Review: Bethel Houseboats

Houseboat selfie (2)
Enjoying the breeze and view filled upper deck.

We spent our last night of our Kerala vacation on a houseboat on the backwaters near the coast. Our houseboat was run by two sweet, eager young men who did everything they could to ensure our happiness while we relaxed on the upper deck. Until evening on the first day and a couple hours of the second morning, we cruised around the backwaters, admiring all of the other houseboats and all of the life going on along the banks.

We made three stops along the way. First, we stopped in view of a rice paddy while the guys made a tasty traditional Keralan lunch, though without the banana leaf. Next we stopped at a long pier that appeared to be part fishing, part coconut water sales for tourists on houseboats. It was a beautiful spot, and nice to take a walk on the pier. Finally, we stopped in a little channel where our captain asked us if we wanted to go for a canoe ride.

The canoe ride turned out to be a little stressful, largely due to language barrier and our confusion. When we were first asked about a canoe ride, we thought we were being offered the option of taking a canoe out on our own. We gave a non-committal response along the lines of, “sure, that might be nice a little later.” Ten minutes later, a man paddled up in a large canoe with a covered area for two people to recline while he paddled from the back, and we were told by the captain that it was time to go. We quickly started getting ready to go and asked our captain if this were something we needed to pay for. His response suggested to us that it was included in our houseboat price, and we happily headed out.

For the first part of the canoe ride, we were in heaven. He took us down narrow canals that our houseboat couldn’t access, and we greatly enjoyed watching life go by. All along the canals there are homes that essentially use the canals as roads. Every home has a boat, and other “taxi” canoes are moving around delivering people where they want to go. There are also walkways along the sides where people are out and about. It’s beautiful with lush lily beds and beautiful trees and flowers everywhere. It was absolutely amazing . . . until the mosquitoes started to bite us and we realized that we’d neglected insect repellent in our haste to get to the waiting boat. We started casually asking when we’d go back to our houseboat, but got only vague responses. It quickly became dark and we were enjoying our canoe ride less and less. And then our canoe man told us that we had to pay him 800 rupees. We hadn’t brought any money with us and told him we’d pay him back at the boat, at which point he told us that we were to pass it out the window without our captain seeing us. That sounded fishy and we asked again when we’d get back to our boat, at which point he started singing. As we got back to the point where we’d left our boat and saw that it was no longer there, we were officially no longer having fun but could not get a coherent response from the singing man paddling our canoe. Finally we found our docked boat and hastily boarded, asking our captain about payment. It was clear then that we were expected to pay, but not as much as he was asking. We gave him 500 rupees and he eventually left, but we felt a bit badly about it. It was our fault for not establishing the fee before getting on the boat – we know better – but it still left us a little unhappy about something that we should have enjoyed.

Houseboat lunch
Lunch on board. It was by far the best meal of our stay.

Dinner was ready in due course. Our hosts had not gotten the message that we were vegetarian, so dinner was pretty basic since we were not served the fresh fish that we’re sure a fish-eater would have loved. We spent the evening and night docked on the side of a canal in a cute little neighborhood. Our bed was very hard, the boat was a bit askew, and the bathroom was a bit malodorous. When we woke, we were happy to return to our upper deck to watch the neighborhood folks stirring and getting ready for the day, including bathing and laundering in the canal itself. Breakfast was ok, if a little disappointing — idly that didn’t really hold together and watery sambar.

So often in life, happiness is a matter of expectations. If you expect A and get B, you might be disappointed. But if you expect B and get B, you’ll probably be delighted. And changing expectations in mid-stream can be difficult. While Melissa carefully selected most of hotels for this trip, she left the houseboat selection to the tour company that also supplied our terrific driver, Ansu. This was not the wisest choice since they didn’t know what our expectations were and definitely delivered B. If we’d expected it, we might have loved it, but as it was, we didn’t feel quite as blissful as anticipated. Our houseboat was definitely rustic with plastic flowers, slightly grimy surfaces, a bathroom we that we avoided as much as possible, a bed without a full set of linens, and very simple food.

Houseboat crewWe loved our crew, and we loved having a upper deck that was both covered and totally open on four sides. We learned that there are clearly different houseboat companies, though. If we return to a houseboat, it won’t be the same one.

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