Asia | India | Kerala | Kollam (Quilon) – The Duck Herds of Kuttanad
I’ve had really good luck so far doing touristy things. I guess in a country this size, with so many people exploring it from abroad and nearby, most of the boring and uninteresting attractions would get lost in the shuffle.
In Kerala, the big touristy thing to do is take a backwater cruise, most commonly from Allapuzha to Kollam. That part of the state is called Kuttanad, and like other backwater sections of coastal Kerala, it is a bewildering maze of canals and lakes that’s so wet as to make much of the settlement inaccessible except by boat. So you can explore it by taking a local ferry, going on a guided canoe tour, or buying a relatively expensive ticket for an all day cruise on a boat run by Kerala Tourism. Being sort of obsessed with boat travel, I did all three.
The canoe tour was just three hours, more a cultural tour than anything else. Six of us piled into a sewn-board canoe — the guide, two punters, an outgoing Australian and his daughter, and me. We dropped by small villages and settlements to watch coir rope being made, pointed out kingfishers and monitor lizards to each other as they sunned themselves on palm trees leaning over the canals, but mostly just sat calmly and watched this incredibly green world slide past. There’s something fundamentally comforting about silent travel on the water, and being in a canal just seems to accentuate it. Maybe it’s the feeling of being enfolded by the banks on either side, the small washing ghats, the piles of coconut husk next to the thatched homes, and the endless palm trees, crowding in around you, untouchable, here and gone in a minute or two.
So take that experience and multiply it, and that gives an idea of what the cruise to Kollam is like. It’s eight hours this time, instead of three, and there’s a whole big forty foot boat to stretch out on, with enough chairs that you can prop up your feet and lean back and watch the pageant.
The Kollam cruise is on big canals and lakes, so you go faster, though still covering less than 100km in the day. There’s more traffic to keep you company, rice barges and houseboats made from converted rice barges, lots of canoes and the occasional high-prowed snakeboat moored in a stone-edged cove. There are whole towns strung along the edges of the canals, with churches, temples and markets. Even schools, and it is an odd feeling to cruise by a long whitewashed building in the trees and watch through the open windows as hundreds of uniformed school-kids take notes perhaps a dozen feet from the water.
There are some unpredictable sights as well. Kerala’s famous cantilevered fishing nets are everywhere, and they’re a marvel of ancient engineering. Imagine twenty or so long, slender logs lashed together to make a huge, oblique V-shape, with a huge X-shape hanging from one end. The X-shape suspends a square fishing net, twenty feet on a side, above the water’s surface, and the other end of the V is hung with perhaps a dozen large stones on ropes as a counter-balance. The whole, enormous structure tilts on a pivot point where the bottom of the V joins a foundation structure built on stilts over the surface of the lake, so that four or five fisherman can, in unison, drop the net flat into the water, and then hoist it back up a minute later with a load of fish.
Now, image 50 or 60 of these contraptions marching in two wandering, rougly parallel lines, facing each other, marking a path down the middle of a long palm-fringed lake. Now imagine sitting at the prow of a boat as it eases down the center of this path, passing another pair of nets every minute or so, for an hour. It doesn’t get tiring, and when the nets are finally through, I wanted nothing more than to turn around and go right back through them again.
The strangest sight, though, would probably be the duck herds. You can’t herd too many kinds of animals in Kuttanad, as there simply isn’t enough dry land. And what land there is is often flooded anyway for rice cultivation. So they herd ducks instead.
We saw our first herd around ten a.m. I’d fallen into conversation with a group of five or six travellers from Belgium and France, all of whom spoke pretty good English. One of them had a copy of ‘On The Road’ in French, and I told her that Jack Kerouac had gone to the high school where I taught, and that led to a discussion of how various books fare in translation. Another of them lived in a neighborhood in Brussels with a large Congolese population, so we started talking about the development of ethnic neighborhoods, and the movie ‘Lumumba,’ and then conversation was sort of squeezed out by all this quacking.
We looked over and there were about a thousand ducks. They were piled together so tightly you couldn’t see the water between them, and they were being herded by two men in canoes. Just like cowboys, really, paddling instead of riding, back and forth along the edge of the quacking mass, gently nudging the whole herd down the canal and up onto the shore. The Tourism Department Guide told us they raised them for food and would drive them along the canals to different rice paddies to eat bugs and snails that might attack the plants. It was absolutely mesmerizing. We only saw three or four herds that day, but every one of them was a complete conversation-stopper.
By the time we reached the outskirts of Kollam, the sun was setting, and that stopped conversation too. The backwaters do something to the light. Soften it, maybe, or spread it out so it’s more gentle. Over the course of the day it alternated bewteen bright sunshine and light rain, but never harsh or uncomfortable. Of course, the congenial company and the bottle of cheap rum I’d brought along may have helped a little. But sunset approaching Kollam and sunrise the next morning were both lit with that same drunken light, tinting half the trees an almost artificially deep green, casting the other half into fine-etched silhouette, streaking pink and mauve and orange across the sky and taking away every impulse beyond sitting and watching and smiling.