Vasco de Gama Exhumed

After a sleepless 36 hours I am now in Kerala India. Fort Kochi to be more precise. It’s a little touristy for my tastes, but interesting nonetheless. I flew out of Paris Wednesday morning with a four-hour stopover in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

In the cursory glance I had given my ticket way back when I got it I for some reason had read Delhi rather than Dubai, so it was kind of exciting to realize I was landing in Africa. The layover was my only time in Africa, which is too bad, but I guess I have to leave some things for the future. The flight crossed over the Alps, which were spectacularly large, even from thirty thousand feet; I now have a strong desire to get back to Switzerland and Austria. Unfortunately I crossed Saudi Arabia at night so I wasn’t able to see anything, but judging from the photos around the airport, Dubai seems like Los Angeles twenty years in the future.

I have to say if you ever fly in this region, look into Emirates Airlines, it’s the best experience I’ve had flying. I mean how many times have you gotten a menu while on an airplane, especially one that boasts gravlax and cheesecake?

I landed in Cochin after about sixteen hours of traveling and managed to get through immigration and customs without too much trouble. The Cochin airport is quite a ways from Fort Kochi so I had a rather long taxi ride into town, which I was sort of dreading given what I’ve read about Indian cab drivers (actually Indian drivers in general). However I found the experience an enjoyable, though mysterious, one. Maybe I’m a little crazier than most Americans but the driving didn’t bother me. I mean sure, Indian drivers think nothing of passing an autorickshaw with oncoming buses in the opposite lane, but it makes sense when you watch them do it. Nobody is going much over 70km (45 mph) so you have more time than you think you do. Anyway it’s not that scary, though after driving around New York with Jimmy I realized that, so long as you can fully inhabit your automobile, to the point that it truly is an extension of yourself, anything is possible when driving. What is kind of scary is that Indian automobiles have no seat belts.

What is confusing about India’s highways is the Indian drivers use of the horn, which is constant enough to emerge as an almost linguistic device. I could tell that the horns constitute a language of sorts, but I couldn’t for the life of me understand more than a few syllables, so to speak.

I directed the cabbie to a hotel which I picked at random out of the Lonely Planet Guide to India and sprung for an air-con double-bed room. It sounds a little crazy, but after that tiny apartment in France, having some space and huge bed was worth the extra 400 rupees.

I spent the afternoon in a sort of daze from lack of sleep, though I did take a walk along the waterfront in the evening, just as it was starting to drizzle a little bit, munching on roasted nuts and trying to understand the Chinese fishing nets, which seem impossibly complicated. Apparently they are some sort of cantilevered device which require four or five people to operate.

About a block from my hotel there is little park/public square that spills across the street and out onto the waterfront walkway, with street vendors and a fish market displaying some rather massive fish that I didn’t recognize (though the fish make a strong testament to the feats of the Chinese fishing nets). I didn’t partake in it last night, but you can buy a fish at one end of the market and then take it down to the other end and they will cook it up for you.

The side of the park opposite the waterfront is lined with the most massive trees I’ve ever seen. The canopy of the trees is at least 40 meters up and stretches almost an entire block. The colossal trunks must be 8 meters in diameter and are covered in a mixture of moss and a fern-like plant — a leafy plant, but the leaves grow in the structure of a fern frond — that extend from the ground to about three quarters of the way into the branches and give the trees the appearance of a shaggy jungle beard.

After walking around for an hour or so I stopped into a little restaurant with a large hidden terrace/garden in the back where I had some passable vegetable curry, the local variation of rice and a wonderful bread that resembled an over-sized friend egg, but tasted delicious.

The whole time I was out and about memories of the time I spent traveling around Mexico when I was younger kept flooding back to me, similar smells and sounds rise up out of darkened doorways and muddy alleys, run-down abandoned and overgrown buildings lie right next to well kept, though equally old and moss-covered estates.

There is also the characteristic lack of a middle class that puts tarp-covered shanty towns just over the back fence from massive almost hacienda-style mansions.

The similarities with Mexico come from the presence of the Portuguese in this area a few hundred years ago. Many of the older buildings are of a distinctly Iberian-style — adobe-colored, arches and heavy tile roofs abound, plenty of moss covered walls.

There is graveyard just down the road with a tombstone that bears the name Vasco de Gama, who died and was buried here for fourteen years before being moved to Lisbon (yet more Europeans digging up and moving the dead).

The Dutch appear to have had an influence around here as well, there is Dutch graveyard somewhere around here and obviously the presence of the Chinese fishing nets seems to indicate an oriental influence, which, according to my guidebook, dates from the Kublai Khan era.

After sleeping about fifteen hours I got up around noon and went to Addy’s restaurant which is a converted Dutch house dating from around the 1770s. I had an amazing dish called fish chootuporichuthu (try saying that five times fast), which was tuna (I think) steamed in a banana leaf with some sort of great spice mixture and served with what passes for an acknowledgement of Dutch heritage — Belgium Fries.

I spent the next three hours wandering around in the heat of day like a true gringo (not sure what the Indian equivalent of gringo would be) watching all the locals stare at me from their shaded doorways. I ended up at the Dutch cemetery, which is not open to the public, but has some amazing decaying tombs and sepulchers. I stood at the gate for a while wondering which one might be Vasco de Gama’s former resting place and why it is that I keep ending up around the dead.

Afterward I walked clear across town to the market area and bought some fruit and roasted peanuts for breakfast tomorrow. I have decided to skip the backwater tour and keep moving north toward Bangalore. Tomorrow I plan to catch the 2 pm express train the Bangalore, which is a 14 hour journey.


Please leave a reply:

All comments are moderated, so you won’t see it right away. And please remember Kurt Vonnegut's rule: “god damn it, you’ve got to be kind.” You can use Markdown or HTML to format your comments. The allowed tags are <b>, <i>, <em>, <strong>, <a>. To create a new paragraph hit return twice.