Backwaters photos and video

Two peaceful days motoring slowly through the series of Kerala’s backwater canals and lakes turned us into lazy, slow moving slugs of the worst kind – but happy slugs, for certain. It was the two of us, our captain, the cook and our cabin boy. We chugged slowly along, sometimes hugging the shore to watch women pound their laundry against flat stones and men fishing while their children swam or bathed in the slow moving tobacco green water. We heard chants from temples blaring from loud speakers interspersed with lilting ballads sung by women with curlicued voices. After a while we moved to the center of a larger body of water to catch a breeze that gave some relief in the 95 degree weather. We passed miles of palm tree fronted rice paddies of the brightest green – stretching back into the misty distance for as far as he eye could see. At dusk we watched the sun, a blazing ball of orange-red, sink into the horizon and leaving a wake of soft pinks and blues behind.

We’d wisely paid extra to have an air conditioning in our cabin from 8pm to 8am (the captain held on to the remote to keep us honest), and we were happy to escape the heat and the swarming insects after the sun went down. We lucked out in the food department as our chef was top notch. We had fresh made chapati and papadam with every meal, banana fritters, local fish and prawns that we chose and purchased from shoreline stalls. The chef made dosa and a medley of curries – way too much food for just two people. Somehow we managed to eat it all.

Click here for a short video:
Backwaters video montage

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Varkala to Alleppey: heaven and an Indian version of hell

Yesterday just about this time I was swimming in the Arabian Sea in Varkala. The previous four days I had be content with watching from the shore as the surf, pounding and wild, shot ten foot high spray up into the air. Waves (the kind surfers can only dream of), rose and crested into perfect tunnels then shattered into roiling foam until they crashed against the rocky shore with a thunderous boom. Only the foolish or those wishing a non-stop trip to Africa courtesy of the ferocious undertow dared to swim.

But yesterday the sea, at least in our little cove, had calmed somewhat and the undertow disappeared. To be sure, there was still enough rolling surf to make for an adventurous (albeit safe) hour playing in the waves. The water was just about baby bath temperature. The sky was robin’s egg blue and the scorching hot sand inspired this ingenious adaptation of something you typically seen thrown by the side of the road in India.

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Apparently this is nothing like what is going on back home where we have read reports of two feet of snow.

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Overhead sea eagles (Krishna birds I was told they are called) hovered low and riding thermals with barely a flap of their wings, hunting for fish.

Varkala’s beach is a 150 foot wide strip of beautiful at the foot of a cliff that follows the coast. There is a brick and packed red dirt path atop the cliff that hugs the coast for several miles in each direction from our hotel. Heading south you come to Black Beach, set a hundred feet down from the path and accessed by a narrow winding staircase of two hundred some odd steps. Above, the land side of the path is lined with open air restaurants and shops selling sarongs, sun screen, tee shirts, and jewelry made in Tibet. In this part of India where even the air is called Ayurvedic, you can choose from dozens of yoga classes, mediation sessions and every conceivable type of massage. As streams of pale-skinned, sun burnt Ukrainian, Danish, German and English tourists stroll by, the merchants call out to them, “Just look-see, very cheap!” And every promise of “Maybe later” is registered by that merchant who remembers who said what and reminds them on the return trip that “now is later.” Walking north on the sea side path brings a welcome relief from the bustle of the tourist area. Here coconut palms and banana trees wave over scattered thatched-roof bungalow colonies and Jamil sells water and soft drinks at the one stand we encountered on our walk. The cliff in this area has been dramatically undercut by the waves, and like the path in the other direction, it looks as if it could tumble into the sea in the next storm. Besides the tranquility I found walking this direction there were a series of sandy beaches where the cliff had in fact fallen, leaving easy access to the water. I passed people (both in groups and solo) facing the setting sun while meditating and doing yoga. Children coming home from school wished me a cheerful “Good evening!” and the more courageous asked, “Where are you from?” From the distance the call to prayer from the lime green and bubblegum pink mosque mingled with the sound of Hindi pop tunes from someone’s radio. Boys playing cricket on an adjacent field shouted orders to each other. Goats gamboled by and the occasional water buffalo kept company with a committee of skinny legged, graceful white egrets. The palm trees rustled overhead and incense, along with the occasional whiff of weed, perfumed the soft breeze.

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Last night at this time we sat at a table by the sea, using our fingers and slices of Kerala nan (the local vegetable stuffed flat bread) to scoop up tender pieces of garlic and butter rubbed red snapper hot from the tandoori oven. We watched the moon paint the breaking waves with strokes of quick silver that seemed to come from below the surface of the water and then disappear as soon as it made its magical mark.

Last night the waves supplied the perfect white noise, drowning out the sound of the occasional motor scooter and conversation from the road below our bedroom window. It was India “light” in perfect form.

Today we are in a car with a driver named Joseph who came, unexpectantly, in place of Nigel, our regular driver. His job was to take us the 130 km from Varkala to Alleppey to meet up with the houseboat we would take for two days to the Backwaters, the series of canals and inland waterways that this part of Kerala is famous for. The drive had taken two hours on the way down with Nigel at the wheel. Aside from our being highjacked and having to pay a ransom on the outskirts of Cochi (see David’s post below), it was a smooth trip as Nigel was a confident driver whose ego didn’t drive him to pass every vehicle on the road. Not so with Joseph. His insecurity coupled with cluelessness about both direction and directions to our destination turned him into the classic ‘Indian Driver From Hell.’ Because I have a propensity for car sickness I try to sit in the front seat of any car in which I am a passenger. I have spent many hours (days, actually) sitting next to good Indian drivers who, like Nigel, don’t have to show that theirs is the biggest dick on the highway. When Joseph finally located the highway – after stopping at least five times to ask directions – his right hand hit the horn and his foot hit the gas. He honked at rickshaws as he passed them with inches to spare, he honked at buses ten times the size of his car, moving in so close that I could read the tiny print on the advertisement on the back that should have said. “If you can read this you are a raving maniac!” He honked at families on motorbikes as he pulled close enough to see the fingerprints of the toddler on the back clinging to his mama for dear life. He honked at bicyclists hauling enormous loads of green bananas to market. He honked at pedestrians walking nowhere near the road and goats tethered in the field. If there had been road kill he would have honked at that as well.

He carved his own lane between us and oncoming traffic in a video game parody of how not to drive. I began to think of it as as version of Whack-A-Mole called Forge-A-Lane, as he hit the brakes with both feet when the oncoming driver wouldn’t get out of his way.

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Thus our rhythm was established:
Stop go beep
Stop go beep
Stop go beep

For three and a half excruciating hours we were thrown back and forth and side to side as we whizzed past billboards promoting wedding saris, wedding jewelry, wedding caterers. We caught micro-glimpses of posters advertising everything from the Communist Party to the healing powers of the local swamis with their bushy black beards and wild Charles Manson eyes.

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As all these signs were in Malayalam (the local language) I was actually making up the text in my head trying to distract myself from the probability of going through the windshield (‘We don’t need no stinkin’ airbags!) or succumbing to the waves of nausea sweeping over me.

I couldn’t talk to David in the backseat over the incessant noise of the car so I pulled out my phone and wrote the following message:
Ikk kilm myptseff Ipuf wr hacee /0 2 Usd thif guf ob tephw wy badl tp3 xoCKE!,,,,
Of course I meant to write “I will kill myself if we have to use this guy on the way back to Cochi!!!!

It wasn’t until we arrived in Alleppey that Joseph admitted he didn’t have a clue where he was supposed to drop us even though we emailed ahead the address and contact number. After numerous telephone calls and multiple stops to ask for directions, adding yet another hour to the trip, we finally made it to our destination. I am certain that Joseph was happy to see the end of us, just as we were delighted to watch his brake lights flashing on and off from the outside of his car as he peeled away toward yet, I am sure, another series of wrong turns toward home.

Tonight we are on the Backwaters in a houseboat. It’s just the two of us, our captain, the cook and an attendant who is seeing to our every need. While this boat probably has a horn, we haven’t yet heard it, and our captain is of the slow and steady as she goes school of navigation. What a relief. Next post I’ll add some photo and film clips (inexpertly captured) of the Backwaters.

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Contemplating Hyderabad

News from Hyderabad

“It’s v unfortunate but pl don’t worry” was the email we received from our friend Santha John from Hyderabad which is how we had learned about the terrorist attacks in her city. It’s insanely selfish to be relived that the violence occurred the week before we arrived and foolish to think that last week’s bombings don’t cancel out the possibility of something happening while we are there.

Our decision to visit Hyderabad came as a result of getting to know Mary Ann Marino who had spent the better part a year volunteering at The Hyderabad Children’s Aid Society and (we learned later) had adopted a child there. Mary Ann made friends wherever she went, and went on to connect those friends to each other in the most loving and enthusiastic way imaginable. When Mary Ann got sick while she was in Hyderabad, it was her friend Santha who cared for her and accompanied her back to Boston for treatment for a brain tumor. We were lucky enough to meet Santha and her brother George (a brilliant artist – among his many talents – who lives in Belmont), forming yet another link in the chain of friendships created by Mary Ann.

Mary Ann’s remission ended this past summer, disrupting her plans to return to India to continue the work she had begun at the Home. As we planned out trip here and her symptoms grew progressively worse we promised that we would visit Hyderabad and the Home. The chance to get to see Santha and meet some of her family was an offer we were thrilled to accept. When Mary Ann died last month that vast, worldwide network of friends renewed its connection, but this time with the sad news that the world had lost a shining star.

Sitting here on a houseboat in the peaceful broad canals of the Backwaters, the silence is punctuated only by the gentle chugging of the boat’s engine, the sound of washing being slapped against shoreline stones, the shrill cry of seabirds wheeling overhead, and the occasional blast of music broadcast from villages and other boats we pass. It’s difficult in this place (but at the same time too easy) to imagine the horror of the attack in Hyderabad. We worry about our friends there. And of course we question the wisdom of going. But then I remember that this kind of violence against innocent people can (and does) happen everywhere in the world and life is a crapshoot. People who spend their lives being afraid risk missing out on all sorts of marvelous experiences. Plus, if we stop traveling then the terrorists win.

We’ll be cautious and avoid crowded popular tourist places and shopping malls. We will send photos and posts from Hyderabad. Meanwhile, I urge you to take a few minutes to call up a friend and express some gratitude for having him or her in your life.

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David’s reflections on Kochi and Varkala

A few parting thoughts on leaving Fort Kochi. They are not unique to Kochi; it’s just that Kochi was our entry point into India on this trip so it has refocused us on some striking characteristics of the country that every visitor experiences. First is the trash that Indians drop obliviously whenever and wherever something comes in contact with their hands that they do not want to keep. The trash does not exist here with the same intensity that we remember from the north. But it is everywhere. Thin plastic film shopping bags, empty water bottles, unwanted flip-flops, newspapers, fragments of heavy woven plastic bags for concrete, and every other kind of trash. It fills our vision no matter where we look. And it made clear that we are products of our culture; at one point we realized that we were carrying around all day the trash that we were generating. For hours I would see on my index finger the blue or white plastic ring that would otherwise fall to the ground when I opened a new bottle of water. And at the end of the day I found in my pocket the plastic shrink-wrap that had covered the cap. We were simply not capable of dropping our trash. How strange and foreign it made us feel when a billion people around us were dropping theirs without a thought.

But then again, I remember reading a few years ago about protest demonstrations by tens of thousands of garbage scavengers when the city of New Delhi threatened their livelihoods and lives by creating a modern system of garbage collection and disposal.

The second thought is about the traffic. Again, it does not have the same intensity as we remember from the north, but it is still insane. In essence, everything is negotiable. Does this road have any shoulders? Does it have any traffic lanes? If so, do the shoulders and various lanes run alongside each other, or do they all sit one on top of the other? And does the traffic on the shoulder or in any given lane go in this direction or that direction? On an ostensibly two-lane road, ostensibly with no shoulders, should our taxi pass a tuk tuk at the same time that the tuk tuk is passing a scooter, at the same time the scooter is passing a woman walking on the edge of the road with a baby in her arms, at the same time that a bus is trying to pass our taxi, at the same time that a precariously overloaded lorry lumbers into the road in front of us from a side street without a moment’s hesitation, at the same time that oncoming traffic is doing all the above, at the same time that every driver on the road is assiduously avoiding any eye contact with the other drivers? The answer to all these questions is the ubiquitous Indian head bobble. Which, depending on context, means “yes” or “no” or “maybe” or “I don’t know” or “thank you” or “I acknowledge your existence and the fact that you have uttered some words to me.” And in response to all the above questions, the bobble probably has all these meanings at the same time.

In spite of all this chaos, I am convinced that we are in the midst of a sophisticated, nuanced choreography. We have seen not one incident of metal-to-metal contact, much less a fender bender. The drivers have an exquisite sense of where the corners and edges of their vehicles are. And they must be negotiating with each other, telepathically, and achieving an instantly achieved resolution. The bad negotiators have long since been pushed off the road, either literally or in the existential sense by succumbing to head-on collisions.

And finally, a strange construction technique. Buildings are frequently made of poured concrete with the supporting columns extending up through the roof. This includes single story homes and shops, multi-story office buildings, clinics and the like. The strange technique is shown in the photo below. Rebars are left protruding above the roof line, sticking up from the top of the supporting columns and frames. Sometimes it is just raw uncovered rebars that extend above the roofline. In more expensive construction (as in the photo), the supporting columns themselves extend above the roof line, with the rebars extending upward from the top of the extended supporting columns. All, apparently, to facilitate adding further stories to the original structure in the future. However, the pervasiveness of rusting rebars and crumbling support columns on roof tops suggests that hopes of adding to the original structure are not much more than hyper-optimism.

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On leaving Kochi for the beach at Varkala and the Kerala backwaters, we had to change our schedule because a two-day country-wide general strike was called, the time in modern India. The issue was inflation, especially the cost of gasoline. Even private-hire drivers would not go out on the roads during the strike for fear that strikers would stone their cars. Kerala is a Communist state (the only one in India, I believe, and the photo below shows that they take their Communism seriously) and enforcement of the strike is particularly strong here. Even to the point that a road block of young men with 3″ thick wooden poles stopped our tuk tuk on a back alley in a small neighborhood far from the tourist areas. Luckily we were with our favorite driver, Mujee. He seems to be the most popular young man in town, and after he flashed his smile and had some cheerful banter with the men in the Kerala language of Malayalam, the group waved us on our way down the alley. I sense that we would not have been permitted to continue down the alley if we had a less popular and charming driver. (As an aside, Mujee told us forcefully that he is Communist, as though it is something that he wants every tourist to know, capitalist Americans in particular. I think he was disappointed to learn that we are old fashioned limousine liberals who did not need any indoctrination.)
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While on the way to Varkala, we encountered a practice that American trial lawyers would consider nirvana. We were driving slowly through some congestion in a small country village and a man walked into the street as we approached. With clear deliberation he looked away from our car and walked slowly on a path that would put him in front of the car. He continued walking until he allowed himself to come within an inch of being side swiped. Then he feigned being hit by the car, stuck his arm through the driver’s door’s open window and demanded Rs. 50 as compensation for his injury, the equivalent of less than $1. When he forced our driver to pull over and pay him, I put on my lawyer hat and told the driver to call the police. Both Lora and I had been watching the man carefully as he approached the car and pretended to be hit, so we had two reliable witnesses. The driver looked at me as though I was crazy and reminded me that “this not our area.” The Rs. 50 were passed through the open window and the “victim” of the “accident” smiled at us as we drove off. I’m sure that he was already looking for the next private-hire car with a tourist in the back seat.

When we arrived in Varkala we decided to buy an unlocked phone and a local SIM card. We asked our tuk tuk driver Mujee to take us to a phone shop and it’s lucky he was able to guide us through the process. Before the store would sell me the phone: the man made a photocopy of my passport and of the page containing my Indian visa; he had me fill out a long form that called for our permanent and local residences and other detailed identifying information; he required a passport photo (which by sheer luck I happened to have); he pasted the photo onto the long form; and he had me sign the form in three separate places, one of which had to begin on the paper of the form next to my photo, and then extend across the photo and onto the paper on the far side of the photo. And that was just for the phone. For the SIM card, we had to go down the street to a different shop where the process was repeated. Thankfully for us, the SIM card process did not require another photo. Then we had to activate the phone — but this could be done only after 48 hours, giving the bureaucracy sufficient time to get the paperwork over to the counter-terrorism people. Activation involved calling a special number, giving detailed information to the person on the other end of the line, and then speaking into the phone as that person recorded my voice. It’s hard to complain about compulsive protection against terrorism, and just think of the tens of thousands of people for which it provides governmental employment. As for Mujee — we gave him an extra Rs. 100 for guiding us through a process that is impenetrable for any person who does not speak Malayalam or Hindi.

Varkala School

We asked our rickshaw driver Mujee if he would take us to visit a local school. The one he chose was a primary school in a nearby village. There were four classrooms and the children ranged from 7 to 11 or 12. It was a government run free school as opposed to the private schools where people who can afford the tuition send their children. The children receive uniforms and hot meals and, it seems, a fairly decent education. Of course not the same caliber as the private schools where the students ‘study for the test’ to get them into college.

When we arrived and asked the headmistress’ permission to visit, controlled chaos broke out as the kids swarmed out to greet us. As is the custom here they beseeched us for pens, and finding we didn’t have any to give out, they settled for seeing their pictures on the small screen of my digital camera. We promised that when we returned home we would send both prints of the photos and some primary readers. We got to visit each classroom and the headmistress proudly showed off her pupils’ proficiency in English.

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Varkala Fishermen

Commercial fishing is always a terribly difficult and dangerous occupation and here in Varkala you can add not very productive to that list. At 6 in the morning we heard a commotion outside our hotel and from the balcony we watched two lines of men, a hundred yards apart, hauling in a rope that was attached to fishing nets at least 500 meters out at sea. It took over an hour to get the nets to shore and the take was disappointing, I am sure. There were mostly sardine-size fish, one or two slightly larger butterfish, and a whole lot of trash. That night when we ordered fish in the seaside restaurant I thought about how much work it took to get it on my plate.

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Friday Night Services in Paradesi Synagogue

From Lora (David’s text follows):

Since we left Taipei in the beginning of January David and I have been a community of two. Of course we have spent time in the company of fellow travelers who have become new friends, notably the folks from Great Barrington and New York who we met in the aptly named Friendship Hotel in Bhamo, eight wonderful Swiss individuals who made up the passenger list of the Amara 2 on our voyage down the Irrawaddy, and the amazing Silvia Marx who we met at a language class in Luang Prabang. We’ve also had the opportunity to meet and have long conversations our hotel and guest house owners, guides and drivers, and the students in the language centers. But when it comes right down to it, it’s the two of us swimming in a constantly changing sea of strangers. I don’t ever take for granted the company and companionship of dear friends and family – people who ‘speak my language’ in more ways than being able to converse in English. Yet I haven’t experienced the visceral importance of them in my life, and how much I miss them, until it was driven home last Friday night in Cochin (or Kochi, or Fort Kochi).

On the short list (and it is a very short list) of sites and sights to visit in Fort Kochi are the Chinese Fishing nets, the Dutch Palace, the ‘washing place’ (more on that in a future blog), and the ‘Jewish’ synagogue (so called by the rickshaw drivers who are anxious to take you there). In fact the town is quite proud of its connection to Judaism:
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The first time we tried to visit the synagogue, not surprisingly located in Jew Town at the end of:
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a narrow, winding lane
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There was such a swarm of tourists including hundreds of school children on an outing, we decided to try another time.
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We were surprised to learn that even though there are only eight elderly Jews remaining in the congregation, Friday night services are still held there. So we decided to wait until Friday night and attend the service. As a consolation prize our accommodating rickshaw driver took us past the old cemetery where apparently they had recently laid to rest Jew number 9.
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On Friday we arrived and entered the old building (purposely located adjacent to a police station as a result of the terrorist bombings in Bombay), and correctly answered the password posed by the guard (“Jews?” “Yes.” “Proceed.”).
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We made our way through a dark, narrow vestibule and entered the sanctuary and stepped many generations back in time. The good-sized room was light and airy, with white and soft blue walls. It was illuminated by candles flickering in dozens of frosted glass candelabra suspended from the high ceiling. Antique blue and white Chinese tiles covered the floor. A shallow balcony projected from the rear wall and in the center of the room, facing the ark, was a raised circular bimah accessed by a short flight of stairs. A wooden balustrade circled the bimah which held a simple lectern made of the same warm wood. There were many signs saying No Photos! and in fact tourists visiting the synagogue during regular hours had to check their cameras before entering. Operating under the special dispensation for MOTs (Members of the tribe) I took a covert picture of the sanctuary – shot from the hip – never my specialty…but it gives you an idea of what the room looked like.
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On arriving we joined a group of perhaps 8 people sitting on the benches that lined the two long walls. I sat next to a very urbane, handsome gentleman from Paris and David was happily situated next to an extremely attractive young blond woman from Johannesburg. A few backpackers/students drifted in and by 6:30 the time the service was scheduled to begin we were still one man shy of a minion (the traditional number of post bar mitzvah males required for a service). (None of 8 remaining 80+ year old members of the congregation were present.) Somehow this didn’t strike me as the sort of shul that might welcome women to be among the ‘counted’.

Then something amazing happened. A tour group of Israelis arrived – with all the energy only a group of 12 grandmotherly Israeli women and one lone man could generate. They quickly filled in the empty seats. The men then looked at each other debating who would lead the service. David and the Parisien allowed, very sotto voce, that they could/would, but very reluctantly. With not a moment of hesitation, however, the lone man from the Israeli group, tall and elegant, stepped forward and with the congregation’s permission (and to the relief of the other men), volunteered to lead. While it wasn’t exactly a Sarah Boyle moment, it was awfully close. This was no amateur, but a classically trained hazen (cantor) with a gorgeous voice, rich and warm, that filled every corner of the old building.

I was longing for a familiar community and here it was. Among the reasons I felt so instantly comfortable in this place were seeing David and the other men in yamulkahs and holding siddurim (prayer books) and seeing the upstairs balcony, as both reminded me of the kind of synagogues we belonged to as children in Hartford. There is a joke that Jews share about their synagogues. It goes something like, “This is my shul, and over there is the shul I wouldn’t be caught dead in.” For my father this was no joke. He had a fight with the conservative Emanuel Synagogue we belonged to (a membership fee or something – I don’t remember exactly, and anyway, it’s not important). He quit in a huff and got a family membership in the reform synagogue in West Hartford where I went to Hebrew school – or confirmation class as they called it. For himself, he joined an orthodox synagogue in downtown Hartford where he attended services. In his synagogue (the Pearl Street Shul as it was called) the women weren’t allowed to sit downstairs. Their place was in the balcony where, except for the first row of seriously observant women who followed along with the service, there wasn’t a lot of attention paid to the goings on downstairs. Instead there was gossip – all sorts of information passed in hushed voices from behind hand-covered mouths. This was far more interesting to a young girl than the musty rustlings of prayer book pages being turned by swaying men mumbling prayers too fast for us to ever follow along. The moments that did, however, hold my attention were when the cantor sang the prayers I knew well and the melodies that were and will always be imprinted in my head and heart.
As the hazen in Fort Kochi began to sing I reached into my pocket and switched on my iPhone so I could record just a moment to share with you:

At the end of the service people stood and shook hands with and/or kissed their neighbors wishing them “Shabbat Shalom” then the Israeli women led us all in dancing to songs and steps that were as familiar to me as the memories of my time in the old synagogue on Pearl Street. I still had my iphone handy, so I recorded this:

It was a wonderful hour spent in a totally familiar and warmly comfortable community which left us both in very good moods indeed. Better yet, when we got back to our hotel there was an email from our wonderful daughter-in-law, Joanna, wishing us a happy Purim with the sweetest visual possible – our grandson Elijah and the hamamtashen they had just made.
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From David:
The high point of our time in Kochi was the Paradesi Synagogue, which was
built in the 1560s. It’s got a wonderful story. Take a 30 second peek at
the Wikipedia article about it. To tempt you, let me just say that it was
founded by the Paradesi Jews — the “White Jews” — and only they could
belong to the congregation. “White Jews” were those who came from Europe
(mostly from Portugal and Spain, I believe). The “Black Jews” were the
earlier Jewish community in Kochi, of darker skin. Apparently,it was only recently
that intermarriage between the two communities was permitted.

Here’s the link:
Paradesi synagogue

The high point of the high point was our visit with Sarah Cohen when we
went back to Jew Street on Saturday morning. Sarah Cohen is an
ordinary name for a Jewish woman, but this Sarah Cohen is actually a
90-year old Indian woman who is one of the last eight remaining members of
the Paradesi Jewish community. The average age of the eight is more than
80 years old, so the entire community will disappear within just a couple
of years. Sarah lives just down the street from the synagogue and still
embroiders and sells challah covers and yarmulkes in her shop. She has an
excellent business model: Who would ever sink so low to try to
haggle about price with an inspiring 90 year old Jewess who is one of the last
surviving members of the synagogue that drew you to her shop in the first
place? So she can put any price she wants on her merchandise and get full
price without any bargaining. She is very proud that a recent Israeli
visitor ordered 200 yarmulkes from her for a bar mitzvah, and I’m sure
that he did not get any volume discount. Below are some photos of Sarah.
One shows her wedding in 1942, with a wedding party consisting of more
people than the entire community as it exists today. Another photo is of
Sarah at the synagogue about 10-15 years ago at a Simchat Torah service.
(For some reason, Simchat Torah is the most celebrated holiday for the
surviving congregation. Lora says because it involves imbibing copious amounts of alcohol.) A third photo shows Sarah many years ago coming
out of the synagogue. And also a photo of Sarah in her shop as she is today.
A couple of other things about the synagogue:
It has a clock tower with faces on each of the four sides, each face having numerals in a different alphabet. Arabic, Roman,
Hebrew and a fourth that I do not remember.

Also, there was a Habad Lubavitcher group that had been given visas to come to Kochi to maintain the synagogue. They were kicked out of the country a
couple of years ago on the grounds that they had violated the terms of
their visas. We were told of speculation of several other reasons that
might have led to their expulsion. “Jew Town”, where the synagogue is
located, is now predominantly Muslim, and there is speculation that the
Muslim community put pressure on the government to get rid of the Habad.
Another speculation is simply a security concern: an in-your-face
Lubavitcher group could attract a terrorist attack. (A police station was
actually put across the street from the synagogue because of security
concerns.) And the most intriguing speculation is that the local tourist
industry wanted to get rid of the group. The logic for this speculation
is as follows: Instead of living close to the synagogue, the Lubavitchers
lived a couple of miles away in the main tourist area of Fort Kochi, and
the merchants did not want an in-your-face group of Lubovitchers spoiling
the nature of the area. Also, the Lubavitchers offered open meals to the public and anyone could partake of the meals at no cost. (Lora says “sounds like Hari Krishas to me”). The restaurants did not want their business taken away by free meals being offered in the area. Who knows?

A comment about the Muslim community. There are goats wandering everywhere in town. Our favorite tuk tuk driver says that they are kept by the Muslim community as household pets. But it’s hard to think of goats walking at will around the house. And it’s hard to imagine that even a pet goat living past the day that a family wants to prepare a goat curry.
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Elephant Festival In Varkala

When I refer to Kerala as ‘India light’ people who haven’t been to the north don’t understand. Those who have, however, know exactly what I’m talking about. Here life is slower, the streets less crowded, the drivers not as crazy. Fewer beggars, fewer people living on the street, fewer sights that make you want to avert your eyes, or make you stare in amazement. Even the air pollution seems not so bad.

At times, though, I long for some of that crazy North India excitement and last evening my wish came true. Our super rickshaw driver (and my new Facebook friend) Mujee took us to the Hindu Alackatt Festival which happens every year at this time. Poles lining the main street were decorated with strings of colored lights and festooned with banners. There were floats with computerized figures that moved, dancing horses, marching drummers and dancers dressed in fantastic costumes. There were balloons and street food. And there were elephants – 18 of them, dressed in golden headgear and draped with garlands of chrysanthemums. Residents had placed shrines outside their homes with offerings and children dressed in their holiday outfits didn’t seem at all phased by the unending bursts of fireworks that were sounding all around.

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Heat

We knew it was going to be hot. I worried about how David (he who must be kept cool) would handle it, but never thought I’d be the one with the problem. By 10am the sun is high enough in the sky to begin baking everything it touches. You can almost see stream rising from the pavement. You feel like your head is going to explode, and then you see women walking down the street balancing pallets of bricks on their heads. How’s that for an instant attitude correction?

Practically speaking, being outside from 10 until 3:30 or 4 in the afternoon is asking for heat stroke. For a seaside town there is a surprising absence of any sort of sea breeze. You know when you don’t have to pee from breakfast to dinner you’ve not had nearly enough to drink. The school kids start their day at 6:30 and are in their way home before noon and the sports activities start on the parade ground (athletic field) right after dawn and end by 10am, picking up again after 5pm. This explains why, at one in the afternoon I am sitting in our lovely air conditioned hotel room catching up in the blog instead of sightseeing. We are planning where to go next. This takes a lot of time and energy as the internet is snail paced and phone calls sometimes go through and some times simply float around in space until they overcome the force of gravity and are lost forever.

We are between the weather equivalent of a rock and a hard place. Along the coasts and into the plains it’s blazing hot, while the inland hill stations can be quite cold. We’ve shipped back all our winter clothes. Farther north toward the Himalayas it’s still winter and even David who so badly wants to return to Darjeeling or go to Dharamsala agrees that the weather makes it a problematic destination. We actually considered leaving India to go to someplace temperate and affordable in Europe, but that place doesn’t seem to exist. Morocco seemed like a good idea until we read the State Department’s warnings. Anyway, this is an India trip, not a Europe or Africa trip.

We agree that ours in not in any way such a terrible problem to have, in fact we continually pinch ourselves at our enormous good fortune to have the chance to do any of this.

Update: it looks like we’ve decided on Northern Rajasthan after a few days at the beach and some time on a houseboat in Kerala’s Backwaters. Stay tuned for updates.