Saturday, December 31, 2005

Kerala -- Land of the Coconut

Kerala literally means "land of the coconut" in Malayalam, the state's language and one of at least 30+ languages and 1650 dialects in India.

The graceful palm is everywhere here: on the shores of beaches, next to sleek highrises, in the middle of dangerous traffic rotaries and flocking the abundant backwaters. And, it is the tree of life here, economically and nutritionally, as the Keralites know how to derive 12 different products from its fruit and fronds!!!

Coconut palms take at least 8 years to mature and then sprout a bud which blossoms into a bunch of maybe 40 coconuts, which ripen over a year's time. The Keralites, especially those who subsist on the prsoperity of the backwaters, start using the trees' buds to make a type of "toddy" (wicked liquer) with its nectar that gets stronger over time, and harvest "young coconuts" at 6 months for drinking. You can see photos of us drinking coconut water from the shell in the backwaters, and frankly, it is NOTHING like a pina colada! Too bad.

The white coconut meat pops up in grated form in nearly all Kerelan foods, sweet or savory, and then pressed for milk or saved as livestock feed. Shells are used for cups, bowls, handicrafts and bbq charcoal. Its fronds are dried and woven into hut roofs or hats, and the frizzy brown coconut fluff is called coir and brushed off into giant piles for processing.

From this coir, the women ingeniously make rope!

Most village homes in the backwaters have what we'd call "old fashioned" metal spinning wheels about two to three feet in diameter, and and can spin the coir together tightly to make lengths of twine-sized rope. These are then pressed together by hand with a wooden vise-like tool, usually by children, since their mother and grandmother are occupying each end of the coir length or on a spinning wheel. The rope gets wider and stronger and so tough no man in our group could pull apart a freshly bound one-inch wide coir.

Our male guide in the backwaters told us this use was very important because women can do this work during the day while the men are off fishing or driving rickshaws or whatever else it is they do. I was somewhat appalled. Like the women here don't alreay have enough to do!?! At first as I watched them weave I felt I was seeing a different spin on the Rumpelstiltskin story, but there life is no fairy tale!

Regardless, we now have a new respect for the coconut palm and Andy has a new joke for when I'm acting up..."Now be a good woman and go make some rope!" : )

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