Flavour of local ferry in Kollam

This entry is part 9 of 9 in the series Kerala - God's Own Country

In my previous post, I wrote about our first day in Kollam without mentioning anything about the town itself. In this post I will start with a few lines on it before going into details of our second day.

Kollam, pronounced as Koilam was previously known as Quilon. It is one of Malabar Coast’s oldest ports situated around seventy-four km north of Thiruvananthpuram and eighty-five km south of Alleppey. This small town sandwiched between sea and Ashtmudi Lake was once the centre of the spice trade that witnessed Roman, Chinese, Arabian and later Portuguese, Dutch and English traders compete for spices and valuable cashew crop. Marcopolo, the great Venetian traveler, who was in Chinese service under Kublai Khan, visited Kollam in around 1293 AD on his return trip from China to Arabia. In his memoir he mentioned that at that time the pepper trade between Kollam and the Chinese largest port was around forty-three loads of Pepper per day. Ibn Batuta, the Moroccan explorer, also visited Kollam in 14th Century.

Ashtamudi Lake, Kollam

Malayalam Calendar or Malayalam era – The solar calendar followed in Kerala is also known as “Kollavarsham”. It is calculated from the founding of the present Kollam town by Syrian merchant Sapir Iso in 825 A.D. It starts in mid April and coincides with the New Year festivities elsewhere in India, which occur around the same time as Bihu in Assam and Baisakhi in Punjab. It is celebrated as Vishu in Kerala.

The town is less interesting than its history might suggest. It’s a typical sprawling Keralan market community kept busy with the commercial interest of coir manufacturing, cashew processing and fishing industry. It has lost its earlier sheen, charm and importance. These days it is chiefly of interest as one of the entry or exit points to the backwaters of Kerala and for the famed Munroe island. Most travelers simply stay overnight en route to or from Allappuzha or Alleppey.

We started our second day with a short visit to a beach and a lighthouse at Thangesseri – around five Km away from the city centre. The beach had a small strip of sandy beach. After initial hesitation of getting wet or not, we decided to move-in. Rachit was happy and it was pleasure to hear his joyous shrill timed with the incoming waves. I was proudly holding his hands, letting him enjoy the waves and ensuring that he does not fall down. In the realm of imagination, all parents wish that they could shield their kids from falling down permanently, during the ups and downs of the real life. As we moved from there we realized that Rachit’s clothes had become a small bag of sand.

Kollam Beach

From the beach we moved towards the lighthouse. On the way, we passed through a posh locality. The big and beautiful bungalows near light house were eye candy, though now I don’t remember much detail. The lighthouse stood 144 feet (44 m) tall and was built-in 1902. It is possible to go upto the top of the lighthouse but we missed the experience. We had reached there in the morning, while it used to open in the afternoons. While returning from there we found a few fishermen’s huts in the vicinity, they looked more picturesque to me than the light house itself.

Fishermen huts at Kollam Beach

This short trip was over soon and we reached back to the bus stand wondering what to do next. I went to the good old DTPC office thanking them for the previous day’s experience and to seek guidance on how to spend the rest of our day in a meaningful way. One of them glanced at his watch and indicated us to rush to the near-by jetty stand, telling us that soon a local ferry was supposed to leave for near-by villages. A sudden wave of excitement ran through my body. That was our chance to visit inner Kollam using locals’ mode of transport. Leaving all bags and baggage of a tourist and moving around like a local and in-fact becoming a face in the crowd among locals, actually brings myself closer to real me. The charm of becoming a commoner found an echo in well-known Hindi Poet Harivansh Rai Bachchan’s following line as well …

और क्या है ख़ास मुझमे, जो में साकार करना चाहता हूँ,
ख़ास यह है की, हर तरह की ख़ासियत से आज इनकार करना चाहता हूँ में

Rough translation of it can be: What else is special in me, that I want to prove today? Special is that I want to deny anything special in me.

In my opinion, the best possible way to get a feel of a place is to travel like most of the locals do. And for sure such possibility enhances the flavor of the trip. We were just in time. The ferry was about to leave. We were told that at the last stop it would wait for a while and then return back. The schedule was perfectly fitting in the time-slot before our planned departure to Bangalore by train. I bought return ticket of the ferry that costed me five Rs per person. I would say that the experience was so enriching that I would not have minded paying even 30 or 40 times more for it.

As it started sailing we noticed that we were the only tourist on that cruise. It seemed that tourists’ taking that route was not so common. Traveling like that can very well be described as traveling in the local bus of the backwaters. After getting our tickets checked we positioned ourselves at the main door enjoying unhindered views of the backwaters. The scene felt straight out of the movie “Swades” when Shahrukh traveled similarly in a local water craft to a near-by village to collect a loan. In the beginning, the boat was moving close to the banks and we glimpsed fishing communities, where the huts were exposed to the winds of backwaters and Chinese nets were stretched like spider webs and beyond them fertile land was painted green with paddy and coconut trees.

Chinese net

On the way, there were many ships lined at the bank like Portofino’s poor cousin. Portofino is a beautiful place in the Italian Riviera.

Ships at Kollam

The boat was moving zigzag. It touched one side of the bank, left a few passengers, took in a few others and then moved towards village on the other side of the backwaters and so on. Slowly and slowly human settlement was left behind. Apart from our fellow co-passengers, the only other living being in our view was Brahminy Eagle. It was gliding over backwaters in search of its prey and was ready to take plunge on it. Jaishree and I tried hard to capture this flying beauty. Our frantic efforts evoked our co-passengers interest in helping us! Whenever we missed it, they drew our attention towards it. At last, when we were able to shoot the bird completely in one frame and showed them the results, they looked equally satisfied.

Brahminy Kite

Brahminy Eagle

From far we could see straight lines and colorful dots floating on the water. Those geometrical figures generated immense curiosity in us. As we got closer, the dots metamorphosed into a group of fishermen on their small boats. They were trying their luck and nets in the water. When I looked at them through a tourist’s eye, for a few moments the boundary between work and fun got blurred. Everything seemed lyrical to me – their colorful attire, their boats and hats, and their concerted repetitive movements of throwing their nets and bringing it back each time. The reverie came to an end as we moved on and they started to appear once again as dots and straight lines, eventually becoming miniscule points against the backdrop of the vast expanse of the backwaters.

Fishermen at work, Kollam

Fisherman at kollam

Fishing net kollam

After around 3 hours, as we returned, I had mixed feelings. It was the feeling of immense satisfaction about our last brush with the backwaters, but a feeling of gradual sadness was also seeping through, as we prepared ourselves to say Au-revoir to Kerala. The images of shimmering backwaters, bamboo rafting on Periyar river, Spice-plantation trip in Kumily, verdant hills of Munnar started to dance in front of my eyes. Even today when I think about our Kerala trip, those images still float in my eyes. I would like to end with the hope that we may get another opportunity to continue this trip from where we left …

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