Climbing coconut trees in Kerala
by The Guardian
22 October 2012
Accommodation was provided by Dewalokam Organic Farm which has doubles from Rs 7,000 full-board, including tree climbing and other activities such as honey collection and rubber processing.
At a friendly homestay on a farm in Kerala, one writer learns to climb coconut trees the traditional way.
There's approximately 20m separating me from a lovely bunch of coconuts. Just 20m of pale, slender, lightly ridged tree trunk. I'm standing at the bottom, gazing up at the yellow cluster far in the distance, while bright Indian sunshine streams through the swooping fronds above. There's nothing for it, I tell myself, but to take a deep breath, stiffen my loops of climbing rope, and leap…
Ever since I arrived in Kerala, there had been reminders that this moment was coming. When I arrived at Dewalokam Organic Farm, an hour and a half from Kochi, I was greeted with a milk-filled coconut shell. I ate coconut sambol for breakfast. Lunch was a curry of vegetables in coconut milk followed by coconut biscuits with tea. Clearly in Kerala – where more than 500m coconut trees cover 40% of the land – coconuts are a big deal.
So it's fitting that I'm staying at a farm in Karimannoor to learn the traditional art of coconut tree climbing. Dewalokam (the name means "god's place in the world" in Malayalam) has been owner Jose's family farm for three generations. Now he hosts travellers, offering them the chance to try farm activities, yoga and cookery. Curry trees lean up against pineapple plants, hundreds of tiny water apples hang at shoulder height, and there are trees bearing mangoes and jackfruit.
The coconut trees tower above the rest of the greenery, and harvesting them is one of the many jobs of easy-going Subbi. Today he's going to teach me how it's done. Sporting a blue-and-yellow checked shirt, a tangle of beads around his neck, and a lungi casually folded above his knees for the demo, he couldn't be more nonchalant about scaling the dizzy heights. Six light, graceful bounds take him to the top in under a minute. Then coconuts begin thudding to the ground around us.
That seems easy enough, I think, as Subbi gives me two small loops of rope. One stretches between my feet, and grips the front of the tree, and I hold the other behind the trunk. My first leap takes me less than a foot above the ground, where I freeze, my arms locked round the trunk with the desperation of a child clinging to a parent's leg on the first day of school. The technique – grip first with legs, then with arms – isn't difficult, but my limbs won't obey me, so I'm back on the ground after a few seconds.
That night after dinner, I get a pep talk from Jose. "All you need for tree climbing is daring, and confidence," he says. "For a strong, healthy man it's not dangerous. And over time coconut tree climbers become very lean and muscular, so it's not difficult for them."
He adds that the only danger is that climbers become overly fond of toddy, the drink made with fermented sap from the coconut tree flowers. Sold in ramshackle toddy bars across Kerala, the drink may be a perk of the job, but it's not enough to keep the work from going out of fashion. It's such intense labour that despite being relatively well-paid, the increasingly educated population isn't keen to take it on.
The next day I'm back at the foot of the coconut tree. Before I can bottle it, I make three small but solid bounds up, and pause to catch my breath. I have no idea how high above the ground I am, but feel absolutely exhilarated.
"One more … pull up … yes!" The cluster of farm workers gathered below are encouraging. But I don't have another leap in me, and my limbs soon start trembling with the exertion. Before they give out, I shimmy down to a burst of generous applause.
A few days later I drop into a toddy shop and reward myself with a cool draught of the fruits of someone else's labour. Trees are tapped before dawn, so the toddy is at its most drinkable mid-morning, getting more alcoholic as it ferments throughout the day. I find my slightly fizzy 11am tipple surprisingly light. Nutty, sour, sweet and refreshing it's a heady antidote to the hot Indian sun. After a few too many swigs, I promise myself that next time I'm in Kerala, I'll tap my own.
This piece by Helen Elfer was first published on The Guardian website.