'Make no mistake, the weeds will win; nature bats last' - Robert Michael Pyle
The sun is rising as we approach Cochin; an eerie orangie-grey light is cast over the shimmering water as we approach the harbour. We are flanked by several fishing boats that have been plying their nets overnight in the dark endless Indian Ocean. I hope their boats are filled with plenty of fish.
We eventually disembark and make our way through the customs hall to meet our bus for a four-hour tour of Cochin. The port is on Willingdon Island, and from my vantage points both from the ship and from the windows of the bus, it is like a scene from a movie. You know, the sort of movie where the inhabitants have mysteriously disappeared, and disused buildings are decaying under the growth of jungle. I kid you not. After being in busy ports such as Singapore and Colombo, this is a little creepy. What I see with my eyes and what Wikipedia includes in its description are two different things. I see abandonment and neglect; Wikipedia says it is the largest container trans-shipment terminal in India.
I sit glued to the window of the bus, as usual. I want to see beyond the words the tour guide is saying. He is pointing out expensive textile and jewellery shops, whilst I become fascinated with the glob of electrical wires that become a huge, jumbled knot at the junction – the top of the telegraph poles. I cannot imagine anyone working out where each one belongs. Perhaps they don’t.
India is famous for its quality textiles; beautiful cottons and silks richly embroidered with strands of gold for special occasions. Beautiful saris are displayed in the windows of the stores, and I do half-wish I could spend a few hours just wandering and touching the fabrics. But I don’t. According to the tour guide, India imports huge amounts of gold each year. That gold is used for jewellery, which is handed from one generation to another; investments made without using banks.
After an aborted attempt, a U-turn, and a second attempt, our bus pulls up outside a Shiva temple complex. Three temples; three different styles, but my favourite is the highly colourful Tamil temple. It is a house of divinity for Hindus; a structure designed to bring humans and gods together through worship, sacrifice, and devotion. All the gods and deities are sculpted on the exterior of the building. Back on the bus after walking on the uneven surface. The roots of the banyan tree, reportedly grown from a cutting of the Tree of Enlightenment, have lifted pavers, so walking here is a challenge.
It is slow going in the heavy traffic and I think we are retracing our way back over Willingdon Island to our next stop. Like Sri Lanka, this region of India was colonised by Portuguese and Dutch before the British came along. The facades of Catholic Churches built by the Portuguese were reshaped into Dutch Reformation churches. When the British came along, they didn’t bother whacking on a new façade, they just left them as places of worship and they were either used as Anglican or Catholic churches.
The Church of St Francis was built in 1503 and was the first Portuguese church in India. It is also the most historic because during his third visit to Cochin, Vasco de Gama died and was buried in the church. Although our guide says his body is still beneath the aged stone in the church, a quick search tells me that the Portuguese slipped over to India, collected his body, and returned it to his native Portugal. One could hardly leave the remains of one of their most famous sea explorers in a far-off colony, could they?
It is a fact that Vasco de Gama was the first person to discover the historic sea route from Europe to India, and it is said that this is the location of his first visit to India. Of course, we understand that these sea routes were used by traders from the Middle East and Asia and probably Africa as well.
This church is an absolute delight. It has the original fabric and timber fans that are connected to a series of ropes, one of which is treaded through the wall of the church. The fans were, in bygone days, operated by a wallah or servant during church services to circulate the air for the worshippers. What intrigues me is the design of the church itself. Very simple, it reflects the design of country town churches across the world. It reminds me of the one in Kerang, Victoria, a central aisle, pews on both sides, with a timber ceiling.
We make the short walk to the water’s edge. People are gathering in Vasco de Gama Square, the space named after the famous sea explorer. We are taken to a small fish market; fruits of the labour of fishermen include soft-shell crabs, fish of various sorts, and octopus. And flies. Heaps of flies.
But the purpose of this visit is to see the unique fisherman’s nets, the ones introduced to Cochin by the Chinese sometime between 1350 and 1450. Made of teak and bamboo, they work on the principle of balance. A tripod structure with nets attached are lowered into the water for a short time. The idea is to allow the fish to swim into the netted area (I’m not sure whether there are baits in the nets). After a while, the nets are lifted by dragging the structure away from the sea. Any fish at the bottom of the net is collected and the nets are dropped again. According to the tour guide, these are dropped up to 60 times each day. It’s hard work for the fishermen, but this method has withstood the passage of time and are still in use today.
Walking back to the bus, we are once again assaulted by sellers of all sorts of goods. This is a tourist area and upon enquiring the price of a colourful umbrella, I am shocked at the price quoted and walk away. As we return to the ship I look through the window of the bus and notice the green public buses parked along the street. Apparently, they are not used as much by the residents since COVID, and they sit idle during the non-peak periods. They are all air-conditioned; there are no windows.
We arrive back at the port after an interesting and very informative excursion into the local town. There is a small market outside the customs hall, and I do get the coloured umbrella for one-fifth of the price quoted down at Vasco de Gama Square. I’m glad we’ve had this opportunity to visit this southern port of India. There is no comparison to the India we saw when we visited Rajasthan in 2009. Clearly life is different down here, more laid back and casual.
We are embarking on a seven-day sea voyage across the Arabian Sea, through the Gulf of Aden to the Red Sea, where our next shore excursion will take place.