Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Kochi


Hot.  Really hot. Sweating through my shirt hot. Hiding under my scarf hot. Making decisions on food based on if they have AC or seating directly under a fan hot.

But that’s Kerala – one of two of the most southern state In India- and we are getting into the Hot season.
Perhaps I'll make fishing by Chinese Nets my second career

I’m in Kochi (Cochin) and we have a rest day today.  This is a fascinating area – it was fought over by Dutch, Portuguese and then finally the British for control of the spice trade.  I’m sitting in Fort Cochin now, which was originally the Portuguese fort before the Dutch took it.

There is a very diverse history here.  I spent the morning walking through the old Jewish quarter – Jews settled here and founded an enclave under the rule of the maharaja after fleeing persecution. There are still less than 100 Jews living here, but the synagogue is still active and decorated with Chinese hand painted tiles, beautiful chandeliers from Belgium and a gold pulpit.
Dried Ginger

The area around there – after you jostle past the touts for the tourist shops – is filled with spices and other commodities traders. Bags of cardamom, nutmeg and ginger scent the air. Tea syndicates and tea wholesalers take in bags of teas and re-distribute it. Up the street are grain merchants –with bowls of sample rice on display. Big lorries squeeze down the narrow Bazaar Street for men to unload huge bags which they lift on their heads and disappear down long dark passageways to warehouses off the street. It was bustling.

I also went to the old palace which was built for the local (and displaced) maharaja to appease and keep the spice trade deal coming. Had some amazing Hindu murals, but what I found most interesting was that the royal lineage – and society generally here I presume - was also matrilineal. So it was the women who determined the line of succession.  The women were the first who went to college. The men who married into the family came to live in the wives household, not as it is now where the women leave home and live in the husbands’ home. The women and girl children were more valued – or at least were equally valued – as the boy children (unlike now in India where the population is 53% men –many say due to aborting females though that’s now technically illegal).   Women overall had a more equal status  that still influences society  here,  even after  Hindu “reformers” sought to end matrilineal traditions.

So I have to ask how a more gender balanced perspective influenced the development of Kerala, which is the most socially and economically advanced state in India. It has a 91% literacy rate, the lowest infant mortality rate by far and it’s off the charts comparatively to the rest of India and other developing nations in all the basic statistics for development.  They did democratically elect a communist government that set into motion many of the systems and reforms that led to their advancement.  Not sure if women could vote then.  But I can’t help but wonder if this progressive mentality is in part due to the tradition of gender equality.

After exploring the palace and Jewish quarter I wandered around the top of the peninsula toward old Forth Cochin.  Fishermen still use huge ancient Chinese nets that require 4 men and hundreds of kilos of counterweight to lower and then hoist out of the ocean. The catch this time year is minimal- they told me the best time to fish was June and July after the rains.  Right now they are catching tourists, but I didn’t mind giving them a  ”donation” for the fun of chatting, helping hoist up the net and asking lots of questions and getting a close up view of the nets and fishing.  They were a nice group of men.
Chinese fishing nets

The shipping channel into Kochi is busy, filled with huge tankers to tiny canoe-shaped fishing boats.

The town of Fort Cochin itself is very touristy. It has the old Catholic Church and Dutch cemetery, and many buying opportunities and eager tuk tuks eager for commissions.

I’m taking refuge in a very western coffee house with the air conditioning on full blast. A nice place to hole up till my cooking class starts at 6 pm.  Very excited about that - we will eat what we cook so hopefully I won’t ruin it. I’m especially interested to learn about the spices and how to make the base of some of these wonderful curries I’ve been feasting on for two months and will be sad to leave.

You Seattle folks, prepare to be experimented on. I foresee many attempts at curries and naans and roti and other Indian deliciousness in my future.

2 comments:

  1. I'm catching up on my "Leigh's India Pedal" reading! Seattle can't wait to be experimented on with curry! I would love to learn how to make it. I'll be your first student!

    I'm enjoying your writing. Well done! When does the book come out?

    I keep thinking about the elephant who stepped on your bike. LOL! But, not funny!

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  2. Oops...I guess it was a cow that stepped on your bike. Still...a great Far Side cartoon image. I'm getting my elephants & cows confused.

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