Monday, May 28, 2007

What's in a Name?

After freshening up, Daniel and I set off a for a day of sight-seeing in Kochi. We decided to go see the famous Paradesi Synagogue. However, on the way, Daniel wanted to check out the Mattancherry Palace, built in 1555 by the Portuguese as gift to the local raja, and then renovated by the Dutch in 1663. I was not all that keen on stopping for this, but the Lonely Planet promised that is had murals with ancient Indian pornography, so I agreed to go. We had to join a short queue to enter. In front of us in the queue was a middle family who spoke with strong American accents, dressed like Californians, but were clearly of Indian heritage. The father, who might have been close to 50, was making fun of the local Indians who were running the place, especially for their ban on photography. It was kind of a curious scene. I got the impression of a man fully educated in America who now looked down on these ‘backward’ folks from the mother country. I couldn’t really blame him either. I failed to see the harm in allowing people to engage in non-flash photography. “Just don’t let them know that you have a photographic memory” I said to him, and he laughed, “…or that’ll have to be switched off too.” As it turned out, the pornographic murals did not live up to expectations.

The next stop was the famous Paradesi Synagogue. It was built in 1568, apparently making it the oldest synagogue amongst the old British Commonwealth. It was partially destroyed in 1662 by the anti-Semitic Portuguese occupiers, and in what I feel is something of a common theme in Jewish history, was rebuilt two years later under the patronage of the far more tolerant Dutch who had seen off the Portuguese to become the reigning power. The Synagogue located in an area of Kochi officially called Jew Town, on a long street called Synagogue Lane. There is evidence all over Jew Town of a once thriving community, from the Jewish names of the streets to the Jewish emblems found on the buildings.

There are three synagogues still standing in Kochi, but the Paradesi Synagogue is last quasi-functioning one. That is to say they have services there on Shabbat and Yomtovim, with Jewish tourists helping to make up the minyan together with the dwindling local population. There are only a few Jewish families left now, as most Cochin Jews have either immigrated to Israel, or migrated to a larger Indian city such as Mumbai. During the week, the Synagogue functions as a kind of museum. In the town of Kochi, every local knows where this synagogue is – it’s arguably the town’s greatest tourist attraction – it’s clearly what Richard Court wished “The Bell Tower” to have been for Perth.

A strict dress code is enforced by the non-Jewish Indians to whom the tourists pay their money (only a token sum by western standards) in order to enter. However, they seem to do this by their own customs rather than Jewish customs. For example, all entrants must have their legs fully covered, but men are not even requested to have their heads covered. Daniel was initially not permitted to enter, as he happened to be wearing ¾ pants on what was a stiflingly hot and humid day. He returned minutes later having purchased a cheap pair of cotton trousers from a nearby merchant. Inside the Synagogue, we met a tourist from Israel who had taken the opportunity to lay tefillin that he had brought with him. When he spoke English, I detected a faint South African accent, and indeed he had been born in South Africa. Daniel was once again impressed by my ability to distinguish between different accents which all sounded the same to him. I in turn found it rather curious how a guy who spoke four languages incomparably better than any second language I had was nonetheless continually impressed by my mundane ability to derive the geographic origins of various English language speakers from their accents.

Along with the actual Synagogue, tourists also enter an adjoining room in the building that has a number of pieces of artwork and accompanying information plaques documenting the history of the Jews of Cochin. Underneath one of the paintings was a plaque stating something like: The First Jews to Arrive in Kerala were spice traders who came from Palestine during the time of King Solomon’s temple. “What the? Does that say Palestine!” It was the type of historical linguistic revisionism that I was determined not to put up with. I warned Daniel (much to his amusement) that up to that point he had only seen the laid back Mahatma Gandhi side of my personality, and now he was about to witness me as the ugly tourist on the warpath. I looked around to find someone who might be responsible for this, to whom I was going to indignantly explain that the term Palestine had not even been invented at the time referred to, and was only invented by the Romans in order to offend the Jewish population. Unfortunately, it was about 2pm, which was closing time for the siesta, and the people in charge disappear circa 1.59pm. I found a mature aged Jewish man who I had noticed earlier serving as a guide for a group of tourists. He was trying to get home on foot, while conducting a conversation on his mobile phone. I somewhat pitifully pursued the elderly gentleman down the street, politely putting forward my argument and asking him to take up my complaint with whoever might have the power to change the plaque. While he seemed to have understood my argument, to the point that he was interested, he was rather defeatist about the whole matter. I got the strong impression from him that he would not be able (nor willing) to get them (whoever “them” was) to change anything.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

A Very Kochi Christmas

Kochi (Cochin) consists of a mainland area called Ernakulum, a few islands, and a peninsula section, containing the areas of Fort Cochin and Mattancherry. Ernakulum is essentially a commercial and industrial centre. All the cultural and historical sites of interest are on the peninsula. Unfortunately, our bus terminated in Ernakulum. To get to the peninsula you need to take either a rickshaw over the bridge, or a ferry. Since we didn’t know exactly where we were in Ernakulum, and couldn’t see any water, auto-rickshaw was the clear choice.

Once off the bus, while Sandra, Aaron and I were thinking about finding transportation to the peninsula, Daniel adamantly expressed that he wanted to first find a place to stay in Ernakulum, and then commute to the peninsula, because he had it in his head that the peninsula was going to be crazily expensive, given that it was the peak Christmas season. This was the first I had heard of this idea, and neither I nor Sandra and Aaron were at all keen on this plan. The three of us had always just assumed that we were going to find accommodation on the peninsula. Ernakulum, at least the part where we had been dropped off, was totally unattractive; plus everything I had read said the peninsula was the place to stay. It was one thing for Sandra and Aaron to make their own decision independently of Daniel, but for me it was a different story. I wasn’t willing to split from him so easily. I tried to reason with him. Firstly, there was no certainty that accommodation on the peninsula would be any more expensive. Secondly, “if everything was about saving money, then I wouldn’t have travelled at all; I would have just stayed home and worked.” Aaron joined in with me on that one. Finally, if money was a problem, I was happy to cover his accommodation costs. However, while Daniel might have been trying to save money for the rest of his lengthy around-the-world trip, he had far too much pride for that, and immediately dismissed that offer. Aaron and Sandra now had a rickshaw flagged down and were going to head to the peninsula. They were waiting for an answer from me. There was no time left, so I played the ultimatum card. “This is really silly for it to come down to this…but we either go [to Fort Cochin] or I’m very sorry to have to say this, but I’m going to have to go with them…” It wasn’t easy for me to say that, and I hoped he could see that from the pained look on my face. Daniel rolled his eyes upward and held out his palms as if to say “ok, you win.” I was immensely relieved. Daniel had become a good friend, and it would have left a sour feeling to the rest of my trip if I had split from him like that. It also was a milestone in my life, being the first time in my life that an Israeli had ever given in to me in such an argument.

With our large backpacks, it wasn’t possible for the four of us to pile into a single rickshaw. So Daniel and I took a second rickshaw and arranged to meet Aaron and Sandra at the restaurant in the Elite Hotel, which Lonely Planet listed as a good place to tap into the traveller network. Plus, we were badly in need of a decent breakfast. Their rickshaw must have been much faster than ours, or maybe their driver took a more direct route, because by the time we got there, they were sitting down in the restaurant having already managed to reserve a room there. Daniel inquired about a room, but it seems that Aaron and Sandra must have gotten the last free room. Daniel joined Aaron and Sandra at the table, minding our luggage, while I set off to quickly find accommodation in a nearby establishment. I came across an Indian looking guy with very dark skin hanging out in front of the restaurant. He looked to be in his 20s, and he was with two other guys, both of the other guys being Caucasian. I was startled when he started speaking with a broad Australian accent. In Australia, I would not think there to be anything unusual to come across of a Chinese, African, or Indian etc looking person who speaks with a full-on Aussie accent, such is the diversity of the modern Australian population; but in India…well, it is just much more unexpected. I guess even some Aussies of Indian heritage go backpacking around India!

I asked if he knew any nearby places that might have vacancies. He pointed to a guesthouse less than 100m down the street where he believed I could get a room. “It’s nothing flash, but it’s awright, you know…” he said with typical Aussie expression. “Thanks mate, I’ll give it a go.”

As soon as I stepped inside the guesthouse I could see there were Christmas decorations everywhere. The next thing I noticed was a portrait of Jesus Christ sitting on the reception desk. I remember thinking to myself “typical European portrait of Jesus – the real Jesus would have looked much more Semitic than that!” The desk was unattended, so I rang the bell. An Indian man who might have been in his mid-sixties or older came down the stairs. “Hello!” he said in a deep voice. He immediately exuded a certain avuncular quality, sort of like Kamal does in those commercials for Dilmah Tea. I asked him about a room. They only had two left, and he offered to show me them both. The rates were cheap, given that it was the peak season, although it must be said that the rooms were very meagre, and there were mosquitoes everywhere. I would have chosen a place a little more upmarket, but since Daniel agreed to stay on the Peninsula, I was happy to compromise on this point and stay in a budget place. Plus, I had a good feeling about this guy that I was dealing with – he seemed very trustworthy, a feeling I had rarely had with accommodation managers in India, at least up to this point. However, I couldn’t stay in a room with that many mosquitos, especially as there were no mosquito nets, only a ceiling fan for protection. I asked if they had insecticide spray to kill the mosquitos and once he physically confirmed that they did, I agreed to take the slightly better of the two available rooms.

We went back to the desk so I could pay for the first night and complete the paperwork. I asked him if he had the decorations up all year, or just at Christmas. He answered that it was just for the Christmas season. I knew that already, but I wanted a safe and natural lead in question, as I had momentarily forgotten that asking people about their religion is no big deal for the Indians, whereas it is often considered a more private matter in the West. “And what about this?” I asked, motioning to the portrait of Jesus, “is this always here, or is that just for Christmas also?” No, that was an all-year round thing he informed me. I still felt the need to qualify my question and added “Oh…I don’t mind, I was just curious. So, you are Christian?” He answered affirmatively. And then he asked me “You are Jewish?” I answered that I was, but was confused and curious about how he had guessed this, although for some stupid and unknown reason I neglected to ask him about how he detected my Mosaic heritage. He commented that there had been a great Jewish community in Kochi previously. I understood him to have meant this statement in terms of in his own living memory, and not just in historical memory.

With a room reserved, I went back to the Elite Hotel to join the others for breakfast. Aaron and Sandra were just finishing their breakfast, and not long after this, they checked into their room and went upstairs for a shower. Daniel and I were at the table, and somehow some girl from France asked if she could sit at our table, as there were no other free tables. The restaurant was filled beyond capacity, and the noise levels made dialogue a bit trying. I think she told me that she “studied sculpture at St. Martins College.” Actually, not really, I can’t really remember, but it was something like that. She looked Middle Eastern, and I remember wondering if she was Jewish or Arab. Strange, isn’t it? She was in her early 30s I think, and would have been reasonably attractive if she hadn’t been so anorexic looking. I also wondered if she looked like that before she came to India, or only after.

There was a young family at the table next to us, and I noticed a very familiar accent. Two parents about 40, with a couple of toddlers. I asked them where in Australia they were from and they said Perth. “Me too. Where in Perth?” “Inglewood.” Wow! The neighbouring suburb from where I live, maybe five minutes by bicycle. I tried to convey to Daniel what an amazing coincidence this was, but in the typical Israeli way, he was not especially impressed. The husband, who had the appearance and speech of someone highly educated told me that they had just come from a place further south, near the southern tip of India, called Varkala. What was that like? “It’s beautiful, it’s not really like India though - it’s very relaxing – you can just unwind on the beach. It’s great if you need to just have a break from it all for a few days.” I made a strong mental note that this is where we should go next, after Kochi. In retrospect, it was a pivotal moment, like when the Leonardo DiCaprio character hears about the existence of that island in the film (or novel) The Beach. Ok, that’s almost certainly a gross exaggeration, but hopefully you get the idea.

After our hearty breakfast Daniel and I exited the restaurant and walked down the road toward the place where I had just booked accommodation for us. Kochi was full of Christmas decorations.
“Man, I left Australia to get away from all this Christmas stuff!” I joked, albeit in a non-humorous way. “I didn’t realise they were going to have all of this here too.”
“What do you mean? It looks quite nice.”
“That’s because you’re from Israel, you haven’t had to be irritated with this stuff all your life.” I of course wasn’t referring to the religious celebration of Christmas, but the commercialised paraphernalia that goes along with it. In Australia, this means the annoying music that saturates broadcast media and also public and commercial spaces (Jingle Bells isn’t exactly Mozart!), the sappy advertisements appealing to Christmas spirit to get people to consume more crap which is going to be half a few days after Christmas…I could go on, but I don’t want to get too much into a rant. In Israel, Christmas is limited to being a religious celebration by the minority Christian population. There are no signs of the commercialisation that exists in Australia or the U.S.A. etc. I guess this is the opposite of Japan, where Christmas has zero religious aspect, and is purely a commercial fascination. I recall when I was teaching in Japan that the school asked me to teach the students about Christmas. “But I’m not Christian!” I tried to explain, but they were unconcerned by this, replying “None of us are Christian either…but we LIKE Christmas! Please teach students about Christmas in Australia.” When the Christmas songs CD got too annoying, I swapped it for a Ben Folds Five CD and told them it was the new super-cool Christmas music they play in Australia. I’m not sure if the staff truly believed me, but since none of them could understand the Ben Folds’ lyrics, what were they going to do? Good times!

I told Daniel how I thought we should head to Varkala after Kochi, and he was happy with that suggestion. I would leave it for him to work out how we were going to get there. When it came to plotting transportation routes, he rivalled if not surpassed any other traveller I ever met. Whenever Daniel would explain a route that he had planned, it was like it was something devised by a navigator from Homer’s Odyssey. But for now, it was time to set off for us to set off and check out some of the culturally historical sites of the Kochi peninsula.