02.02.2010 - 04.02.2010 35 °C
Leaving the ashram: The 20-minute taxi ride to the train station at Karunagapally, near the ashram, was the usual terrifying adrenalin rush at breakneck speed around blind curves. The train ride itself was almost uneventful; at least, it would have been if not for a family that tried to board our coach a couple of stops after us. There were at least three adults and a handful of children, with an incredible number of unwieldy pieces of luggage, and the train had pulled into the station in such a way that they were positioned at the wrong spot on the platform for their coach. The trains here stop at small stations for a minute or so at most, so you really have to be organized to avoid disaster—usually, the stationmaster will post information about how far your assigned coach is from the engine, and you’re supposed to wait near that.
This family ended up having to run their bags the lengths of 11 cars down the platform, then try to heft them all into the compartment. The train began to pull away before all of the family members and their bags had made it onto the train, so two women came rushing towards me yelling urgently, “Pull the chain! Pull the chain!”. If you pull the chain, it stops the train, but if you misuse it (i.e., if there is no true emergency), you are liable to be fined up to 1,000 rupees or, according to the warning sign near the chain, receive a term in jail. Several Indian passengers near me completely disregarded her command to pull the chain, but somebody somewhere else must have acceded, because the train did stop. It had been stopped for about five minutes—and the family finally had all their bags on board—when several police officers boarded our car to make a report. The family was scolded and fined 1,500 rupees, and they spent the remainder of the two-hour ride chattering about it angrily and loudly. However, when it was time to disembark, they were a well-oiled machine: they had all of their bags ready and waiting at the door a good 10 minutes ahead of time.
We’ve now settled into a homestay in Fort Cochin, three hours up the coast. Cochin is a beautiful, peaceful heritage town, and we’ll be here for several more days before we head to Goa on an overnight train. The big excitement for today was when Ciaran and Mark were invited to have a go at helping some fishermen raise a massive, cantilevered Chinese fishing net out of the ocean to check on the catch. The shore near Cochin is peppered with these traditional, photogenic nets that are still raised and lowered with a combination of counterweights and muscle power. This evening we watched Kathakali dancing, and tomorrow, Chloe will take a two-hour art class from a local painter. Our homestay is run by the genial, affable Harry John, a retired banker who first opened up his large home to travellers seven years ago. He cooked dinner for us tonight, a fabulous array of Keralan specialties including spicy red snapper, basmati rice with cashews, pineapples and cranberries, and a sweet curry of pineapples and dates.
There are also loads of excellent restaurants around Cochin, and we tried one of them on our first night here. The food was just okay, but the music was a bit of a shocker. After the religious fervour of the ashram—with its no-alcohol policy and compulsory sevas and being surrounded by people who are devoting their lives to the pursuit of inner peace—you can imagine how jarring it was to find ourselves sitting on a patio in Cochin later the same evening, eating our curries and hoping the kids couldn’t hear the rap lyrics blaring from the sidewalk speakers: “Do you know how it feels to fuck on cocaine?” a stoned-sounding, female voice intoned repeatedly. What??
The really strange thing is that this restaurant, like most in Cochin, doesn’t even serve booze—not even beer. You can get beer in this town, all right—it’s not illegal—but you have to go to smoky, seedy places that are designated as bars and serve very little food, or to high-end places with expensive wine lists where the beer costs twice as much as it should. If you want to eat at an ordinary little midrange restaurant, you’re stuck with water, juice or lassis. We’re not sure why this is, but we suppose that many smaller restaurants just don’t want to pay for a liquor license. In any event, it was very bizarre to arrive fresh from the ashram’s atmosphere of purity, in a country where it’s considered disrespectful for women to wear skirts any higher than ankle length or show a little shoulder, and find ourselves in a dry restaurant listening to x-rated lyrics at top volume. But then I guess that’s India—always another surprise around the corner.