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Kerala – Peace & Tranquility in God’s Own Country
When the tragic events of Boxing Day 2004 were played on television I was very worried about going to India. I was also very worried that the people and places I knew in neighboring Asian countries would disappear. I was experiencing nightmares that disturbed my peace of mind but I knew that to continue with my journey the little money I could spend would help the tourism industry that has already ended.
On the trip to Dubai my wife sat next to a middle-aged, soft-spoken Sri Lankan who had lived in the UK since childhood. He was a psychiatrist who was returning to his birthplace to help the victims of the accident. He said that he was worried about what he would face and the worry that was visible in his eyes when he talked about how his thoughts would affect the problems he was about to face. As a trained professional he fears the permanent mental damage he has put himself through and suspects that in time the counselors may need counseling to prevent the brain from shutting down. When we met our connecting flight there was a world-weary-looking crowd gathered at the Colombo airport, a familiar reminder of the impending doom, not that we needed to be reminded.
There they call Kerala “God’s Own Country”. It shares the southernmost point of India with Tamil Nadu in the east and a population boundary that extends to the very bottom of the sub-continent. Trivandrum, the capital of Kerala state, is located at the foot of the Malabar Coast near where the Indian Ocean meets the Arabian Sea. It was on the shore of this lake that more than two hundred fishermen and pilgrims died while they were worshiping in the sea when a big wave blew. Kerala faces southwest and except for the southernmost part most of the beaches were fortunately protected from the direct path of the tsunami. This saved hundreds of small fishing villages from being completely destroyed. The unusual waves had swept the beaches but failed to penetrate deep enough to cause damage, but a week later many tourists were still afraid to step onto the beautiful sand. A few still entered the sea. Fearing that the tide might come back, some fishermen had already sold and bought rickshaw taxis (phat-phats) with the little money they could save.
Religion in Kerala dominates, as in India, often to the point of obsession. Many local people, Hindus, Christians, Muslims, and even Jains generally agreed that it was only “God’s will” that saved them from disaster. In fact, their shelter was their real savior but it was easy to imagine what the tsunami would do to the environment around Lake Vembanad and the region’s amazing network of surrounding waterways. These waterways are important to Kerala’s economy in many ways other than tourism. The large (204 sq km) lake, one of 34 in the entire state, acts as a 1900km stretch of peaceful countryside that unites small communities of upland fishermen, farmers, shell collectors and rice farmers. Three hundred boatmen depend heavily on coastal tourism for their survival. The English-language newspaper “The Hindu Times” reported that the ban and drop in bookings in 2005 had already reduced their sales by 40%. Although Kerala does not have the extreme poverty that is prevalent in the rest of India, the decline in tourism will not take long to force many boat owners into bankruptcy. What is interesting is that the State has many natural products such as rice, fruits, nuts, vegetables, tea, coffee, and spices. These things help some people to have a stable life but this is not very helpful for the boat workers. They are well aware of their insecurity so they are pushing the government to campaign abroad for tourism in order to protect their lives.
Houseboats, also known as kettuvallom, are modified rice boats, well equipped; the other side is powered by solar, with two sailors and a cook. Staying at kettuvallom overnight is fun although failing to book an air-conditioned boat was a mistake that resulted in a very sticky night under the tight but necessary net. A noisy electric fan became the only way to distribute the humid air. But these boats have the necessary en-suite facilities and a restless night is a necessary sacrifice when you wake up to be rewarded with the sounds of dawn and the prospect of a few relaxing hours of travel still to come. Nothing beats the joy of watching everyday village life go by while sitting comfortably on a rattan lounger on the sundeck while sipping on a cool drink. Kingfisher while the staff attends to your needs. I heard that the curries made in the square have no comparison. Two amazing dishes proved this to be a real culinary experience that nothing in Britain can match in taste! Seafood, vegetable curry, steamed rice and chapatti lunch surrounded by abundant bird life on the still waters of Vembanad Lake. Sometimes brightly colored fish pass by; then an egret. Afternoon tea arrived as we waded through the coconut-strewn waters and on one side there was shade under a tall canopy of coconut palms as lone fishermen dug their nets in small wooden boats. Dinner was a maharaja feast of spicy fried chicken, bitter gourd, herb, fried rice, green beans, dhal and potato curry. Another cooking experience.
A small green divide separates the canal from the bottom of the rice paddies where the farmers tilled their own little trees using wooden plows pulled by oxen as their ancestors had done for centuries. Some knelt down to harvest rice. At times we felt like we were seeing rural life through a kaleidoscope and we were a very important part of it Discovery Channel documents. Farms, small shops, houses, village schools and temples competed for space on these bands, often no more than forty meters wide. Everyday life is fun, watching has become a priority. Smiling children in blue uniforms wave the long, stacked boats that cross the rivers that take them from the village to the school. Women wash their waist-length black hair and wash all their clothes, some brush their teeth using a finger as a toothbrush while others wash their clothes in the water of the canals. On land, small-eared goats were milked while small groups of adults passed the time doing little. Backwaters also have their own unique sounds. At times the silence was broken by the hum of a boat’s engine or the thump of the diesel engines that powered the fast-moving waterbuses that distributed cargo to the stands spaced out on either side of the main artery. Sometimes nature itself disturbs the peace with the sound of wild birds flying like a black crow. Elsewhere the silence was broken by the melodious crowing of a rooster somewhere in the distance. Above, the beautiful sight of white-headed eagles circled in the tropics. At dusk and dawn, the sound of Hindu prayers chanted in Malayalam, the local language, could be heard from a temple in a small area. Perhaps this was as close to the earthly form of heaven as you could get; it certainly has an attractive appeal.
Kerala is one of the most densely populated rural areas in the world. About 32 million people fill 38,863 square kilometers, an area smaller than Switzerland. This ratio can easily be overlooked in beach resorts. It is not even overly noticeable in the dust of a busy town. But look inside the churches and temples or along the highways and it seems that this is how life is gathered. In the morning a church in the town of Alleppey was flooded. People lined up to get in while several hundred devout Catholics, mostly women in bright saris, were inside, seated, worshiping. 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) has been a trading center since the 1st century BC when the Greeks and Romans came in search of spices.
Hinduism remains prominent and from dawn the spiritual sounds of prayers travel to the tropics from distant temples. Sacred festivals that last for days are regular events and in the pre-dawn hours the most revered elephants are led down the main road as they walk between the temples. It’s sad to see their big faces photographed in the light of oncoming traffic. Other than the shiny thing hanging from their tails they have no other protection to protect them from being hit in the back. Indian driving standards have no common sense or discipline. Last year 3066 died on the roads of Kerala (13,000 injured). Jokingly, we were told that others died from being hit by falling coconuts!* The day we arrived, 59 people died when a bus full of people fell into a canal; seven died in a head accident two days later. The most dangerous are the bus drivers and honking trucks who pick up the tip of the road at high speed and harass others to leave. Motorcyclists usually don’t wear helmets, car drivers don’t have to wear seat belts. I saw a family of four in a small van. The man had a hat, his son and his wife riding side saddle after nursing a baby had no such protection. The drivers assigned to foreigners may be a little crazy but they also drive dangerously in the small spaces between the moving vehicles and get blind. Everyone nurses a desire to get ahead of all the other cars regardless. Visitors are often transferred in Ambassadors, heavy duty vehicles, still manufactured in West Bengal to the 1948 British Morris Oxford design. They are basic, not very powerful but built like tanks and are suitable for India.
One night on a houseboat is usually enough, especially when combined with a trip to other parts of India or a stay in the ancient city of Cochin. A few nights at the beautiful Vembanad Lake or a little longer at a beach resort can also give you some time to relax while walking around India’s ancient cities. The State Government has launched an eco-Kerala program which encourages hotels to be eco-friendly. The cost of accommodation, food and drinks may be high by Indian standards but very low compared to many similar hotels in Asia. Officials say Kerala’s literacy rate is nearly 100%, the highest in India and the lowest unemployment rate by national standards. The very friendly people take pride in the history, cuisine, wildlife, deserted beaches and great climate that the state has to offer. Considering the dire conditions in Sri Lanka and Thailand, Kerala is now in a good position to benefit from attracting tourists who would have gone to the tsunami affected countries.
Footnote: In 2002, George Burgess, director of the Florida Museum of Natural History’s Shark Attack File, stated in a statement that “Coconuts kill 150 people worldwide each year, 15 times the number of people who die from sharks”.
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