There are few countries in the world where you can go for a nice relaxing backwater cruise in the day and then come the evening end up running as fast as you can, out of fear for your own safety. That’s India!
I had arrived in Kollam a day before. It quite literally had nothing to offer but I needed some time to sort myself out. I had decided to do the Kollam to Alleppey backwaters trip. The backwaters are a 900km network of waterways that prior to roads were the way to get around in Kerela. They are still used today by the villagers and have become seriously big business to house boat owners and other package operators.
The cruise was a bargain. An eight hour trip all for five pounds. The downside with it is that it sticks to the major waterways as the size of the boat will not allow it to nip down the narrower canals. However it was very peaceful on the route and there was still plenty of local fishermen and village life to observe and enjoy. Oh and then there was the scenery. Palm trees were in abundance. It was beautiful. The major highlight came in the final hour. I like wildlife and have a few goals to achieve before I return to the UK. There is seeing wild elephants in Sri Lanka, visiting the Komodo dragons in Indonesia, watching wild crocodiles, maybe even swimming with sharks (just not anywhere near the man eating ones) and finding a snake in the wild. The latter has dominated my search in India. I’ve followed snake trails and found tons of snake skins bus alas had no snake sightings. That was until peering over the side of the boat I noticed one zig zagging its way elegantly through the water with its head perched high. It was a momentary glimpse as it soon disappeared into a crack in the rocks but it made me happy.
It’s peak season in Kerela at the moment. That means it is busy and expensive! So I relied upon the random touts and hotel owners that hang around outside the boat jetty at Alleppey to help me find somewhere to stay. For some reason despite closer and nicer sounding places I went with Dil and his home stay in the middle of nowhere. I liked Dil, he had a real warmth to him (as do most of the locals I have met in South India). He told me that his village was having a party that night. Although it was over four km away I went with it. Unfortunately as lovely as Dil was the room and bathroom were a disaster however the rest of his village was something else.
It started with Dil leading me to the local ‘hotel’, then leaving me confident I’d find my way back in the dark. “If not ask for me” he proudly said, “everyone knows Dil!” Two massala dosas later (I was hungry and they were awesome) and I was staggering down dark alleyways and through peoples gardens (invited to of course). It was down one path that I encountered four kids play a game called carrom. They enthusiastically asked me to join them. I had only previously played it in Hampi and there I was terrible. Here however I dominated. I don’t know what got into me but I was potting every go. Passers by stopped and admired the masterclass. They weren’t used to seeing white faces in this village but were as friendly and welcoming as anyone could possibly be. Eventually, after an hour I departed the table thinking that my friendly host might be a little worried as to where I had got to.
Surprisingly a Portuguese couple had also fallen for Dil’s honesty and politeness and were occupying another room. We sat around on the seats outside the rooms chatting as Dil frantically made phone calls desperately trying to find out when the party was happening. It was getting late after all! Eventually we gave up waiting for noise and made our way to where the village had emptied out onto the street. Candles lined the roadside and fairy lights hung from the shops. A bright green light shone lighting up a tree, which was the party center piece. Dil explained that the party was to celebrate a Hindi story based around an elephant going into the woods and coming out as a human. The way the village celebrates it is unique according to him.
But alas there didn’t seem to be a party happening anytime soon. A further hour we stood around and waited. Bored and cold we weren’t to enthusiastic. My general experience of Hindi festivals is that they are loud and nice enough to watch for five minutes but no longer. We had been waiting for over two hours. The crowd had made many an ‘ohhh’ sound reminiscent of home football fans attempting to put off a goalkeeper but there was no sign of anything materialising. But then as I was on my way to the toilets I turned around to see a sight that took me totally by surprise. Now I had imagined to see a child running into the tree in an elephants mask at the very most but instead I saw a fully gown elephant being engulfed by the crowd. I raced back to see what was happening. There was a long pause and a silence fell upon the crowd. Then out of nowhere people raced past the elephant and tore down the branches of the tree. They proceeded to jump, shout and race around the elephant holding the branches up high. In a totally sporadic outpouring of joy the crowd went absolutely crazy.
By this point the Portuguese couple and I were transfixed on the events taking place. We followed the elephant as it turned around and made its way into a narrow road. There two men held poles alight with fire. The villagers continued to celebrate around the elephant and the fire. Taking a step back from the manic proceedings I got talking to a guy around the same age. He was in the process of interrogating me as to what my name is, age, occupation etc when someone let off a box of fireworks and firecrackers directly behind us. Head in hands I ran as quickly as I could, I am honestly quite shocked that nothing hit me. However as it turns out that was the least of my worries. Before I knew it the whole village was dispersing in all sorts of directions. People were shouting, screaming and trampling on others. I looked at peoples faces and saw sheer fear. I assumed it was more fireworks and ran as quickly as I could. My heart rate hit new highs. As it turned out apparently elephants don’t like being herded into a narrow street, surrounded by people waving tree branches and hearing fireworks, and had decided to go a little crazy. Fortunately the owners of elephants are absolute pros and share an unbelievable bond with them. Despite the momentary stamped it was soon brought under control with no apparent injuries. However it left a somber mood on the party as most people chose to head home rather than stay for the march up to the temple. Dil commented that the elephant “just isn’t right” and walked back disapointed. From looking at the floor where the elephant had gotten momentarily out of control it was clear that it had been one very scared animal.
It was an incredibly scary few minutes and yet it was gripping. There was a atmosphere of fear and everyone was on edge, yet people just seemed so excited as to what might happen. We followed from a very safe distance once more as the procession headed towards the temple. However after taking another look at the elephant and the way it was responding we felt it best to leave and head back. I have no idea whether they got to the temple safely but I am quite sure that if I was to follow the news from that village over the comming years then at some point there is going to be a total disaster there.
The following morning I caught a rickshaw into town and got the next bus out of Alleppey. I look back on that day now in amusement. I had originally planned to stay in a home stay on the backwaters where I would have gotten to experience a more tranquil and slow pace life. Instead that got booked up quicker than I expected and I ended up in a home stay at the complete other end of the spectrum. It’s another example of how things can change so quickly in India. It’s what makes traveling there so enthralling.