Installment #13 - December 11, 2000
(Updated December 27, 2000)

Cochin and Quilon

Rita was born and raised in Quilon (officially it’s now Kollam but Quilon is still often used) and left at age 20 to attend graduate school in the US. So our visit to the state of Kerala, where Cochin (officially Kochi) and Quilon are located, is a visit home for Rita. She still has relatives here, and much of our time in Kerala was spent visiting with family and extended family.

We arrived at the Cochin Harbor train station on Monday morning and took an autorickshaw to the Port House Hotel in Port Cochin. This four-room hotel is directly on the waterfront with a pier and an excellent view of the shipping channel. We relaxed and watched fishermen working the Chinese nets, and enjoyed a visit from Rita’s relative Tony, who offered to take us on a backwaters boat trip the next day. Tony is an accomplished boatman with many years of experience, and he met us early Tuesday morning with a speedboat of his own design, manufactured by his boatbuilding company.

Tony took us on a very pleasurable trip through the backwaters south of Cochin, where we saw fishermen in homemade canoes, fishing nets attached to poles fixed upright in the water, and men diving in the backwater channels for sand that they then put into boats and sold as construction material. We passed modest homes with outhouses built out over the water on stilts. [Someone boating by underneath might consider such outhouses as instead a bit immodest.]

We saw men climbing the coconut palms to cut off a bunch of buds and capture the sap in containers (similar to collecting maple syrup from the trunks of maple trees, except that the action is near the top of the coconut palm, and climbing is required). The result is coconut toddya drink similar to beer, I am told. [Not much that Allen knows about beer has he gleaned from first-hand experience.]

Tony’s knowledge of the backwaters and the activities that take place there made this a very informative trip as well as a great pleasure, and the hours seemed to fly by. When we returned to Cochin, Tony brought us to his home, where we met his wife Jansy and daughter Anne, and spent our second night in Cochin.

On Wednesday, Tony and Jansy drove us to the Ernakulam train station, where we boarded our train for Quilon. At this point, I was suffering from my firstand so far onlycase of Delhi Belly. I still have no idea what caused it. We were very happy to see Rita’s uncles Peter and Stephen at the Quilon train station with a car, ready to take us to Rita’s family home, where I spent the next couple of days resting while Rita caught up on her family’s doings. When I wasn’t feeling better after a couple of days, Stephan and Rita took me to a doctor, who prescribed medication (and charged 30 rupees for the office visit). We took the prescription to the local pharmacy and paid about 80 rupees (less than $2.00) for the antibiotic I needed to fix me up. I was fine in a few hours.

We took a backwaters speedboat ride from Quilon in a beat-up boat that smelled strongly of spilled gasoline. The contrast to our backwaters trip with Tony made us even more appreciative of his professionalism.

We visited with Father Ralph D’Cruz at his home on the campus of Fatima College, where he operates a counseling center for alcoholics. I know him as "Big Uncle"the literal translation of the Malayalam (the language of Kerala) for "great uncle"and he has visited us several times in California. 

We took a four-day trip to Kovalum beach and to Kanyakumari that is covered in the next report.

We spent one day with Bay Area friends Molly and Varghese, visiting the ashram of Ma Amritaananda Mayi, popularly know as "Ammachi".

We also made a relaxing 24-hour overnight trip to the beach resort of Varkala, which sits on a cliff overlooking the beach and the sea. It has a less commercial, more rural feel than Kovalum, with the hotels, restaurants, and Ayurvedic health centers on the top of the cliff, and two steep stairways down to the beach. I found a good paperback book at a local shop and spent most of my time sitting in the shade, reading. Rita went jewelry shopping.

We spent our time in Quilon at Rita’s mother's house. Rita’s mother spends most of her time in California, and the laws in India are such that it is easy to lose a house to a tenant or a squatter, so her brother Stephen (Rita’s uncle) lives in the house with his family, a mutually beneficial arrangement. Stephen’s wife Philo, daughter Asha, and his wife’s sister-in-law Molly served us great meals, provided laundry service, and generally made us feel like honored guests.

The mealtime custom we saw observed in most of the homes where we ate is that guests and the man of the house eat first, followed by the rest of the family, so Rita and I ate with Stephen, and everyone else ate after we finished. For me, they prepared boiled vegetables, chicken, noodles, and lots of other delicious non-spicy foods. I’m sure they found my food habits strange, but they did their best to identify the foods I liked. On one particular morning, my breakfast consisted of eggs, fruit, Coca cola, and ice cream. Strange, but delicious, and not spicy! [Sigh.]

The house, like most Indian houses, is of masonry construction. It is enclosed by a tall masonry wall with an iron gate for access to the street. It consists of living room, four bedrooms, kitchen, pantry, dining room and bathroom. Outbuildings provide a second bathroom and shower, and laundry facilities. Water is from a well and is pumped to a tank on the roof, from which it is gravity-fed to the house. There are permanent ventilation openings in the outside walls, and every room has a ceiling fan.

The street is about eight feet wide and is not paved. Most families in the neighborhood, including Stephen’s, have a motorscooter or motorcycle. Although cars do drive into this street, it is a tight fit, and the street becomes too narrow for cars at one end, so they must turn around in a yard or back out.

The neighborhood is located across the railroad tracks from the main street, and the railroad crossing gates are often down. According to a sign posted at the crossing, the gates are normally down, and are raised "only when necessary and safe to do so." In practice, that means that the gate is lowered about five minutes before a train arrives and, if a second or third train is expected soon, it remains down between trains. A wait of fifteen minutes is not uncommon, and one must allow for this in making plans. We often walked from the house to the other side of the tracks before getting an autorickshaw to avoid being stuck on the wrong side.

Stephen is in the process of starting a business dressing chickens; he will buy grown chickens, kill and clean them, and sell them to individual retail customers, and also sell them wholesale for weddings, birthdays, and other parties. The business will be housed on Stephen’s brother Peter’s property in a building that was formerly used for a catering business. During our visit, Stephen was in the process of building the chicken coop and dressing facility, painting the building, clearing space for a parking lot, setting up the retail sales counter, and making the other changes needed to convert the property to its new use.

I asked a lot of questions and was told that no building permit is required for the building modifications, no business license is required, and there is no health department permit or inspection. He expects that most of his retail sales will be to local residents who will just drop in, and he will solicit wholesale business for parties. His goal was to be open in time to get some of this year’s Christmas business.

I rode on the back of Stephen’s motorscooter and felt very exposed; other vehicles regularly came within inches of us, and the things that stuck out the farthest were my knees!

The job market for young people is not good in Kerala, I am told. To attend college, one must pay, in addition to tuition, a fee of tens of thousands of rupees. The fee is used to pay for the acquisition and maintenance of the school’s physical facilities, as there is not enough money available from the government. After graduating from college, the job seeker will often be asked to pay a large fee to an employer in order to get a job, and even then will probably be poorly paid. It is not surprising that Rita and I were asked by many young peoplefrom relatives to waiters and rickshaw driversif we could help them get a job in the USA. I understand that the more prosperous families in the neighborhood are those that have one or more family members working overseasmost likely in the Middle Eastand sending money back home.

We visited with Rita’s two older brothers and their families, and also with her uncle Peter who lives in a new (new since Rita left India, it is now 30 years old) house on the family land where Rita grew up. We walked on the nearby beach and visited her father’s grave.

Our time in Quilon passed quickly and, on Thursday the 14th, we said our good-byes and climbed aboard the train to Madurai, claiming the non-AC First Class seats/bunks we had reserved two days previously (the train did not have AC two-tier sleeperour usual accommodation for overnight travel). We planned to spend a few days in Kodaikanal (covered in Installment #15) before meeting our train to Madras (Chennai) on the 19th.

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Chinese fishing nets at Fort Cochin. The net is lowered into the water parallel to the surface on a four-pronged wooden gizmo, left there for a couple of minutes, and then pulled up and out of the water. The apparatus is counterbalanced with a series of large stones tied to a rope.
This Catamaran, Tony tells us, was seized by the Indian navy inside India’s territorial waters, where it was engaged in some kind of spying activity.
This dredging ship was going back and forth past our hotel all day and night, dredging material from the bottom of the harbor and dumping it out to sea.
Tony at the wheel of his speedboat during our spectacular backwaters cruise.
This house is located along the backwaters near Cochin. The palm leaf building on stilts is the conveniently-located outhouse.
A local resident paddles his canoe through some of Kerala’s beautiful scenery.
This guy is gathering coconut sap in a pot. It is known as coconut "toddy".
This boat is heavily laden with sand brought up from the bottom by the boatmen. It will be sold for use in construction. Each time we passed one of these boats, Tony had to slow to a crawl to avoid swamping it with our wake.
Jansy, Anne, Rita, and Tony at Tony’s home.
We saw this houseboat on the backwaters of Quilon. It can be rented by tourists for multi-day backwater tours.
Rita and her cousin Asha on the backwaters.
Big Uncle at his desk in the counseling center, with one of his counselees.
Big Uncle, Allen, and Francis (Shashi & Aruna’s father) at Big Uncle’s apartment.
A loaded canoe ferry makes its way toward Ammachi’s ashram.
Molly and Varghese in the canoe ferry that brought us to Ammachi’s ashram.
The beach at Varkala. The hotels, tourist shops, etc. are on the cliff above the beach.
We watched a team of fisherman haul in a fishing net at Varkala beach. This is the same operation as described in Installment 14 on Kovalam, but we had a better view here from the cliff above. Two teams on the beach pull on the ends of the net, while a third team in the water herds the fish into the fine mesh portion of the net.
This view shows the fish herding team. The mesh portion of the net is visible in the upper left part of the picture.
Rita’s mother’s house in Quilon.
From right to left are Rita’s uncle Stephen and aunt Philo, their daughter Asha, Rita, and Philo’s sister-in-law Molly. Stephen's son Alin lives in the house, but came and went like a ghost; we almost never saw him.
Rita with Stephen’s family’s dogs, Rooni and Rambo.
Stephen in the dressing area of his new dressed chicken business. The two short concrete walls will support the work surface. Behind him is the tank for skin, feathers and other chicken waste. To the right is the new chicken coop.
Rita’s niece Sandhya, brother Borgia, sister-in-law Lily, and nephew Sonil with Rita. I did not get a picture of her brother Bosco and family, whom we also visited. All of her other brothers and sisters live in the US.
Borgia is an active leader in Indian Boy Scouts and has received a national award for his work.

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