We arrive late in the old colonial enclave of Fort Kochi. We are now seasoned travellers. We will not accept sub-standard accommodation, when we know we will find better around the corner with just a little more time and effort. The Wife is tired and we leave her with the bags while the three of us go and look for a new home for a few days. She only has one pre-requisite, ‘Make sure there are no mosquitos in the room.’ She reacts very badly to insect bites, her skin breaks into mini inverted angry volcanic cones. The first damp wooden guesthouse looks like a breeding cage for vector malaria carriers. The boy simple says, ‘no thanks’, seconded by the girl. The guesthouse owner looks at them and then me, as if I have two very well trained monkeys to do my bidding. The second place is slightly better, it would have done me, but I would be in a very small minority. The final place we find, after being scooted about by a commission induced tut-tut driver is like a newly built palace, as well as all the usual defences to keep bugs out, it has cable tv. The wife is impressed, it has gone one in the morning now.
Fort Kochi like many parts of India is a magical place, the old Portuguese seaward port with its wooden porches and balcony frontages are juxtaposed against the modern hubbub of Ernakulam and Wellington Harbour. The pace of life drops and you feel you can exhale and relax, whilst stepping back in time.
The next day we take a boat tour around the Wellington Harbour in the hyacinth infested waters, so thick you feel you can walk on the carpet of hypnotic ebbing and flowing vegetation. This highly invasive plant species, which originates in the Amazon basin is a global nuisance. In this case it is the British Colonials to blame. If you are caught even thinking about it in New Zealand you are sentenced to be an extra on a Peter Jackson film for the rest of your life. In Kerala it clogs the nets of fisherman and the beaches. It is a clear reminder not to put organisms were nature has not evolved them to be. When I was in Queensland, Australia, I asked a local to find and show me a cane toad for the very same reason. ‘Are you takin’ this piss, mate?’he succinctly asked. I wasn’t.
The reason we are in Kochi is do the beautiful meditative backwaters. The wife has been many years before, and now she wants us to experience it as a family. It is verdantly tranquil; tiffin off a banana leaf, birds, snakes. The only negative – a bloated dead dog we happen across when punting in a tributary. This sort of sums India up, no one wants to take responsibility for clearing it up, even though many tourists will see it and it will upset them. No one in the area seems to care that it reflects badly on them. It is the same with rubbish, no one wants to take responsibility. It makes you appreciate having such services in our western worlds. The train stations used to serve chai in clay cups, you threw them on the floor, and they biodegraded very slowly, hopefully to be eventually shovelled up and composted back into the land. These have been replaced by plastic and polystyrene, biodegradations enemy. Rats of the near future will be making dwellings from these.
The next day we are up early to visit the Konadad Elephant Sanctuary. We are getting to the stage now, were we have probably seen enough elephants, but this sanctuary offers the chance to wash the elephants in the shallows of Periyar River. There are some images, no matter how much your brain deteriorates you will never forget. The children washing a baby elephant, while its mother watches on contently is one. Encouraged by the keepers to rub harder with coconut husks. It is life affirming, we know we are merely tourists, but some events are so wonderful you have to get involved and beam. The photograph is on the bookcase, and of all the art in our house it is the one image that draws most attention. The day is brightened further for the keepers when my son takes what he thinks is a small concrete step down into the murky river water to completely submerge. It is only funny if you are watching what appears to be a Norman Wisdom impression. I pull him out laughing, told be told quite angrily, ‘It’s not funny.’’It is from up here.’ The laughter of the natives only partly reassures him in retrospect it may well be.
Have you ever ridden bareback on an elephant?? – Don’t! The hair of this particular pachyderm was literally like wire wool sticking into you. I’m on because the girl wants the experience. ‘It hurts, dad.’I stoically tell her it is only a short distance to allow us guinea pigs to be photographed and advise the other members of the family unit to avoid the experience, washing an elephant in a river will suffice for them.
Early the next morning I can’t sleep, and I decide to have a wander. The Chinese nets, cantilevered square framed nets (Shore operated lift nets, if you’re a trainspotter) that dip into the water and ‘grab’ the sea creatures from within. They are manned by Indians, not Chinese, originating form Portuguese Macau and I stand and watch amazed they catch enough to survive. One of the Indian fisherman beckons me over, it is early and there are no tourists there apart from me. So even though, again, I know I am, I don’t feel like one. I feel even more like a piscator, when after a short induction I counterbalance my weight against the net and bring forth my fruits of the sea. If you’re on a diet and like a small amount of tiny fish with a water hyacinth side salad, I’m the type of fisherman you need to employ. Yet again, it is life affirming, I’m immersed, quite literally in another culture, while my family sleep happily, and I can’t help thinking if I was back home, I would be getting up to do another repetitive day’s toil.
The day ends by us choosing lobster and fish to be cooked in an open air restaurant, just next to the nets. It is of course delicious and has the added bonus of being cheap, to us, anyway. The adults want a beer each.
“We can’t serve beer, we don’t have a licence, and the police will shut us down if they catch us.”We know they won’t shut them down, but they will ask for more baksheesh. “We do have ‘special chicken-tea.” We are confused. He assures us we will not be disappointed with his ‘special chicken-tea.’The chicken-tea arrives in a kitsch 70’s chicken jug, and tastes very much like cold beer.
A friend’s mum got divorced and she said to us many years later. ‘Never split up unless you are certain, all those photographs and their associated memories mean nothing to your new partner. The subtext, that is difficult for a lot of humans to say is, ‘I made a mistake.’ This what I think when I see that photo of me and the wife–a photo that will mean almost nothing to someone else, a moment in time, even though we were not ‘young’, the possibilities like now, were endless. You are never too old. As I said before, little ‘mini-retirements’ are the way forward. You might not live to see the ‘nirvana’retirement, and for most, they will be too old, or disinclined to do something adventurous.
The night before we leave we visit a martial arts show which is pretty boring after the novelty of a three stripped metal whip has been thwurted around and sparks flying from the concrete floor. A piece of the band of the whip part is embedded in the ceiling from the night before. Even with the threat of soft flesh being pierced, it fails to engross. They came around with the comments book, we do the usual British thing, complain within our group, then I write some vague platitude about ‘the sizzle, and not the steak.’
Next time: Being a dad.
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