Entering the coastal waters off southwestern India from the open ocean, it took no time to register the shift from azure tropical isles to hazy muddy metropolis. As we entered within twenty miles of the mainland, the clear blue water turned a silted, muddy brown and a murky atmospheric blanket lay over the endless blue sky, turning the radiant sun into an obscure orange disk. Images of ghost ships emerged from the haze around us, visible only within a three-mile radius. I sighed a farewell to the open ocean as I took a gulp of carbon monoxide and we drove Atea into the haze. If it was this thick offshore, I feared the industrial minefield that lay ahead of us. We entered the busy channel that lead into Kochi harbour and already the assault had begun. We bobbed past gigantic tankers and cargo ships that came in and out of view by only a small margin of error, past dredgers churning up the thick mud and fishing boats chasing us down for a packet of cigarettes. Either by distraction or camouflage, we sideswiped Atea into a large red channel marker masked behind the reddish tinge in the air; we were certainly out of our element for such a tactical error to occur. We needed to change our internal gears quickly from the quiet peaceful isles of the Maldives to the energetic fervor of India – and fast. This was going to be an entirely different experience and I held apprehension and excitement in equal measure.
There are many countries that I’ve traveled to where I had little expectation or that which I held was benign and mild. India is no such country. Since my early twenties when my travel yearnings took me to the most far-flung places, I was wary of an extended trip to India. It was a country in which you had to train yourself like an Olympic athlete for an event: you had to sharpen your senses, dull your sensitivities, harden your gut and learn to blend in like a chameleon. I was my sharpest and strongest as a young woman and I knew I didn’t have the mental or emotional strength to take it on. Yet here we were, on a whim, sailing towards her shores with several sets of valid and invalid visas stamped in our passports. I was about to open my eyes to a country I’d long held a fear-driven reverence for.
I was immediately surprised after the hours spent trudging through the brown haze to see the city of Kochi emerge in front of us. It was dusk as we sailed into the harbour and the lights that hung from the trees illuminated the detail ashore, revealing a charm that was totally unexpected. Rather than the congestion of a featureless concrete city, the old colonial town unfolded itself with a lit promenade, a line of Chinese fishing nets in front of historical seafront buildings. Bridges crossed the waterways that ran into a network of canals and everything surrounding it was lush and green. People milled along the walkway and little ferryboats ran people between the scattered islands. My excitement boomed. What lay before us defied every preconception: Kochi was a beautiful port city and I couldn’t wait to get ashore to explore.
But first we had to navigate our way through the infamous Indian bureaucracy. Having called harbour control to advise them of our arrival, it was disconcerting when two police launches filled with stern-faced men raced up waving arms and demanding permits.
After an issue of incomprehensible instructions, extended periods of silence and long pauses between statements while trying as best we could to exude friendliness and confidence through the volley of questions and repeated reviews of our documentation, they finally backed away as a launch containing another boatful of officials arrived. I’ve never before been so pleased to see customs and immigration. We eagerly waved them onboard and made way for their hundredweight stack of paperwork. We spent the next two hours smiling, bobbing our heads and signing the multitude of required forms. By 8PM we all agreed that all remaining forms (we were still only half way through) could be completed the following day and we handed over our passports – a fundamental mistake – and bobbled our heads in agreement that we would meet first thing in the morning.
Thanks to cruisers already in Kochi, we’d been recommended a local rickshaw driver turned professional cruising consultant as our guide. At first light there was a knock on our hull and a man in a wooden canoe was there to deliver us ashore. It was a poetic introduction to India as we sat in the leaking dugout with a wizened old man in a mundu and watched him paddled us furiously against the current with bent back. As we pulled up to the jetty we were greeted by our hired strong-arm, Nasar, and a small fleet of police who refused us landing without a tourist card. Not only did we not have the requested permit, we couldn’t even hand over our passports as we’d unwisely surrendered them over to immigration the night before – a rookie mistake for any seasoned traveler. And so we sat trapped in our wayward raft in the building heat while Nasar – a man who stood in the middle of the boxing ring for us and we’d not even introduced ourselves to yet – and the head policeman verbally duked it out. The comedy of events was on its last string as our representative won the fight and we were guided literally ten paces across the street and into the immigration office, Police officer’s hand on one shoulder and our guide’s hand on the other.
The negligible sum we paid for Nasar’s support had already paid its weight. He then guided us through the labyrinth that is India’s bureaucratic system and got us through in due course. It was the start of a beautiful friendship. By day’s end we had the requisite stamps in place and moved Atea around to the only existing marina in all of Kerala: The Kochi International Marina off Bolgatty Palace Island Resort. There we were greeted by India’s small collection of cruisers – a fleet of four. While past history realized a more vibrant cruising scene, difficult bureaucracy and shifting cruising circuits draw in fewer visiting yachts. Not that the marina could have held more than a half dozen boats given only its outer berths draw more than two and a half meters; the rest of the twenty-odd berths sit on a large bank of mud. We nestled Atea’s keel in this sludge and we all settled in. This was to be our home base while we were in India and at first sight it was a welcome one.
The Kochi International Marina was built six years ago and sits alongside the Bolgatty Palace, one of the oldest Dutch palaces outside of Holland. It was converted into a heritage hotel after India gained independence from England and continues to hold its original air of elegance and aristocracy while providing a hub of modern day activity. While we were there we watched a continuous stream of bodies flow through the premises, come to celebrate engagements and weddings, participate in art exhibits and movie sets, attend conventions and presentations. It was fun to be privy to these events and periodically gatecrash the after-parties. It was at one of these events that were approached by scouts with a request to use Atea as a set for a movie. Flattered, we said yes. The following quote during their inspection will remain one of my favourite: “This is a nice boat, but we are looking for something with a little luxury.” With that one word – luxury – we were put right back in our place.
Another event that was held during our stay was the international art exhibition called Kochi-Muziris Biennale, an international art event held every two years in Kochi. For a week canvases were lay sprawled across the grounds and we watched beautiful images emerge. One in particular captivated me. It was an oil painting of the marina, a very dominant red rooster and Atea in profile. When I inquired about purchase – unsure where I might fix a monstrous red chook, let alone what I’d say to anyone interested as to why I bought a painting with a monstrous red chook – I was told all art was commissioned by the high court in Delhi and would be hung there on display. Pretty cool to know that Atea’s footprint would remain in India long after our departure.
Not only was the hotel a hub of activity, so was the waterway that it sat along. Tourist boats and fishing vessels of all make and design passed us throughout the day. We were warned of this and told we would quickly tire of the constant barrage of noise but I delighted in the exchange of smiles it brought. Kochi ranks first in the total number of domestic tourists visiting Kerala and this was obvious to us without even leaving the marina – boats full of curious onlookers would pass by in a continuous stream throughout the day. We would first hear the blare of loud Indian music, then a few dozen faces would pull into view, cameras attached, then blink, smile, click in or direction. I would send the kids running to the rail to wave enthusiastically and we’d invariably receive the same in return. Smiles begetting smiles – who wouldn’t choose it? My favourite times were when the boats of would-be Bollywood dancers would pass us, all hands dancing at full throttle, often the party already going hard at 8AM in the morning. The energy, festivity and playfulness of it were contagious, even if I was only into my first cup of the day. I also enjoyed the constant movement of fishing boats that passed by us, some with a single or pair of men in a traditional wooden dugout and others with an entire family floating on a small reed sphere. Sitting on the deck we were able to watch the drift of local life drift past us, and on occasion were able to pass on the odd toy or teddy to a raft with young child balanced in it as their parents worked hard to pull small fish from the water or crab from the mud.
As for the marina, it was only six years after its completion and it was already starting to rot at its frame. Many of the planks were broken or missing and the silted mud rendered ninety percent of the berths useless. What took up the slack for the lack of sailors was the prevalence of rats. On arrival we were warned to amass our defenses but in time we discovered our neighbourly ships cats were adequate security. A week after arrival we were asked to cat-sit while the owner flew off to South Africa. We took the job on eagerly. Not only did we want the cats as close to our defenses as possible, but it was also a reasonable job for an enthusiastic three and five year old to contribute to. Unfortunately, the arrangement didn’t turn out so well as both charges disappeared under our care. Not only had we lost the marina’s most successful ratters, but we spent the next month berthed directly next to the owner. Fortunately, he took the loss with grace and didn’t punish us for negligence.
By in by, we settled into routine. There was a beautiful pool at the hotel and we quickly adopted the daily ritual of a splash in the chlorine followed by a dash of rum down the pipes.The hotel staff soon recognized us as long-term guests and accepted us as temporary adoptees. One evening Ayla and I were socializing in the on-site girls dormitory – a series of bunk beds, a television and a communal closet – when we found ourselves locked in past curfew at the ripe hour of ten past nine. To get home, I had to scale a fence and then haul Ayla over the barrier. It won us novelty points and firmly seated the friendship. A few days following this, the young women took me shopping for local attire. It was fun to get swathed in silk and rolled in cotton, again delighting and entertaining the staff, and it was fun to be surrounded by the laughter and feel casually entwined in the culture.
The rickshaw drivers also became a part of our collective unit. By nature of staying in an exclusive resort, we couldn’t step out the door and grab local transport; they had to be called to us. In short time we found a few drivers that we connected with and they became a central part of our experience. Not only were we there to explore the city and surrounding areas, we also had a list of boat jobs to do. So, tucked into the back of a three-wheeled rickshaw, we got a good dose of back alleys and out of the way spots that are off most tourists radars. We became close to two drivers in particular: the first was our heavy-weight customs ally, Nasar, and the second was the delightful Binu – in personality on as opposite sides of the scale as you can get. Binu was relaxed and polite, hard working and punctual, and most importantly, not a liability on the road. Nasar was heated and temperamental, erratic and inclined towards road rage, but he was well meaning, had a big heart and included us open armed into his family. By nature of driver and vehicle safely, we tended to opt for one or the other depending on the task at hand. For local trips we chose Binu because he lived close by and for extended journeys we picked Binu because he would get us there safely. Out of loyalty, we chose Nasar. Nasar’s most common phrase was “it is no problem in my country,” which took us a while to understand he didn’t mean India in general but his neighbourhood specifically. We put him to the test a number of times and invariably he was correct – it was either cheaper, available or achievable in his country every single time. For all things that requited covert execution, he was our go-to guy.
So Nasar showed us the guts of Kerala and Binu showed us its beauty. With Nasar we were able to get our settees reupholstered, our carpets replaced, our engine serviced and our liquor re-provisioned. Two years ago the state cracked down on liquor consumption and shut down all bars outside of resorts and restricted the purchase of alcohol to five bottles of beer and one bottle of spirits a day. A reasonable quota if you are local, another thing if you are trying to stock up on a year’s supply in a few short weeks. At 5 and 1, it was going to take us a very long time to provision for the season. The Maldives was also a dry country and we didn’t want to spend the year on a dry boat, so we needed to find a solution. Thanks to Nasar, it was no problem in his country.
With Binu, we went further afield. He drove me regularly to Maria who taught me the ins and outs of south Indian cooking. He drove us out to the hill stations where we surrounded ourselves in tea plantations and panoramic vistas. He drove us to greet elephants in the forest and relax in the cooler temperatures of the countryside. He drove to the backwaters where we took an old punting boat through an intercostal network of waterways that extend 900 miles up the length of state. He drove us on multiple trips to the customs and immigration offices for visa extensions and together we established a regular route between the marina and local hospital for a series of blood tests and treatments for Ayla. Methodically, Nasar and Binu and their rickshaws wove themselves into the fiber of our life in Kochi.
And so through Binu and Nasar we were shown God’s Own Country, the state slogan for Kerala coined as a marketing ploy to expand tourism in the area. While the real origin of the phrase is recent and straightforward, when I asked on the street I got a range of responses from “it is because we have 100% literacy” and “Hindus, Christians and Mslims live here together in peace,” to “Kochi is one of the cleanest cities in India” and “it is because Kerala has had no natural disasters!” I found it quite fascinating to ask the question and find so many varied responses – none hitting the mark. All statements were factual enough, though, and provided an interesting collective summary of the region. For me, God’s Own Country applies to the natural beauty of the area, the diversity of the state and the warmth and vibrancy of its people. It is a region that defies all my expectations of India with its network of rivers and lagoons, highlands and lowlands, dense forests and backwaters and beaches. For me, its charm was in the physical and the constant assault on the senses: Our ears were filled with the pop of fireworks from the churches, the crackle of firecrackers from the temples and the chant echoing out from the mosques. Our eyes were filled with flutter of colourful saris, fruit piled in street side carts, the cast of the fishing nets on the water, and beautiful colonial Portuguese and Dutch architecture spread throughout the city. And of course, our mouths, filled with the spicy sweet taste of southwestern Indian cuisine. But top of my list are the people – warm and welcoming, energetic and engaging – forever putting a smile on my lips.
I am not sure what part me will miss India most: my eyes, my ears, my nose, my mouth. It fulfilled all those senses equally, and fully. While I cannot claim to know the breadth that India has on offer, I’ve seen a small section of the country and have been blown away by its beauty. Both John and I felt sad to come to the end of our time and sail away, neither of us feeling we’d gotten enough time in India. Our farewell, however, turned out to be an unexpectedly short one and less than twenty-four hours later we were back in India, sadder still, due to engine failure. Again, we had the pleasure of a lengthy clearance process but by then we were familiar with the faces and knew the ropes. We counted the days absored in Indian bureaucracy. Collectively, we’d spent nine out of forty-five days in the company of the Indian officials:
One day to submit and pay for the wrong visas
One day to submit and pay for the right visas
One day to collect the visas
One day to pay fees and clear in
One day to clear out
One day to submit and pay for a return visa
One day to submit and pay for a visa extension
One day with immigration at the marina, proving
we had the right to stay
One day to clear out again
While it was an undeniably lengthy process, everyone we worked with was extremely polite and professional. The quote that resonated throughout the process was “the moment you shout is the moment you loose,” and we felt this particularly valuable advice. Don’t loose your cool or you have just dug yourself a deep, deep hole. We’d spent six weeks with our keel in the mud and felt we’d spent enough time in the hole. After our unexpected two week extension, we and our engine were finally ready to say our goodbyes and set Atea free to the wind.
Following are a few of our specific events during our time in Kerala:
Annual Hindu Festival (25-12-2016): Four elephants were paraded through through town from four corners to the Hindu temple in Bolgatty Island. We happened to be at the start of one of these corners and we were included in the march. We spent several hours walking in the procession, followed by musicians and a long line of women carrying offerings, watching locals on the street doing offerings as we passed. One the backs of the elephants is a “deity out on a stroll,” for devotees to make prayers and prostrations to. Once at the temple, two to three dancers mount the elephants holding tinselled silk parasols and peacock feather fans, swaying to the rhythm of the accompanying orchestra. The elephants were decorated with gold-plated “caparisons” (head-dress), bells, necklaces, and the sad sight of chains around their ankles. We were the only non-Hindi, non-Indian attendees, and were warmly welcomed.
Kathakali is one of the major forms of classical Indian dance, developed as a Hindu performance in southwestern region of India. It is a “story play” distinguished by its elaborately colourful makeup, costumes and face masks. We were allowed to join the dancer in the attic of the hotel while he painted his face, a process that took about two hours, and layered his costume, which took about an hour. The dance itself is a story told through facial expression and hand gestures, with musicians sitting to the side to compliment the drama.
Kerala midlands and highlands consist of valleys and hills covered in tea, coffee and spice plantations and mountanous regions further east covered in thick jungle. We explored a little of the western Ghats and enjoyed the cooler climate and local chai:
Consisting of the undulating country east of the lowlands, the midlands lie in the central hills with valleys, punctuated here and there by isolated hills. This rich and fertile region bears the largest extent of agricultural crops. The lush valleys are sown with tea, coffee and spices. Extensive tea and cardamom plantation dominate in the higher elevations, while ginger, rubber, pepper, and turmeric flourish at the lower elevations. The cardamom takes its name from the Cardamom hills of Kerala.
The forest-clad highlands on the extreme east are a a range of forested mountains averaging 1000m in height, but reaching 2690m at Mt. Anamudi, which is the highest peak in the region.
Chinese fishing nets are fixed land installations that stand 10m high and hold out horizontal nets about 20m across. The system is sufficiently balanced that the weight of a man walking along the main beam is sufficient to cause the net to descend into the sea. The net is left for a short time before it is raised by pulling on ropes, pulling up a modest catch of fish and crustaceans.
Round reed fishing baskets are quite often seen with either a team of two or a young couple with their young children balanced inside, most often passing by the marina early morning and late afternoon. They often pulled up to the pontoon for a rest and a drink of water, or to rest in the shade and our short exchanges will remain a cherished part of our local exchange.