Monday, August 13, 2012


When we arrived in Alleppey we went to the station and waited for the Ernakulam train which was scheduled to leave at around 8:00 pm but turned out to be 90 minutes late. During our wait we had a very enjoyable conversation with two young people who were employees of Intel, a young woman from China and a young man from the eastern part of India. They were both working on software development for mobile phones. They had met in China when the young man was sent there by Intel for five months to help set up a new work unit. Now, the young woman was given the opportunity for two months of on-the-job training in India. What was striking about these two was their intelligence and engaging personalities. We were very impressed by them and enjoyed their company. Before we knew it, the 90 minutes had passed and our train had arrived.

We disembarked at Ernakulam only to find that hundreds of men dressed entirely in black were lying on the platform in the darkness as if bedded down for the night. It's a large station with a very long platform. There were enough men lying about to almost completely cover the available space, leaving barely enough room for us to pull our suitcases through. The number of people was intimidating, and the meager lighting didn't help.

I wasn't afraid of violence, but when the train pulled out, I was worried that one of us would by accident be pushed off the edge of the platform and fall down onto the tracks below. We were looking for the exit but didn't know where it was. After what seemed like hours but was actually no more than twenty minutes or so, we saw the station exit sign and then made our way to our hotel, safe but very stressed and tired. Later, we discovered that the crowds of men in the station were devotees at the temple located in the Periyar game preserve. They were among the estimated 200,000 pilgrims who were visiting there for the annual festival.

In order to reach our hotel it was necessary to cross a long bridge and take a very rough road in the dark. The hotel, the Bolgatty Palace, is located between Fort Kochi and Ernakulam on Bolgatty Island. The grounds were beautifully lit up with dozens of tiny bright blue lights and our room was lovely. 

The Bolgatty Palace Hotel

 The Grounds of our Hotel Looking towards Kochi

Next morning, January 16th, we took the hotel boat across the harbour to the Fort Kochin government boat jetty. Modern buildings lined the harbour.  As on almost every day of this trip, the sun shone brilliantly. The sky was an intense blue; the water in the harbour sparkled.

 View from our Hotel towards Ernakulam, the Urban Part of Kochin

Soon after we disembarked we were approached by Babu, a handsome young rickshaw driver, who offered to take us around Fort Kochin. First, we stopped to see a procession that had originated from a small temple nearby.  It included one elephant, elaborately decorated for the harvest festival, and a few musicians, one with a horn and several with drums. They stopped only momentarily before continuing down a narrow street to the temple. We were happy because we very much wanted to see a temple procession with elephants. The elephant symbolizes good fortune in India.  Ganesh, the god of good fortune, takes the form of an elephant.

 The Procession Approaches Us

Procession Moves towards the Temple
Babu took us to see St. Francis church, and then the Chinese fishing nets and fish market at Vasco de Gama Square. 

Chinese Fishing Nets

 Vasco de Gama Square

He then took us to an excellent shop to look for gifts to take home. Finally, he dropped us off for lunch at Brunton's Boat Yard, an upscale restaurant in a beautiful traditional building on the harbour.

 Restaurant where We Met Bryan Pearson

Soon after, a man about my age sat down at an adjacent table. We asked where he was from, and when he said "Canada" we asked if he was traveling alone and would he like to join us. It turned out that his name was Bryan Pearson from Iqaluit on Baffin Island in the NWT. He had gone to northern Canada as a young man to work on the DEW line, and, as it sometimes happens, never left the North. For several years he had been the mayor if Iqaluit and then an elected member of the legislature.

We had a thoroughly enjoyable time with him over the next hour or so, talking about municipal politics and sharing stories of our travels. His most noteworthy trips were on an African safari and, in the 1980's, on a long trip down the Mekong River in a small boat. His current trip to India had a very tragic association: in 2009 he had canceled a planned Indian vacation with two good friends. They went on the vacation without him, and were both killed in the Taj Hotel terrorist attack in Mumbai.

That evening we saw a Kathakali performance at a small theatre in our hotel. This is a traditional dance form in which folk tales are set to music. The first part of the performance consisted of the dancer lying on his back and, with the help of a small mirror, applying brightly coloured paints to his face in a pattern that gave him a fierce appearance. 

 Dancer Applying his Make-Up

Having completed his preparations, he left the stage to put on his costume.  A singer who played the cymbals and a drummer appeared. Their part of the performance consisted of an explanation of the story that would be expressed in the kathakali dance itself which formed the third and final part.

Soon the dancer reappeared. He wore an elaborate brass headdress and a short but very wide skirt.  He danced for about half an hour to the accompaniment of the drum and cymbal and some loud wailing and chanting on the part of the cymbal player. The dancer was barefoot, and didn't move about the stage much at all. Instead, he told the story through an elaborate series of hand and eye movements accompanied by constantly changing facial expressions.  All of these appeared to have very specific meanings in relation to the story.

We were the only audience. At the conclusion of the performance we were each asked to contribute the equivalent of five dollars in rupees.

The next day, January 17th, we spent in Ernakulam.

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