A Visit To Kerala's Happenin' City
9.9.10 - 9.12.10 0 °F
The combination of a parent's day on Thursday (no classes and meetings ending at noon) followed by yet another holiday, this time a Muslim one - Eid, the last day of the month long Ramandan observance, presented us with a long weekend and an opportunity to venture a little further a far. Our destination this time was the port city of Cochin, aka Kochi, and it also presented an opportunity to take our first India train ride, a 4.25 hour trek north on the Chennai Mail, one of the express trains that made limited stops on the way.
Because I needed to be at school until lunch in order for curious parents to meet the children's new American teacher, we took a 2:30 pm train. A driver from the school was enlisted to ferry us to the train station in one of the school's three SUVs. It's always wise to leave extra travel time in case of traffic and other unexpected delays, a caution that saved us on this particular trip. Laying down on the third seat of the car, Elena started to grumble a bit about not feeling well. We had been thrilled that she found the Chinese noodles for lunch good enough to eat a full meal. Jenn told her not to lay down if she wasn't feeling well, and to sit up and take some deep breaths. She sat up and leaned over the seat between Jenn and Mari. Through the heavy city traffic the dialog went: "Mom I don't feel well" "Okay Elena, just sit back" "Mom I think I'm going to be sick" "Steve, can you ask him to pull over the car" "Mom I'm going to be sick" "Okay honey just sit back" "Mom I'm ... She never finished the sentence before an explosion of noodles showered the middle seat including Jenn, her pillow and purse, and most everything else. I can probably paint a decent visual depiction of the scene, but I don't think I can adequately capture the odor that permeated the vehicle. Elena simultaneously felt physically better and emotionally worse while we tried to figure out what to do while trapped in traffic in a city with no easy access to a bathroom and a clock ticking away on a train departure. Finally, Sashi, our kind but understandably unsettled driver, was able to pull over and allow us the chance to change clothes, swab out the car, and use the water in our two bottles to wash up to the extent possible. I couldn't resist snapping a picture of the carnage that was Elena and the back seat and the image is a true classic, but I promised her I would not publish it on the blog and that some day she would see the humor in it (a tough sell). Instead, I have a shot of one of the innocent bystanders caught in the eruption.
Despite the auspicious start, the trip to Cochin was in every other way a wonderful experience. Though the windows of our cabin were too filthy to see through very well, we all took turns standing in the open doorway of the train car watching the tropical paradise that is Kerela race by before us. The train affords a different view, a new angle on life in the rural areas and on the scenic beauty for which this state is known. Taking pictures from a fast moving train is tricky business for an amateur photographer so we've also posted some video of what we could see from our train doorway to the world of the Keralan backwaters.
Videos from the train:
At one point Jenn returned from looking at the scenery from the open doorway to find a friend inspecting a piece of coconut that she had left on the table in the cabin. Those guys kept running out and then back behind the walls again. Hmmm...
Upon arriving in Cochin, we needed to take a taxi for about 40 minutes through the noisy, bustling city of Ernakulum, where Keralans come to do their serious shopping, to the island of Fort Cochin and a completely different world. This area is primarily a tourist enclave with numerous restuarants and homestays and a very cozy, quiet, relaxed feel to it. We dropped our stuff off at the Fort Shore Homestay (which we enjoyed very much) and treated ourselves to dinner at an Italian restaurant with pizza and pasta for a nice change.
The next morning, we awoke to cloudy and drizzling skies. Hoping that the weather would clear later, we decided to do some inside tourism first and visit a couple of historic churches in Fort Cochin. One of my colleagues at my school, an English teacher whose name is Priya, lives in the hostel at our school like us but her home is in Fort Cochin so she lined up her neighbor Johnny, to drive for us for the day. The first stop was the St. Francis Church, the first Christian church built by Europeans in India back in the early 1500's. Along with Goa and a number of other Western Indian ports, the Portuguese were the first to establish settlements in these parts around this time. One of the those famous explorers you might remember from middle school social studies, Vasco da Gama (the one who showed you could sail around Africa to reach India) was buried here for a while. It currently belongs to Church of South India, which is protestant, and it one of the numerous places where it was easy to forget that we were in a predominantly Hindu country. Perhaps the most unique architectural feature of the church were the two long strips of heavy cloth running front to back over the pews designed to provide a fanning effect when rocked back and forth by ropes.
Our next church stop was the Catholic Santa Cruz Basilica (built in 1887), a church with an almost over the top explosion of decoration and color adorning the interior. Jesus sits on the altar holding the whole world in his hands. In the back of the church, a large crucifix can be viewed and presents an American with an unavoidable contrast to absorb. Depictions of the crucifixion in Indian churches are often very bloody affairs - they make me think about just how sanitized the scene is depicted when presented in most American churches. When viewing an Indian cross relic, there is no doubt whatsoever that Jesus had been brutally handled. There is no shortage of dripping blood.
After two churches, the drizzle continued - not the heavy monsoon type rains, just on and off showers, so we decided to head over to Mattencherry, a nearby area locally referred to as "Jewtown" due to the presence of an old synagogue and and abundance of antique and craft shops. Most of the Jewish population emigrated to Isreal in the 1940's and today's merchants are mostly Kashmiri merchants hawking both antiques and pseudo-antiques. Milling around antique shops is often a great way to spend a rainy day so we headed over to check it out. Jenn and I both agreed that poking around in Indian antique shops is far more enjoyable than looking at artifacts encased in poorly lit glass boxes found in museums. We bought a few trinkets (a couple of small oil lamps, an old wooden hand block) but didn't pull the trigger on a couple of more expensive items- wood carvings of a reclining Ganesh and a couple of odd-looking (my opinion - Jenn liked them) angels. Perhaps we'll see if they are still there should we return to Cochi.
For the evening program, Basheer, our host at the homestay, set us up with front rows seats at a local cultural center that presents nightly Kathakali and other Keralan types of performance. Having developed in the 16th century, Kathakali has a long history as a form of religious theatre and is immediately identifiable by the brilliant and elaborate make-up worn by the actors and the hypnotic drumming and chanting that accompanies the actors' wordless preformances. It's all in the facial expressions and you have to see an actor performing to truly appreciate it. Historically, the performances last all night and take place in temple court yards, but fortunately our performance was geared towards less committed tourists lasting only 1.5 hours and including other forms of Keralan performance and martial arts. Prior to the show, a couple of the actors were being made up in an area were we could watch up close - if I were one of the actors, I'm not sure I'd want to have to got through the make-up process every night.
Just as an aside, I noticed that Elena was completely engrossed in the make-up application process, so when I went over and asked her what she thought of it all, she leaned over to me with a very serious expression and a hushed voice and whispered, "Dad - the man putting make-up on has SIX FINGERS!" Sure enough - he did - a little extra thumb growing out of the side of his regular one. The fascinations of a nine year old...
Here's the video (look for the double thumb!)
Here are some stills and some video from the performances:
First, how to flirt kathakali style...
We awoke to some blue in the sky on Saturday morning and were looking forward to lunch at Priya's family's house. Before she came to pick us up, we made the short walk over to the shoreline to see Fort Cochin's famous Chinese fishing nets dipping in and out of the channel to pluck any unfortunate fish who happened to be over the net when it was raised out of the water. The style of nets that line the shore were introduced to the Malabar Coast of India by traders from the court of Kublai Khan. I've read that these nets are found only in Kerala - not in China. They are both massive and elegant requiring at least four people to work them.
While it is one thing to marvel at the elegance of these fishing machines, the best way to truly appreciate the nets is to give them a try, so we accepted a fishing crew's enthusiastic invitation to join them on their ramshackle dock (while in my mind trying to estimate how much it was going to cost us to pull their net out of the water) and did some fishing and even a little chanting while we worked.
After our fishing experience, Priya drove us over to her home for lunch were we met her delightful parents, an aunt, and some siblings, in-laws, nieces, and nephews. It was a real pleasure to meet each of them and learn about one another's lives. At 80, her father is a spirited, independent man who after lunch drove us for a scenic loop to check out the local area.
We stopped in to a church on the way that was setting up for a festival - the Indians know how to do festivals - and checked out the interior of the chruch that was hundreds of years old but had recently been renovated. So many of the Christian churches in Kerala look brand new or newly renovated - every one seems a little nicer than the last.
After a little more visiting back at the house, Priya agreed to chauffeur us around Ernakulum to do some needed shopping. Our first stop was a large (large here meaning tall rather than long) ultra-modern mall that felt more like a disco circus than a place to buy a couple of skirts and some swimming goggles. After watching a cowboy hat wearing dwarf lead a bunch of burly Indian men through a sari wrapping contest from the fifth floor of a brightly lit, blaring music balcony, we decided to move on. Jenn finally landed a couple of table lamps (but not the bulbs - they didn't carry them) that she had been seeking for the apartment for weeks. Our last stop was at a sari shop where Jenn was shown fabric from a collection of 100's of different traditional Keralan sari patterns but she decided to wait until returning to Trivandrum since tailoring would need to be done anyway.
Because of the long weekend we had to the 5:50am train back to Trivandrum, so after an early start, we drowsily rolled back to Trivandrum in the early hours of Sunday morning. At the train station, we hired an Ambassador cab for the ride home, thus giving us another experience that is uniquely India. It was a wonderful weekend.