The Beguiling Backwaters of Kerala, India

Kerala’s backwaters are beguiling. Life moves at a slower pace on these famous waterways and there’s a distinct sense that dreams can effortlessly be born and nurtured there.  

The quiet lagoons and lakes are about 45 minutes from the pleasant tourist town of Fort Kochi, making them the perfect spot to escape the hustle and bustle that is standard — yet fascinating fare — in India.

Several weeks ago, we left our Fort Kochi guesthouse early to embark on our own backwater exploration. Even at 0700, the air over the coastal town was piping-hot and muggy — easily in the low 80s. On a playing field across from our guesthouse, hundreds of young men and boys took advantage of the day’s relatively cooler morning temperatures, sporting wooden bats, cricket balls and heaps of enthusiasm for the game.

Along with a quartet of Bulgarian and Ukranian-American visitors we hopped into a crowded, non-air conditioned van bound for the backwaters. Our group was soon married up with adventurous souls from France, India, Brazil and the Maldives, and before we knew it we had boarded a handsome houseboat crafted from wooden planks, jute ropes (made of coconut fiber), bamboo poles and palm leaves. Though these Kettuvallams are now primarily used for leisure travelers, they formerly overflowed with spices and rice bound for Fort Kochi. (In Malayalam, the language largely spoken in the state of Kerala, Kettu means ‘tied with ropes’ and vallam means ‘boats.’)

The experience was instantly calming and magical: The water acted as an ever-changing canvas, reflecting palm tree canopies and lush shrubberies. Meditative cows and kingfisher birds stood guard at water’s edge. We were greeted by young siblings playing hide & seek, who followed us on our journey. Ladies did dishes and laundry in the water, and locals of all ages had a cooling bath. Men also unloaded heaps of coconuts from a mustard-colored boat, taking them to a small facility where they would be laboriously processed by locals for their fruit and outside fibers. It would have been naïve for us to have assumed that life was easy for locals there, but from our perspective, it seemed more peaceful, less complicated.

As our two boat drivers powered our elegant vessel with the use of tall bamboo poles, our group transitioned from initial conversation – to speechless, thoughtful moments – to a conversation about following dreams, the power of positive thinking and not allowing fear to hamper the pursuit of dreams.

All around us, locals steered vessels of all shapes and sizes toward specific destinations, just as they’ve been doing for centuries. The task was not easy for them, but the waters, along with their efforts, would eventually carry them to where they were aiming – a fitting metaphor for those of us pondering life changes and perceived obstacles to reaching our dreams. I’m so thrilled that the backwaters of Kerala brought us all together on that lovely afternoon so that we could all take a collective step forward toward our dreams.

What places have inspired you to dream big? What lessons have you learned while on the road or in one of your favorite spots back home?

Where in the World?

Planning Pointers:

  • We used Kochi (Cochin) as our hub during our time in the region. From there, it was easy to book day-trips into Kerala’s backwaters, and to Munnar, which we explored after leaving Kochi.
  •  Need more inspiration? This link contains an index of all my posts from India.

Photography & text © Tricia A. Mitchell. All Rights Reserved.

Published by Tricia A. Mitchell

Tricia A. Mitchell is a freelance writer and photographer. Born in Europe but raised in the United States, she has lived in Valletta, Malta; Heidelberg, Germany; and Split, Croatia. An avid globetrotter who has visited more than 65 countries, she has a penchant for off-season travel. Tricia has learned that travel’s greatest gift is not sightseeing, rather it is the interactions with people. Some of her most memorable experiences have been sharing a bottle of champagne with distant French cousins in Lorraine, learning how to milk goats in a sleepy Bulgarian village, and ringing in the Vietnamese New Year with a Hanoi family. She welcomes any opportunity to practice French and German, and she loves delving into a place’s history and artisanal food scene. A former education administrator and training specialist, Tricia has a bachelor’s degree in elementary education and a master’s degree in international relations. She and her husband, Shawn, married in the ruins of a snowy German castle. They’ve been known to escape winter by basing themselves in coastal Croatia or Southeast Asia. Her writing has appeared in Fodor’s Travel, Frommer’s, and International Living.

29 thoughts on “The Beguiling Backwaters of Kerala, India

  1. Definitely India! I celebrated my 30th birthday in Varanasi, and when told I could ask ‘Mother Ganga’ for anything, I asked for ‘meaning’. Since then, my life has been a journey towards meaning, a life rich in experience, growth and overcoming fear. Those photos are STUNNING Tricia! I am immediately transported to the lazy, sticky, tranquility of the backwaters, one of my most favorite places.

    1. Sarah, I’m so thrilled for you that your journey has been just what you wished for in Varanasi and that you’re off seeing the world with your beau! You’re a tremendous inspiration to many who wish to do the same.

      Thanks for your kind words about the photos from Kerala. They seemed to lend themselves well to an antique treatment since visiting the backwaters made us feel as though we went back in time to a quieter, untouched place.

      Enjoy your weekend, though I know when you’re on the road every day feels like a Saturday! :)

  2. What a beautiful post, Tricia. I especially like this paragraph: “As our two boat drivers powered our elegant vessel with the use of tall bamboo poles, our group transitioned from initial conversation – to speechless, thoughtful moments – to a conversation about following dreams, the power of positive thinking and not allowing fear to hamper the pursuit of dreams.” Superb.
    Your question brought to mind a moment on our trip to Yosemite. We had hiked up to the top of Lembert Dome near Toulumne Meadows and we had the peak to ourselves. For 360degrees we could see no sign of human presence, no buildings or cars or people. Just raw wilderness. No-one spoke. Even the children were still. We just listened to the silence. We weren’t dreaming big necessarily but it was one of those special moments that only travel brings.

    1. Thank you for your kind comments, Rachael. I really like that you shared a specific line that spoke to you.

      And, speaking of travel-inspired dreaming and serene moments, thanks for sharing your special travel moment! It’s rare and magical to make it to a place that is seemingly-untouched by man and technology, but I think you found it at Yosemite. How many days did you and your family spend there?

      I’ve been living in Europe for the past 10 years and I’m looking forward to seeing more of the United States when we visit this summer. The Grand Canyon – and possibly Yosemite – are on our wish list. Your anecdote about the area’s natural beauty makes me want to visit even more!

      1. We were in Yosemite for four days, as part of a six-week holiday. My husband had a three-month sabbatical but as we have school-age children we had to confine our trip to the summer holidays. We have travelled more in North America in recent years, partly because my husband, Peter, is Canadian, and also because I don’t want to have to subject the children to travel immunisations until they are older. Our youngest is now 11 so I look forward to returning to some more culturally diverse destinations soon. But it is too easy to dismiss, as travellers sometimes do, the USA as culturally sparse, and it is also unfair. I have thoroughly enjoyed every trip we have made there. Last summer we spent a whole week in Boston and i am very keen to go back there soon. One thing that has never failed to impress me is their approach to their National Parks. And I love the wide open spaces.
        Where are you planning to go?

      2. Rachael, bravo to you for taking your children along on your life-enriching journeys! We do not yet have children but travel is something we want to expose our future family to – experiences vs. excessive ‘stuff.’ My husband, Shawn, is also from Canada, but grew up in the U.S…

        Our trip back to the U.S. will be part pleasure, part tying of loose ends following 10 years of life in Germany. We’ll hopefully get to make visits to my extended family in the Midwest, as well as Shawn’s in the West. And, I would love to see Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, Napa, and the Redwoods. I’ve been fortunate to have seen so much of the world, and am eager to explore the natural beauty spots in my own country! It’s refreshing to hear that your family trips to the U.S. have been so positive! I’m also very fond of the Eastern United States, and Boston’s somewhat-European character very much appeals to me too. If a trip to Yosemite develops, perhaps I can ask you for pointers. :)

      3. I would be very happy to give you pointers about Yosemite, or anywhere else. We spent three weeks in mid- California (between SF and LA) and had a great time. We may spend 7 weeks living in San Francisco in summer 2013 as Pete’s work may take him there. I am looking forward to a chance to explore northern California. I am also keen to get to Yellowstone and Mesa Verde. Lots of trips ahead!

  3. just like your journey, these photos are calming and magical. I feel the warmth and the serenity, and the comfort in sharing of passions and dreams. Everyone is united in that feeling for the moment. Wonderful!

    1. Greetings, Marina, so nice that the photos had a calming effect. :) I’m really enjoying interacting with you and others I’ve met while creating this site – it’s super to have that encouragement and sharing of knowledge. Here’s hoping that your studies are progressing well, inching you closer to your writing dreams! Until next time…

  4. I love that first photo (actually i love all of them but that one especially), the colours are great and it looks so serene.

    1. Hi Jane, it was perfect timing – the young woman strolled into the scene just as our houseboat was floating by. Thank you, as always for your great feedback! Hope the skies were just as blue and lovely in the UK as they were in Germany today!

  5. Hi! I so love the nostalgic look of these photos, almost like sepia. This post overall makes me feel like all of us travelers are really kindred spirits running after one dream….I wish to travel to India one day (saving up!) because of its very rich culture. Thank you so much for taking the time to drop by my blog, and I wish you all the happiness that these adventures could possibly bring you.

    1. I love the sound of your comment, Floydgan: tourists as “kindred spirits running after one dream…”

      Sepia / antique processing seemed a fitting way to touch up the pictures given that it was such a serene afternoon and one in which we all shared our dreams.

      Here’s hoping that you and your family will make it to India someday soon, though the Philippines also has so many wonderful spots to explore. My husband and I were just there in February and we were impressed by the natural wonders we saw: the Batad Rice Terraces, snorkeling off of Panglao Island and the Chocolate Hills. Magnificent!

  6. You are an amazing woman – sensitive, thoughtful and creative – sharing your adventures and photographs with the world. Thank you for a wonderful morning of arm chair traveling.

    1. What a wonderfully kind comment, Virginia! I’m touched and humbled by your generous compliment. We’re quite fortunate to have the traveling opportunities we’ve had, so it’s a joy to share with my readers. It’s nice to hear that you were able to explore a special corner of India along with me.

      May you have a splendid weekend!

      1. Growing up in India, have got to know quiet a bit about Kerala. I am familiar with the cuisine and also have a lot of friends from that region. A kerala trip is on my to-do list :)

      2. Orange Potpourri, I also know the feeling of having wonderful places ‘in my backyard’ that I haven’t yet seen. We have a friend with family from Kerala, and her stories about the backwaters and the culture provided even more incentive for us to visit. I hope you’ll have the chance to do so soon! Wishing you a lovely weekend ahead.

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