South India: Backwater peace with extra elephant

I amble towards the Kollam coast, gateway to the Keralan Backwaters, and happen  spectacular festival.

Early the next morning we leave feeling humbled by the last 24 hours. By tonight I need to be in the coastal town of Kollam, many hours away. The fastest way to get here would be by train. We drive 6 hours to the nearest city but the trains are all full and eventually, to cut a very long story short, I have to continue by road.

At one point in my journey I am dozing when I hear some extremely loud Indian music. I look up and see an outrageously Indian scene: an open backed party lorry! Around 20 people are squeezed into the small truck they are wearing bright coloured clothes and head scarves. 3 men sit squashed onto the back with their legs hanging down and 3 more are standing up next to them. Music blares and coloured lights flash, and florescent lights inside the truck are draped in coloured fabric. There are bits of dried flowers and hay hanging off the back. All the people I can see are singing along and using whatever they can find to act as percussion: one man bangs a saucepan, others bang plastic bottles and another tin cans. We try to overtake the party truck several times, finally swerving to avoid an oncoming vehicle and causing the party truck to also swerve and narrowly miss us, but the party continues oblivious. Later I find out that the ‘party truck’ would have been on their way back from a pilgrimage to a famous temple in Kerala which open opens for a few weeks a year. They would have driven for days to reach the mountain on which the temple is at the summit of and then climbed uphill 4km to place their offerings. They could have been travelling for 24 hours but their spirits were still definitely high! It’s a great Indian moment.

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Blurred photo of the Party Truck

 

I arrive in Kollam at 10pm, 16 hours after setting off from Tamil Nadu, to be met by our hostel contact there. He is keen to know how many groups will be coming this year and how long for. By the time I get to bed I am pretty exhausted.

The following morning I find myself with some backpackers floating along the famous Keralan backwaters in a canoe, being gently punted along by a very smiley guide whose English is near impossible to understand.  I am very excited to realise that since the water is only waist deep I won’t need to start harping on about buoyancy aids, and thank god there are no helmet conversations to be had either!

As we glide silently through the tiny canals we are able to watch backwater village life unfold on the banks. We pass dogs chained outside tiny thatched and concrete houses, lines of washing drying in the sun, chickens wandering, fisherman standing in the water using large rectangular nets, boat builders intricately stitching together traditional rice barges using coconut husk thread and even a Hindu wedding! Everyone we pass waves and smiles at us as if we were the first tourists to do this. A group of little girls run along the banks after us shouting “what your name” as their brightly coloured silk dresses flowing behind them and some little boys shout to us from a bridge.

 

The narrow channels are decorated by overhanging palms and we often see Kingfishers perching on the branches and snakes slithering through the water. The peace is only broken by the guide shouting “down” as we approach tiny, extremely low, concrete bridges, to which we must respond by lying in the boat!

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Traditional fishing in the Keralan backwaters

 

It an intensely relaxing experience after sitting in a car for almost 4 sold days.

When it’s time to head back to my hotel I choose my rickshaw driver from the 324 who are vying for my business. I jump into the coolest one whose seats are covered in plastic leopard skin which is hard to ignore.  The driver waits the obligatory 3 seconds before he asks the golden question “where from?” I answer him, hoping for no more questions, since any conversation inevitably leads to some sort of sales pitch. (I have learned to either fabricate a fantasy story that I am leaving wherever I am the next hour, or give one word answers). However the driver starts screaming in a high pitched voice “I friends England I England, I very good friend England. England me like!”. We hurtle off at the usual speed, dodging the potholes and all other vehicles by a few inches, but then he stops, opens a pouch in the front of his rickshaw and takes out a battered envelope. He tells me his name is Hussein and again, just in case I am hard of hearing, that he has many English friends. Here we go, I sigh. He points to a faded Royal Mail stamp on the envelope, by now almost bursting with pride and excitement. He carefully opens it and to reveal an album which contains photos of an English couple at various tourist haunts around the area and a letter they have obviously written for him to show to other tourists. I patiently look through each photo and try to appear as excited as him.  “I take you to elephant festival he says, only 25km! I take you. I English friends!”  He is so likeable, and smiling so hard, that I am almost tempted. However, just 5 km is a long way to go in a rickshaw even if I had the time, so I politely decline, taking his number and promising I will call him If I need a rickshaw. I can’t help thinking that this English couple, whoever they are have done him a huge favour.

Ironically, later, I do end up going to an elephant festival in a rickshaw, but I actually have to almost sit on the rickshaw driver’s knee. The hotel owner had told me there was an elephant festival happening nearby that evening and said he could arrange for me to share a lift there with some other guests. The other guests are a rather large middle aged couple and the “lift” is a very small rickshaw. After a few minutes of trying to squeeze 3 of us on the back seat I am volunteered to sit in the front where there isn’t actually a seat as such more of a perch. This coupled with the fact that I was actually nearer the antique gear stick than the driver makes for an interesting ride as we career high speed through small fishing villages with me half hanging out the side of the rickshaw.

The journey is thoroughly worth it. The atmosphere is electric and the crowds enormous. There are people lining the streets of the town and crammed onto the upper levels of every building. Soon I can hear ‘Chenda’ drums and symbols banging. A group of 30 or so men marches and dances with the drums which get faster and louder and the crowd begins whooping and shouting. This is part of Kerala’s annual Puram festival. The heat is intense and there is a smell of sweat hangs  in the crowd. The river of people moves one way and then the other and its too easy to get caught and swept up in the crowds of revellers. The air is thick with anticipation and then suddenly the moment everyone has been waiting for arrives. One by one 49 tusker elephants saunter down the street in a long line.

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Puram Festival, Kerala

 

They are sumptuously decorated with gold headdresses and ornaments. Each elephant is ridden by 3 men dressed in white; ‘Brahmins’, who hold objects which symbolise royalty such as coloured silk umbrellas fringed with silver pendants. The elephants often munch on coconut leaves and are seemingly oblivious to the crowds. Giant colourful Hindu figures bob through the crowds and a variety of weird and wonderful floats also pass.

Sunday 7

 

I notice there are no women in the middle of the crowd at all, the few women there are watch from the sidelines, but by the time I realise why it’s too late. Let’s just say the men in the crowds are not content, as is usually the case, just to look at western women. I struggle for a while to make it to the sidelines and from then on am happy to watch from afar. It’s a fantastic and uniquely Indian spectacle and a rare moment when I am in exactly the right place at the right time.

Sunday 5

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