Riding Onam snakes
By Etan Doronne
31 Aug 2012
A southern Kerala village, I was told, holds a worldwide secret for polishing metal into mirrors. These days space telescopes achieve nano-quality smoothness, yet here is an ancient marvel and being only a village away, it kept rolling the back of my mind.
One morning, as I was staying with Robert and his family in nearby village after a Vipassana course and spent the previous day at a traditional Malayali wedding, I was ready to venture out to the unexplored world on my own.
Kerala local public buses have no glazed windows, year-round it is never too cold for a ride. Rain shielding curtains keep the monsoon airborn water-spray from gushing into the cabin.
I stood by the road that winds through the countryside villages and I hopped on the next bus as the conductor nodded they're reaching that village.
The bright morning revealed the colorful Vastu-designed homes and overflowing gardens all flushed clean by yesterday's rain. Only a handful of century-old houses, in the wooden traditional style, were still standing along the 8 km of our rural route. Reminiscence of a craft developed over centuries and had only recently yielded to cement. The modern cement-cast building replicates those lines, but with little structural or functional sense.
Approaching a traffic circle that hugged an old tree, the conductor announced "your station", referring to me. I jumped off the bus, swinging the door shut behind me. It was a roadside village. The shops faded away during only a minute walk in either direction.
My first 'to-do' on the list was a haircut. Although I could have easily gotten an electric shaver and done it myself, I enjoy leaning back, closing my eyes and relaxing into the nurturing touch of a seasoned Indian barber once in a while. "There should be a barber even somewhere in this little village", I encouraged myself walking up the street. Soon I noticed a barber behind a curtain blowing in the wind. Peeking through I asked "how much for a haircut ?" with my fingers demonstrating the clipping as a virtual pair scissors in action. Bargaining down from 60 Rupees we settled for 40. I sat and waited till a mother had completed her 2nd and 3rd children hair cuts. She paid a 100 Rupees bill and got about 30 or 40 Rupees change for a total of 3 kids' cuts.
I stepped out did some spice, seed and oil shopping and went on to find my breakfast. I didn't plan on anything special on the short market street but as in India, surprises find you. I sat in a tiny Dhaba and asked the owner and cook what can I have. Only a few fried snack remained at this late morning hour. Eggs were piled up in crates for sale by the diner front along the road. Some of those were the unique eggs special to Kerala and winked 'omelet' at me, this would be my first duck-egg omelet ever.
As the yummy omelet went down in history I now was fueled and eager to find a mirror shop. All were closed and asking locals I was pointed to the temple area where a souvenir street shops sell to day-pilgrims. As I got there things started to move fast.
Met Manoj, an Interior designer working on a boat for the Hindu temple under a canopy by a fence. Wilson and Steven came into the tent and invited me to see their snake boat.
They came from their native village 6 km up the Pamba river, for the Onam holiday temple-dinner (Sadya) donated free to all.
About 2pm all their village friends finished dining or hanging out around the shops and came aboard, then we started rowing.
Their village had also inaugurated another snake boat the same day. It was still only painted and soaked with fish oil. It hadn't the black patina of our aged one. The cost of 2 Lakh rupees (Rs.200,000 ~ $4,000) for constructing it was donated by all village residents.
On the way rain started pouring in such big drops and intensity, such I had only experienced here, during Kerala monsoons. Though my backpack lying in the rain with my laptop and all electronic and diaries in it, I felt my spirit elevated. I stashed my camera, spread my umbrella over my backpack and sat down to row like everyone else. I was as soaked as if I jumped into the river but I was totally there and then, enjoying the pace, singing, view and company.
As we arrived at the village river bank I took a load of pedals, climbed the slippery slope and walked the pebble path barefoot to the Chai shop Wilson invited me to. I wanted to pay a round of Chai for all, but I couldn't get the Chai Wala lady to take money from me. Such is the hard wired tradition regarding visitors to Indian villages.
They then invited me to Jomon's factory for re-grooving tires. Quite impressive industrial entrepreneurship for such a small village. The operation makes sense as rubber trees and the draining of raw rubber is native to this area, so their cost of rubber lining is an advantage in the market.
They invited me to a warming and friendly cup of alcohol, but I was both late for the Israeli dinner I promised Robert and Onam and moreover felt good with my intoxicant-free living. We parted ways not before they again invited me to the boat race coming up 2 weeks past this practice. Steven gave me a barefoot motorcycle lift to the bus stop just across the Pamba bridge. As I hopped on the bus, wondering if anyone could guess that the little rain coming from the window is just a sprinkle to where I came from.
Later my mobile steamed, my camera froze and my all my money bills stuck together. I dismantled the electronics and the next time we started the kitchen fire in the mud stove I spread them out to dry. My extremely heating computer placed over these victims evaporated the rest by the end of the day and then it was all good to go again.
This week as I posted this story, Onam is celebrated in Kerala and it's exactly one year since it all happened. I started writing the same week, it was easier then selecting 10 photos out of 185 beautiful captures on that photogenic cloudy day. I got the last push from my Malayali friends on Facebook, sharing their current Onam experiences and dedicate the story to them, to my Nedumprayar friends and the Kerala in general.
More stories from 2 years in towns and villages across rural India on www.myindiaexperience.com