This is #9 in my series on India. If you are new to my blog and would like to start at the beginning, just follow the link below.
I can safely say I am now done with Fort Kochi and hope never to return. Awash with scantily clad white tourists, street litter, crumbling C15th Portuguese and Dutch colonial buildings and a heady odour of fish, the place was sensory overload and pick-pocket central. The hotel provided poor refuge; dishonesty was rife inside and outside of it and the manager was a total creep. Local shop-keepers were in the realm of persistent scam-artists and I kept my purchases to a minimum. Haggling when shopping requires clear-headedness and personability, with a dash of quick calculation, yet every shop in the market stocked the same, cheap, break-the-minute-you-buy-it wares. I could get the same tacky crap back home at Paddy’s Markets.
The architecture and history of the historic Fort add texture to the place. The tourist mecca is dotted with the evidence of colonisation; Catholic churches, mosques, a 400-year old Jewish Synagogue, Dutch graveyards and Chinese fishing nets that lower a square net into pre-dawn tidal waters to collect crustaceans attracted by the swinging solar light above. At a slow, badly managed restaurant, I ate overcooked scampy in a red curry, caught that morning in those nets. The pumpkin soup was better but the meaty crustaceans were an important first experiment with animal protein since arriving in India. My belly protested mildly for a short while but settled and the moment passed without dreaded incident. Afterwards, at a performance of Kathakali dance, my companions and I were bombed by mosquitos and our ears thrashed by amplified, high-pitched cymbals. We left early.
With the words of advice from a Sydney friend in mind, I sought out the Fab India store for a pair of churidar pants; a bias-cut cotton leg covering named for the way that extra fabric bunches at the ankles like bangles (churi). The absence of hassling and haggling seemed so sophisticated after the street markets. At the Jewish quarter, a café and pester-free bookshop offered solace while we waited for the old synagogue to open. Once inside, the decoration of the place pleased me; multi coloured blown-glass lamps and dusty chandeliers hung over rattan bench seats positioned on a floor of Chinese blue tiles hand-painted with scenes of village life. The Jewish lady collecting 10rupee notes at the door looked strange to me after the brown faces on the street and the white ones of my companions. As we arrived, European-looking tourists were leaving, slipping shoes back onto feet. As we left, a large group of saree-clad Indian women arrived and sat cross-legged in neat rows for a short time. One had a shaved head like mine so I tried to catch her eye for a smile. I wondered if she had given her hair on a pilgrimage.
Walking the streets during the day with head held high and eyes level with groups of men, I practiced travelling solo. Twice in daylight hours I avoided alleyways occupied only by a pair of men – better to play safe and walk another way. Tuk Tuk drivers made a final day out sightseeing with my retreat group an absolute pain and I made a mental note not to agree to ‘free’ trips as the real costs escalate and the manner of our three drivers changed from polite and negotiable to pushy, stand-over men. It is hard to be constantly vigilant, assertive to the point of rudeness and distrusting of even seemingly kind people, like the gentle massage therapist I sought out for an hour’s refuge. But travelling solo requires you to wear a shield when you know that just last night two friends walking home were almost robbed in a park by a bunch of men. They would have taken more than wallets and phones from these women had they gotten the chance.
One saving grace of the Fort Koch leg of the trip was the Kerala backwaters cruise – a whole day on a kettuvallom boat roofed with cross-hatched woven palm leaves and guided by a handsome little gentleman with a big smile who warned us, most charmingly, that “Maybe his pronunciation will make troubles in us”. On the slowly meandering cruise, I soaked up the sight of colourful little houses with clean washing strung between palms, women dunking sarees in the water’s edge and flat rice fields ablaze after harvesting, stretching to the smoky horizon. Small children called “Happy journey!” to us in high-pitched voices. The khaki water was habitat to white herons and water hyacinth – mauve petals nestled in thick leafy clumps that sloshed at the hull of the boat. But unfortunately the plant is an introduced weed, notorious for its fast growth. It is highly problematic as some areas of the river become too clogged for boats to pass and the overall water quality decreases. Mosquitos are abundant here too, as they lay eggs in the hyacinth leaves.
From here, I travelled solo for the remainder of my time in India. I was keen to get away and see a bit of the real India without keeping too much company with white, Western tourists. It was my hope to be less of a tourist and more of a traveller.
Kathakali – traditional dance style from Kerala state performed by an all male cast of painted and costumed triple threats (actor/dancer/musicians).
Churidar – ankle length pants with a draw string waist. Worn with a kameez. The ankles do that fancy bunching thing. Churidar translates as ‘bangle-like’.
Tuk tuk (or auto rickshaw) – a three-wheeled form of small taxi with a motorbike engine and handlebars. Familiar as a green and yellow apparition in most Indian cities, auto-rickshaws can also be the bane of travellers as drivers often over-charge and are responsible for persistent noise pollution.
Kettuvallom – traditionally, they were built by tying wooden planks together with coconut jute ropes and to be used as cargo boats. Kettu means to tie, while vallom means boat.
Want to keep reading…?
10. India: Blue
11. India: Men
12. India: Women