9am, Saturday: Pile bags into taxi at home in Varkala, full of anticipation and ready to houseboat. All four of us (Ma, Pa, my lady and me) chatter excitedly at the prospect of a blissful 24 hours on the backwaters of Kerala. Rendezvous with the boat is at Thevally, on the outskirts of Kollam – only an hour away, tops.
11am: Find rendezvous point at last after many wrong turns, and many angry words shouted by our driver down the phone to the houseboat guide. The guide seems to have the more believable story: “Your driver, my God, what a crack man! I told him so many times, left at the bridge!” After all bags are unpacked and on the houseboat, decide not to tip driver.
11:10am: Any lingering ill feeling in the wake of the extended taxi jaunt is remedied by a flower garland around each neck, a tender coconut in each pair of hands and a step onto the cosy upper deck, from where the stunning vista expands along the riverside and out into an enormous lagoon. We’re on our way!
11:40am: The guide, Anil, gives a brief history of houseboating in Kerala, the particular boat we are lucky enough to be sailing on, and his own unusual career. Anil speaks Malayalam, English, Hindi and German. Ma, and hence my lady, happen to be descended from Germans. ‘The bond’ is made.
1:20pm: Anchor in the middle of a huge lagoon for lunch. Lunch consists of rice, fish fry, three curries and no less than seven different kinds of vegetables and pickles, all Kerala style, all cooked to perfection. Everybody eats until they can eat no more.
3:00pm: Spy a large bridge about 500 metres ahead. Wonder whether the people gathered along its length are watching us.
3:02pm: Wonder no more. The shouts of “Saip-e! Saip-e!” build and recede as we pass under and leave the bridge behind. Animated waves are exchanged until we are too far away to see them.
4:30pm: Time for a swim. Ma and my lady start a mud fight and we all regress to our childhoods. A bucket of mussels is filled from the abundance on the lagoon floor.
5:30pm: The boat anchors in accordance with Kerala law, as fishermen are setting their nets for the night. Fouling a local’s livelihood in the wake of our shuttering cameras would not be responsible tourism.
6:00pm: Sunset over the Arabian Sea. Orange, yellow, beautiful, enchanting, unforgettable.
7:30pm: Lunch almost digested, so dinner arrives, somehow better than lunch with yet more different dishes – including our hand-picked mussels. Everybody wants more than their stomach could possibly handle.
9:30pm: The day’s photos are found to capture much of the majesty of nature witnessed, but still fail to do justice to the feeling of being there and experiencing it through fresh eyes. The video camera, too, contains magic, but it isn’t the same. You just have to be there.
10:30pm: Retire to bed, crawling under the mosquito nets onto a luxurious king-size. Steerage, this is not. Cicadas sing us to sleep, assisted by the gentle roll of the tide.
7:00am, Sunday: My lady wakes and heads up to the deck to get in a half-hour of yoga practice in this idyll. I join her a short while after, and Ma and Pa soon emerge having slept peacefully all night. Pa and me are, as usual, a little sunburned. We sit for a while in silence, waking up in the calm current lapping against the shore and the floating reeds drifting lazily down river.
7:45am: Breakfast. What better way to start the day than with idiyappam, egg curry, coconut chutney and fresh fruit? Anil once again pushes our steadily expanding bellies to bursting point. All of us make an effort, as it’s our last meal on the boat.
8:30am: Pass through a long section of backwater whose banks are undergoing fortification by a 200-strong gang of workers. Canoes are pushed with long sticks from one side to the other, piles of sand weighing them down to the level of the water. One guy loses his stick and, after a laugh, swims back to retrieve it. I stand like Bill Clinton and wave to the watching, smiling workers, feeling both important and an idiot.
9:30am: The houseboat pulls up to the shore. We reluctantly disembark to our waiting taxi (a different one this time). Smiles and handshakes are exchanged with Anil, the boat captain and the rest of the five-strong crew. A magical experience complete, we climb into the taxi and start the journey back to Varkala. Within minutes the four of us are asleep, the busy Kerala roads replaced by dreams of being back aboard the houseboat: a transport on which the journey is the destination.