Cochin photo

A TRIP TO COCHIN

BRUCE AND ETHAN’S EXCELLENT ADVENTURE


Bruce and I decided to make another attempt at riding the train in India.  Our first attempt (and only other attempt) ended in abject failure.  In the first attempt, we went to the station, bought our tickets and then couldn’t figure out what car to get on before the train pulled away into the endless horizon where all dual train rails - symbolizing the duality of the material world - merge into a single point of infinity.

Our friend Uma explained afterwards that we can ask the ticket person where our car will occur in line from the engine.  These positions are marked over the platform and the train stops so that the cars line up with their respective number.  This time, on advice from another friend Emanuel, an actor from New York City, we bought our train tickets from a shop just outside the ashram gate – actually across the bridge that spans the backwaters.  This was going to be a more audacious adventure taking the train to Cochin which is about a 3 hour ride. If you look closely on the top about the middle of the blue engine you can see Bruce and I waving.

full train

Totally kidding! Our train looked very normal. We booked an air conditioned chair car. 

chair car

Most westerners book this class or an air conditioned sleeper car which has pull down berths.  We were told at the station ticket desk that our car – C3 (meaning 3rd chair car) – would be the sixth car back from the engine.  It worked!  We had seats 15 and 16 out of 75 possible seats.  The car was spacious and the seats were big and comfortable - much like airline seats but wider and with galaxies of additional leg room.  There were outlets all along both walls just above head height for running laptops and charging cell phones.

There was a constant stream of porters walking through the cars selling coffee, chai tea and edibles. 

tea vendor

There were both cooked dishes like masala dosa which were put up into aluminum foil containers with a cardboard top that is held in place by crimping the edges of the foil - and fried bread as well as potato chips, cashew nuts and chocolate bars.  The chai and coffee are always served with milk and sugar.  The porters carried large thermoses with spigots on the lower edge.  They were maybe two feet tall and a foot in diameter with a bail type handle on the top.  In his other hand he (there were no women doing these jobs) carried a stack of small paper cups.  These were maybe two inches high and two inches in diameter.  One could easily drink a half dozen of these.

Fortunately the porters came by frequently and the cost for a coffee or chai was 8 rupees or 12 cents US.  Just like vendors at a football game, they came down the aisle barking their goods. 

I had an order of fry bread, I don’t know the Indian name for it, but they are shaped like a donut with spices inside.  They are not sweet like a donut.  With three of these, one also is given a paper bowl with a dipping sauce that has a bit of hot spiciness to it.  Very good and only 30 rupees – about 45 cents US.

The scenery was spectacular and the car had big picture windows.  We may have already mentioned that Kerala is known as the Garden of India. The picture below was actually taken on the way back to the ashram. The sun was hanging low in the sky. 

India has the third largest rail system in the world taking backseat only to Russia and China.  It is subsidized by the government so that the people can have access to good transportation for little money.  Our tickets, round trip, were $7 each.  Had we gone cheap in the second class cars, it would have been $2 round trip.  The distance traveled by train was 100 kilometers or 62 miles.

Our adventure began by walking across the bridge that spans the backwater canal.  This bridge takes us from the peninsula where the ashram is located to the mainland.  From there we walk another 200 feet and there are 4 or 5 auto rickshaws, called Tuk Tuks (the u is long like tuke) lined up ready to take passengers. 

rickshaw

It was 7 in the morning and we were concerned they might not be working yet but our worries were for naught.  The ride to the Kayankulam train station in the town of Ochira is about 30 minutes and 280 rupees or a little over $4 US.  That’s split two ways or $2 each for Bruce and myself.  Tuk Tuks are one cylinder vehicles mostly diesel.  They are really a three wheeled motorcycle with a cab on it.  The ride is a little rough.  We have noticed most roads are asphalt and in very good condition and almost no patching.  We think this is because they don’t have winter with freezing water to damage the roads.

Our northbound train is to stop at platform number 2 which is on the other side of the tracks.  To access this, there is a metal frame walkway over the tracks much like the walkways we see sometimes over a roadway in the US.  The trains are electric and so power wires run over the tracks.  As we walk over the tracks and power wires, signs warn us of the instant death that awaits those who choose to toy with the 25,000 volt lines.

It takes our train about 3 hours to get to Cochin but the railroad car, the chair and the scenery are so pleasant that we never felt impatient.  Keep the chai and coffee coming!  Our forward progress is interrupted maybe 10 times stopping at various stations and once to pull off to the side as another train passed going the opposite direction.  Where there are roads and highways that cross the tracks, a small building houses a live person who raises and lowers a gate to stop the cars until the train passes.  There are no automatic car gates that we ever saw.  This is one reason the railroad is the largest employer in India. 

We reach our destination which is Ernakulum Junction.  We de-train and walk to the que for Tuk Tuks.  They have a system here we had not seen.  A line of customers forms to a small building by the Tuk Tuks.  We tell the attendant where we want to go and they give us a printed ticket saying where we are going and how much it will cost.  We pay the attendant 1 rupee to provide this service.  We get into the waiting rickshaw that is just 4 feet to our left and hand the driver the ticket.  The ride through Cochin to Jew Town (a part of Cochin) is 168 rupees or $2.60 US and takes about 30 minutes. 

Cochin (a.k.a. Kochi) is a city of two million people with some large buildings in a downtown area (that’s twice the population of the greater OKC metroplex and in a smaller area).  It is right on the coast.  Because of this there is a large Indian Navy complex and also shipping docks.  It has been used as a port since the 1300s.

Driving through town, traffic is heavy.  What is really interesting is that we have only seen one stop sign in all our travels and it was in a remote area.  We thought it was because we live in a rural area that there was no traffic control.  But here we are in a big city and there are no stop signs, yield signs, speed limit signs, merge signs or any traffic signs whatsoever with the exception of signs that list how far it is to cities up the road.  Not only that, there are absolutely no traffic lights of any kind! 

Think of this – busy streets like May Avenue on steroids – everywhere - these busy streets are going every which way and crossing each other and there is no traffic control at all.  Not stop signs, no yield signs, no traffic cops and no traffic lights!  Yet it all works.  They weave around and in and out causing anal puckering for those unaccustomed to being inches from certain death as your Tuk Tuk darts to the side of a head-on truck just at the very last conceivable moment. 

Horns are deployed constantly and Indians are taught to do that in driving school.  Whenever they start around a corner they honk to alert traffic coming from the side road.  Whenever they pass someone they honk as they come around so the other vehicle knows they are there.   The cacophony of honking soon blends into the tapestry of the experience and, like the Indians, we soon began to ignore it as a source of irritation. 

Street signs showing the names of the streets are also non-existent.  We are totally amazed at how this heavy heavy traffic could work so efficiently, we surmised that this is proof of a cosmic connectivity that also allows for the phenomena known as “flocking” with birds and “shoaling” with fish whereby a large group appears to make coordinated instantaneous movements as though being directed by some unseen force. 

We didn’t have a specific destination like a hotel address.  All we had was Jew Town which is a fairly large area.  So the fellow at the Tuk Tuk stand at the train station just wrote down “bus station” probably because it is centrally located in that area.  We got to the bus station and asked the driver to find us a nice hotel (for additional rupees) but he spoke no English and drove off. 

We had only been standing there for 60 seconds looking lost and forlorn, when another TukTuk pulls up and asks us if we need a ride.  He speaks fairly good English which is common in India.  Most all of the store front signs are in English and the road signs that show distance to cities and all of the railway info signs are in English.  We ask him to take us to a hotel on the waterfront and ask how much.  He says 100 rupees.  We know this is high, but high is relative and 100 rupees is only $1.60 to us.  Feeling that he is a life preserver being thrown to us by the Almighty, we say yes. 

First place he takes us is a store that sells all manner of statuary for gods and goddesses, tapestries, rugs, and cashmere shawls.  He insists we go in and have a look.  We do, and it was a cool store admittedly, but we didn’t buy anything.  Then he takes us to another store – his “brother’s” store.  We look around and leave and this time tell him no more stores take us to a hotel.  He does this but it seems as though the hotel is a distance from the water.  The rooms are nice, we looked at one, and for 2300 rupees a night or $35 US.  They tell us a hotel on the water will be 10,000 rupees a night (about $150 US). 

We leave and he takes us to a hotel that is a half block from the water.  He wants to go in first before we come in.  We give him a head start of a minute or two then go in.  He is still talking to the desk manager as we arrive.  The desk manager shows us a schedule of room prices and shows us a standard room which is 8000 rupees but he will give it to us for 5000 rupees ($77 US).  We know you are supposed to dicker with them over the price but we didn’t.  We had no luck with this at the previous 2300 rupee hotel where we offered them 1600 assuming they would come back with 1900 or some such number.  No, they just said no.  What?

So we took the room.  Everything was very posh.  Nice tile, bathrooms, fixtures were very modern, air conditioned and they had a very nice restaurant with part of it being an outdoor balcony.  The name of the hotel was The 18 Hotel.  It was like a nice room at a Hilton that would cost you $180 a night in the US.  One of the keys to not getting dysentery is eating only in nice restaurants such as you would find in a nice hotel. The next year we arrived at New Years and they wanted 9,000 rupees! So Sudhi, our guide went down the street while we ate and came back with an airconditioned room for 3,000 rupees. It was a large very nice room in an old English house and the hotel is named The Spencer Home. They did not have a restaurant so we had to walk a few blocks to eat. It is located at 1/298 Parade Road,Ft Kochi, Kerala, India, 682-001 spencerhomestyfc@rediffmail.com telephone 0484-221-5049 or 221-7073. You can also contact the manager Anil at anilnetoor@yahoo.com - Anil's number is 984-601-1746 or 963-353-6629. The India international phone code is 091 in case you are calling from another country. Anil also owns a small hotel a few blocks away with a restaurant which has a gravel floor. We ate breakfast there once and it was good. The name of the restaurant is the Taj Mahal.

We walked down to the street that runs along the harbor.  There are lots of street vendors with shops put up with tarps for dividers.  There are also quite a few western types – Americans, Europeans – milling about.  I did buy a nice purple shirt with OM signs on it for 250 rupees ($3.85 US).  I’m sure I could have dickered him down because that was his asking price but for gaining 50 cents or a dollar it just didn’t seem worth the effort and he is a poor shopkeeper living on the edge.

One of the shops was a communist party tent.  The state of Kerala is mostly boothcommunist.  There were about a half dozen young men sitting in chairs surrounded by banners and flags with pictures of red hammer and sickles and also Che Guevara.  We had seen these icons all over posted on walls, posts and other suitable places of free advertising.  So we stopped and talked to them awhile.  They were very interested in talking to us but only one amongst them was very good at English.  His name is Sudhi. 

We talked with him for a while.  His message was that he wasn’t too happy with the politicians including the communists.  They promise everything – schools, roads, you name it – but never deliver on anything. He also complained that the local government is hostile to this row of street vendors because they sell things so cheaply and take away business from the upstanding high-end shops up the street.  He was concerned that people trample on the poor.  

They took our picture (Bruce and I) with all the other fellows and they were all quite happy and amused that we stopped to talk to them and that we were interested in what they had to say.  By the next morning they had put our picture up on their local communist party Facebook page.

We like Sudhi and he is a TukTuk driver.  So we arrange for him to pick us up at the hotel at 10 am and spend the day being our tour guide.

We go back to the hotel where we ate dinner on the outdoor balcony and had our second soda water with lime for the day.  These are so good!  It is simply lime juice squeezed into sparkling soda water.  They bring a little pitcher containing thin, watery, sugary syrup to sweeten according to taste.  They are common here and we took full advantage of that fact. 

Our seating was almost on top of a busy intersection of two 2-lane roads.  No stop signs.  We did notice that they had placed speed bumps strategically before the intersection on all four directions.  This is one way of putting traffic control in place.  Nonetheless, it was quite interesting to watch all the busses, cars, motorcycles, bicycles and pedestrians maneuver this very busy intersection with such flawless grace. There was a constant stream of traffic from all four directions. 

There are not too many cars.  There are lots of motorcycles and buses.  Motorcycles work well here because it never gets cold.  A bus would come by every 5 minutes traveling in one of the four directions.

Now it’s evening and we are off to watch a performance of a traditional dance called Kathakali which is unique to Kerala.  We flag a TukTuk and he drives us about 4 blocks for 2 rupees.  We knew it was close by but didn’t know exactly where it was.  He lets us out at a very non-descript walkway that disappears off between two buildings.  There was a sign for the Kathakali but it was small and obscure.  We walk down the picturesque narrow walkway lined with potted plants.  We jog left and there is a small Tibetan restaurant – totally hidden back in this mysterious alcove.  Then past that another sharp turn to the left and in 20 feet we come to the Kathakali entrance. 

A ticket is 300 rupees and we climb some stairs to enter the performance area.  kathakaliInside it is very nice with beautiful woodwork.  The program begins with a demonstration of the various movements and hand communications used by the dancers.  There are two men with no shirts wearing dhoitis (like a big wrap around towel that looks like a skirt) playing hand drums.  Another man is talking about the various movements and what they mean.  He later also plays finger cymbals and sings.  The show itself is like nothing one has ever seen.  There is a story that is told by the various movements and the story usually has to do with a story about gods, goddesses and demons. 

Back to the room.  We agree it is kind of nice luxuriating in a nice hotel room after weeks of ashram austerity.  We finally figure out the English speaking TV stations are way up in the high numbers.  This after having a maintenance fellow come because we turned on the captions but there were no captions. Neither of us had seen a TV since we came to the ashram. After an hour of flipping through channels we decide we had not been missing much.

The next morning we have oatmeal for breakfast and walk outside the entrance at 10 minutes till ten.  Another TukTuk driver tries to tell us our own driver had called him and told him to pick up two guys.  This is allegedly because Sudhi couldn’t make it that day.  I asked him the name of our driver and he took a long shot with Latif.  We knew then he was smokin’ us.  We waited and Sudhi showed up right at 10.

We asked him what he normally charged for a day of tour guiding.  He replied with 100 rupees an hour.  Now that’s $1.60 US an hour and we are using his gas and vehicle!  He has a wife and 3 children ranging 1.5 years to 13 years.  We paid him quite a bit more than that in the end. 

The first place we visited was the laundry.  This was an operation that was started back in the 1800s.  They do laundry for larger institutions like the hospital and also for individuals.  It consists of about 20 concrete stalls open on the face but closed all other sides including the top.  One person per stall is working here.  They are wading in soap water which is about 12 inches deep.  Bruce comments that in WWI, soldiers would get trench foot from standing in wet trenches. The skin would literally sluf off and we wondered about these poor fellows.

They wet the clothes then beat them on a special rectangular stone.  They bring Laundrythe clothes down on the stone WHAP! with a lot of force. 

laundry up close

 

Once cleaned they are hung out to dry in a vast yard of clothes lines.  The lines are look like a type of hemp rope that is twisted together so the corners of the clothes are stuck in the twists thus eliminating the need for clothes pins.  

laundry hanging

There is a big room for ironing.  The sides are all open to the outdoors because it does not get cold here.  One fellow was ironing with an iron that got its heat from building a smoldering fire inside of it.  The fuel is fibers from coconuts.

laundry iron

We went to the Dutch Palace which was built in the 1500s and is now a museum. 

Then an ayurvedic (traditional herbal medicine) rehab center for elephants.  Thereelephant was one elephant there at the time.  They come for about 30 days of treatments.  We were able to stand next to the elephant with our hands on him.  He was eating large plant leaves and it was very interesting to see him use his trunk to splinter and loosen the big stiff limb part of the plant leaves.  One leaf and stalk is maybe six feet in length. They had these leaves stacked up in piles around the perimeter of the yard.  They were waiting their turn to become elephant poo.

Next was a place that processed ginger root. In the picture, the brownish piles on the right are new and the whitish piles on the left are dried. Then the roots are bagged in 50 pound lots in burlap bags. The buildings around us can't be torn down because they are classified as historical and architectually significant.

We visited the oldest synagogue in India and a Jain Temple.  At the temple we were just in time for a daily ritual of feeding hundreds of pigeons.  We were all given a mixture of rice and lentils which we held out with our hands.   They would come and eat the mixture out of our hands.  Jains are vegetarian and won’t even eat plant foods that cause suffering to the plant.  They are a branch of Hinduism. Below is the Jain Temple.

As it turns out the TukTuk drivers are paid 100 rupees by these nice shops for every tourist they bring to their shop.  This is why the first driver took us by two shops before we said no more shops take us to a hotel.  But since we had become good friends with Suhdi, we asked him to take us to shops so he could collect the 100 rupees.  Which he did and they were all very interesting shops.    He also took us to a non-tourist vegetarian restaurant for lunch.  They offered only two dishes. One with white rice and one with not-so-white rice. 

They brought each of us a stainless steel plate with a one inch rim that had 5 small stainless cups that contained various chutneys, pickles and sauces.  These we set out onto the table.  But before we began, Suhdi asked if we needed to go to the washroom.  We didn’t have to pee so we didn’t.  But he came back to the table with his hands dripping wet.  So we realized this was to wash our hands before eating.  A good idea!  Especially since Indians eat with their fingers they are meticulous about washing their hands.  They use no utensils at all. 

So Bruce and I go back and there is a “Washroom.”  It has a door and glass walls from about 4 feet to the ceiling.  Inside are 6 or 7 washbasins / sinks with faucets and soap.  There are no towels though which is why Sudhi came back to the table with dripping wet hands.  I had a solution for that and used my blue jeans.

After a minute or two a fellow comes around with a big pot of rice which he is hugging to his body with one arm.  In the other hand is a wooden paddle and he dishes out however much rice you want.  Then he comes back with a second bucket – looks like a gallon size – and it has sambar which is cooked vegetables in a curry sauce.  He ladles however much of that you want onto the rice.  This is the only thing they offer for lunch (other than various drinks).  Then we add in the contents of the little stainless cups as we desire.  It was quite good and 100% authentic!

After that we walked through the narrow lanes with campy shops.  These shops are not flashy but are very nice and have a an earthy feel of wood and stone.  A woman would have been in heaven because they have so many cool things.  It was also interesting for us even though neither of us is a shopper.  It would have been interesting to have been there with a woman and follow her around.

shop

There were some very interesting shops with old antiques.  The owners would stand outside and insist we come in.  "Please, please, come into my shop! We have very nice things and very low prices!" they would say. This was an opportunity to ask them the meaning of life and other philosophical questions because they wanted something from us and were willing to pay the price.  Lol! This was lots of fun and we got a lot of good answers! 

I did make a purchase - a Nataraj bronze casting. Most don't realize that Hinduism really has one God called Brahman. Brahman is the substratum of everything that exists. It is formless and beyond the mind. All of the Gods and Goddesses worshiped by Hindus are aspects of this one God Brahman. They have a system known as polynomial monotheism (many names for one God). It is like the concept of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit except they have 300,000 aspects or deities whereas the Christian version has three. As an analogy, we can say fire has the qualities of heat, light and smoke. Fire would be Brahman and the heat, light and smoke - the aspects or qualities - are gods and goddesses.

In Hinduism there is also a trinity who are Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva and they are the creator, maintainer and dissolver of the universe respectively. Nataraj is another name for Shiva. He is shown in the photo below as dancing and the idea is that when he stops dancing, the universe comes to an end. But don't worry, another one is soon born and this has been going on for eternity.

There is a small figure beneath his feet which represents the ego. Shiva / Nataraj is looked upon as that aspect of the Divine which liberates us from the ego or sense of "I" and "mine" from which comes all manner of selfishness and self-cherishing from which is born all manner of afflictions such as hatred, jealousy, fear, attachment, pride, anger, greed and so on.

Here is a bit that is copied from the internet:

"In a marvelously unified and dynamic composition expressing the rhythm and harmony of life, Nataraj is shown with four hands represent the cardinal directions. He is dancing, with his left foot elegantly raised and the right foot on a prostrate figure — 'Apasmara Purusha', the personification of illusion and ignorance over whom Shiva triumphs.

The upper left hand holds a flame, the lower left hand points down to the dwarf, who is shown holding a cobra. The upper right hand holds an hourglass drum or 'dumroo' that stands for the male-female vital principle, the lower shows the gesture of assertion: "Be without fear."

Snakes that stand for egotism, are seen uncoiling from his arms, legs, and hair, which is braided and bejeweled. His matted locks are whirling as he dances within an arch of flames representing the endless cycle of birth and death.

On his head is a skull, which symbolizes his conquest over death. Goddess Ganga, the epitome of the holy river Ganges, also sits on his hairdo. His third eye is symbolic of his omniscience, insight, and enlightenment. The whole idol rests on a lotus pedestal, the symbol of the creative forces of the universe.

The Significance of Shiva's Dance:

This cosmic dance of Shiva is called 'Anandatandava,' meaning the Dance of Bliss, and symbolizes the cosmic cycles of creation and destruction, as well as the daily rhythm of birth and death. The dance is a pictorial allegory of the five principle manifestations of eternal energy — creation, destruction, preservation, salvation, and illusion.

According to Coomerswamy, the dance of Shiva also represents his five activities: 'Shrishti' (creation, evolution); 'Sthiti' (preservation, support); 'Samhara' (destruction, evolution); 'Tirobhava' (illusion); and 'Anugraha' (release, emancipation, grace).

The overall temper of the image is paradoxical, uniting the inner tranquility, and outside activity of Shiva."

So anyway, I now have one and anyone that wants to can come over and touch it!

There are a lot of goats everywhere.  There was one out in front of these shops so we asked what was up with the goat.  We were told he lives nearby but does not have a place to graze so they roam the streets and people give them bananas or left over food during the day and then they go home at night.  This particular goat was there every day.  We petted him and his short fluffy tail turned into a fan so we knew we were doing it right.

Shot of the back of Sudhi's head on our way back to the train station:

Now it was becoming 3:30 pm and Sudhi, who by now we regarded as our brother, drove us back to the train station, parked and came in to make sure we were all squared away and standing in the right spot.  Being the train station for a big city, it was quite large with 5 or 6 tracks and many platforms.  The train was about 30 minutes late which is normal.  We indulged in a cold mango drink from a food stand on our platform.  A barefoot sadhu dressed in orange swami clothes, with long gray hair and a long white beard, maybe 70 years old, sat down near us.  By the time we got back to the ashram it was about 8 pm and time for our weary travelers to go to bed.