Thursday, June 21, 2007

Fear, Loathing, and Boredom in Kochi.

After seeing the key historical attractions of Kochi, we had worked up quite an appetite. We set off on a walk to find a restaurant to eat a late lunch. It was very hot and humid, and on the way we stopped to buy bottle water. Back in Australia, a friend who had been to India advised me that it was important to check the seal on bottled water as unscrupulous types sometimes try to resell tap water as bottled water. Therefore, while in India, I always elected to buy bottled water with the clear plastic foil seal around the bottle lid. For some reason, hardly any of the shops in Kochi seemed to sell the brands of bottled water with this extra plastic seal.

After stopping at several roadside stores, with none of them having the desired type of bottle seal, we were forced to buy bottled water without this seal. Daniel tried to assure me that it was ok, and was explaining that if certain plastic bits on the bottle lid matched up with some other plastic things on the bottle, then that meant the bottle was safe. I had no idea what he meant, and still don’t, but I knew I needed to drink, so I reluctantly bought a bottle of water with a ‘suspect’ seal.

Just as we were walking away from the store, Daniel noticed they had some lemons hanging down in a net, and purchased a couple of small lemons.
“What’s that for?” I asked
“You’ll see.” He replied.
There we were, on the side of a lane under the great heat of the sun, and Daniel was squatting down leaning over a ledge that he was using as a bench, and with what looked like a switch-blade, he started cutting up the lemons into wedges, and then squeezing them into his bottle.
“Mah zeh?” I asked.
“What does it look like?” Daniel replied sarcastically?
“This is hardly the time nor the place to open up a lemonade factory! Besides, what are you doing carrying around that knife?”
He said something to the effect that it was for personal safety.
“Do you think it’s really necessary? It seems pretty safe here.”
“You forget, I’m going to South America later.”
“Well, you be careful that you don’t get yourself killed with that thing.”

And just at that moment, he cut himself. In fairness, he most likely cut himself because I had been distracting him with conversation while he had been carving up his lemons. It was not a serious cut thankfully, and I couldn’t help smiling at the irony.

We eventually found a nice restaurant to have our late lunch. We were sitting in the alfresco and I noticed that the mosquitos were already out in force, despite it still being the mid afternoon. Some Israeli travellers there at one of the other tables were putting on mosquito repellent. Now, as I think I have told you in a previous journal entry, I am genetically predisposed to have mosquitos love biting me. I get it from my mother. In fact, if I am not wearing repellent and in a room with other people, my presence can actually stop them from being bitten. I am as a sacrificial anode if you will allow the analogy.

Up until this point in my trip, I had managed to avoid the worst mosquito environments my staying close to the coast, and away from swamps etc. But now I started to wonder: if the mosquitos in Kochi are already this bad in the mid afternoon, what are they going to be like in the evening?? Even though I was on the Larium (mefloquine) that would hopefully protect me from contracting malaria, the prospect of being bitten all over my body by a swarm of tropical mosquitos was to me still somewhat frightening. An American traveller seated at the table next to us (I’ve forgotten his name, I think it might have been Richard), who was about 40 years of age, informed us that the reason the mosquitos were so bad in Kochi was because many the surrounding rivers and tributaries were so clogged with garbage, which in turn created stagnant waters, optimal for mosquito breeding. Another classic case of the Indians not caring for their environment.

After finishing lunch, we went with Richard down to the foreshore on the tip of Fort Cochin to watch the fishermen pull up their cantilevered fishing nets. There were some tables and chairs for people to sit at, being serviced by a number of food stalls. One of them was selling ice cream, and Daniel and Richard each bought an ice-cream. There was also a guy with a juice stall. I was wary of these juice guys, as I had read in Lonely Planet that they often water down their juices with non-bottled water (I know I’m starting to sound neurotic here, but this is India, and if you want to give yourself the best chance of staying healthy, you need to be a cautious about what you consume. Although, one should also be cautious about not being too cautious, as the stress of being overly cautious can also make you sick. You need to find a good balance between caution and not getting to stressed out.

There were a stack of oranges at the juice stall, and they were the type with the skin that one could easily peel by hand. I approached the juice guy and asked how much to buy an orange. He didn’t reply, and I figured it was probably a language problem. I put down a 5R coin on his table, an amount that I thought was at least a fair price if not more than a fair price for an orange in India (given that I had bought a whole bunch of bananas from a street stall back in Colaba for only 10Rs). Thinking there might be a language problem, I non-verbally indicated that I wanted an orange. To my utter surprise, he picked up the coin and angrily threw it away, with the coin landing somewhere on the beach sand. He shouted something aggressively, which I gathered was a diatribe about him being a juice seller, not a fruit seller!. “That’s just unnecessary!” was the only verbal response I had to his aggression. It was the first instance I had in India of encountering such psychotic behaviour. I went over to Daniel and Richard who were sitting at an outdoor table eating their ice cream. “Did you see what that guy just did? What’s his problem?” They were engaged in some conversation, with Richard, who was something of an intellectual, explaining to Daniel about the apathy and ignorance of his fellow Americans concerning foreign politics, or something like that. They were fairly disinterested in the escalating hostilities between myself and the local juice peddler.
“What do you expect? He’s selling juice, he’s not selling oranges…”offered Daniel
“What, you’re taking his side? The guy’s psychotic.”
“I’m not taking his side, I’m just saying…”
“Just let it go.” Richard advised me, saying that it was not worth going to war for. They continued with their conversation as if nothing had happened, while I looked over at the juice guy and we exchanged menacing glances.

It was now late afternoon, and Daniel and I said goodbye to Richard and headed back to the hotel. On the way back to the hotel we went through a grass park. A small boxing ring was set up in the park. A crowd was gradually starting to build up around the ring. I have always been attracted to combat sports, and the prospect of seeing some was worth hanging around for. A referee had now entered the ring, and it was clear that the contest was imminent. As neither the boxing ring nor ourselves were elevated off the ground, it was difficult to see what was going on in the ring. I was immensely disappointed to discover that the boxing competitors were only boys. They may have been wearing head protectors, but there is something that still bothers me about watching children in combat sports. Even when I have attended judo tournaments as a competitor, I always found it uncomfortable to see the children’s divisions. Martial arts competitions should only be between consenting adults. I expressed my displeasure to Daniel and he either agreed with my sentiments, or had not been overly interested in the first place. Either way, we departed the scene by the end of the first round.

That evening Daniel dragged me to a kathakali play, which is apparently a specialty of the region. We had a difficult time finding the venue. While we were looking for it, we met a couple of Canadian girls. I thought they were quite cute, although possibly a little young. I very soon discovered that they were looking for the same venue we were. I talked with them as the four of us together found the theatre. When we got there, it was clear that the tickets were clearly for the tourists, even though they were not expensive in western terms.

The kathakali play turned out to be less of a play, and more of a folk dance performance, a very long folk dance performance. At any rate, I must confess to have found it incredibly boring. Having spent many a vacation in Bali (with its Hindu culture) as a young child, seeing this type of performances was not a novel experience for me, as it might have been for Daniel and the Canadian girls. Furthermore, it was extremely hot and humid inside the crowded non-air conditioned venue. After a while, when it became obvious there would be virtually no dialogue in this show, I subtly informed Daniel that I couldn’t take much more of it. The only reason I had lasted that long was that I was hoping to go out somewhere afterwards with the Canadian girls. However, it got to a point when even that was not enough of a motivator.

For Daniel’s part, as I suspect was the case with much of the audience, he was trying to enjoy and be interested in the play, mostly out of cognitive dissonance. As human beings, once we commit to something, we don’t like to then take on an attitude that it was a mistake to have made that commitment. Once people buy a ticket and attend a show, they normally don’t like to immediately concede that the show was a poor choice. Going to the movie cinema is something of an exception, because it is a more common thing to do, and people no longer feel duped if they attend a film they don’t like. Indeed, they can sometimes take pleasure in giving their own personal harsh critique. However, the more special some art form is made out to be, and the more it is billed as being high culture, then more likely will people suffer from cognitive dissonance or persevere with the attitude that the art form is interesting or enjoyable.

Daniel finally conceded to my desire to leave. I suspect he was actually deep down pretty happy to leave himself, even though he portrayed his decision to leave as concession to my suffering. I said to the Canadian girls, “Sorry ladies, but I prefer a my plays to have at least a little more dialogue than this.” They smiled, as if to say ‘I know what you mean!’ But unfortunately, they didn’t join Daniel and I as we stood up and walked out. Thankfully, We were near the back of the theatre anyway, so it didn’t make a scene.