11 August 2009

The 57th Annual Nehru Trophy Snake Boat Race

Thats right kids, this past weekend I ventured down to Kerala to witness the spectacle that is India's largest semi-professional snake boat race. And what is a snake boat race, you might ask? Well it is an Indian version of an ivy league regatta crossed with an Indian version of Preakness with just a little bit of Indian pomp and circumstance thrown in. In short, it is awesome.

PICT0002Got down to Kerala (a state just south of Karnataka, home to Bengaluru) Friday afternoon and started the long, long drive to our place in the Aleppy backwaters. Aleppy is located in a delta type area that is criscrossed with rivers and canals and bills itself as the Venice of India. We stayed at the Coir Village which is about 35km outside of town right on some rivers (in fact, you have to take a little boat from the car to reception and then another one from reception to our room). We hung out in hammocks, took a sunset cruise on the water and amazingly actually had a relaxing, peaceful night in India.

The next day was the big race and we headed back to Aleppy and jumped onto our boat for the day. We motored out of town and quickly were at the course: a kilometer long stretch filled with thousands of people lining the shores and on thousands of boats all vying for the best view. Settled in for the afternoon, snuck through the cockpit to get to the front of our boat, watched the racing boats warm up but generally drank watered down brandy, ate mystery fish stew (side note: Indians - stop trying to feed me, seriously, it is not cool) and generally tried to avoid getting pushed in the water.  The actual boats were pretty incredible, there were a few different sizes with the biggest (the snake boats) taking six month to build and seating upwards of 120 rowers (plus drummers, yellers, umbrella holders and steerers). Watching 120 folks (there were female, aka kitchen, boats as well) row in synch lifting these massive boats of the water was quite impressive.

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Around 2pm Sonia Gandhi, who is not related to the Mahatma but is the president of the ruling party but is not prime minister of the country, kicked off the actual races. A somewhat interesting fact: the race is named in honor of Jawaharlal Nehru who was the first prime minister of India and Sonia Gandhi's grandfather (in law), but this was the first time someone from the Nehru-Gandhi family (kind of like the Kennedys and featuring four prime ministers) actually attended. This was celebrated in what I imagine is traditional south Indian fashion: having a navy diver wearing flippers lowered and raised a few times from a hovering helicopter (not lying).

IMG_0074 As the races got going the scene turned more and more to a Pimlico on water. Way too many people crammed onto the boats closest to the race, little skirmishes breaking out between Indians on neighboring boats, kiddy pools full of beer (kidding), clothes coming off (admittedly just guys jumping into the water), and at some point someone broke out a bottle of White Mischief Vodka. After a handful of races (which like Preakness most people didn't pay attention to) the crowd of 40 or so boats was whittled down to 4. With the sun setting, Champakulam defeated twelve time winner Payipad in a scintillating final that (that I'm told) was one of the best snake boat races in history.

Capped off the trip at our new hotel on the beach, making some friends and hadving a bonfire where I once again found myself trying to explain s'mores to foreigners. Spent the next morning on the beach and enjoying an open air shower then cruised back to Bangalore to enjoy a fantastic evening of beer, hookah and french fries.

Steve Gore

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