January 29, 2009

Harem pants for me

Readers of this blog with long memories will remember a mention last May that I had won the Time Out magazine travel writing contest.

The prize was a short trip to the Taj Malabar hotel in Cochin. My son and I duly undertook that trip last October. My end of the bargain was that I had to write an essay about the trip, and Time Out would publish it.

I did write it, and it appears in the current issue of Time Out (January 23 to February 5, 2009). Here it is too, appended below. As always, your comments welcome.


Harem Pants for Me

When he heard where in the city son Sahir and I were going to be, a Cochin friend put it nice and succinct. The Taj Malabar, he said, is in "a lazy quiet area." For me, that only upped the anticipation. I mean, I can use lazy and quiet, pretty much any time.

The friend was right. Willingdon Island, where the Taj is, seems stuck in a time warp. Streets are long and empty, with a few kids playing cricket desultorily, several nondescript trucks wandering about aimlessly. Walking along the eastern shore, looking across the water at the glitz and glass of Cochin proper, we pass a number of serene bungalows that could be out of a history book. From the windows of our room we look out over the bay, where long skeins of water hyacinth float with the currents, boats small and enormous plow through them, and matching skeins of egrets waft past. Across the water to the west is Fort Cochin, red-tiled roofs asleep among palms.

That kind of place. I mean, not even the egrets are in a hurry.

Yet on sleepy Willingdon Island, a whole lot of people are making preparations for a race. The Volvo Ocean Race Cochin Stopover is its full mouthful of a name. It will happen in December 2008, and what it appears to mean for Willingdon Island is a major makeover.

They have dug up the road outside the Taj so it's an expanse of damp mud. The western shore is a jumble of construction equipment and concrete mixers, dump trucks and demolished buildings. Dozens of crazily parked motorbikes add to the excitement. All this bustle, to prepare for the Stopover.

Now I'm sure they are planning a razzle-dazzle kind of seafront for whoever the Ocean Race tourists are, but to me, razzle-dazzle misses the point of this spot. So I wonder about the Stopover makeover: why would anyone take away Willingdon's slow-paced charm? Why not preserve and showcase what is unique about this place?

Like the morning when Sahir and I wait for a ferry. They're remaking the jetty too, and so a man wielding a blowtorch to slice through pieces of steel qualifies as entertainment here. This is true: at least a dozen other waiting passengers join us to stand and gawk. When the ferry arrives, it's come from Matanchery and it's en route to Fort Cochin. But we want to get to Matanchery, to the synagogue. "Take this ferry", advises a man with a bicycle, tiring of my Tamil and switching to Hindi, "and from Fort Cochin you can get an auto to Matanchery." So we putt-putt across the water hyacinth. We gawk some more, now at a team of orange-suited men in a tiny boat right up against a huge freighter, using long mops to swab the metal flank. Steel-cutter, now steel-swabbers.

The ride is only ten minutes, and there's another boat at that jetty. The same bicycle man comes over and points in excitement. "Matanchery ferry!" he says. (Is that Tamil or Hindi or Malayalam or English?) So we step into that one as he waves goodbye. In minutes, we are putt-putting back across the water hyacinth, back past the orange suits -- more gawking -- to the same jetty where the same man still wields the same blowtorch. More gawking again. Nearly half an hour, just to return to this spot. But hey, we're on holiday, right? Pick up more passengers, and we cross to Matanchery.

It's been fun already, and it gets better. The synagogue is at the end of a narrow alley lined with tourist trap stores. As we approach, I see a man at the synagogue entrance, wagging his finger and shaking his head at me, pointing at my shorts and at a sign on the wall. No shorts. What's to be done? While I begin calculating when I can make the trip out here again, whimsical ferries permitting, I send Sahir in. His capris pass muster, I don't know why. But the man waits till after Sahir has disappeared to tell me that one of the tourist traps can rent me pants for Rs 10.

He's right. But I'm hardly delighted when the guy there takes one look at me and carefully selects from his stock the garment with the widest waist. I get the point, friend, I'm not quite the same shape as Ishant Sharma. You don't need to rub it in.

Luckily, the thing has a drawstring.

Now properly robed, I'm anxious to go find Sahir. But this store is a distraction. It sells antiques in the broadest sense of the word, meaning much of the inventory is delightful old junk. There are chairs of every description, crumbling old books with their spines missing, large rusting keys. Much like a visit to Chor Bazar. And there's a stack of framed black-and-white photographs, the kind you might find in a doctor's chamber or a principal's office. The one on top is a classic: it freeze-frames a St Joseph's Boys School Std 9 class trip to Thrissur in 1962. Students and teachers, uniformly stiff and unsmiling. Where are all these solemn lads now, I find myself wondering idly. I would love to meet one and ask, didn't you and your buddies at least crack some jokes about your teachers on that Thrissur trip, pal?

Waddling into the synagogue with these vast harem pants billowing around me, I get the feeling I must look like a clown from Apollo Circus. The woman who sells me my Rs 2 ticket looks me up and down with distaste, as if to say, here's one more dude who turned up without pants. I swallow my pride and go in search of Sahir. And I find that the synagogue works to keep visitors, even fully-clothed ones, on their toes. Hanging from several chains are signs that advise, "No one is allowed this way". Even the handsome pulpit, covered in battered gold leaf -- you guessed it, "No one is allowed inside the pulpit." With so many admonishments, it's a wonder we spend half an hour there without doing something we're not allowed to do.

Still, the synagogue offers a certain austere beauty, a sense of history. Take the Hebrew tablet on the wall, with a note explaining that it came from a synagogue built in Kochangadi in 1344 ("the oldest synagogue in Cochin"). 1344! Before I was born! Exactly 653 years later, another tablet was embedded in the wall, this one presented by the then-President of Israel and his wife, the Weizmans, in early 1997. The clock high above, running a steady 15 minutes behind my watch, was installed in 1760. The delicate blue floor tiles came from China. Each is different enough that they remind you there was indeed a time before mass-production.

Seven centuries of Jewish history, seeping through these tiles and walls, even reaching through my harem pants to raise the hairs on my skin. What might the Volvo Ocean Race fellows, intent on rebuilding and renovating, make of that?

Back at the Taj, I've signed up at the spa for a massage. Sahir had his the previous day, and so enjoyed it that he really wants me to have one too. While he reads outside, a young Tibetan woman called Penpa leads me to a room where she tells me to sit in the steam bath for a few minutes. I follow her instructions, sweating like a long-distance runner and feeling the steam scald various parts of my body. Then a shower that, in contrast, seems almost icy cold. I feel, oddly, more squeaky clean than I have in months.

And yes, it gets better. For the next hour, I lie on a bed and Penpa pummels and kneads my scalded flesh, one limb at a time. She's very good, thorough and diligent. Massages like these, the few times I've had them before, have been somewhat underwhelming experiences -- in that I don't feel like they tackle the muscular aches I'm prone to. What's different this time is that under Penpa's attentive pummeling, I actually slip into a semi-conscious state where I'm barely aware of the lilting music, or the scent of the oils she is using. Or even the pummeling. I feel my mind shutting down, my mood mellowing, my thoughts slowing to a trickle.

I feel lazy.

I feel like I belong, here on Willingdon Island. And while I'm in this haze, a question wafts into my head like a lone white egret. Do I want to return here when the Volvo Race Stops Over?

Well, I did kind of like those harem pants.


Leon1234 said...

Hey, how are you doing? Hope all is well.

Anonymous said...

The guys with mops on the side of the ship were descaling and/or trying to get barnacles off. No fun mopping the side of a ship, no, its going to get wet again.

The synagogue and what they don't tell you - stone by stone the original was shipped to Israel, the really old one is now there, and what you have in Kochi now is a replica.

Kochi is one of the last few cities in the world where the tanker terminal is still bang off downtown. Maybe it's the only city in the world which has this feature.

Unknown said...

Hi Dilip,

Glad you had a great time in Kochi! Next time also have a night out in a house boat! But that's at Kumarakom or Alleppy.



seaferns said...

hey.... i must protest that you seem to be knocking the Volvo Ocean Race without having researched it.

the VOR is the pinnacle of ocean sailing / ocean racing and has been described as the Everest of Sailing.

WRT the Kochi stopover, it was the Port Trust of Kochi who went all out to get the race to stopover at Willingdon.

If the race and its preparations have upset the customary somnabulence at Willingdon Island, it is owing completely to the inability of the administration to ensure the harmonious co-existence of both the VOR and the Willingdon way of life.

the VOR stops over many many cities on its year long round-the-world race and at most of these cities, the race compliments and enhances the local cultural experience, rather than mars it.