Backwater peace with extra elephants

Trip Start Jan 10, 2010
Trip End Feb 05, 2010

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Kollam Beach

Flag of India  , Kerala,
Saturday, January 16, 2010

We leave at dawn. Today is a trying day but one which is not unusual on a recce.  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.

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 teams will be coming this year and how long for. By the time I get to bed I am pretty exhausted.

The next day 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. This is an R&R activity which our groups do and needs a risk assessment. 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, we literally have to lie on the floor of the boat at this point!

It an intensely relaxing experience after sitting in a car for almost 4 sold days. When its 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. Stylish way to travel, I think. The driver waits the obligatory 3 seconds before he asks the golden question “where from?”. After I answer, hoping for no more conversation (since it almost always leads to some sort of sales pitch I have learned to either fabricate a fantasy story that I am leaving where I am the next hour or give one word answers) he 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 very 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 proudly 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 sweet, and  smiling so hard, that I am almost tempted, but 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 the hugest favour of his life!

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. Yes I know that’s not really within the recce safety guidelines, but in typical Indian fashion I don’t really end up having a choice! 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 life 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 all 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. 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 colouful Hindu figures bob through the crowds and a variety of weird and wonderful floats also pass.

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 its too late. Lets 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 move against the river of cheering people but eventually I 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 on recce when I am in exactly the right place at the right time.

The next morning I have a meeting with our project contact in the coastal area. Last year the projects in this region were blighted the local police who were not happy about groups doing work at the schools. Coupled with that the project contact didn’t receive very good feedback and after what I have seen in Tamil Nadu, I am inclined to scale down projects here. It’s not going to be an easy meeting.

The hotel owner (who is now being super helpful on account of him discovering that we plan to send teams here again) has arranged a rickshaw for me to get to Hari's house. Up until now almost every rickshaw I have taken which has involved an address/area unknown to me has resulted in getting lost. I check with Mr Hotel owner that he has explained to the Mr Rickshaw driver where the hotel is and make sure I have the address. As predicted though, a few minutes later we are completely and utterly lost in the backstreets of the town. Mr Rickshaw driver stops to ask a couple of boys the way, its clear they don’t really know but this is irrelevant in India, even if they don’t have a clue where we want to go they still offer directions so as not to lose face. Appearance of having knowledge is very big here! Off we trundle again, and several U turns later Mr Rickshaw driver asks 2 more passers by. I give my phone to the driver who tries to talk to Hari but seems unable to get what he is talking about and so passes the phone to the passersby, who in turn tells the driver what Hari says. When we set off again I don’t even consider that we could get lost again since I am sure that after all this talking he simply must have an idea where this address is. Not so. Only 2 minutes later he stops to ask yet more people who again send us back in the opposite direction. By now its becoming clear that My Rickshaw driver isn’t the sharpest tool in the box and without a map of this area I am doubting we will every find Hari.  We find ourselves in a maze of back lanes and Mr Driver stops again to ask. The first person he asks isn’t sure and gradually we draw a quite crowd of people, all wanting to help. People come out of their houses or stop what they are doing and come over, others stand at the door watching and other vehicles also stop. The phone is comically passed around from person to person and everyone gets the lowdown from Hari who by now is about to give up himself. Finally we race off, but unbelievably within 2 minutes we have stopped again to ask!  Eventually, by some miracle we pull into a lane where we see a man waving. We have made it. I thank Mr Driver for an interesting ride and Hari and I have a good giggle about it.

This episode although frustrating, reminds me how naturally warm, genuine and helpful South Indian people are, even somewhere like Kollam which although isn’t exactly on the tourist trail, does regularly see western tourists pass through. The locals will do anything to help you and their kindness really warms my heart. Indian people obviously also have a natural connection with the UK, but instead of any resentment about being ruled by us for so long, there is a genuine excitement to meet you. As soon as the word “UK” is mentioned stories pour out about their cousins/sister’s nephew/great aunt who visited the UK in 1971 etc etc.

Hari and I have a chat about the project issues and he has a slightly different version of events than the reports as expected. We talk for a long time and manage to resolve some issues, but I know I will need to look deeper into this. Luckily I am due to meet the Director of the Ministry of Tourism tomorrow in a bid to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Dr Kumar is a lovely, highly philanthropic man and it’s hard to tell him we only have one team for this area next year.  As we get in the car to go and visit the potential project school, I notice something which I find very funny: Dr Kumar’s dog lives in large cage outside the house and inside the cage there is an actual toilet. No really, not some special dog toilet, a neat round hole with the toilet seat over it and a normal toilet cistern with a flush chain on it!! Hari says he has trained the dog to use it. Oh I love India…..

That afternoon I begin my search for good hostel accommodation in Kollam. The first hostel/hotel I visit is not ideal, but the owner is a real character. He proudly shows me around the windowless rooms and tells me that his hotel is far superior to any others nearby. It’s a long visit which involves sitting in his office and listening to his life history before I manage to make my excuse to leave. After several failed attempts to get through the door, I am almost there. As I shake hands with him and say goodbye begins to tell me about his brother who lives in England and lives next door to David Beckham, and that yes he will be visiting this friend soon. He still hasn’t let go of my hand. Oh and did I know his brother was a famous actor in Bollywood? Just as I think I can yank my hand free without offence he starts to tell me about his best friend who is chief of the police……

Eventually I arrive back at the hostel and plan for the next day.

Tomorrow I will travel to the city of Trivandrum to visit Mr very-important-man and then onto Varkala beach for a couple of days R&R (I have negotiated some unpaid leave). After that I will be volunteering with MAD, the NGO back in Kochi.

It has been an amazing journey so far.
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