Sunday 4 February 2007

Kochi again

I shared a table with an English photographer at breakfast today (in my favourite cafe, Kashi Art Cafe). He turned out to be a Rough Guide photographer and knew Nick (the RG writer I met on the plane) well. He's travelling with three cameras and an extremely heavy tripod! Since he carries these firmly with him all the time, his clothes have been relegated to a lightweight bag and he admits travelling is not easy. (He was horrified to hear that I was travelling with an unprotected lens since my filter broke way back near the start of my trip. I'm just hoping the lens is not scratched.) I asked why he carried such a heavy tripod and he said that it was essential for street scenes: he sets up the camera focussed on a particular spot in the street and then, using remote control, clicks when subjects put their foot in a particular spot - that way the artificiality caused by standing behind a large camera is avoided and he says he gets completely natural photos.

I had started the conversation by suggesting that Rough Guide should focus a bit more on the older tourists, as I had noticed that on this trip there are far more people in their fifties and sixties than when I was travelling two years ago. He agreed and confirmed that there were far fewer young backpackers than there used to be and that the tourist industry seemed to be adjusting to a slightly more comfortably off market - ie by putting their prices up! We both wondered where the backpackers are going these days.

He too said he was saddened by the impact of tourism on Kochi, which he has known for some years, and he confirmed that Kovalam, which I had decided to give a miss, despite my friend Sally having recommended it, had been spoilt by the high-rise hotels on the seafront catering for package tours. Indeed, he said, he reckoned that the whole of Asia had changed in remarkably few years, with only Laos and Burma not sucked into tacky tourism. (He was also impatient with European girls who complained about locals ogling - when they lay on beaches in bikinis, often yards away from a mosque.) It is strange seeing so many westerners here after their relative absence in Tamil Nadu. I wish I was the only tourist... ...

My photographer friend reckoned that the fun of travelling like this would soon be over, though he didn't know how he would cope with a job permanently in England, as he feels more and more alienated by the views of his friends (on issues such as Blair, Iraq, terrorism etc) and more respect for the values of most Indians, in particular their friendliness, tolerance, loyalty and family values. Sounded a bit like my Welshman yesterday.

My tourist itinerary for the day was to see the old synagogue and a palace with sevententh century frescoes.

Kochi has had a Jewish quarter ('jewtown') for centuries: the Jews have coexisted with all the other nationalities and religions (helped by some astute gifts and favours to local rulers) right up until their relatively recent exodus after the establishment of the state of Israel. There are now only a handful of ageing Jews here.

What they have left behind is an absolute gem of a synagogue. Outside it is charming in a low-key way, but inside is even more delightful (no photos of course). Built in the 17th century, the overall impression is of light and grace. There are large windows, a whitewashed ceiling with elegant decoration in the middle, and everywhere chandeliers (19th century Belgian), and glass balls. There are gilt columns holding up the women's gallery, gold on the preacher's pulpit and, the crowning glory, a floor of exquisite blue and white tiles from China. I could have done without the stifling crowds, here and in the palace. Not only were there a lot of tourist groups of my age, moving around in slow waves, but an army of uniformed convent children, being taken around at 'speed, speed' by their nuns.

It is exceptionally hot today and it was after noon by the time I reached Matancherry Palace, but I'm glad I perservered. It's called the Dutch palace, but was actually built by the Portuguese in the 16th century as a present for the local ruler and later added to by the Dutch. Inside there were dark, beautifully carved teak ceilings - very like the jackwood interior of the palace I saw near Trivandrum, and some good quality artefacts displayed. But the real treasure were the frescoes: the wals were lined with beautiful scenes from the Ramayana - the well-known fables of the gods which I am beginning to grasp. I fell in with an Indian who was explaining the stylised conventions to his Italian friend, and we agreed that one could make some comparisons with fifteenth century Italy (he is a fan of Lippo Lippi!), particularly in the demons, with their symbolic long fangs. They were as good as, but very different to, the frescoes I had seen in Rajasthan.

I had a jolly rickshaw ride back, as the driver had been married nine months ago, was expecting his first child any day now and was clearly very excited, giving me a blow by blow account of his wife's health, the baby kicking hard (glad to say he doesn't care if it is a boy or girl so long as it is healthy). He said he would have to work overtime next week, to pay for the cost of the hospital. They are using a private clinic, he said, as the government one was no good.

I have now succumbed to the heat, and after another shower, am sitting under a fan in an internet cafe (good computer, sticky keyboard). Soon I must go back to the travel agents to have yet another go to co-hire a car to Munnar tomorrow. The bus trip is apparently NOT to be recommended to the faint-hearted.

Several hours later
I have a car coming at 6.30 tomorrow morning. I have failed to find someone to share it, but actually I'm quite relieved that the absolutely gormless young English couple in the travel agents at the same time as me were still dithering as I don't think I could have handled a day with them - they have no idea at al what to do or see here. I can't understand spending money going abroad without having some idea what to expect. The car will cost 1900 rupees (about 23 pounds).

Then I went off for my final walk in Kochin. I went to look at the Church of St Francis, the first church to be built in India, parts dating back to the 16th century, and was disappointed to find it closed, possibly for reparations. Next to it was a large open space on which boys were playing several games of cricket and football (in this heat!).

I headed for the shore to capture the last hour of sunshine, to find that there is a promenade of a kilometre or so which was completely packed with people, happily promenading up and down. Kochin takes Sunday as the day of rest seriously: most of the shops are closed, so the morning's rickshaw drives passed through ghostly empty streets. And here they all are, whole families, men selling icecreams, balloons and whirly toys - and even a film crew filming a scene (a bollywood?) surrounded, inches away, by an audience of several hundred. All very gay.

I kept bumping into the same man, following the same route, and taking the same photos, so we got talking. He comes from Switzerland and is here to order a boat, which he will then ship back to Europe in a container! He used to be a photographer who specialised at one time on food photography and later on aerial photography.

I finished my walk by the fishing nets again. The stalls were now full of fish and doing good trade, though I didnt see any fish auctions, as I had early in the morning. I was taking photos of the fish and a young man attached himself to me and told me what the fish were called. I have of course already forgotten most of their names, but I do remember there were snappers, shark and one called a helicopter, because it looks like one. Anyhow I hope to put up some pictures.

Supper consisted of four glasses of pineapple juice and now a bottle of water!

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