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Kerala – Peace & Tranquility in God’s Own Country
As the horrific events of Boxing Day 2004 unfolded on television, I became more and more worried about going to India. I was also deeply concerned that people and places I knew in neighboring Asian countries were being wiped out. I experienced nightmares that brought me close to a dark depression, yet I knew that by continuing my journey, the little money I would spend could directly help the region’s already depleted tourism industry.
On the way to Dubai my wife sat next to a soft-spoken, middle-aged Sri Lankan, a resident of Britain since childhood. He was a psychiatrist returning to his birthplace to help counsel victims of the disaster. He expressed pronounced anxiety about what he was about to face and the worry showed in his eyes as he talked about how his own mind would react to the heartbreaking situations he was about to encounter. As a trained specialist he feared the lasting psychological damage he risked exposing himself to and suspected that in time the counselors themselves would require counseling to prevent the brain from shutting down. As we met our connecting flight, a throng of tired-looking international rescue workers gathered on the airport concourse en route to Colombo, a stark reminder of the nearness of disaster, not that we needed a reminder.
Locally they call Kerala “God’s Own Country”. It shares the southernmost land mass of India with Tamil Nadu in the east and a communal border that continues towards the lowest tip of the subcontinent. Trivandrum, the Kerala state capital, is located towards the foot of the Malabar Coast near the point where the Indian Ocean meets the Arabian Sea. It was on this piece of coast that more than two hundred fishermen and pilgrims perished while worshiping in the sea when the great wave struck. Kerala faces southwest and except for the southernmost part most of the coast was accidentally sheltered from the direct path of the tsunami. This saved hundreds of small fishing communities from total annihilation. Abnormal tides swept the beaches but they did not venture far enough inland to cause damage but a week later many visitors were still nervous about venturing onto the magnificent white sands. Fewer still entered the sea. Fearing that the big wave will return, some fishermen have already sold up and bought auto-rickshaw taxis (phat-phats) with the limited funds they could accumulate.
Religion in Kerala dominates, like much of India, often to the point of obsession. Many locals, Hindus, Christians, Muslims, even Jains jointly agreed that only “the will of God” saved them from disaster. In reality their sheltered location was their real savior but it was easy to imagine what a direct hit by the tsunami could have done to the ecosystem around Vembanad Lake and the district’s intricate network of winding backwaters. These waterways are vital to Kerala’s economy in so many ways not least tourism. The vast lake (204 sq km) one of 34 throughout the State, serves as a hub to 1900 km of peaceful backwaters that connect small communities of inland fishermen, farmers, shell collectors and rice growers. Three hundred houseboat operators depend entirely on isolation tourism to survive. The English-language newspaper “The Hindu Times” reported that cancellations and reduced bookings for 2005 had already reduced their business by as much as 40%. Although Kerala does not have the widespread abject poverty that permeates most of India, a continued reduction in tourism will not take long to force many boat owners to go broke. Fortunately the State is rich in natural products such as rice, fruits, nuts, vegetables, tea, coffee and spices. These resources provide a stable livelihood for some, but this is of little consequence to the houseboat operators. They are well aware of their vulnerability, so they push the government to campaign abroad for more tourism to protect their livelihoods.
The houseboats, known as kettuvallom, are converted rice barges, comfortably equipped; some part solar powered, with a crew of two boatmen and a cook. An overnight stay on a kettuvallom is enchanting although failing to book an air-conditioned boat was a mistake which made for a very sticky night under a constricting but essential mosquito net. A noisy electric fan became the only means of distributing the humid air. But the boats do have basic en-suite facilities and a restless night is a worthwhile sacrifice when you wake up to be rewarded by the sound of the dawn chorus and the prospect of a few more relaxing hours of the cruise still remaining. Nothing could detract from the outstanding pleasure of watching everyday rural life go by, while sitting comfortably in a rattan armchair on the sun deck sipping a cold drink. kingfisher while the crew attends to your needs. I have heard that the curries created on board are second to none. Two spectacular meals confirmed that this is a true culinary experience that no British joint could ever match for taste! Freshwater fish cutlets, vegetable curry, perfectly flaky boiled rice and chapatti for lunch taken at anchor surrounded by an abundance of bird life on the still waters of Vembanad Lake. Sometimes a brightly colored kingfisher passed by; then an egret. Afternoon tea arrived as we walked through the backwaters strewn with water hyacinth and partially shaded under a tall canopy of swaying coconut palms as lone fishermen dragged their nets from narrow wooden canoes. Dinner was a maharaja feast of spiced fried chicken, crispy bitter gourds, okra, fried rice, green beans, dhal and potato curry. Another culinary experience.
A narrow green divide separates the canals from the lower level of the rice fields where farmers worked their small holdings using ox-drawn wooden plows in the same way their ancestors had done for centuries. Others worked knee-deep in mud harvesting rice. Sometimes it felt like we were looking at rural life through a kaleidoscope and we would become an integral part of a Discovery Channel documentary film. Farms, shops, houses, village schools and temples competed for space on these medians, often no more than forty feet wide. Everyday life is attractive, people watching has become a pastime. Smiling children in blue uniforms waved from long, tightly packed boats that ply the waterways that take them from village to school. Women washed their waist-length black hair and bathed fully clothed, some brushed their teeth using a finger as a toothbrush as others washed clothes in the common waters of the canals. On land they were milking eared goats while small groups of old people spent time doing very little. The backwaters also have their own unique sounds. Sometimes the quiet was broken only by the low purr of the houseboat’s outboard motor or the occasional deep-sounding thump of the diesel-powered fast-moving waterbuses that distribute human cargo at stopping points spaced on either side of the main arteries. Sometimes nature alone disturbs the silence with the sound of wild birds taking flight like a black crow screeching. Elsewhere the calm was broken by the almost melodious wake-up call of a chicken somewhere in the distance. Above, the graceful forms of bald eagles circled in the warm thermals. At dusk and dawn the sound of Hindu prayers chanted in Malayalam, the local dialect, permeated the air of a temple dotted within a small community. Perhaps this was as close to an earthly form of heaven as you could find; it certainly has a hypnotic appeal.
Kerala is one of the most densely populated rural areas of the earth. Almost 32 million people are crowded into 38,863 square kilometers, an area smaller than Switzerland. Baldi in the sleepy atmosphere of the backwaters this statistic can easily be overlooked. It’s not even too apparent within the dusty confines of a busy city. But look inside the churches and temples or along the main highways and it seems this is where life is gathered. During late morning a church in the city of Alleppey overflowed. People queued for access while several hundred devout Catholics, mostly women in bright saris, were inside, already sitting on the floor, worshipping. Christianity arrived with St. Thomas the apostle in AD52 and continued as a legacy of the Portuguese (1498), Dutch (17th Century) and British (1806). Kerala (then called Malabar) was an important trading center from the first century BC when the Greeks and Romans came in search of spices.
Hinduism remains prominent and from before dawn the spiritual sound of prayers carries on the tropical air of distant temples. Sacred festivals that can last for days are a regular occurrence and in the hours before dawn highly revered elephants are led along the main road as they travel between temples. It is haunting to see their broad forms silhouetted in the light beams of oncoming traffic. Apart from a swinging reflector hanging from their tails they have no other safeguard to prevent them from being hit from behind. Indian driving standards lack common sense or any kind of discipline. Last year 3066 died on Kerala’s roads (13,000 injured). We were jokingly told that a similar number die from being hit by falling coconuts!* The day we arrived 59 perished when a crowded bus plunged into a canal; seven died in a head-on crash two days later. The most poisonous are the horn-blowing bus and truck drivers who chase the crown of the road at high speed, harassing others to move to the side. Motorcycle riders rarely wear crash helmets, car drivers rarely bother with seat belts. I watched a family of four on a small moped. The father was helmeted, his young son and wife riding side saddle behind a nursing baby had no such protection. The drivers assigned to foreigners may be a little less crazy but they also dangerously maneuver into the smallest gaps between moving trucks and pass blindly. Everyone harbors a burning desire to outrun all other traffic regardless. Visitors are generally transported in ambassadors, large heavy cars, still made in West Bengal to the design (1948) of the British Morris Oxford. They are basic, severely underpowered but built like tanks and well suited to the Indian environment.
One night spent on a houseboat is generally sufficient especially when combined with a visit to other parts of India or a stay in the old city of Cochin. A few nights at a magnificent Vembanad Lake retreat or a little longer at a relaxing beach resort can also provide a well-earned break from traveling around India’s historic cities. The State Government has launched an eco-Kerala program which is successfully encouraging hotels to become environmentally friendly. The cost of accommodation, meals and drinks can be high by Indian standards but considerably less than at many comparable hotels elsewhere in Asia. The state authorities claim an almost 100% literacy rate for Kerala, the highest in India and unemployment is low by national standards. The extremely friendly people take pride in the history, cuisine, wildlife, deserted beaches and good climate that the state offers. Given the tragic circumstances in Sri Lanka and Thailand, Kerala is now well positioned to capitalize on attracting visitors who might otherwise have gone to the tsunami-affected countries.
Footnote:o During 2002 George Burgess the director of the Shark Attack File of the Florida Museum of Natural History claimed in a speech that “Coconuts kill 150 worldwide every year, 15 times the number of deaths attributed to sharks”.
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