Boy what a hassle it is to get into India for American, Brits, and Australians. First we had to get a visa before we left home; then, we had to personally present ourselves to pick up our passport on the ship and obtain a landing card and a secondary card. Then the form was messed up and everyone on the ship had to redo it last night. Then we once again had to present ourselves this morning, turn in the revised form, and leave with the landing card. Then they checked the landing card three times before we got on the bus. Ridiculous.
The ride in was under rough skies. I woke to the sound of thunder. Fortunately, the rain had cleared by the time we got to the pier and stayed clear for our tour. Musicians using traditional instruments greeted us on the dock. They took us by bus to the tourist dock on this man-made island for the harbor boat ride. This land mass was created during the British era when a deeper seaport was needed. There is a toll to enter the island.
We are in the Indian state of Kerala (meaning coconut tree), one of 28 states in the country of India. Kerala is on the southwestern coast and is one of India’s smallest states. There is a higher percentage of Christians (21%), mostly Catholics, than in other parts of India. Kerala is a melting pot, with peoples of various faiths living in harmony. It is one of the more prosperous states in India and has the highest percentage of middle class families in India. Wages are higher in Kerala than in other parts of India. Kerala has a literacy rate of 97%. Education is free up to age 15. From age 3, children are taught Hindi, English, and the official state language.
Significantly, its population has more women than men, unique in India due to the selective death of females among some segments of the Indian population. The communist party is very strong is Kerala. A communist was elected to office in 1957 and communists have been in and out of office in the state since that time.
In the morning after we docked I had seen several boats I assumed were ferries headed in the direction we came. These were actually our touring boats. They were all a little different with “handmade” touches; all were rustic and worn. I felt bugs biting my legs. However, our tourist boat was certainly a step up from the public ferries I saw leaving from the dock over. Kochi, or Cochin to use the colonial name, has a natural harbor. There are 18 islands in this area. You look out to the Arabian Sea and the Western Ghats. As we rode around the harbor, we saw dolphins. Cochin has the distinction of having had the first container cranes in India. (We see them in all the major ports now. In Colombo, Sri Lanka they were right next to our balcony.)
We passed several spots where the fishing boats were anchored, icehouses, conveyor belt loading stations, and a market area. Each of the fishing boats has a name that indicates the religion of the owner. All are colorfully decorated. The highlight was the view of the Chinese fishing nests. It is outdated technology, but requires no mechanization or fuel (only manpower). They only work at high tide. It takes 5-6 men to raise and lower the nets. The large net is placed in the water for 3-5 minutes, raised, and the fish removed. They catch mullet, shrimp, and crab in the nets.
While we toured the harbor, our guide shared lots of information about India, particularly Kerala. One of his best stories concerned his own arranged marriage. Most marriages are still arranged; marriage is concerned more than the union of two people. It is the union of two families. Dowries are illegal in India, but still practiced. There are three methods of going about the arranged marriage. One, you give your CV to a marriage bureau and astrologist are consulted. Two, you can hire a professional marriage broker. Three, you can put an ad in the newspaper. On Sundays, there are 6 or 7 pages of ads. Our guide said some are quite funny. “Woman looking for a husband with clean habits.”
Our guide married at 32, quite late by Indian standards; the average age of marriage is 18 for girls and 21 for men. When he hit 30, his parents spent the next 2 years taking him to appointments every Sunday. If the family was generous, you have a 5-minute chat alone with the “candidate”.
He said sometimes you liked the girl and she liked you, but the astrology was not right so the match fell through. He said there are some love marriages, Valentines’ Day is celebrating, and dating does exist (you go to another city and hope your parents don’t find out). However, even in a love match, astrologers are still consulted.
Divorce rates are low in India because there is nowhere for the woman to go if she divorces. The divorce rate in Kerala is higher than in other parts for India because the women are educated, have jobs, and feel they have options.
After our touring boat ride, we docked at Fort Kochi (Cochin) to see this historical seaport, the first European colonial settlement in India. The Portuguese remained a stronghold here from 1503 to 1663. It was later occupied by the Dutch and still later the British. St. Frances Church was Catholic under the Portuguese, then Dutch Reformed, and later Anglican during the British occupancy.
Upon leaving the dock, we were immediately set upon by vendors. (We had actually seen a few at the tourist dock where we boarded.) They followed us down. We got a land view of the Chinese fishing nets and walked through the gauntlet of stalls to St. Francis Church. Fortunately, the vendors couldn’t follow us into the churchyard.
St. Francis Church has these wonderful cloth fans operated by manpower from outside. Inside were Portuguese and Dutch tombs (on different sides of the church) and even a plaque commemorating Queen Elizabeth II visit in 1997. It is also the site of the original tomb of Vasco da Gama.
Our last tour stop was at Greenix Village dedicated to preserving Kerala’s art and culture. Our tour groups saw a private performance of Kathakali theater, a Buddhist ritual. A full performance may begin at 6 pm and continue until 2 or 3 the following morning. We were given a demonstration on the various facial and eye expressions and also the language (done as sign language). The heavily made-up performers presented a segment of a full play. We saw two actors (in a full play there are 7-10 characters), two musicians, and a chanter. The muscle coordination of the face was extraordinary and the eye movements equally challenging. Students begin the study at age 8-10. It normally takes 15 years to learn the complex performance techniques. It is a traditional art form from the 18th century. Kathakali Theater reminded Boris and I of the Chinese Opera Performance we saw with Rocky in Beijing.
On the way back, I asked our guide about the local tok-toks. I had noted that all the tok-toks-or “poor man’s taxi” as he called it-are the same color. He told me that commercial vehicles had to have gold and black license plates. Licenses for private vehicles are black and white. The tok-toks had adopted the license color for the entire vehicle. This color combination is unique to the state of Kerala in India. (Black and gold are also the school colors of that famous Texas institution, Southwestern University.) Public buses are red with 25% of the seats reserved for ladies and 10% of the seats reserved for the elderly.
Our bus was stopped at the harbor entrance and a policeman entered to check everyone’s landing card. It was checked again when we boarded the ship. Come on…really?
Back on board, we have champagne chilling in an ice bucket in our room. The sun is setting just behind our ship so we will be able to enjoy the sunset from our terrace. Welcome to India, Natasha.