A day in Fort Cochin
“I don’t want to see more fishing nets, Saneesh”. The tuk tuk driver smiled back at me. No shopping for antiques in the Jewish Quarter, no quick tour in the Dutch Museum… Have I seen the church yet?
“Listen, friend, I’ve been here for a week,” I went on. “Already saw the Chinese fishing nets, Vasco da Gama’s old tomb, spice shops. I leave tomorrow and before that I’d like to see something different. Like the Jain temple. Can you take me to the Jain Temple?”
It was my last day in India.
After separating from my press trip group, one of Fort Cochin’s finest hotels sent an invitation for me to stay with them. A wide property on a quiet harbour-front by Fort Cochin’s jetty, The Brunton Boatyard, as the name hints, was a boat house built when Cochin was under Dutch occupation, in the 18th century. It kept much of the original architecture: dark wood, high ceilings, brick, lime, terracotta. It’s more austere than luxurious, full of character and history. All nice. There was only one simple problem: I was a tourist in a touristy area. As a solo female traveler, I was easy spotted by the army of insisting tuk tuk drivers trying to sell a tour. Wide sunglasses and firm steps were not enough to avoid them every time I stepped out the hotel’s gate. Then, after being chased by an inconvenient driver one morning, I decided it was time to make the most of my fine hotel experience.
The smiling Indian woman at the hotel counter understood immediately. “Wait here, I know whom to call”. She graciously left me with a cup of mint tea at the quiet internal garden and went to call the tuk tuk driver who provided tours for hotel guests.
I waited, admiring the maps and portraits hanging on the walls, every piece part of a long story. Cinnamon from Ceylon and cardamom from Kerala attracted traders long before the European ships set sail to the Arabian Sea. The city fell under the spell of the Portuguese trade in the 16th century. The Dutch ravaged Fort Cochin in the 18th century. Then there was the British. Every empire left a mark in architecture, religion, trade, food. It is a city like no other.
Saneesh arrived soon. A 30-something Muslim with an open smile, he heard my demands and thought for a minute. “I understand. You want to see the real city.” The idea of hoping a tuk tuk and venturing trough the alleys of an Indian city was thrilling. I decided to trust Saneesh. Yeah. The real city.
Fort Cochin’s open-air laundry was our first stop. I recognised the place from a bus tour days ago. By then I didn’t get out the bus, uncomfortable by the scene of a large group of foreigners entering someone’s work space. This time it was different and there I went, following Saneesh’s steps. In the first room, covered by tin roof, ladies ironed clothes. Some using cheap, electrical models, others using heavy, coal-filled irons, the sort we find at antique shops. Saneesh exchanged a few words with a skinny, dark man who was passing with a big basket of clean, perfect folded clothes, and made a gesture, calling me inside. I walked around quietly, snapping pictures, trying not to disturb. We crossed to an open patio with small washing tanks made of stone. No one was working, but I could see how it went: a big stone basin filled with soapy water, a smaller one to wash it. A sweet, clean smell filled the air. There was water all around. Saneesh called again and we passed through a rusty metal gate: an open space with countless pieces of clothes hung to dry in the sun. All the colours in the world hanging in the wind. The same process, every time, for how long? An Indian laundry may have been like this for centuries.
The only Jain temple in Cochin, Dharmanath was our next stop. Saneesh explained me there was not much to see: Jain temples are humble, lacking the intricate ornaments of Hindu temples. Timing was good: every day at noon the temple fed the city pigeons, attracting thousands of birds.
As a foreigner, I had to pay a few rupees. As with anyone, I left my shoes and bag by the counter. It was all right to enter with my camera, but I should not photograph deities inside the temple, nor people praying. Saneesh stood by the door, enjoying a cigarette and telling me to take my time. There was still half an hour for the pigeon feeding, but the animals were already flying around, small and fast silhouettes against clear blue sky.
A skinny, middle-aged woman named Deepa walked me around, naming deities and their powers in incomprehensible English. Comparing to the glory of Cristian churches and the rich detailing of Hindu temples, a Jain temple is simple indeed. Sayings and symbols such as the Indian swastika decorates walls, small deities are show in praying rooms. After my five-minute tour, I stood in an open patio with Indian families visiting the temple. A young, smiling mother let me carry her baby, his forehead marked with a black bindi against evil spirits or diseases. The usual chat foreigners undergo in India (where are you from? what do you do? do you like India?) went on as we saw hundreds of pigeons gathering over walls and roofs.
Soon, a man appeared with metal plates. He said prayers and started distributing dried seeds for the birds. As the feeding frenzy started, pigeons of all shapes and sizes start flying in every direction, filling the air with dust and noise. The praying man, dressed in common, light cotton clothes, took my hands, showing me how to attract the animals. In a matter of seconds, the same animals we Brazilian refer to as “flying rats” were all over me. Pigeons were in my head, shoulders and arms, biting with light, delicate beaks. It doesn’t take long for the pigeons to feel satisfied; each minute grew with less of them. My skin was itchy; my clothes covered with dust, bird food and who knows what else. As the birds fly away, confident they’ll have lunch tomorrow again, and I could only think of finding a shower, a lot of soap, maybe an anti-allergic. But there was one more place to visit.
I’m someone born and raised in a 500-year country, and for me the Old World is always something to behold. Even something as simple as Fort Cochin’s spice bazaar leaves me a deep impression. From outside, it is almost a ruin – a decrepit arch decorating the passage, dusted yellow and grey walls, enormous wooden doors. Inside, two sweaty employees patiently ignored us, going through endless sacs of products. On the ground, inside and outside, hanging by walls and behind counters are hundreds of sacks and boxes of all sorts of spices. Saneesh pointed some: cumin, cinnamon, cloves, ginger, cardamom.
A lot of it I have never seen before, like Mirra stones and coriander roots. Saneesh picked a strange, rubbery red plant. The scent was familiar: nutmeg. It was mace, the covering nutmeg membrane used in the preparation of massala mix in Kerala.
It was time to go. Saneesh took me back to the Button Boatyard, accepted his payment with a polite smile and handshake.
It was the end of my month in India and, as with most endings, it was also the beginning of a new time. For the next year my travels would take me to many other places before I’d find my way back home.
Want to know more about Fort Cochin? Start here.
Fort Cochin – History and Untold Stories
Ink on Paper
“Making the most of Kochi”
Post by travel photographer Emanuelle Siracusa, travel blogger
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