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Changing down a gear on India’s Malabar Coast


On close inspection, three sleepy water buffalo are partly submerged in the drain by the Dutch cemetery. They are sheltering from the sun near the worn stone graves, walled inside a garden. Behind them is the shore – flanked with Chinese fishing nets that stretch across brilliant turquoise water. I pass boys playing cricket, barefoot, in the shadow of the Portuguese church of St Francis and from classroom windows I can hear children’s voices singing hymns. One of the few other sounds is the bleating of the goats that make up most of the little painted streets’ traffic.

Despite my Mediterranean looking surroundings I am, in fact, in India. Escaping the chaos and pollution of the cities, I have come south west to Kerala’s Fort Cochin on the Malabar Coast. The little fort is one of several towns and islands that form Kochi city, formerly known by its colonial name – Cochin.

Arriving in Fort Cochin is a gigantic relief. India is not easy to navigate and travelling alone can be stressful (especially if, like me, you are young and female). Everything I want to see – from the colonial churches to the little synagogue and Dutch Palace – is in walking distance and I can explore the fort unhampered. I’ve heard semi naked Australian girls talk about sleazy Indian men and how difficult it is to walk anywhere without being harassed in India. Having been in Mumbai, I partly understand what they mean but I can’t help blame their experiences also on a failure to dress sensitively in a different culture. Regardless of revealing western clothing, problems travellers might come across in other parts of India do not exist in Cochin. I am surprised when a man, whose request to walk with me I decline, happily accepts my refusal and immediately leaves me alone. Another has given me a beautiful frangipani flower before continuing fixing his bicycle.

I am free to look at the surrounding remnants of hundreds of years of history. Cochin has seen a wealth of commerce and international diversity – from Chinese traders in the 1300’s to a spice trade that boomed under three European empires.
 
The Portuguese came in the late 15th century and were more than 100 years later succeeded by the Dutch who then surrendered Cochin to the British at the beginning of 19th Century until independence in 1947. European houses abound and, though I miss the Spice factory in the modern town of Ernakulam, I see sacks of cardamom and pepper and smell cinnamon bark that my guide scrapes from a tree.  It is as if many of the wonders of the world co-exist in miniature in Cochin.

The main part of the Fort, which is dotted with hotels, internet cafes and restaurants, suggests the town is entirely geared towards tourism. The tourists are on holiday and most Cochin residents are working in jobs catering to their needs. This seems to create an unsatisfactory divide that gives the place a toy, synthetic feel.   Around sunset, however, I wander along the sea wall by the Chinese fishing nets, and watch Indians and foreigners alike come out for an evening walk. It is then that our differences subside, apart from a few fishermen and fish sellers, nobody is working. Families come out for ice cream, small boys play in the waves and a girl in a red and gold sari collects sea shells.

Even the fish sellers lack the desperate urgency typical of produce pushers I’ve met elsewhere. I stand, riveted by heaps of fresh squid that spill onto the ground like animal guts and their owner simply smiles at my refusal to purchase any and beams: “Then you come back when you are hungry!” Like many in Kerala, his only clothing is a white cloth tied around his waist (a lunghi) and he has purple paste smeared between his eyes.

A couple, in Muslim dress, sit on the rocks some distance from the stench of seafood and beyond them a man fishes with what looks like a piece of string. Pristine nuns scurry passed me and men in wide brimmed Chinese hats row in small boats. A film is being made and people have gathered excitedly on the beach to watch as others sleep on the rocks or in the rusty children’s park behind them. Written on the wall are four quotes advocating peace. One is from the Koran, another from the Bible, one attributed to Krishna and the last is Ghandi’s.

Brightly coloured paintings of Christ hang in many of Cochin’s shops. In others I’ve seen pictures of Hindu gods designed in the same colourful way as if there is little difference. The world’s main religions seem to be represented in Cochin. Members of each faith appear equally devout but not dramatically separate from one another. Perhaps because various cultures have lived together for so long, the town’s inhabitants have learned to be more tolerant of religious difference than much of the world.

The next day I walk along the coast to Jew Town in Mattancherry which is the other main historic part of Kochi city.  It is heralded by stars of David culminating in the little synagogue built in 1562 with its painted clock tower, Belgian chandeliers and Chinese tiles. I ask the rickshaw driver, who drove me back, how many Jews live in Cochin. He says there are 11. I learn later that most of the Jewish population has emigrated by now but the synagogue is still functioning and my driver’s strangely small and precise number must have been invented. Indian people often think it friendlier to make up an answer than to admit that they don’t know.

In Kerala, however, I discover the chances are that the people will know. When I want directions from a passer by I mistake his hesitation for being unable to understand me and ask whether he speaks English. The reply is: “Of course I do. Why do you ask that of people in Kerala? Most of us have one or two degrees.”   Kerala has a higher literacy rate (91%) than any developing country in the world and proved to be the most advanced Indian state in regards to women when it employed female police officers as early as 1938.

I learn more about the surrounding area the following day by leaving the fort to go on one of the backwater cruises that are Kerala’s main tourist attraction. The lagoon runs like chalky blue silk past endless banks of palm trees. It is immaculately beautiful except for the occasional plastic bottle floating past and those that are heaped on the shore. The backwaters are happily not overrun with cameras and speed boats but winding past people’s homes along the narrow canals can feel rather intrusive. One hut has put up wooden screens to stop us looking in but most people ignore us or in the case of two old women, who spin ropes from coconut shells, pose for photographs as part of our trip. Our parade of little wooden canoes passes two boys who dive naked in and out of the brown water as a snake looking like a tiny mythological serpent swims alarmingly close by.

A traditional Keralan lunch is served on the river bank on palm leaves that I’ve watched being cleaned with ash. Wicker-basket boat loads of tourists stream into the lunch hut, most of them as pink and out of place looking as me. I eat the hot, liquidy vegetable curries, sauces and rice with my right hand – as is customary in Southern India. A few others do the same and we become equally messy up to our elbows unlike our guides who dirty only the very tips of their fingers.

The eight hour cruise is well worth it but I prefer the freedom of wandering the streets of Fort Cochin and stopping at little cafes like Teapot – a relic of the British Empire with its peeling walls and wooden tables. The menu begins with Rudyard Kipling’s poem about tea and you can order earl grey, chocolate cake and toasted cheese sandwiches on a china tea set.

It is impossible to understand that I am in the same country portrayed across the world by Slumdog Millionaire, perhaps I am lucky but I see fewer beggars than I would walking in London. Mumbai’s terrorist attacks seems equally distant. My hotel’s receptionist even refuses to admit that Cochin is damaged by the credit crunch. He says: “Yes, we are missing you British, but it is ok because this year Sweden has come and we are fine.”  And living in such a blissful place it is difficult to imagine how Cochin’s inhabitants could be anything less than fine.

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