From hot to f@#%ing HOTTER: India Day 29 (Kochin to Delhi)

fishing nets near sundownTraveling in India in the second-hottest month of the year, we lamented the weather many times during our travels. But here we were, in the south of india, i.e., India, only hotter.

We liked Cochi as a town, liked the time we spent in Kerala. I mean, how could you not—Varkala, the backwaters, the 400 year old synagogue? It was the most humane, least mercenary time we’ve had so far in the country. But the heat was just too much. We had to leave.

Catholic churchWe did take a walk around the town citadel, first, and saw parts of the town where I wished we could’ve spent more time in: The coast, with those huge Chinese fishing nets (we actually got to see those in action and they were impressive. Like a Gilligan’s island trap, only eight times bigger and they worked. We saw the area church (another centuries-old building), did a teeny bit more shopping, and piled into a cab.

The cab to the airport was about 90 minutes longer than we’d expected. Our driver, as it turns out, also fancied himself a psychic. He foresaw great career success for Natacha in the future—interesting since she’s going back to school for the next few years. I don’t think he predicted anything for me.

He certainly didn’t predict the hour or so of torrential rainstorms that started just as we entered the airport. Nor did he predict the dozens of soldiers that filled the airport lobby, after which they escorted out two guys in coveralls, lingered around a while longer, and left. But I imagine he could’ve predicted our plane would take off late. Hell, I could've predicted that. This is India, after all.

We got into Delhi around 8 PM, at which time the temperature was 40 degrees Celsius. At 8 PM. Fortunately, we’d reserved an AC room in a decent place.  Slept with the intent to get up crazy early for a train north, to Haridwar.


No arms, no chocolate

In which we find religion (our own): India Day 28 (Kochin)

Paradesi Synagogue, from my POV sitting at the pew

Photos of the Kochi paradesi synagogue interior courtesy of Wouter Hagens via Wikipedia Commons. We weren't allowed to take photos in the synagogue.

After a fun day of shopping, chatting, and exploring, we took a crack at going to a 400-year old synagogue for Shabbat. It was closed during the day b/c of Passover, but we were told that it might be open for the Friday service. Worth a shot.

The 400 year old Synagogue (exterior)

Once there, a Keralan man told us that there would be a service, but that it would be a short one, as it was Passover weekend and there weren’t enough men around that weekend for a minion (people were visiting their families and whatnot). I think that man might have been a shabbas-goy or something.

Eventually, a thin little old man in his 70s (80s?) in huge glasses and a kippah showed up. He looked like a cross between an Indian Don Ameche and my Grandpa Ned. He spoke to the Shabbas-goy in Hindi, then asked us if we wanted to come in for Shabbat. We eagerly nodded yes.

He led us in, and we removed our shoes, even though he said we didn’t have to.

The synagogue was beautiful, oozing 400 years of history from every wooden pew, every mosaic’d tile, from each ornate chandelier and each of the hundreds of colored blown-glass globes hanging from the ceiling.

It was smallish for a synagogue—maybe the size of two winnebagos side-by-side, with maybe a dozen pews in the back, a half-dozen along one side, and a few long benches along the other side. The walls, the ceiling, the podium—everything was touched by a love for this place and its history. Multiple chandeliers hung down, as did the hundreds of blown-glass bubbles (sea-glass?) and other ornaments

The center podium was similarly ornate. The floor was bare. A few stacks of siddurim lay next to the center podium. The three of us were the only people in the synagogue.

The old man motioned for Natacha to sit on the women’s; side, and bade me sit next to him on the men’s side. He had decent English, with an accent that was part Indian, part almost Yiddish. I wish I knew the man’s history, but I didn’t want to pry.

He had huge thick glasses. I imagined him to be a long-lived merchant in the area. I took a prayer book and sat in the back pew next to him.

We talked for a while, mostly me answering questions about where I was from and about American politics. I so wanted to ask him about himself, his life in India, but I was a guest in a revered place, and I didn’t feel it was my place.

A heavyset man in a sarong and kippah showed up and spoke to the old man in Hindi, glancing at me briefly. They chatted for a bit, then in accented English, he asked me where I grew up. I told him, “Los Angeles. California.” He smirked and said, “Los Angeles. California. Like I don’t know where Los Angeles is.” He would tease me about that several times over the course of the evening. Turns out the guy was a teacher from Cleveland, dividing his time between India and Israel (which would account for the accent).

He then hammered me with questions about where I was from, my religious background, my job, all in that asserting-status sort of way that I find Israelis do. He asked me where I spent Passover, and criticized me for not finding somewhere to spend Passover in India.” The Internet,” he said. “look up India and Passover,” as if it was as easy as that. Hell, maybe it was.

Soon, we all settled down and the men started praying. I’d read what I could from the siddur, and look around this beautiful space, at the blown-glass spheres in the ceiling…

…and this feeling came over me. Like I belonged, in a way I don’t anywhere else. The fact that here I was, half-way around the world, and these people took me in; and that together we enacted thousand-year-old rituals together, ones we all KNEW…filled me with such a sense of connection, of belonging, that I got choked up afterwards.

II felt so grateful to be there, to be accepted. Particularly in a country where we’re so out of place.

At the end of the service, the old man had the caretaker guy open up the arc, and we got to see and touch the four Torahs, each with a breast plate that was one of the first things that the Jews brought to Cochin, centuries ago.

We did the Kiddush over the wine at the center podium, then separated as the regulars went home or went visiting. It was one of the most genuinely moving experiences I’ve had in this country. Or ever.

The Man From Viagra: India day 28 (Kochi)

One of the most consistent irritants when traveling abroad is this: people are constantly asking you where you’re from. Every tout and huckster.  Every schoolkid who knows three words of English. Every employee at every store. Every rickshaw driver. Without fail. I think part of it is to get your measure, and determine how much money you might have. After a while, it gets invasive and unpleasant.

The same thing happened to me when I traveled through Indonesia years ago. After a while, I gave joke answers. My favorite was “Disneyland,” but the locals just thought I’d said “New Zealand” so it didn’t work.

But upon entering Kerala, I made up another fake country name: “Viagra.” Natacha didn’t want me to do it. But I figured if I was going to get the same annoying question thirty times a day, I should have a little fun with it.

The first time I tried it was in the spice shop. The guys there barely missed a beat, looked at each other with a little confusion, and said, “That is a drug, yes?”


Then they laughed. So not only did it backfire, but I basically told them I came from an ED drug.

But it sure felt better than saying “USA” for the four hundredth time.

To Jew Town and back: India Day 28 (Kochin/Erkulam)

We didn’t love Kochi on a whole (which I blame largely on the very-hot time of year), but this day in particular was one of the most amazing times we spent in India.

The first place we hit in the morning—by my request--was Kochi’s famous “Jew town.”

Jewtown bookshop

Jew cemetary signCochin was home to a large Jewish population centuries ago, and that part of town still carried the moniker. We tried to enter the 400-year –old synagogue, but were told that it was closed for the Passover holiday. We did take a look at the spice market—Jew town was the center of Kochi’s spice trade—and the nearby Jewish cemetery.

But then moved on to do something, in turn, that Natacha wanted to do: shop.

For that, we took a ferry to Erkulam, the “real city” to Cochin’s “old town.” Natacha was looking for some of Kerala’s famous spices, and maybe a sari.

To get out of the heat, we took a long break at the Bubble Café, which turned out to be a restaurant in one of Erkulam’s fanciest hotels. It was so fancy, it not only had a ceiling-wide skylight, it had a sprinkler system constantly pouring water on it, to supplement the AC so it wasn’t like eating lunch in a greenhouse. We ordered a coffee and a coconut juice and nursed them.

Our next table consisted of a half-dozen thirtysomething Indians who worked in England but came to Kochi for holiday. We had a great time talking to them, mostly about Obama and Clinton (whom at this point were still going at it hammer-and-tongs), and about Bush and the sorry state of the US government.

They teased us about all the corruption in our government, so at one point I said, “sure—because India wouldn’t know anything about a corrupt government.” They laughed and one of them said, sure, of course India has an incredibly corrupt government, “but with us, it’s expected. For you, it’s a surprise.”

Natch asked ‘em where would be a good place to buy gold jewelry; they suggested Bima’s. About which more later.

First we had lunch at Bimbi’s, a sort of restaurant/bakery chain for Dosas, with a long dessert counter. We took our sweet tooths for a stroll and sampled a dozen desserts, finding a few that interested us. Funny how Indian desserts are so colorful, but most of them taste pretty much the same.

After that, it was off to Erkulam’s own Jew Street, home to shops, shops and more shops: kitchen appliances, clothing, and of course spices, spices, and more spices—Kerala’s specialty.

Natacha picked a place and came out with several types of cardamom pods and peppercorns, the former of which I look forward to filtering into my coffee when we get home.

We also looked for and found Bima’s, for gold jewelry.

Bima’s, as it turns out, is a 2-3 floor jewelry emporium with a Bobs-big-boy-looking cartoon of a boy plastered on the sign in front. I’m guessing that’s Bima. Despite being the middle of the day Friday, the place was PACKED with Indians. I could not be more bored than gold shopping, so I eventually found a chair and caught up on my reading, sit ting there in my flowy green camel-trek shit and my made-in-Varkala blue drawstring pants, with my brown bandana hiding my bandage, drawing fewer stares than expected. Tired from lack of sleep, I chewed gum to stay awake, suddenly craving good coffee and comic book stores.

Kochi is a surprisingly laid-back city. Even the big-city part of it, Erkulam, has been easy to walk around in (more so than North India). Man, if the weather here wasn’t so murderous, I’d stay in the south a lot longer.

Natacha came by to pick me up, not having bought a crumb of gold. I think she expected to find bargains, but I mean, face it, India is cheap, but not gold-is-cheap-here cheap.

She also looked through one sari store where she liked the quality but disliked the patterns, finding the bored, bratty teen shop girls no help whatsoever. I loved the shop’s full-blast A/C; it definitely made you want to linger.

We headed back to the ferry and made it back to Kochi’s Jew Town in time to see if the synagogue would be open for Shabbat. About which I’ll talk about in my next post.

Back to the backwaters: India day 27 (Kerala Backwaters to Kochi)

washing by the river with a knowing smile Don’t let anyone tell you that sleeping by the river is “cool,” not temperature-wise, anyway. Natacha & I barely slept during our night on the Kerala backwaters. the mosquito net was too close to the bed, which meant that it rested on my foot and/or cheek most of the night, unless I laid diagonal on the bed, which needless to say is not fun for Natacha.

big honking cup of chaiThat was really the only drawback to our trip, though. From our room, we watched the sun rise over the canals, had a yummy coconut-laced breakfast, and enjoyed a nice, slow return to the houseboat docks. One of the most worthwhile experiences of our trip. Our boat & captain

In fact, we liked it so much, as soon as we got off the boat, we immediately booked a longboat excursion, so we could visit the small canals that the big houseboat couldn’t go.

This took three hours and was just as wonderful. These were the backwaters of the backwaters: tiny networks of shallow waters where we saw close-up what the houseboats couldn’t get near. We saw people’s homes, farms, their ducks and chickens, their neighborhoods, and really stunning foliage.

ox shack

family occasion

post-backwater thaliAfter a quick lunch in Aleppey, we got on a bus to Kochi, a town we’d heard much about. After a sleepless night, four hours in the hot Kerala sun, and several hours on buses and taxis, we were EXHAUSTED.

We found a room in the third place we looked at (not the cleanest, but it had a/c and we were the only people there). I wasn’t feeling my best (it had been a nutty week, after all), but we found a neat couple to have dinner with. They were a young French duo who had chosen to travel India and China on—get this--a tandem bicycle. i.e. they were nuts. We joined them for dessert as well, and listened to their various stories of traveling through India on a FUCKING TANDEM BICYCLE. Insane.

Tried to sleep, failed, did 90 min of yoga, finally slept.