COCHIN

New City of Cochin

If we could recommend visiting only one port city in India, it would be Cochin, which consists of a group of interconnected islands and peninsulas.  Set almost at the very southwestern tip of the country, this oldest European settlement in India is actually two cities: one very modern, with beautiful high-rise commercial buildings and apartments; the other, across a bridge on a neighboring island, a bustling old town with many historic buildings and a traditional way of life.

Spice Shop

Cochin was for centuries the center of the world’s spice trade, especially pepper, which made it both prosperous and internationally famous.  These days, the spice auctions that used to take place here are conducted on the Internet, just another example of how our romantic views of this part of the world have had to undergo some changes during this trip.

 

Cochin Schoolgirls

We’ve noticed that the further south we go in India (and the further away we are from Pakistan), the greater the religious tolerance and harmony.  Although most Indians are Hindu, many are Muslim, and some are Christian or (even fewer) Jewish; and at least in Cochin, all the children attend school together, whether it is a Catholic school operated by an order of nuns or a state school. People of all religions work together in business, and there is no religious persecution in this part of the country. Jews came to Cochin as early as the second century B.C., fleeing the Roman occupation of Palestine, followed by Jews from other parts of the world escaping the Spanish Inquisition in 1492 and the rise of Hitler in the 1930’s.  The center of Jewish life in Cochin was Jew Town, which is still a thriving retail area, especially for spice markets, although there are only seven Jewish families left in the city.  After Israeli statehood, most of the Jews in Cochin left to make a new life in their ancient homeland, and only one of the seven synagogues that used to exist in Jew Town still remains.

Hand Puppets

In Cochin we finally found what we would consider a department store, although it featured only local arts, crafts, clothing, and jewelry. From the gorgeous silk Oriental rug on one wall to a room filled with hand-woven tablecloths and placemats to shelves of pashminas and saris, the entire place was filled with too much temptation for any American tourist to resist.  We emerged without the intricately hand-carved chess set or the emerald necklace, but I did suffer a brief failure of willpower in the clothing department and came away with a diaphanous cotton blouse and a green silk caftan.  Even outside the shop, though, we were offered a visual treat: a tour bus trying to maneuver out of the gate without running over one of the ubiquitous cows, who was lying comfortably next to the pillar with no intention of moving.  Only in India . . .

Cochin has the distinction of having been occupied in accurate historical succession by the Portuguese, the Dutch, and the British, each of whom left distinctive marks on this scenic tropical coast.  For example, St. Francis Church, built in 1503 by Portuguese Franciscan friars, is India’s oldest European-built church.  Vasco de Gama, who died in Goa, was buried in this church; his remains were later taken back to Portugal, although his burial marker remains in Cochin.

One of the most interesting features of Cochin is the Chinese fishing nets lined along the seafront.  This ancient method of catching fish was introduced to Cochin in the 13th century by Chinese traders from the court of Kublai Khan, and it is still in use today.

Chinese Fishing Nets

Four long wooden poles are tied together at one end and braced to form a square at the other, and a large blue net is fastened to the corners.  Then the whole contraption is lowered into the water by means of cantilevered weights, left in place for ten minutes, and then lifted up, hopefully filled with fish.  The nets are so beautiful that even if they aren’t very efficient any more, they ought to be – and probably are – retained for artistic value alone.

Pulling in the Nets

In fact, much of Cochin looks as if it was designed especially for travel brochures.  The fishing boats are painted in brilliant colors, and the nets trailed from them are bright red or blue, with yellow and orange floats around the edges.  The oldest buildings are pastel colors set among tropical foliage.  Street vendors sell colorful woven cloth goods and hand puppets dressed in traditional costumes, as well as jewelry made from glowing glass beads.  Brightly colored pedicabs roam the streets.  And best of all (at least for me), there was a snake charmer with not one, not two, but three cobras in their straw baskets, all swaying to his pipe.

Snake Charmer

 

We took a harbor cruise on a large motorized boat made of local woods, with a woven bamboo ceiling and open sides, to view some of the other islands of Cochin, where small fishing settlements line the shoreline and fishermen sort their catch on the docks.  We snacked on wonderful local roasted cashews and dried banana chips as we enjoyed the fresh sea breeze, a welcome relief from the heat and humidity in this part of the world.  Fishermen on a brightly painted boat hauling in a huge red net chanted as they worked, waving and calling out to us as we passed.  As always, everyone we encountered was friendly and polite, from shopkeepers to schoolchildren.

We agreed that this was our favorite stop of the trip – so far, at least – and that we’ll have some serious weeding-out of photos to do before we put together a pictorial record of our adventure.  Cochin was a wonderful way to leave India, with the crowding and filth of Mumbai left far behind and the open hospitality of this delightful city as our final impression of India.

Laurie & Gerry

 

 

REFLECTIONS ON MUMBAI AND GOA

 

After I sent my last journal entry, I had a long conversation with our stateroom stewardess, a young woman from Montenegro who is dating another crew member, a young man from Mumbai.  She said that her initial impressions of Mumbai were like ours, but that when she visited her boyfriend’s parents at their home an hour outside the center of the city, she saw quite a different picture: nicely maintained homes and gardens, relatively clean streets, new apartment buildings, and much less crowding and noise.  So perhaps we would have seen a different aspect of the city if we’d had more time there.

Mumbai street scene

That being said, we were surprised and dismayed to find such poverty and ignorance in a country that has gone in the last twenty years from being a third-world nation to one of the fastest developing in the world, with an annual economic growth rate of7% (according to an economist we heard recently).  Virtually no attention is paid to preserving and maintaining the historic buildings that are India’s heritage and her principal draw for western tourists, and the country’s infrastructure is crumbling by the minute.  Streets and sidewalks are full of potholes, with missing or uneven pavers making walking hazardous even for the young and sure-footed.  Filth, trash,and garbage are everywhere – we saw not a single trash receptacle in the city,so we carried our empty water bottles and Kleenex back to the ship.  The only effort at street cleaning we saw was one man in a uniform wielding a straw broom to clear leaves off the sidewalk in front of the University of Mumbai.  Stray dogs run free, even on the docks, and India’s famous sacred cows go wherever they like, leaving little reminders of their progress on the pavement for us to step in.  The contrast between the uniformed schoolchildren we saw each day and the beggar and peddler children who dogged our footsteps (and who don’t attend school) was heartbreaking.

Street sellers

We know there are many wealthy Indians, in addition to a thriving middle class, but the prosperity of the fortunate hasn’t seemed to do much for the country’s teeming masses.  (We saw an eerie similarity to what is occurring in our own country, with a shrinking middle class sliding toward poverty as the disparity between the extremely wealthy and the rest of the population widens and deepens.)   Despite free public education, literacy rates in much of the country are low; and although the caste system has been abolished by law, it still holds sway in social situations and stands as a barrier to upward mobility.  Maybe the immensity of the problems involved in modernizing India makes them seem too daunting for its leaders to attack, but we’d expected them to have made a better start by now.

Goa, on the other hand, presented quite a different picture of India.  Only a day’s sail down the coast, this state is mountainous, green, and very tropical in feel, with several beaches and clean air.  Colonized by the Portuguese in the sixteenth century, it has many Catholic churches from the colonial period, and its population is still 35% Christian.  We visited two of those churches, which together comprise one of India’s only World Heritage Sites: the basilica of Bom Jesus, containing the tomb of St. Francis Xavier, constructed in 1605; and Se Cathedral, dedicated to St. Catherine, which took 80 years to build and was consecrated in 1640.

Se Cathedral

We’ve seen a lot of churches in our travels, but these two were memorable, especially Se Cathedral, imposing in size but even more impressive in its elegant simplicity.  An outdoor Mass was being celebrated on the grounds of Bom Jesus under a massive tent during our tour, attended by at least 400 worshippers, and the choral music was wonderful.  Incidentally, this site was an exception to our observations about the lack of maintenance of historical buildings: the churches were in excellent condition and clearly well maintained, and the interiors and grounds were impeccably kept.

Mahalsa Temple

The only Hindu temple we visited in India was the famous Mahalsa Temple, set in the mountains, where services were in progress when we arrived and non-Hindus were not permitted to enter.  As we waited outside, one of the celebrants stood at the base of the steps with a big mirror on a stand.  Near the end of the service,the temple doors were opened and he caught the sun’s reflection in the mirror and directed it all the way to the back wall of the temple, where it illuminated a huge colored glass image. Drums and gongs sounded, and we could see dancers twirling torches in front of the image as worshippers chanted. It was all very exotic and impressive.

Bridal bangles

Outside the temple, our guide pointed out a honeymoon couple to us.  The young woman, six feet tall and glamorous, wore dozens of bangles on each arm.  A Hindu bride is supposed to wear those bracelets for forty days after her wedding, when she takes them off and throws them into the river (not gold and diamonds, but cheap plastic and glitter, I hasten to add).  Even though this bride was clearly very modern and non-traditional in many ways, she chose to follow this tradition.

It was a very long – and very hot – tour, involving a lot of driving on narrow mountain roads in a tour bus that groaned and strained to make it up the steeper inclines.  Speaking of roads, Goa’s highways are two-lane roads built years ago to accommodate the small cars and buses used by the mostly rural population, whose only evidence of updating was the installation of occasional roundabouts designed by someone with a bizarre sense of humor.  For example, a road will divide and angle off in two directions, and then in a few yards it will reconnect at a roundabout that requires the cars to shoot across each other’s path at dizzying speeds to make their turnoff. And if in Mumbai traffic laws are only suggestions, in Goa they are merely hints.  What is ostensibly a two-lane road frequently contains four lanes of traffic, if you count motorcycles (which are apparently invisible to Goan drivers of cars and trucks,since they pull out to pass with no consideration for the motor scooter heading straight for them in its own proper lane). Our main source of excitement all day was watching the kind of stunt driving that goes on all over India and wondering if we would make it back to the ship without witnessing a massacre on the road .  Oh, and the cows – they walk along (and across) the road as calmly as if they were grazing in a pasture, and no one ever hits them – we think.

Goa is a largely rural state, with 400 small villages scattered among the mountains, and the houses of the inhabitants are generally little more than shanties with tin roofs and dirt yards, plus a few decaying structures from several decades back.  But amazingly, every now and then we came across a beautiful modern house that would not have been out of place in an upscale neighborhood in America – or, more fittingly, in the best neighborhood in St. Barts.  Our guide told us that these were second homes built by wealthy Indians from other parts of the country, mostly the landlocked interior, who wanted to have a vacation home near the sea.  The land is apparently very expensive in buildable areas in Goa, so these large houses occupy every square inch of their property and are literally cheek-by-jowl with tumbledown shacks and auto body repair shops and all kinds of commercial development.  Land use planning and zoning codes don’t seem to be common in Goa, whose citizens appear quite poor and marginally employed.

Tarzan

Our day finished on a high note, however, with a visit to the Sahakari Spice Farm, where we were greeted by pretty young girls showering us with flower petals and performing native songs and dances.  After an excellent lunch of traditional dishes (and a taste of the local equivalent of grappa, made from the cashew apple), we were given a tour of the grounds and learned to identify cinnamon, turmeric, piri-piri, curry leaves, vanilla, betel nuts, and pineapple during our walk.  The tour guide, a very knowledgeable young man who works for the spice farm, was informative and entertaining and made us forget how hot and tired we were by then.  Do you know how to harvest betel nuts?  They grow at the top of a palm-like tree and must be picked by hand as soon as they are ripe or the monkeys will invade and eat them and everything else on the farm.  So “Tarzans” are employed, men who train from childhood to do this difficult task: they climb a tree using a rag looped around their feet for purchase, get to the top, cut the bunch of betel nuts and drop it, and then make the tree sway from side to side so they can clamber from one tree to another without returning to the ground. It’s quite a spectacle, especially since the guy performing it is sixty feet up without a net.

Cashew seller in Goa

Cashews are one of the principal agricultural products of this part of India, and in every market we saw golden heaps of nuts at market stalls.  Interestingly, cashew trees are not native, but were brought by the Portuguese to their Indian colonies, where they flourished.  Cashews have to be picked by hand (fruit above, nut below) and then separated into their two parts, which explains why they are more expensive than, say, peanuts.  The cashew “apple” is then fermented to produce cashew feni, a highly potent liqueur very popular in India (see note above about grappa).  Cashews come in several levels of quality, which we didn’t know, some much more costly than others.  The next time you buy cashews, take a look at the label and see where they came from.

Now for why we came to India and didn’t see the Taj Mahal: We had booked the ship’s tour, which was a whirlwind trip from Mumbai by air to Agra, two nights at a hotel near the Taj, two visits to the site, tours in and around Agra, and a flight from Agra to Goa to reboard the ship late in the afternoon of the third day.  Very expensive, but we felt it was worth the money for a once-in-a-lifetime experience.  But then a month before we left home, our travel agent called with the news that the Agra airport was closed to all air traffic except military flights during runway resurfacing.  So the trip would have consisted of six hours on a bus from Mumbai, much less time to see the Taj Mahal, a four-hour bus trip to the nearest airport, and a flight to Goa.  We hadn’t even experienced the traffic on Indian roads yet, but we decided that spending the equivalent of one day on a bus and half a day in an airport for what amounted to one day in Agra wasn’t something we really wanted to do, so we canceled.  We heard later that most of the people who made the trip anyway were glad they’d gone, but it was extremely exhausting.  We regret having missed the chance, but we’re not sorry we chose to stay with the ship and see Mumbai and Goa.  Maybe in our next life, we’ll fly to Agra,stay at the best hotel overlooking the Taj Mahal, spend a couple of days, and fly home.  Or not.

Next time:Cochin and some history of the British experience in India.  We’re having the best time!

Laurie and Gerry

 

MUMBAI, INDIA

If all we had seen of Mumbai was from our tour the first day, our lasting impression would have been that India is hot, dirty, crowded, and noisy.  The crows that occupied a security watchtower on the pier set up a cacophony that almost drowned out conversation.  (I wonder if that’s why a group of crows is called a “murder” – their noise could drive you to it.)  And from then on, the incessant honking of automobile horns became the theme song of the city.  We never could figure out why everyone honks, since no one seems to be paying attention. Traffic in Mumbai is unbelievably bad, with cars, buses, trucks, bicycles, motorcycles, scooters, and pedestrians all occupying the same limited space.  Traffic laws appear to be merely suggestions, and if you even think about crossing the street on a green “walk” signal, you’re courting disaster.

Mumbai beggar child

We had an excellent tour guide for our visit to the “Highlights of Bombay,” and the first thing she told us was not to give anything to the beggars who shadowed us everywhere on the streets, often a very young girl carrying a sleeping infant, no matter how pathetic they appeared.  It seems that the beggars of Mumbai are run by the Indian Mafia, and that early every morning they gather on the outskirts of the city to rent babies for the day to increase their take.  We’re sure the babies were sedated, because we must have seen dozens of them and not one baby was even awake, much less crying or moving.  We were so angry about the exploitation of these children that we had difficulty paying attention to the guide’s commentary.

Mumbai apartment living

Other than the relatively few impressive buildings, Mumbai is a sprawling city of awful mid-twentieth-century architecture, dirty and badly maintained. The city has 17 million inhabitants, and we know that some of them are well educated with good jobs, but we didn’t see a single equivalent of a modern store in the entire downtown.  There were just miles of streets lined with tiny, cluttered shops open to the heat and dust, selling mobile phones and shoes and shirts and toys and costume jewelry –and fresh produce.  Much of the commerce of Mumbai appears to take place in open market stalls, some in tourist areas but mainly catering to the local population. And as for those tourist areas, the street sellers pushing postcards and bangle bracelets and peacock fans were relentless – we had to push our way through them every time we got on or off the bus.

The Gateway of India on the bay front, built to commemorate the 1911 visit of King George V and Queen Mary, is also an impressive structure which many consider the principal landmark of Mumbai.  Immediately across the plaza from the Gateway is the beautiful Taj Hotel, one of the sites attacked and occupied by Islamist terrorists three years ago.  It took days before security forces were able to root out the terrorists, and the hotel suffered severe damage to its interior, since repaired.  In addition to the fatalities at the Taj Hotel, a second site across from the Victoria Terminus saw the heaviest loss of life (68 dead) during the raid.

Dhobi Ghat

One of the essential features of any visit to Mumbai is Dhobi Ghat, the largest outdoor commercial laundry in the world.  It began as the laundry service for the uniforms of the British Army during the time of the Raj, but it expanded to serve hospitals, nursing homes, restaurants, and small hotels without their own in-house laundry. Each day, thousand of sheets, towels, and items of clothing are hand-laundered, sun-dried, and ironed by dhobi wallahs,who are mainly men.  Quite a spectacular sight, especially to all the women on our tour whose husbands can’t find the utility room at home.

A visit to a Jain temple (Jainism is one of the lesser-known religions in India) was an interesting experience for us.  Like Buddhists, Jain followers believe that the purpose of life is self-enlightenment, which can be achieved with the help of teachers and guides.  They do not observe India’s traditional caste system, believing that every human being is of equal worth.  They do apparently honor certain gods, since there was a statue of Parsvanath, the principal god, set in a marble shrine (we were asked not to turn our backs on the statue, since that is a sign of disrespect), but the teachings of their spiritual guides are of paramount importance.  The temple itself is beautiful, built entirely of white marble, with two decorated marble elephants guarding the entrance.  As in Hindu temples, we had to remove our shoes before entering, where they were collected by a very enthusiastic – and entrepreneurial – fellow and heaped in a pile called “Bus 6.”   I wonder if everyone would have gotten his own shoes back afterward if no one had tipped him. We were told not to carry or wear any leather into the temple, since Jainites strive to harm nothing.  They don’t eat root vegetables, either, since they believe that pulling something from the earth destroys more than just the life of that carrot or beet.

Home of the richest man in India

We didn’t see all of Mumbai, of course, but we did drive through a substantial part of the city.  And we never saw any housing that a working-class family in the U.S. would consider living in.  The home of the richest man in India is in Mumbai, smack in the middle of what we would consider tenements.  (Pictures of that house, in all its obscene excess, have been circulating on the internet, so you may have seen them.  It looks like a cantilevered high-rise apartment building, with several floors of parking for 100 cars, an indoor pool, a helicopter pad, multiple verandas on each level, and more bedrooms and baths than we could possibly imagine, the entire building for the use of this one family alone.  The family of five has never moved in and only uses the home as a pied a terre.)

 

We visited the Gandhi Memorial, which is in the house where he lived in Mumbai after he left South Africa, and where he was arrested in 1932 during his nonviolent resistance to British rule.  It’s a small place, but the spirit of that remarkable man still seems to fill the rooms.  We also saw the unprepossessing Hanging Gardens, set in the Malabar Hills overlooking the city – their main interest comes from being adjacent to the Zoroastrian “burial” grounds, where the dead are left exposed to the elements rather than entombed.  The Zoroastrians believe that it is wasteful to bury the body, that everything should be used to nourish the living creatures of the earth.

Our second day in Mumbai, though, did something to reshape our feeling about the city.  The tour was called “Jewish Chronicles of India,” and it was terrific.  Our ebullient guide was sometimes difficult to understand because she spoke fast, but she was so knowledgeable about the history of the Jews in India that it was hard to believe she was Hindu.  There are 3,000 Jews in Mumbai today (6,000 in all of India) and nine synagogues, four of which we saw on the tour.  The first Jews came more than 2,000 years ago, a small group shipwrecked off the coast of the islands that became Mumbai, and weren’t discovered by the Jewish world until the 1700’s.  Over the centuries, the settlers had lost most of their traditions, but they still observed Shabbat (the Sabbath) and Hanukkah.  Because they used oil lamps in their observances, they became the local oil merchants, but they would never do business on Saturday. Our guide, who grew up in that region, said that her Hindu mother still refuses to buy oil on a Saturday because it means bad luck.  It’s funny how traditions evolve and continue long after their meaning is lost.

Synagogue gates

 

The synagogues were beautiful, each in its own way.  The oldest, Shaar Ha-Rahahim (the Gate of Mercy), was built in 1796 and is small and simple, nestled into a web of narrow lanes. (For this tour only, we had to carry our passports ashore, another reminder of the impact of the terrorist attack, when a Jewish school was invaded and a rabbi, his wife and child were killed.  Every synagogue in Mumbai pays attention to security now as never before.)  The largest synagogue in Asia, Magen David, was built in 1861 by Sir David Sassoon, a wealthy descendant of the Jews who fled Baghdad in 1796 and who retained their Arabic language and culture, becoming successful traders and financiers in Mumbai.  His grandson, Jacob Sassoon, built Keneseth Eliyahoo Synagogue in 1884; it is the most beautiful in Mumbai, with ornamental pillars, carved marble, and a spectacular stained glasswindow.  Tiphaereth Israel Synagogue, with its royal purple velvet hangings, small library, and stacks of prayer books, seemed as if it could have been transplanted to any European town without making a single change.

Sassoon synagogue

We were struck, though, by the lack of attention to the exteriors of these fragile and historic buildings.  Paint and stucco were flaking off, vines grew from cracks in the walls, and I hate to think about the condition of the roof of at least one of them.  Many donations to the upkeep of the synagogues have been made over the years by European, American, and Israeli Jews, but apparently no one thinks it’s as important to make sure the buildings don’t fall down as it is to buy new prayer books.

By now, some of us were having severe shopping withdrawal (Gerry and I decided that we would rather be shot than return to the street where we were taken the first day to “shop,” which meant clutching our belongings and repeating the word  “No” in increasingly assertive fashion).  So our guide took us to a street in the wholesale district, where some of the shops were even air conditioned, and where we found a liquor store with a decent Italian wine, and where I bought a sari (actually about eight yards of beautifully printed silk edged in gold) to have made into a dress when we get home.

So Mumbai redeemed itself somewhat the second day – partly because the weather was a little cooler and a lot less humid than the previous day – but we can’t think of any reason to go back.  You may be wondering why we didn’t just skip Mumbai and take the land tour to the Taj Mahal in Agra.  I’ll tell you all about that next time.

Laurie and Gerry

 

Laurie &Gerry