Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Snake Boat Races

How to describe the Snake Boat Races. Hm. They were nothing but amazing. Most people gathered at the final leg of the race, maybe a quarter kilometer stretch of water that finished at a judges stand and small “stadium” (I emphasize small, as my idea of a stadium is Giant's stadium... which they just made bigger). On one side, land where throngs of people gathered on the edge of the water, as well as in the water, swimming around and what not, to join in the festivities. On the other side of this lane which was probably 50 meters across (plus or minus 10 meters) were scores of boats all packed in together, each one trying to be closer than the next to observe the final stretch.

It's a good thing boats don't have eyes and don't actually want to see the race. Since all the boats are so close, most people walk from boat to boat and head towards the front to better see the race. However, there were some boats (like the giant Kingfisher Houseboat (Kingfisher is a beer)), that were only there for having a party and playing loud music. No matter, it was more music for the rest of us.

Some hours pass of people eating, drinking, picnicking and ultimately just enjoying the day with family and friends.

Then, the finals started. They began with a navy helicopter (Michael, help me with this one, it's a small chopper whose name I believe starts with a “W”), and a man hanging from the helicopter. Dressed in a black wet suit with fins on, he hung there, the strap coming out of his chest and up to the helicopter, arms outstretched, as if embracing the whole race. He was carried up and down a couple times by the chopper, sometimes feet touching the water, sometimes half way down, back up, back down again. After some repetitions he was brought up into the chopper and flown away. If there was some symbolic significance to this I am not sure what it is, nor did anyone speak of it, so it could have very well just have been a spectacle.

First, the heavy weights. After about 10 min the cheers grew louder. “Row! Row! Row!” The crowds chanted, although it sounded more like “Ehh-row!” with a rolled “R” sound. By this time, across the channel where there was land, people were all over each other in excitement. Behind the main line of people on the water there were two large buildings under construction. All that was there was the cement and steel skeleton, about 4 or 5 stories constructed (refer to the pictures below). Besides the skeleton of the buildings, people packed, and I mean jam-packed themselves into the building to see the race. The amount of people, the absolute popularity of this race was astounding.

Finally the boats came into view. A giant boat, only about 3 feet off the water at where the rowers sat, but more than 30 feet long, was lined with Indian men rowing in perfect uniform. These were the biggest of the boats, and on each side (for there were two rows of paddlers) were at least 50 people. I couldn't count exactly, but I was able to count the smaller boats, and one that was considerably smaller had 20 on each side. So 50-60 on each side, plus 4 or 5 captains and 6 large paddle rowers on the back... that's over 130 people on a single boat, on a single team, in this fervent race to the finish line.

The large-paddle rowers were extremely fun to watch. Also working in uniform sequence (with each other and the rest of the boat) they heaved their oars high into the air, brought them down hard and pushed into the water, only to lift them out and heave them back into the air again. While everyone else sat, these men stood at the back, rowing. They acted as both extra support for the rowers, as well as using their giant oars to help steer the boat. Their oars kept going in this circular motion, all six of them, never touching oars or messing the next person up, constantly rowing hard to reach the finish line. Incredible.

Now that I've spoken about everyone being uniform in their rowing patters, let me explain in a little more detail. There were 4 to 5 people that stood and walked in an aisle between the lines of rowers that kept the rhythm. A main captain blew a whistle in a certain musical timing, and two others with paddles would hit the bottom of the boat in this same timing. Another would scream and chant to keep going, what direction to go in, to stay uniform etc. And the rowers pushed against the water all to this beat. The main throngs of rowers paddled on every beat, and the large-paddle rowers alternated and rowed every two or three beats. All together, it was something totally new for the ears to hear. The chants, the screams, the whistle blowing, and the oars being slammed on wood like giant war drums. The biggest of the boats were like ancient Viking vessels being rowed perfectly to maximize speed and minimize any drag. In the crowds it was hard to hear through all the screams, but the day earlier I had seen a couple of teams doing some drills on the water. It was then I could fully hear the chanting, the drums, the absolute intensity. I couldn't even begin to imagine what it feels like to be on that boat, rowing. Like warriors going to war, each stroke in the water probably felt like life or death.

As each number of boats finished, each consecutive set of boats became smaller. I imagine they were divided by weight class and number of rowers – or something to that effect. They all consisted of the same components just in small proportions. Getting close to the end, some boats only had a total of 30-40 people. That still seems like a lot, and it is, but in comparison to the behemoths that first arrived, they were puny.

In one of the smaller classes, something tragic happened. 4 boats. All within a couple yards of each other. Two in the front were neck and neck. The passed by us, gliding over the water gracefully, yet furiously (if you can combine the two). Row! Row! Row! The drum beat goes on, and on, and on. As they were passing us, someone nudged me and said, “Look, the guy on the back jumped off!”. No one else in the crowd seemed to notice. Their eyes were fixed on the finish line. “It's going to be a photo finish!” Someone else exclaimed.

Then, I think I figured out the reason why that man had jumped off. I believe (but could be wrong) he might have seen a leak on the boat, and to try and not let it sink, jumped ship, taking some weight off of it. Well, it didn't do much. Maybe 5 or 10 meters before the finish line you could see the bow of the ship out of the water, but where was the rest? Like mannequins, feet, hips, torsos and arms began to dip into the water. Up to their shoulders in the water, a piece of the bow of the ship was still sticking out of the water. So close to finishing. So close to winning, their ship had sunk. Police and emergency boats rushed out into the lanes to gather everyone and get them out of the way before the next set of boats arrived. It happened to fast, and so quietly, without much sensation, it was over before you had noticed it had begun. I can't even begin to imagine what that team is feeling. It's not like losing a football or soccer ball in a game. The boat IS the game. It's all you have. And right before the end, it sinks while you are still on it. Devastatingly tragic.

By far the most interesting though was the womens team. They competed just as they had with the mens, and rowed just as fast, just as furiously, with just as much vigor. The men mostly wore small shorts and tank tops, t-shirts, or wife beaters, all of the same color. The women however. Oh the women, I commend them on their strength because I have no idea how they did this. Everyone's hair was all done up nice and neat, and they were all fully decked out in matching saris. I don't know how women do manual labor in these things, let alone hard, physical activity like rowing a boat. They were incredible, it was beautiful. One womens team is also an “international team”. That is, while it is mostly Indian women on the team, there were about 4 or 5 foreigners on the team as well. Each year this race grows in popularity and they are predicting that it's possible to have a couple international men and womens team if people want to train and compete.

After the races we left, and as I described in an earlier post, the next day did a lot of touristy stuff. Then, John and my snake boat companions had to catch a bus to Bangalore. I, however, was to remain in Kerala. And thus the next part of my journey began.

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