As the dreadful events of Boxing Day 2004 unfolded on television I was growing increasingly anxious about going to India. I was also deeply concerned that people and places that I knew in neighbor Asia Asia had been wiped out. I was experiencing nightmares that threw me close to a dark depression yet I knew that by continuing with my trip what little money I would spend might directly help the region's already depleted tourism industry.
En-route to Dubai my wife sat next to a softly-spoken, middle-aged Sri Lankan, a UK resident since his childhood. He was a psychiatrist returning to his birthplace to help counsel victims of the disaster. He expressed a pronounced anguish over what he would face and the concern showed in his eyes as he talked about how his own mind would react to the heart-rending 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 would themselves require counseling to prevent the brain from shutting down. As we met our connecting flight there was a crowd of tired looking international rescue workers gathered on the airport concourse en-route to Colombo, a stark reminder of the disaster's close proximity, not that we needed reminding.
Locally they call Kerala "God's Own Country". It shares the most southerly landmass of India with Tamil Nadu to the east and a communal border that continues towards the lowermost tip of the sub-continent. Trivandrum, the Kerala state capital, lies towards the foot of the Malabar Coast near the point where the Indian Ocean meets the Arabian Sea. It was on this stretch of coastline that over two hundred fisherman and pilgrims perished while worshiping in the sea as the great wave struck. Kerala faces south west and apart from the most southerly part the majority of coastline was fortuitously sheltered from the tsunami's direct path. This spared hundreds of small fishing communities from total annihilation. Abnormal tides had swept the beaches but they failed to venture inland sufficiently to cause damage but a week later many visitors were still nervous of venturing onto the magnificent white sands. Fewer still entered the sea. Fearing the great wave might return, some fishermen had 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 commonly agreed that it was only "God's will" that had spared them from disaster. In reality their sheltered location was their real savior but it was easy to imagine what a direct hit from the tsunami could have done to the ecosystem around Vembanad Lake and the district's intricate network of meandering backwaters. These waterways are essential to Kerala's economy in so many ways not least tourism. The vast lake (204 sq km) one of 34 throughout the State, acts like a hub to 1900kms of peaceful backwaters that links small communities of inland fishermen, farmers, shell collectors and rice growers. Three hundred houseboat operators depend entirely on backwaters tourism to survive. The English language newspaper "The Hindu Times" reported that cancellations and a drop in bookings for 2005 had already diminished their trade by as much as 40%. Although Kerala hasn't the widespread gross poverty that permeates throughout most of India, a continuing reduction in tourism wouldn't take long to force many boat owners to go bust. Thankfully the State is rich in natural produce such as rice, fruit, nuts, vegetables, tea, coffee, and spices. These resources provide a steady living for some but this is of little consequence to the houseboat operators. They are well aware of their vulnerability so they are pushing the government to campaign overseas for more tourism in an attempt 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 even though failing to book an air-conditioned boat was a mistake that made for a very sticky night beneath a constricting but essential mosquito net. A noisy electric fan became the sole 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 awake 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 diminish the outstanding pleasure of watching everyday rural life pass by as you sit comfortably in a rattan armchair on the sundeck sipping chilled kingfisher while the crew attends to your needs. I'd heard that the curries created on board are without comparison. Two sensational meals confirmed this to be a true culinary experience that no British take-away 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 motionless waters of Vembanad Lake. Occasionally a bright colored kingfisher would zip past; next an egret. Afternoon tea arrived as we traversed the backwaters strewn with water hyacinth and part shaded beneath a lofty canopy of swaying coconut palms while lone fishermen trawled their nets from narrow wooden canoes. Dinner was a maharaja's 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 bullock-drawn wooden plows in the same way as their forefathers had done for centuries. Others worked knee deep in mud harvesting rice. At times it felt we were viewing rural life through a kaleidoscope and we'd become an integral part of a Discovery Channel documentary. Farms, small shops, houses, village schools and temples competed for space on these medians, often no more than forty feet wide. Daily life is enthralling, people watching became a pre-occupation. Smiling children in blue uniforms waved from long, tightly crammed boats that criss-cross the waterways that take them from village to school. Women rinsed 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 communal waters of the canals. On land, lop-eared goats were milked while small groups of elders passed time doing precious little. The backwaters also have their own unique sounds. At times the tranquility was broken only by the low purring of the houseboat's outboard motor or the occasional deep-sounding throb of the diesels powering fast moving water buses that distribute human cargos at stopping points spaced either side of the main arteries. Some times nature alone disturbs the silence with the sound of wild birds taking flight as a black crow screeches. Elsewhere the calmness was broken by the almost melodic rousing call of a cockerel somewhere in the distance. Overhead, the graceful shapes of white headed eagles circled in the warm thermals. At dusk and dawn the sound of Hindu prayers chanted in Malayalam, the local dialect, permeated the air from a temple dotted within a tiny community. Perhaps this was as near to an earthly form of heaven as you might find; certainly it has a hypnotic appeal.
Kerala is one of earth's most densely populated rural areas. Nearly 32 million people cram into 38,863 square kilometers, an area smaller than Switzerland. Wallowing in the sleepy atmosphere of the backwaters this statistic can easily be overlooked. It is not even overly apparent within the dusty confines of a busy town. 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 town of Alleppey was overflowing. People queued for access while several hundred devout Catholics, mostly women in bright saris, were inside, already seated on the floor, 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 an important trading center from the 1st century BC when the Greeks and Romans came in search of spices.
Hinduism remains prominent and from before daybreak the spiritual sound of prayers carries on the tropical air from distant temples. Holy festivals that can last for days are a regular occurrence and in the hours before dawn highly revered elephants are led along the main highway as they travel between temples. It is haunting to see their broad shapes silhouetted in the headlight 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). Jokingly we were 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 accident two days later. The most venomous are the horn blowing bus and truck drivers who hog the crown of the road at high speed bullying others to move aside. Motor cycle riders rarely wear crash helmets, car drivers seldom bother with seat belts. I watched a family of four aboard a small moped. The father was helmeted, his young son and wife riding side-saddle behind nursing a baby had no such protection. The drivers assigned to foreigners maybe slightly less crazy but they too maneuver dangerously into the smallest gaps between moving trucks and overtake blind. Everyone nurses a burning desire to get ahead of all other traffic regardless. Visitors are generally transported in Ambassadors, big heavy cars, still made in West Bengal to the 1948 design of the British Morris Oxford. They are basic, seriously 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 the historic cities of India. The State Government has launched an eco-Kerala program that 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 claims almost 100% literacy rate for Kerala, the highest in India and unemployment is low by national standards. The extremely friendly people are proud of the history, cuisine, wildlife, deserted beaches and a good climate that the state offers. In view of the tragic circumstances in Sri Lanka and Thailand, Kerala is now well placed to capitalize by attracting visitors who might otherwise have gone to the tsunami affected countries.
Footnote: o During 2002 George Burgess the director of the Florida Museum of Natural History's Shark Attack File claimed in a speech that "Coconuts kill 150 worldwide each year, 15 times the number of fatalities attributed to sharks".