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Gangtok->Bagdogra->Delhi->Cochin

2013 September 26
by Zoe Strimpel
A surreptitious shot from the Dutch Palace museum in Fort Cochin. This woman was royalty. The caption tells us that this was traditional royal dress for women. It's worth noting that widespread fuss over breasts on women could be more cultural than some people make out.

A surreptitious shot from the Dutch Palace museum in Fort Cochin. This woman was royalty. The caption tells us that this was traditional royal dress for women. It’s worth noting that widespread fuss over breasts on women could be more cultural than some people make out.

Before leaving Gangtok on Friday, Tom and I had to do one last thing with the kids: host a Shabbat dinner. Classic fare for a school full of Buddhists and Hindus, really. As the only Jew on hand, it fell to me to lead this Shabbat, while Tom would participate boisterously. Now, I have never led a Shabbat. I know a couple blessings from Hebrew school classes I attended at age 10. When I go to Shabbat dinner, I’m usually daydreaming about the first bite of challah bread (and: did they home-bake it with honey or is it store-bought?), not memorising the order of ceremonies.

Since I had the day to myself (the 12th graders who were my main charge had no classes), I was told in no uncertain terms that I had better “prepare”. This involved telling the school administrator/PA that we needed candles, bread and dark juice to mimic wine, and googling “how to hold a Shabbat”.

Ten minutes or so before the kids were due to arrive (a select 11 or so), I figured I should probably put away all my crap and set the table. It was my first time covering a “challah” bread (I was expecting naan but they’d managed to rustle up a brown loaf, bless them) and I did it with a green Buddhist prayer flag. I lit the candles then realised you’re meant to light them in front of everyone. Anyway, in the event, I gave a lecture on the Jewish Sabbath that was surprisingly voluminous given I know next to nothing about it, amazed the kids with the extremities of kosher laws and and proceeded to say a few blessings, a tiny bit by heart, but mostly reading sweatily off my laptop, which Tom held high for me (this only seconds after telling the kids that phones and other technology was banned). It was great though, and I decided to take up regular Shabbats.

At 8:30 sharp, our driver arrived and, giving some regal waves to the disciples, we loaded our suitcases in and hunkered down for a 4.5 hour drive on the world’s most treacherous roads, skirting ravines, boulders in the middle of the road, the rubble from half-cleared landslides, massive trucks thundering on all sides…and all in darkness. The drivers in Sikkim are clearly the best in the world.

Bagdogra

Our treat for sitting out this journey was arrival at the Bagdogra airport hotel. Bagdogra is not a nice place and the odour of rubbish floated to us even on the silent midnight air. But the hotel was fine – the usual damp and coverless duvets – and we were early for our flight to Delhi. Good thing we were early – the flight left 20 minutes early, outta nowhere.

Delhi

Back in Delhi, the clouds thickened and as we made our way to Lutyens Bungalows (stay here, anyone visiting Delhi!), some kind of typhoon struck and ridiculous amounts of rain fell. The cars and tuktuks bore on, however. Nevertheless, the driver stopped, parking in a puddle/flood so that we could visit a jewellery emporium he thought we should visit. We did so. Then we got back in the car, checked in at the hotel and started out again for an epic drive across town to Old Delhi. The car parked somewhere, instantly absorbed into a sea of identical cars. In the suddenness of this dropping off, we hopped in the first rickshaw cyclist we saw (in a cluster of dozens, all shouting) and headed off to the Red Fort and mosque. What had appeared a typhoon before was apparently nothing. For now some kind of proper deluge began, just as we were strolling towards the second Princely pavillion in the Red Fort. The umbrella promptly broke, and while Tom grimly and Britishly kept it over us, we were both knee-deep in puddle water within 4 minutes so it didn’t amount to much. Many Indians had stayed for shelter under the pavillion roof and a row was just erupting between the guard and lots and lots of people who were forbiddenly clambering up into the pavillion itself.

My shirt got soaked, and it was white. This made matters – already tricky with the pervy men who seem to be everywhere – even trickier.

We made it back to where we left the rickshaw man and he popped out of the driving rain and in we hopped again. This time to the mosque: our driver peddling us through oceanic puddles and bumper car driving conditions. Tom held the umbrella over the rickshaw driver’s head in a Raj Reversal moment that made everyone stare and giggle. As our remarkably hardy driver headed down the final stretch – this time an four-lane ominous highway, with trucks hurtling past our bicycle chariot – he said he wanted to discuss payment. And to receive it. I felt a bit sick. Tom said a number quite a bit over the man’s expectation, but that didn’t stop him demanding three times that much. Tom was happy to oblige and even disembarked the biped barouche with a handshake and a thank you, though I felt there was something of the gunpoint about the man’s demand, as if he’d knock us onto the highway, or stab us, if the money wasn’t passed over there and then.

As it happened, he’d have fed us to the dogs, or their equivalent – strung-out clusters of those sinister male drivers who, on seeing me (despite the presence of Tom) in their midst, anxiously searching out our driver – clutched their genitalia and leered. The Delhi rape trial – death for the murderers – was decided only last week and, though it’s never far away in this city, severe discomfort of a sexual nature gripped me. But Tom’s generosity paid off and our bicycle man shouted at us to look a row back and somehow our driver emerged from the sea of white cars.

Soaked and rather relieved to have found our driver – even if several parked cars blocked our way out – the journey back to the hotel was like the feeling of returning to safety. When, I wondered, did I become such an old lady? On arrival back to the hotel, soaked through, I thought hey, let’s go see the swimming pool that we won’t be using. I then slipped hard on the thickest, muddiest mud ever and got half my body daubed in what did very much resemble feces.

At this moment, Tom decided, in the fast-coming, dripping darkness to venture to the next door Lodhi Gardens for a bit of Bahai Lotus Temple viewing. I declined and sat under the shower, next to the muddied clothes, for 20 minutes watching rivulets of mud run round me.

An hour later, Tom was still gone and it was pitch black. I began to assume he was dead and to plan a rescue mission. Two sips into my second Kingfisher, he reappeared, having got lost. We both had dinner with a high degree of enjoyment and excitement for bed. On the morrow, Tom was to fly back to England, me to Cochin in Kerala.

Cochin

The road from the airport is lined with enormous signs advertising wedding silk and jewellery shops. Hmm, I thought. Have I come to India’s biggest wedding depot? “Saris!” was all I could get out of the driver for an explanation. But soon enough, bright pink and turquoise beach shacks began to line the road, zen-looking men in diaper-like skirts appeared and a general aura of awesomeness began to emerge. This was a backwater, due to the backness and waterness of it, but a groovy, prosperous backwater.

There is New Cochin and Fort Cochin. The latter was the centre of the spice trade for centuries, from before Medieval times. It was the stronghold of the Portugese, Dutch then British empires. We stayed somewhere called Brunton’s Boatyard, a large, mahogany Raj-esque open-walled hotel (apart from the rooms) that was right on the busy bay. A curious mix of modern industry – a water treatment plant (or something that looked like it); construction sites – were the background for a lively traffic in pointed fishing vessels in bright colours and old-school ferries with hand-painted lettering scooting between Fort and New Cochin. Swathes of leaves flowed up the water past our balcony.

As for the town: at first, stepping out, I found myself accosted  by so many persistent tuk tuk drivers I felt disappointment – was I basically in Delhi-on-Sea? But no –these were humorous chaps that you could banter with as they drove slowly alongside you. I saw most of them over the next few days again. Fort Cochin is a totally charming series of lazy but lively streets; the following day, a wonderful man drove us all around in his Tuk Tuk that had a big Ferrari sticker on the back, to the Dutch Palace (built as a thank you by European colonists to the local royalty in the 16th century and richly frescoed in images of Hindu mythology), several churches and to Jew Town, with the oldest (15th century) synagogue in the Commonwealth. It was beautiful and colourful, and had a group of Muslim men hanging out in it near the bimah (alter). Indeed, the whole of Jew Town – including the shop of one Sarah, Cochin’s oldest Jew at 90 and a lifetime native (though of Baghdadi origin) – was managed by Muslim merchants and shop-keepers. Passing a woman in a headscarf selling lovely white cotton dresses (of which we bought two), we remarked how unusual it was that she worked in a shop called Shalom. “It means peace, in many languages” she said. Indeed: she seemed peaceful, Sarah’s Muslim sidekick (who proudly showed us pictures of her history in Kerala, and knew exactly what I meant by “kepah” and “baruch atah adonoi”) seemed peaceful, with his arrangement and his boss/mother figure, the other shopkeepers selling challah covers seemed peaceful and indeed we felt at peace on this curious bit of road.

Marari Beach, Kerala, is not a bad place to pass a few days.

Marari Beach, Kerala, is not a bad place to pass a few days.

On the way back, I hopped out at an arts centre with an Ayurveda centre at the end of it, buried way in back. I had a terrific and vigorous massage for £12 and returned to the hotel feeling culturally and physically sated and smug with the day – in such a good mood as I was, I actually welcomed the bargainous, often highly cheeky calls of the tuk tuk drivers.

We’ve now been at a beach resort – Marari beach in Alleppey – for three days and it’s been so divine in that classic palm tree expanse-smooth Arabian Sea-idyllic pool-endless white beach-eco-friendly villa type way that, what with all the yoga, swimming and reading I really haven’t had the time to write much. Back to London on Sunday.

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