Friday, October 17, 2008
They call it the Malabar Coast. Some random facts: its main city, Cochin (now renamed Kochi), was the capital of the spice trade back in the day. Vasco da Gama lived there for something like 23 years at the end of his life, and was buried in a church there for about 12 years before his remains were moved back to Europe. Chinese traders went there in about the 4th or 5th century and brought with them the technology of cantilevered fishing nets, which are still in operation today.
We were there for about 3 days, and we’ve already decided we don’t have any objection to going back (though I’ll remember to bring my hat next time, and I’ll get some new sunscreen before I go too). We went on a day-long boat trip around what they call the “backwaters,” periodically disembarking and wandering through bits of jungle that also function as people’s yards. The trip was entirely pole-powered, so the pace was relaxed, it was quiet, and you could really enjoy looking around at your surroundings in a very calm, laid-back atmosphere.
We saw several spices in their natural state, including nutmeg and cinnamon (I’m so craving pumpkin pie right now!), black pepper, mace (goes with the nutmeg), allspice, and a few others. We also got to sample a pomello straight off the tree – it’s apparently the ancestor of the grapefruit.
We did interrupt the daily routines of quite a few people along the way, though.
The boat trip lasted all day long, switching halfway through from small boats the size of large canoes to a bigger boat the size of a small yacht (there were two guys with poles propelling the big boat), and from narrow little waterways . . .
. . . to more wide-open ones.
We also wandered a lot around the town of Cochin – some touristy parts, some not. As it happens, Kerala is one of the two states in India that has a communist party government, and this can be pretty apparent at times in posters, signs on buildings, political ads, and the like.
We visited the section they call “Jewtown” where there are currently a whole lot of antique shops, art galleries, craft shops, and spice shops, as well as an old synagogue (current resident population that uses the synagogue: 11). This part of town used to be the center of the spice trade, and there are lots of old buildings that have plenty of character, many of them still having signs over the door saying things like “Pepper Exchange.”
And of course there are the fishing nets – the thing Cochin is most famous for these days (since the spice trade is not quite what it used to be). They’re pretty striking in silhouette at sunset.
All in all, it was a great break from Bombay. In fact, it’s almost the anti-Bombay, if you could have such a thing and still be in India. It’s peaceful, moves at a slow pace, the air is downright breathable, and it’s quiet. White girls don’t even get the long, disturbing stares I’ve gotten everywhere else in India so far – it’s a small town that’s nonetheless worldly enough to realize that foreigners are people too. They also had the best dessert I’ve tasted since coming to India. It was a real vacation, and perhaps even a place that may deserve to be revisited.