The International Writers Magazine: India
Navigating Fort Kochi
The tranquility of the train station in Ernakulam, the largest sub-city of Kochi, signals yet another new version of India: this time an India in repose.
In the night coolness of the parking lot, the auto-rickshaw drivers lounge in the shadows. Rather than scrambling madly towards fresh, disoriented passengers -- the recently detrained --, they wait passively for inquiries. Our driver was a soft-spoken, mellow-tempered man named Joseph. He was slightly bug-eyed, with short-cropped grey hair, and like many in Kerala state, was a Christian.
Joseph patiently shuttled us from one full hotel to the next, before suggesting that we try seeking accommodation in “the Fort” instead. As soon as we agreed, he did a u-turn and began slicing through the traffic toward the ocean. We crossed the bridge onto Wellington Island, then a second bridge to Mattancherry, before arriving at Fort Kochi. Its streets were almost completely empty, as untroubled as a suburban compound. The street dogs hardly stirred.
Walking through one of Fort Kochi’s residential neighborhoods the next morning, the streets drenched in sunlight and siesta stillness, we came across an auto-rickshaw graveyard. Parked in the low-walled field were at least a dozen of the diminutive vehicles known as tuk-tuks in Thailand and as bajais in Indonesia (their Indian brand name is Bajaj). These ones were painted crudely with offbeat designs, one inspired by the label of Thailand’s Beer Chang, while another covered with characters from the movie Chicken Run.
Flyers posted to some of the rickshaws showed that this was a retired fleet from the legendary Rickshaw Run. This year’s race had begun on New Year’s Day in Pokhara, Nepal, and had concluded here a few weeks later. I wondered which one of these retired rickshaws might have been the winner.
Fort Kochi (formerly known as Fort Cochin) was a significant choice of destination and final resting place for the motor rickshaws. Many centuries earlier the great Portuguese navigator Vasco da Gama was also laid to rest in Kochi. It was da Gama who first arrived in India from Europe -- landing a bit further up the coast near Kozhikode (Calicut) -- after rounding the Cape of Good Hope. The year was 1498, more than 60 years before the birth of Shakespeare.
The worn tomb slab under which da Gama was buried can be found on the floor of Saint Francis Church in the Fort area, though the navigator’s remains were later moved to Portugal. As for the fort compound in which da Gama lived, the walls themselves are almost as worn down as his old tomb slab. Not much remains, though the grid of streets and the canal have largely stayed the same. The Fort’s hundreds of Portuguese- and Dutch-style houses are well kept up; beside the gates are name plaques that denote puzzling cross-European origins.
Many of the side street residences double as home stays for tourists. These include the Hotel Mother Tree as well as the redoubtable Vasco Home Stay (reportedly once the home of da Gama). From the main clump of home stays, the strolling visitor inevitably moves up toward Princess Street, with its bakery, book stores, and internet cafés. From a rooftop vantage of the Fort, with the buildings far below the palm fronds and the serpentine reaches of the banyan trees, one may suffer a peculiar geographical disorientation, such is the heady blend of architecture, flora, and pedestrians.
In a sprawling country of sacred cows in traffic, where Ganesh and Hanuman are so widely celebrated as to be tangibly omnipresent, it can be surprising in places like Kochi to find just as ardent a devotion to the western gods, with the simple, poignant shrines of Fort Kochi dedicated to figures like the Holy Mother and Saint Anthony. Meanwhile, the awnings of buses are often decorated with bold proclamations such as “INFANT JESUS”.
Though the foreign influences upon Kochi have primarily been Portuguese, there are also reminders of the Dutch, such as the stately Dutch cemetery. East-Asian influences can be found on the northern shore of the Fort, with the Chinese nets -- spidery apparatuses which are scattered throughout the entire region of islands and inlets. On the east side of the island, Jew Town and the Jewish cemetery attest to a trading presence that predates the Portuguese and the Chinese.
From the north shore of Fort Kochi, we caught the ferry (5 rupees) for Vypeen Island, with its old church and coconut fronds facing us across the strait. Several dolphins were sporting in the sizzling, liquified sunshine not far from the boat. The main draw of Vypeen Island is Cherai Beach. This beach is singularly long and straight, and is set off by a backwater lagoon. Bungalows and hotel rooms offer a choice between lagoon views or views of the Arabian Sea, which is unpolluted along this stretch.
After leaving the beach a few days later, I happened to see Joseph the auto-rickshaw driver again. His auto-rickshaw was parked along the side of one of the main streets of Ernakulam and he was chatting with several other drivers. Quietly good-natured and exuding an air of contentment, he offered to drive us around anytime we needed. It occurred to me then that Joseph the navigator could possibly have been a descendent (20 or 30 generations removed) of Vasco da Gama himself. And yet, like Kochi itself, what characterized Joseph was not his shadowy Portuguese links, but rather the cultural alchemy that had produced an entirely distinct way of being, not wholly of India, or anywhere else for that matter.
Bio: A thoroughly decentered Canadian-American, Matthew Crawford currently resides in Seoul, South Korea. His writing and photography have appeared, or are appearing soon, in Paper Darts, Nomad Magazine, Oriental Tales, Blue Print Review, 10 Magazine, and newspapers including The Straits Times, The Asia Times, and The Korean Herald. When he finds a chance, he heads to the mountains.
© Mathew Crawford May 2010
mattcrawford at hotmail.com