Everyone we know who has experienced a houseboat trip along the miles of canals that were once - before the road infrastructure improved - the main highways in this region, has lauded the 21 hours you get to spend casually perusing the waterways.
It is said that for visitors to Kerala there will be no greater expense than a houseboat trip and this certainly has proved to be true, Tour operators in Varkala Beach offer houseboat packages for approximately R7,000 (around £100), but we were advised to instead go to Alleppey and negotiate directly with the boat operators. So this is what we did.
I spent close to an hour going from one boat to another, asking their best price, inspecting the facilities and trying to get a sense of the crew's hospitality. I couldn't get anyone to take us for less than R5,000 (£66) - and this was on the worst-looking boat I had visited!
Then Bob, my friend, told me he'd spoken to a girl at the desk of the Houseboat Prepaid Counter inside the large white building of the District Tourism Promotion Council, which is situated where all the boats are docked. They guarantee you a double room on a boat for R6,000 or two doubles for R8,500 (£112).
I had R500 deducted for choosing no air conditioning, but had to pay that amount for an extra bed (for Zenchai), which, in reality, turned out to be nothing more than a thin cushion on the floor with a fresh sheet on top.
The way the purchasing system works is that you show up at the DTPC office at 9.30am the day you want to depart and they show you the boat/s available. If you like it, you pay and return for the start of the journey at 12pm. That's precisely what we did, but as we headed for the boat, a female Russian traveller stopped to ask Jamie about going on the backwaters. We liked her and invited her to join us (we had a two-bedroom boat).
She declined, though, saying she needed to head further south. So we boarded our boat, but then a few minutes later Zoya, the Russian girl, turned up again, saying she'd changed her mind. The man in charge of organising the boat for us asked if we minded. He then told me we would get R1,500 back, which I thought was fair.
We were all greeted on board with a fresh coconut. Zoya then said there was a misunderstanding with the price and that she wouldn't be going after all. We continued sipping our coconuts, waiting for her to depart, but some negotiating followed. The boat representative returned to tell us Zoya couldn't pay the full price, but was still going and, therefore, we wouldn't be getting any reimbursement!
While we were happy to have Zoya on board, I told him he had made an agreement and that they, the boat, were making money from an extra passenger, not us. The crew went into conference and came back, offering me R1,000. I agreed.
I don't know, however, whether this transaction had anything to do with our service, which wasn't quite what we expected and didn't make for an overly relaxing trip. While the food was good and better than I expected, one member of the crew was seriously intense to the point that when we had our meals he was rushing us to finish so he could clear the table. We all looked at each other, partly astonished and partly amused.
Even when Zenchai asked if he could steer the ship, this crewman initially declined, but then, after some persuasion from Zoya, changed his mind. The second driver was much friendlier. He allowed Zenchai to drive the boat the next morning from where we were docked.
Sunset and sunrise were the best moments of this experience, though even for the former we were parked for the night on the wrong side of the waterway to get the best view. We got off the boat for a while, went for a walk and chatted to some locals who, of course, were super-friendly and took an interest in Kobra.
We had our dinner around 7pm, though the moody crewman had wanted to serve earlier (around 6pm, when we weren't really hungry) and then said he couldn't, for whatever reason, make dinner for 8pm. We compromised.
Before dinner, though, I'd noticed an old man in a canoe make his way to our boat and climb a coconut tree. In the tree he'd placed big bowls over old roots. I had never seen this before. He removed the bowls and then extracted a liquid from the root. I asked the moody crewman whether it was milk. He asked if I wanted to try. Instead, I got a large bottle and had to pay R100 (£1.50).
It didn't look particularly nice and smelled horrid - rancid actually. I took a sip and was utterly disgusted. I gave it to the moody crewman as a present as he seemed to regard it as some kind of delicacy. I don't know whose smile was widest - his for receiving the drink or mine for getting rid of it!
I thought the drink might lighten him up a bit, but almost straight after dinner he ushered us to our rooms and to bed for the night. It got buggy and humid at night. We showered as best we could with the gentle trickle of water that emerged from the taps. I didn't mention to Jamie the large cockroach I saw emerge from behind the toilet, though she spotted a dirty sanity pad sitting outside the toilet window.
Jamie pointed out it was the quietest night's sleep we'd had since arriving in India. In the morning it was stunning - peaceful, scenic and fascinating watching the locals who lived by the water go about their business. We had our breakfast - some fruit and bread (Zoya was disappointed there was no hot water for tea) - and Zenchai, at the helm, started us on our way.
Mind you, having left London and big cities to avoid traffic, I slowly watched one boat after another converge until there was a procession of them - like some kind of animal migration -heading back to where they all parked, ready for the next customers. It was disappointing to see so many boats, not to mention all the advertising boards placed en route. Nowhere, it seems, is too sacred for consumerism.
Houseboat trips end around 9am and the next train to Varkala wasn't until 3.30pm. The DTPC won't store luggage. We headed to the railway station, dropped off our bags in the locker room (for a small fee) and went back into town for a walk around and then another boat trip, this time along the canal.
Alleppey, though, is loud and busy, just like any other Indian city or town. By around 2pm - with two young kids in tow - we'd taken enough and decided to retreat to the station and wait for our train on the platform.
The whole experience, combined with the heat, had knocked the stuffing out of Kobra and Zenchai, who both slept nearly the entire way back to Varkala.