Kochi, Queen of the Arabian Sea

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

I’m wrapping up my time in southern India with a trip to the fish markets of Kochi.  Kochi is the principle seaport for fishing and spice trading…it’s also known as one of the prettiest and safest towns in the region.  I’m staying at the Brunton Boatyard, an old victoria shipyard.

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The streets of Kochi are charming and you can really see the Portuguese influence in their buildings.

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This is one of the nicer homes I’ve seen in India.  It’s owned by a high level government worker.

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I had a guide for the whole day and he took me exploring all over the city. We visited the Dutch Palace, the Church of St. Francis, the Bolghatty Palace and the Jewish Synagogue…all very interesting.

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Inside the synagogue

Jews came to the Kochi area as early as 700 BC because of trade. A tradition says that many Jews even settled in the area at the time of the ancient Jewish king, King Solomon. These “black Jews” and then later “white Jews” were so plentiful in the area, that the Hindu Raja granted them a site for their own town right next to Kochi. That town became known as “Jew Town”.  There are only four jewish families remaining in Kochi.

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The streets of Jew Town…

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But the fun part of the day was on the waterfront!

The temp was back in the mid 40’s (if you recall from Dubai 44 degrees C = about 110 F) and while you sort of get used to it… the sun can really get to you after a while…so buying a hat seemed like the right thing to do at the time.

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Behind me are the chinese fishing nets.  I’m going to plagiarize some information from the internet about these nets to better explain what they are…

A huge mechanical contrivance that holds out a horizontal net of 20 m or more across. Each structure is at least 10 m high and comprises a cantilever with an outstretched net suspended over the sea and large stones suspended from ropes as counterweights at the other end. Each installation is operated by a team of up to six fishermen.

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The system is sufficiently balanced that the weight of a man walking along the main beam is sufficient to cause the net to descend into the sea. The net is left for a short time, possibly just a few minutes, before it is raised by pulling on ropes. The catch is usually modest: a few fish and shrimp or crab — these may be sold to passers by within minutes.

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The system of counterweights is most ingenious. Rocks, each 30 cm or so in diameter are suspended from ropes of different lengths. As the net is raised, some of the rocks one-by-one come to rest on a platform thereby keeping everything in balance.

The fish market was a real treat…interesting sights and smells galore!  This is fresh catch today and will be sold today as well.

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That’s a barracuda…

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But the real excitement was down a bit at the auction.  Boats were coming in as we stood and watched.  The fishermen would jump out and immediately begin throwing their catch up to the beach and onto a mat on the ground.  An auctioneer would gather interested bidders around the catch and begin his auction.  Each lot sold in less then a minute and another catch would be thrown up onto the beach to take it’s place.

In other instances, fish would be put into a basket and weighed – selling by the pound.  The iceman came by regularly to hit the fish with some frozen stuff – it was all very  organized.

My last activity in Kochi was attending an Indian dance-drama called the Kathakali in which characters with vividly painted faces and elaborate costumes perform various forms of dance.   Before the dancing began we (there were about 7 of us attending this performance) stopped to watch one of the dancers get his face painted.  It took over an hour to be completed.

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His final look…

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Kathakali itself is considered to be a combination of five elements of fine art.  I found that Natyam, the component with emphasis on facial expressions to be the most interesting.

They also re-enact stories from Indian epics like Narakasura Vadham.  Nakrathundi, sister of Narakasura, goes to heaven in search of some young beautiful girls at the command of Narakasura for his pleasure.  There, she meets Jayantha, son of Indra, ruler of heaven, for whom she develops a hopeless infatuation.  Knowing her ugliness, she disguises herself into a beautiful young girl.  She tries to entice Jayantha, but when all her approaches are defeated…she resumes her natural, hideous appearance and tries to capture him by her brute force.  Jayantha fights her and cuts off her nose, ears and breasts.  Nice.

After the performance…it was time to say goodbye to Kochi.  Taking an overnight train in India was one of the things that I wanted to do and I had my opportunity to take one that night.  The drive to the train station was a treat.  It had begun to rain and the windshield wipers didn’t work.  My driver stopped once – on the 20 minute drive – to manually wipe the windows – but I guess that was just too much work so he never did it again.  Night time – rain – can’t see – cows in the road —  whatever!  I figure we’re not going fast enough to kill me if we get into an accident — so I’ll just go with the flow.

I requested a first class ticket – which means I get a bunk in the air conditioned section of the train.  My guide met me at the train station and walked me to the correct platform – fortunately – because it was dark and the signs were not real clear.

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We walked down a narrow isle of closed curtains hiding other passengers from sight – they may have been sleeping already – and headed to the last compartment – mine.

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There is a bunk right above me that was soon occupied by a mother and her 2 year old son.

The train keeps a very strict schedule.  It stopped for exactly 12 minutes and then continued on it’s way.  Unfortunately, it continued with my driver on board.  He had to jump off at the next stop and get himself back to the last station to pick up his motorcyle.  Whoops.

I had deliberately not had anything to drink for like – hours – so that I wouldn’t have to use the the hole in the floor – I mean the toilet – while on a rocking train.  But tell that to my bladder. After negotiating that unpleasant experience, I pulled out my sleeping bag sheet and ear plugs and prepared myself for the night.

You might think that the rocking of a train would lull you to sleep…but you’d be wrong.  It was a long night.  I left at 11 pm and arrived at the Madurai station at 11 am and the company coordinator, Brendan, was there to meet me with a car that took me back to one of my favorite hotels…The Gateway…for my final night in southern India.  An altogether interesting 24 hours.

Traveling through the south of India has been so different from what I saw in Mumbai and I’m glad that I came down here.  There is so much natural beauty in the hills and the backwaters of this country.   Being my first trip to India, I came here anticipating pushy and difficult people…aggressive beggars…scary trains and buses designed to test your nerves.  Well…the buses tested my nerves…but the people were kind and generous…easy to spend time with…always pleasant and welcoming.  One gentleman approached me while in Munnar to ask me specifically if the Indian people had been good to me while I was visiting.   The cities were enjoyable places to visit and the small villages were charming.  Between the hills, the backwaters and the beaches…tea plantations and spice villages…there was always something to stimulate the senses!

I know that the sights and sounds are going to change dramatically once I get back up north… so I’ve appreciated this opportunity to see another side of India and her people.

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