Ernakulum is the busy port city closest to Ft. Cochin. Here I stepped from my train to find the way to Ft. Cochin, the historic trading center of the area and a must see tourist destination. Typical of India Ernakulum’s streets bulge with shoebox sized storefronts, huge billboards, blowing trash, buzzing auto rickshaws, belching trucks and buses and smells from urine to car exhaust. Horns punctuate the air and ear. Reaching the Main Ferry dock from the train, I waited in the Ladies Line as it grew and grew in length along with the even longer Men’s queue. No station agent for a while….then one appeared only to count his money and disappear again. After nearly 40 sweaty minutes he returned to slowly sell the 2.5 rupee ticket. Grateful to end the ticket ordeal, I exited the steamy ticket area to the dock.
My little ferry chugged across the wide harbor past container docks with monstrous steel lifts soaring over the ships docked nearby. The sea smell seemed slightly sour. The sky was obscured by the smog of the city. But the breeze dried my sweat and I could see the palms along the island that holds Ft Cochin. In the distance a huge ship moved toward us. Off the ferry, I heaved my suitcase and daypack into a rickshaw and bargained for the price to my hotel. My youngish driver announced he was” in training”. That became obvious as he sped along futilely searching for Vasco de Gama Inn. He repeatedly asked others for help and we reversed directions several times. We seemed to locate every possible store or guest house with the Vasco de Gama name, but not the Inn. Finally I stopped this charade, paid him off and walked to the hotel which was half a block off the beach behind a larger hotel.
Despite the frustration the wild ride showed a very different tempo and style from crazy Ernakulum. And it demonstrated continuing pride among Ft Cochinans that Vasco de Gama, the great Portuguese navigator lived and died here. He helped build the busy Portuguese spice trade. Today few remnants of the great fort exist. Its walls are replaced along the blocks closest to the water front by the graceful Chinese fishing nets, busy stalls of fish vendors, Rajastani women selling crafts, juice bars, and small restaurants ready to cook fish you buy from the fish stalls. Indian and European tourists mingle and the crowds of rickshaw drivers call out for business. “Hey, you walking, Good for you, not for me!”, “Hey step into my Ferrari!” I watch as teams of fisherman lower and raise the cantilevered nets into the sea from platforms, scooping out their catch and deliveringit immediately to the vendors that are nearby.There is little street traffic and noise reducedfrom of Ernakulum. The mood is decidedly more relaxed. Big trees shade the waterfront, there is a promenade stretching along the beach where runners get their morning exercise and families walk and people watch in the evenings. Large homes and buildings from the Portuguese past are scattered along the way. There is a parade ground where young boys kick a soccer ball and others play cricket. And side streets are narrow, great for walking and rickshaws, not so inviting for cars. A shady cemetery holds the graves of the early Portuguese traders and colonists.
The inn’s hearty, hefty manager, Viney is fairly typical of the front desk people. He knows every schedule, every sight, and where to find or buy just about anything, Do I need a beer? He sends out the elderly man who is the gofer and night clerk. Do I need a marker to address a box, a piece of tape…..Viney offers it. What would I prefer for the hotel offered breakfast? And so I am established in a pleasant room with air conditioning and hot water 24-7. Whew!
After a hearty Indian breakfast of puffy rice cakes and veggie sauce, I am off to explore. I plan to walk the front road around to the two museums I want to see. Along the way I enjoy the Chinese fishing nets that are being lowered and raised into the sea by a teams of fishermen. They scoop the unlucky fish from the huge nets and rush then to the stalls where they are displayed for sale.
As I walk I purchase a ticket (for less than $1.00) to the international Biennale, the first ever in India. Its venues are scattered throughout this city, and particularly in the historic warehouse district, the heart of the old Portuguese trading area, with wharfs just behind the warehouses. ( Later I visit over 30 exhibits showcasing the creativity of artists from around the world. Much of the work has a social justice or environmental message. Many artists are multimedia with a strong reliance on video.)
I enter the historic warehouse area where trucks unload, traders sit at stalls ready to negotiate prices for rice, spice, tobacco. Spicy odors float in the air. Then these working warehouses transition to Kashimi owned shops displaying carpets, silks, pashmina shawls, and jewelry. Their salesmen stand ready to lure the shopper. “No hassle” promise their signs. Inside shelves and displays of rich fabrics, handmade lace, shawls and silk saris of every color and design. Bargains are possible if you have patience for it. There are antique stores loaded with furniture, statuary. This is a shopper’s paradise. I negotiate with a young Muslim woman who has just opened her shop with a Christian friend. On the wall are both Muslim and Christian prayers, blessing their endeavor.
By now the heat and the humidity have risen. I am without hat and thirsty. A lime soda renews my energy. But whoa! It’s Friday and the ancient synagogue is closed for the Holy Day. And so is the Dutch Palace the old mansion, now a museum. I will need to return on another day, That does it. I am in no mood to shop.
I decide to walk back through the center of the town, discovering the real Ft. Cochin, cut through with canals green with who knows what…..banks and walls filled with trash, warrens of small houses near the canals, narrow alleys leading into the neighborhoods. Coconut palms and banana trees are scattered here and there. Women in burka move past, my ears hear nothing but the chants and sermons broadcast from the mosques. It is also the day of worship for the Muslims. I find the busy streets and markets of the neighborhoods, not quite as hectic as those of Ernakulum, but just as congested with signs and rickshaws. Aryuvedic pharmacies, fruit and veggie stands, shops selling the long loose house dresses that must give freedom and air to those burka and sari clad women as they do their work at home. Pots, buckets, hardware, tires, bike parts, you name it. This area has it for sale.
Finally I return to the comparative peace and order of the tourist area, drop gratefully into a restaurant chair and drink a liter of water before I order my meal.
My days in Ft Cochin fall into a pattern of shopping, finding welcome restaurants that serve western style breakfasts of luscious filled omelets, honey soaked pancakes, tropical fruits. I begin to have fun timing my meals in these places. Fifteen minutes to receive a menu. Ten more minutes to order. Thirty minutes waiting for the meal. Eating the meal, getting the bill. Another 40 minutes. Jane had warned, “Bring a book, your journal or your lover. For you will have time for all.” So right. But Ft. Cochin and in fact all of Kerala is not about efficiency. It is about forgetting time and your expectations. Laid back is the theme here. I will need to extend my stay in order to complete my list of “to do and must see”. Is this a conspiracy?
After lunch, I shower away the sweat of the morning.
I meet fellow tourists. A couple from Denmark and I share seafood salad and shrimp stuffed marsala snapper in the candle lit garden of the Harbour House Hotel.
I discover some fine shops offering excellent block printed fashions. My good friend Jane Smiley returns from her days at a spa. She is now practically a citizen of the Fort and takes me to visit artists and textile workshops. We splurge on fine dinners with wine at the Malabar Hotel where we are entranced by the interplay between drums and flute performed by Indian musicians. I experience a much abbreviated performance of the local dance/theater form: Kathakali, watching as a story that might take 10 hours to perform at a temple festival is condensed into an hour. The pre performance demonstrations of elaborate makeup, the incredible eye and facial muscle control of the actors, and the vocabulary of mudras (hand and finger positions) that tell the story are impressive. The performers have trained their bodies and meditative focus for years. The play begins as the principal actors step out in dramatic full skirts and elaborate headgear. Drummers add to the dramatic tension through rhythms and strokes that seem to emit groans from the drums. A singer carries the theme and story line forward. The actors speak only with their hands and facial expressions. This is far away from the kabuki style theater I had imagined.
On my final day, a tailor stitches
white cloth covers over two boxes that I address and carry to the post office. I wait to receive necessary forms. They must be printed out, as needed. I wait as the printer malfunctions. I wait as the electricity halts. Finally forms completed, fees paid, my boxes are off to the USA and Italy…..my load is lightened, clothes I do not need and gifts I don’t want to carry are on their way,
I am ready to move on to the next adventure.