My next stop was Kochin, which is mostly a resting place. Kochin is near the southwestern tip of India, and is made up of a set of islands, strips of land and a large city area. In fact, it is shaped just like San Francisco bay. The main city area, named Ernakulam, lies where Oakland or Berkeley would be, and I ended up staying at a resort 'palace' on one of the islands.
The place is called Boghatty Palace, a former Dutch palace, now in renovation, and I booked into a seaside cottage that could only be described as 'just darling'. The cottages are a big honeymoon place, as well as a place for western visitors.
The Kochin area is hot and sticky, and for some reason, it really got to me. But I also noticed quite a discomfort in the natives also. And this is winter! I noticed that many women were carrying umbrellas, not for the rain, but for sun protection.
The men, like many men outside of the big cities, wear skirt-like outfits called dhotis, and often pick them up halfway up to the knees to make mini-skirts, as a mean to staying a little cooler.
People live on the various islands and get around by an excellent network of ferries that cost at most 2 rupees, a ridiculously low sum of money. One surprising feature in Kochin, in contrast to most other Indian cities that I've seen, is the number of women visible around town, using the ferry and bus system. This is one of a number of differences that I've noticed in South India, as compared to the north. Another big difference is that it's a helluva lot cleaner than the north, though the road systems is still awful, with huge potholes that make traffic come to a standstill. On the way from the airport to the hotel, there was an accident near one of these bad areas, and the heat and humidity in the taxi was something awful.
The island where I was staying, Boghatty island, reminded me of the Fijian retreat facility of my former teacher Adi Da/Love Ananda. It even had the same frogs and land crabs (who live in holes in ground and look like the creature in Alien). Palm trees abound, and taking breakfast under an umbrellad patio on the seashore, watching the various ferries and cargo liners come to and fro, was about a paradisical as it could get.
The Kerala Backwaters
Kochin is in the Indian state called Kerala, and the Kerala state tourism office offers a most excellent tour of the backwater canals that Kerala is famous for. There are several tours, one last 4 hours and another 8 hours, which is a one way trip to another city in Kerala.
I booked the local 4 hour tour, which I shared with 6 other people. We went in two cabs and I shared a cab with Lawrence and his wife and Fred. Lawrence and his wife are Indian, while Fred is part Honduran and part Lebanese with major good looks. He practically seduced the Kerala tourist office worker right in front of me. And it is always surprising to hear an Indian with a western name - I've met Johns and Lawrences and Marshalls and James, which blows my mind a bit.
All three are Dutch KLM workers who get lots of super-cheap airfares and we got to be close very quickly. It's great to meet so many different people from various backgrounds and share an interesting experience.
The tour started with a horrific taxi ride to get to the canal area. The Ernakulam city area is yet another traffic hellhole. Arriving in a small town, we were ushered into two small boats which are manuevered by a boatman with a large bamboo pole, and he was quite adept at it. He had a scripted spiel in broken English, but by the end we all connected with him.
The tour was definitely a sightseeing highlight of my journey. The man made canals are lined with palm trees and small thatched-hut villages, but while we were sailing along this paradisical waterway, I couldn't help but think of the movie Apocolypse Now, as the backwater canal looked just like the one that Martin Sheen travelled on in the movie. I could see in my minds eye a set of US F-111 jets coming in and dropping a few tonnage of bombs nearby. Real sick thought, but that's what came up.
Basically, the people here thrive on coconuts. The entire tree is used, everything - the fiber is used to make rope and the trees are cut for dripping coconut oil, similar to maple syrup work. At one point our boatman stopped the boat on a levee and he tied a rope around his feet and proceeded to climb up a tree in lightning speed to get us fresh coconuts. Though this was not new to me (you can get fresh coconut juice in many cities), it is enjoyable to stick a straw into a coconut and sip the juice of a fresh fruit.
The people of the villages seemed very happy and content, and I thought that these folks are born and will live and die in these little villages - so many different karmic destinies in the world! I noticed a wild beauty to these folks, as if the they're still in touch with strong elemental forces of the earth which shines out of their faces, especially in the children. However, the kids can be major moochers also, and ended up giving away a lot of pens and candy, but got a few wonderful pictures in return. But each village has its temple, one of which was playing bhajan music very loudly, disturbing the peace, in my opinion.
The tranquillity of this backwater area penetrated me to the bone, to the point where it seemed like a magical place, especially as we watched the sunset over the rice paddies and shrimp/prawn farms. First time I've ever seen a live shrimp, damn ugly. The day was also marked with the viewing of the beautiful "fish eagle", a brown and white bird that is somewhat similar to the American bald eagle, which swoops down to snag fish out of the waters. We saw the eagles do this many times, which is the first time I've ever seen something in person that I've seen on the Discovery Channel. I tried my hardest to catch one of these birds right at the point of contact with the water with my camera, and if so, I'll sell it to National Geographic for thousands of dollars!
Fort Kochin and 'Jewtown'
Fort Kochin is the 'old city' of Kochin, and if you know San Francisco Bay, it would be where San Francisco is. It is a peninsula of land that has been zoned for only light commercial business, and thus it is a quiet and wonderful place to walk around for hours, through the tiny streets. The people are very friendly, some actually say hi without trying to get rupees out of you!
I also noticed that people of the South are well educated and most speak some level of English, having been taught in school. All the work learning Hindi for me is now out the window, as the native tongue is called Malayaam, which sounds like if you rolled your tongue indiscriminately and said "blublublublublub". The writing script is different than the north, constituting of what looks like a lot of curly 'm's and 'w's.
Fort Kochin has several interesting sights. One is the "Dutch Palace", a former palace now turned into a museum, which contains some very remarkable wall murals or frescoes of the various gods and goddesses of India. The drawing style is unique, though some of the mural were damaged by time. The guidebook listed one must-see mural of Lord Krishna having foreplay with 8 gopis at once, using his 6 arms and two feet. I'll leave out the details to the imagination, but the mural really captured the rapture of the gopis. I always wondered why the gods and goddess of India had multiple arms, and now, aha! (Of course, Krishna is the god of love, and other multi-armed gods and goddesses use their arms to slay multiple enemies at once).
I spent one whole day walking through town - one section of town holds numerous spice warehouses (remember Christopher Columbus and the 'Spice Islands'? - that's Kochin!), which made Kochin the best smelling city in India. I was accosted by one point by several children asking for pens, which I gladly handed out, and I had them all pose for a picture. They were so damn cute! I noticed that Fort Kochin is chock full of handicraft shops and made a few purchase, and while breaking for a 7-Up (it's here too, with Coke and Pepsi), I struck up a conversation with a Brit named Gary. I tried to guess where he was from in England - I could tell he was from the north - I said Birmingham? and he said no, Liverpool. He's too young to personally know any of the Fab 4.
But we did end up having a long, long dharma talk way into the evening. He belongs to a group known as the Western Buddhist Order, based on a teacher of British origin who wandered India for 30 years before starting the order. I thought what he had to say made a lot of sense, they had a strong belief in stages in the spiritual process, but differed from the Tibetan approach. I bought the fellow dinner, and when we bid goodnight, I again went through the ordeal of three ferries to my cottage on Boghatty Island.