10/06/2008 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Clips from India: Fort Cochin (vii)

Fort Cochin is known as the most exquisite European-Indo combination on the western seaboard: Vasco de Gama both landed and died there, the Portuguese and Dutch established spice trades and churches, and even the Jews had two thousand years of history (interrupted by massacre by the Portuguese) before they collectively left for Israel after WW II, leaving just five families behind. The town simmers with one-story colonial homes lined along lush tropical palms, overlooking a bay where fishermen pull in Chinese nets, a torturous form of cantilever netting relying on the balance of rocks on one side of a pole, and a hanging man on the other.
Chinese nets

Unfortunately all this was lost on me because following a one hour drive from Alleppey, between the sea and backwaters, passing ducks and tufts of spun coconut rope, I arrived at the Malabar Hotel, considered the "best" in India---and felt a thud of disappointment. Perhaps it was the tourist hawkers lining the streets by the hotel, selling hanging elephants, or perhaps the fact that my luxury room had linoleum tile and none of the sweet cultural touches of the Residency. No old books or prayer tables. Of course, there was the requisite flower garland on the pillow, and a pool glittering under a string of lights right behind the reception table (so I could swim watching bobbing heads), but from my homey Indian mansion, where I alone would read in the salon of couches, I now spent the evening "sampling" in the "wine bar", an air-conditioned bistro enhanced by European techno music.

The IT guy in Raheem was right: you keep wanting better, and you regret what you left behind.

As for the port with the famous fishing nets, I could not see it, as I was blinded by the glare of one tourist shop after another. So I took a rickshaw to the synagogue.

Interestingly, my hotel brochure decorously does not mention "Jewtown", although it is one of the most famous sites in town. Perhaps its name offends, or perhaps it is too on the fringes of town, but for me, this small pearl of a synagogue--600 years old, with blue Chinese porcelain tile and hanging colored glass lamps from Spain--inspired me so much, I prayed to my Jewish grandfather, basically to say hello. It was a silent conversation, as I was the only one in the synagogue, except for a Sephardic woman with a tired look selling tickets outside, perhaps a descendent of one of the five families.

The narrow streets of Jewtown are charming: imagine a small town in Spain imported on a boat and sent to the Indian tropics, now lined with jewelry shops. The rickshaw also took me past the 1530 basilica built by the Dutch, where some Indian women bowed before a Mary in the chapel (they like she adorned in long blue scarves), and then--the highlight--a Ginger Factory, where women were grouped around nutmeg in a dusty brown barn, sorting out the big nuts from the small. A few other women were upstairs in this17th century Dutch building, in the attic, pushing pepper into plastic bags.

But the true highlight was after the town had gone to sleep. Then I left my hotel---ignoring their admonition that it was not safe at midnight for a woman to be alone--and I stole down the quiet streets, in the dark, until I came to the Dutch graveyard by the sea, and climbed over the rusted iron fence.

The granite was serious and imposing, large slabs paused permanently by the sea, which sounded on the other side of the stone wall. Behind me, outside the graveyard, awaited a group of hungry dogs.

I left the Dutch--lying there at their last port--and walked along the dark ramparts, past the ruins of the fort, and past three policemen manning the night, one of whom wanted me to explain Obama's scandal with the pastor.

Alone, I then walked to the farthest edges of the town, the Bishop's mansion, and turned the corner to the Vasco de Gama home---and it all seemed so strange and layered, in the quiet dark, I began to suddenly feel what could not be sensed with the noise and heat of the day--something that had nothing to do with the town, but with the deeply pleasurable sensation of being alone.

I went back to the Malabar, and slipped into my room---delightful now, its sweet white sheets so fresh---and put on a bathing suit and--scandalizing the receptionists who would never say a word (the hotel was so costly, the bowing was premium), I jumped behind the desk and swam.

The next morning, I flew to Rajasthan.

Mahari beach in Kerala

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