Heard the people from Theyyam

Kerala Island: Everyday Adventure

Actually, vacation means leaving everyday life far behind. We drove towards it: On a small, palm-lined island in the southern Indian city of Kerala, travelers can take part in the normal life of the villagers for a while. And that's anything but an everyday experience

Sometimes life is so strange that you want to hide behind a saree.

Geetha is standing in front of the fireplace in the kitchen. She puts the shells of a coconut in it and sets it on fire. She pounds cardamom in a stone mortar. She fills uppuma, steamed semolina with cashews and raisins, into a terracotta bowl. Harsh, five years old, holds on to Geetha's dress and looks over the counter into the restaurant.

Debut on Thekkekadu Island

There they sit, the two strangers. Their hair is so colorless, they are so tall. And why do they eat so awkwardly? As is customary, the two of them try to put the semolina into their mouths with their fingers. Even the youngest children can do this better, wonders the girl Harsh. A rooster crows somewhere in the village. Morning haze hangs over Thekkekadu. It is drawn as a thin veil over the fronds of the palm trees. It colors the water of the lagoon milky gray. A fisherman pokes out in a wooden boat, stops and slides a net into the water. He hits the edge of the boat with a stick, tak tak-tak tak-tak tak, probably to drive the fish into the net. In front of a neighboring house, at the well, a man is brushing his teeth. Everything is like every morning. Almost everything. The strangers get up from the bamboo table.

We walk to our house on a sandy path, Harsh's eyes wandering behind us. We are the first guests in the "Oyster Opera", a resort on Thekkekadu island in northern Kerala. Laundry hangs between the trunks of two coconut trees, a goat is looking for herbs and grass. Do not lock out life in the country with a wall, that is the idea of ​​the facility, but offer a dream vacation in the middle of a village. The houses of the locals are scattered across the palm forest of the island as if they were diced. Around a hundred families live on Thekkekadu.

A dam connects the little piece of earth, just four and a half kilometers long, with the mainland and the town of Padanna. The Valiyaparamba Backwaters, a labyrinth of canals, lakes and lagoons, stretch in front of the island. The network is fed by five rivers, and a 24-kilometer island seals it off from the Arabian Sea. Our house, like the four others in the complex, is located directly on a shallow lagoon. The roof is woven from palm leaves. Shutters instead of panes of glass let in small spots of light that appear on the rough walls

shiny red floor, the hand-woven mosquito nets dance. Stone, wood, bamboo and not a piece of plastic - pure eco-design, simple and beautiful. Three bowls made of polished coconut shimmer in the bathroom, filled with grated hibiscus leaves, turmeric, herbs: soap, shampoo and conditioner from nature.

Geetha brings us a jug of freshly squeezed melon juice. I stretch out on a lounge chair on our porch. A cormorant perches on a pole in the water and spreads its wings to dry. Its feathers shimmer black in the light. On the horizon, a boat painted yellow glides over the glittering water. A perfect setting. But I don't want to be a spectator, I want to look backstage. Get to know people's everyday lives, experience the here and now on Thekkekadu. A few steps from our restaurant is Geetha's house.

Pretzel sticks that taste like curry

It's a simple hut with the thatched palm roof pulled deep into the sand. When Harsh sees me, she disappears around the corner. Geetha's mother waves to me, she invites me to a cup of tea. In one corner of the hut the saucepans are piled up on the floor, plastic jars with spices on a wall ledge. The clothes hang neatly folded on a pole. Geetha fetches a dried palm frond, presses it into the embers under the kettle, soon the water is boiling and we have a glass in our hand. The tea runs down our throats in small sips, sweet, bitter and hot. The Indian woman smiles and points to my neck. I don't wear gold jewelry like a woman in Kerala should. She shows me her necklace, a gem that rests on her bright blue sari.

Geetha is 26, a warm, quiet, educated woman. She attended school for twelve years and college for three years, graduating with a degree in economics. Has she never dreamed of moving to town and working there? "No, I want to stay with my family." She sleeps with her mother and daughter in the palm straw hut, her brother and her husband are in a second. We nibble on small pretzel sticks that taste like curry and talk and talk, a little English, a little with hands and feet. Most of the people in the village live from what the water gives them. From oysters and clams, mussels, fish, shrimp. Geetha is also in the business with maritime treasures, she breeds green mussels, a delicacy - when she's not in the kitchen of the "Oyster Opera".

Manageable bar counter

Every day I walk through the manageable world of Thekkekadu to the orange temple behind the cricket field, where the god Palichon Kave sits on the roof. To the only shop on the island. For amounts that can no longer be converted into cents, I buy peanut brittle and bananas there. At first the children wave to me as soon as they spot me between the palm trees. After a few days nothing changes, I've actually become an extra, part of the ongoing production.

Little by little I get to know our neighbors, they invite me, look at me, and I look at them, and we chat about what's on their minds. About men who work in Mumbai or the Emirates and only come home once a year. About sons and daughters for whom you are looking for a good match because there is no free choice of partner here. About the women in the village who have been supported by the Kerala government for a few years so that they can work together in self-help groups. They market their mussels together and have started other trades, sewing bags, weaving baskets, baking pakoras and fried vegetables. They earn so much money that their families can buy new houses. Once I get an official invitation: The women's association meets in the sports club to organize a demonstration in Thiruvananthapuram, the capital of Kerala - the villagers want to fight for an increase in widow pensions. Pieces of the puzzle of reality that touch me deeply.

The people in Kerala are not doing badly. Life expectancy is almost as high as that of Europe and the population is the most educated in India. 90 percent of all women and men can write and read. Most of the Keralites live in villages, between rice fields, spice gardens, and banana plantations. Even by the early explorers, Kerala was called the Garden of Eden because the area is so fertile.

Eating as a ceremony

In the evening, when the sun is setting, I take a coconut mat and sit by the lagoon.

It is as quiet as if it were forbidden to make noise on this island. Only the lapping of the waves can be heard. Small clouds move over the horizon. I know these pictures will soon be faded when I get home. But my memory is populated by people who are so different from me that they will keep their permanent place there. Fires glow in front of the houses as protection against mosquitoes. A woman sets a palm leaf on fire in a flame and disappears into the night with her torch.

Living in the "Oyster Opera" also means eating. Eating as a ceremony. Geetha and four other women from the village prepare our dishes with almost ritual movements. Scrape out tamarinds, water lentils, mash mustard seeds, fry fish. For hours. Every day. Lay down a banana leaf on which drops of water still shine like transparent pearls. Step up to our table with terracotta bowls and pile on the sheet of paper what they have cooked for both of us. We eat the delicacies almost reverently. Until we finally smell of coconut, cardamom, carib leaves. After the cuisine of Kerala. Janardhanan, the resort's boatswain, tells one evening that a festival is being held in the neighboring village. A car takes us to Thirkkarippur. Under the branches and aerial roots of a large old banyan tree, women, men and children stand close together, staring out over a square.

Light bulbs flash in confused patterns on the roof of a truck. Twelve drummers stand in a square, the instruments slung over their bare shoulders, dark red cloths wrapped around their hips. They beat their bent sticks in quick rhythm, stamping back and forth until the rhythm runs through our bodies. On the other side of the square, artists in glittering trousers. They throw torches through the air, twist their bodies. Firecrackers crack again and again. It's loud, it's narrow, it's unreally beautiful. Suddenly the crowd forms a train, the wild drummers, the garish artists, the many people. Very slowly they weighed to the

Temple where a dancing priest casts out evil - a thousand years old Theyyam ritual of the Hindus. With blood red make-up on his chest, the dancer runs with swords and arrows in all directions to drive away our enemies. His white and black rimmed eyes roll wildly under a headdress made of silver flakes. "If you have problems, come to me, I will help you. If you do something forbidden, I will suck your blood out." When the priest has finished his dance, the spectators flock to him, hold out money to be blessed. When I move in front of him, rupees in hand, he laughs out loud. He has never seen a white face begging for luck. Temple. Villages. Palm-strewn landscapes.

The north of Kerala is still largely undiscovered by tourists. We almost never see other travelers when we drive across the country in a chauffeured car. To the markets of Nileswaram and Kannur, to the temples Palakkunnu Sri Bhagavathi and Parassinikadavu Sri Muthappan, to the 300 year old Bekal Fort, Kerala's largest fortress.

But we prefer to be on the water. In the motor boat we chug through the world of the backwaters with Janardhanan, the boatswain. The islands seem to float on a blue background like dots of green. Valiyaparamba, an island on the open sea with a beach of fine sand. Madakkara, where the fishermen land and still sell their catch to the highest bidder on their boats. Kurang Dweep, a horde of monkeys live there in a forest, says Janardhanan, that's where we're going. The boat sways under our steps, the wind blows the hair off my face. A long, flashing fish leaps out of the lagoon, leaps over the water in several leaps and disappears again under the surface. Arriving at the edge of the forest, Janardhanan calls: "Puppy, puppy" - darling, darling. Next to us is a sign, on which a cobra is grinning broadly. This is the place of Nagaraja, the snake god, and Hanuman, the monkey god, the boatswain explains to us; it is said that the gods should dwell in the bodies of these animals.

The forest is a sacred place

The locals feed the snakes with milk for good karma, the monkeys with bananas. "Do you want to go into the forest? Then you have to take off your shoes, this is a sacred place". Barefoot in the jungle? - "No!" I take a banana and hold it in front of the brush: "Puppy, puppy." Indeed, it doesn't take long and a small face peeks out from behind a branch, an arm is fished for the fruit. More and more monkeys appear, with careful movements they pick up the fruit and peel it, half hidden in the leaves of the trees. It's hot in Kerala. Feels like temperature: 32 degrees, there is no thermometer on Thekkekadu. Take a bath now, feel the cool water. Geetha shrugs her shoulders in shock - no local can swim. "Okay," says Janardhanan and jumps into his boat. He watches me keenly - like a sea eagle its offspring - as I slide into the lagoon, ready to save me as soon as I should go under. In the middle, where the water is shallower, two heads appear up and down, up and down, at a steady, restrained pace. I work against the current with strong arm movements. As I get closer, I recognize two women. They wave to me as the water flows from their faces. Shell divers in soaking wet T-shirts, blouses, skirts.

They carry bundles of cloth on their heads filled with sand ballast to make it easier to reach the bottom of the lagoon. "Kakka, kakka" croaks one, they are looking for clams in the silt. Hard work, because nothing can be seen in the murky, blue-gray depths. They only hold two or three mussels in their hands when they gasp for air again. The sun burns on their heads, the salt water in their eyes. An oil lamp is burning in the palm grove next to the Geetha hut. The priest was there to bless the building site for a stone house. A boy next door, Sutesh, 14 years old, greets me - his mother puts on the kettle and pushes a stool towards me. Under a mattress, Sutesh pulls out pages that are closely written on. A short story in hundreds of circles, in Malayalam, the language of Kerala. We talk about his hopes, his dreams, he wants to go to university and become a writer. Krishna, the house god, is on a shelf, and Sutesh prays to him in the morning and in the evening. The god has a flute in his hand and a feather in his hair. Maybe he is just the right person to approach dreams.

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