special place, as we were able to do that day. Everyone will benefit and hopefully understand each others’ lives better. I am so proud of Tourism Concern’s role in developing it.

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