Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Backwaters cruise in Cochin, India

Tuesday, March 24, 2009 - COCHIN (or Kochi) India (in the southwest)
Hazy, in the 90s, humid and typically Indian weather! Set the clocks back an hour again.
When it is 11:45 AM here, it is now 2:15 AM in Delaware, the same day.
48 Indian Rupees = US$1
Buys: camel bone jewelry, bamboo, silk, Carpets, gold jewelry, antiques, and handicrafts

We are now in the state of Kerala and entered the harbors of Cochin via the very narrow Ernakulam Channel. After I had an early morning quick swim, we passed many Chinese fishing nets – bamboo poles with huge netting extended off them. Fascinating. These are a series of permanent cantilevered fishing nets operated with a system of pulley and weights. 14th century Chinese merchants probably first brought structures like these to India.

This is the oldest European settlement in India and is the commercial and industrial center. The land mass area resembles the Ft. Lauderdale/Miami area with many keys, islands and canals all connected with low bridges. Kochi has a diverse, multicultural, and secular community consisting of Hindus, Christians, Muslins, Jains, Sikhs and Buddhists, all living in peaceful co-existence. People are also increasingly fashion-conscious, often deviating from the traditional Kerala wear to western clothing. Coconuts, rice, cashews and mango are cultivated in the tropical climate. Geography and natural harbors guaranteed the Kerala coast prominence on the route between Arabia and Southeast Asia. The spice trade dominated most of the long history – pepper (did you know Malabar is the best pepper??), cardamom, cinnamon, tumeric, ginger. There is even a “pepper exchange” in Cochin. Portugal was responsible for building up the port and had a trading station in 1703 and many old homes from the colonial period still line the winding streets. Vasco de Gama, a Portuguese merchant, died during his third visit to Kerala.

Mattancherry Palace (Dutch Palace) was built by 16th century Portuguese merchants as a gift to the Raja Veera Kerala Varma of Kochi in exchange for exclusive trading rights. Inside is a collection of the Rajas’ clothing and accessories but the main attraction is the series of interior murals depicting parts of the Hindu epics Ramayan and Mahabharatha. When India acquired independence in 1947, Kerala was the first state (as Delaware was the first state to ratify the Constitution!). There are approx. 7,000 people per square kilometer.

We are in the port between 12-6:30 PM – not a long time! I spent most of the morning helping my English friend, Annette, sort out her luggage, passport, change money, get the medical papers she needed…so much to consider with a medical emergency. The medical staff are great onboard but she will be on her own. They hope she can stay in the hospital with George. The ambulance was waiting when we docked.

We took a ship-sponsored tour to the Backwaters in Alleppey. It was approx. 2 hours each way and I enjoy seeing the sights out the bus window. The bus was air conditioned and there is a glass panel between the driver and his assistant (for whatever reason the driver needs an assistant) and our guide. His English was not easily understood – they know the language but speak so quickly and we do not know the local sights so that makes it more difficult…but anyway, he talked the whole two hours! I enjoyed seeing the tuk-tuk (motorized 3-wheeled vehicles) and motorcycles and large trucks.

The trucks are named with beautiful headboards (almost like a bed) of carved and colorful wood. The shops are small and fascinating and hold everything you can imagine, the streets and fields are littered horribly yet they sweep the driveway in the gas station with a broom, the vendors sell from lean-to shacks along the road, they wave and stare at us just as we watch them, there are no lines on the roads for driving and not many traffic lights and there are various churches and temples lining the roads…

We arrived at Alleppey (also known as Venice of the East) and boarded a wooden two-level boat with a roof. We had plastic beach chairs to sit on, there are no windows and we were off!! The water is brown but not murky. Sections of it have green algae and grass covering it.

We are traveling past bamboo constructed houseboats that are gorgeous! I could overnight a few nights in them! Two levels with air conditioning, private bedrooms, staff for meals and driving the boat, lounge chairs for viewing the life around you and al fresco dining…(but there are mosquitoes to consider in the evening). Companies even hire them to conduct business meetings.

We pass kids who run alongside out boat begging for pens, women AND men doing the family washing by banging the clothes on the rocks, woman, men and children bathing (in full dress) and washing their hair, washing their teeth, preparing the meat, building a roof, playing cricket and we pass the local boat/bus that plies the route to carry people to and from their homes and the town. Many people have their own boat, a long canoe, tied to their small dock. The women were beautiful saris, the men were the white cloth wrapped around their hips, and bundled up between their legs. Everyone is bare-foot. You could pass this same route a minute later and see a whole new scene. It is so interesting. There is a cool breeze on the water and we are shaded from the hot sun.

After disembarking, we stop for a drink at a local hotel, stop to see the local cashew tree and nut (did you know the cashew fruit gives a terrible stain on clothing?) and to see the beautiful fronts of the Kerala truck. We are the last bus to arrive back to the ship at 6:45 PM (after our official time to be onboard) so we are very glad we have been a ship-sponsored excursion.

After a buffet dinner with friends we enjoyed Mark Donoghue playing guitar, fiddle, violin and piano. He is British, with an Irish last name, playing country western music on a luxury cruise ship in the Indian waters! Great concert. I enjoyed more singing and piano in the Commodore Club while working on the computer --- my Sinatra music.