Picking up where we left off, our next stop after Colombo, Sri Lanka, was the vibrant city of Kochi, India:
We had a late afternoon/early evening arrival into the port of Kochi, India, a cosmopolitan city in the state of Kerala. Located in southwest and bound by the Arabian Sea, Kochi sits in a natural harbor, created by a flood in the 1300’s. This port city was the epicenter of the world’s spice trade for centuries. As we sailed through a series of narrow channels on our way to the cruise ship terminal, friendly fishing boats swarmed us, their inhabitants waving as we made our way through the murky backwaters.
As is often the case when a ship has an overnight stay in an exotic port of call, the cruise line will bring local talent on board to present a “Cultural Show.” An all male troupe of actors came onboard and offered a fascinating glimpse into one of the oldest theatre forms in the world, Kathakali. It can best be described as a stylized “dance/drama” that incorporates a highly nuanced language of gesture, through which the artist conveys entire sentences and stories. Characters are categorized according to their nature – virtuous, divine, evil, etc., which, in turn, dictates the color and form of the elaborate costumes and make-up. I’ve never seen anything like it…it was captivating and freaky/beautiful!
The following morning I took a passenger excursion entitled, “Cochin von der Wasserseiten aus.” We would be exploring the brackish backwaters of this area by boat. The passengers seemed so grumpy. Maybe it was the heat, which was pretty unbearable. When the bus pulled out of the terminal parking lot, our guide – who was Indian and only spoke English – and the ship’s nurse, who was German and came along to translate, stood up to say a few words – which no one could hear because the microphone did not work. As if on cue, the guests started shouting, “We can’t hear you…” The poor guide and nurse fumbled with the sound system a few moments longer, which cracked and popped unmercifully, before they gave up and sat down. I started to feel anxious. Even though I am no longer a Cruise Director and am NOT responsible for the happiness and wellbeing of passengers – I can still smell a Gripefest a mile away – in any language!
It was only a 5-minute drive to the boat launch. As we exited the terminal, our bus was inundated with young peddlers, hawking garland, strewn with colorful plastic elephants and beads with plush pom-poms at the base. There were no stores in the area, just a dozen or so of these vendors, all selling the exact same thing. Despite the harrowing appearance of the port area, I know from previous visits, that as an ancient trade and maritime metropolis, Kochi is home to scores of beautiful and impressive remnants from its past, both indigenous and European in origin. We would be seeing the area from the vantage point of the water, eschewing palaces, cathedrals and promenades, in favor of Chinese fishing nets, brightly colored fishing boats and waterside dwellings that range from palatial to dilapidated.
By the time we boarded our tour boat everyone appeared rather out of sorts. The railings on the upper deck were lined with chairs, so we sat down, facing each other. The Guide tried to provide scenic commentary but could not be heard because of the wind and the sputtering motor, and most likely would not have been understood because of his thick accent. We started our excursion of the backwaters retracing our steps from the precious evening. Once we rounded the corner of the main canal, the breeze thankfully picked up. The squalid port area transformed into cornucopia of fishing boats both idle and at work, in varying states of disrepair. The passengers got out of their chairs and began photographing the tragically beautiful slumscape, strewn with hanging laundry, fishing gear, and the occasional motor scooter or canoe. Bougainvillea and roses in brightly colored flowerpots posed before disheveled yards. The locals smiled and waved from their respective boats and enclosures. We smiled too. Everyone started to relax and enjoy the breeze. As we traveled deeper into the maze of channels and tiny islands, our excursion took on a more exotic, almost surreal ambience: fish hatcheries and swamplands, panoramic tropical landscapes – it was sultry yet heartening!
As we meandered back to the boat launch three hours later, everyone was milling about, talking and laughing, chatting up our guide. One woman, captivated by the panorama, stood at the bow, holding her hat against her head to keep it from blowing away. The back of her skirt was also in danger of blowing away – perhaps she knew that but cared more about preserving her hat than her modesty. Whatever the case, irreverent giggling infected our little ship as another passenger crouched down to take a picture of Our Lady in the Blue Hat and her crisp white underpants. When she showed the picture to Our Lady, both women collapsed in fits of laughter! These were my stodgy Germans? They were having a grand old time! An uninspired afternoon that I thought would be a debacle, transformed into an absolute gem. It was a reminder to never underestimate the human capacity for joy and delight!