As a shrimp eating, cheeseburger loving, more spiritual than religious wandering Jew… I was on a hunt for a synagogue in India – seemed like the perfect plan while in the neighborhood. Cochin is a quaint little town in the state of Kerala and by the time I arrived it was hot – real hot and real humid – and I was, in hindsight, most likely starting to get sick from something I had eaten.
My first afternoon I spent wandering around the little town as the sun was setting, sweating my ass off and wondering what there was to see other than a synagogue. While I was watching the fisherman use ancient fish nets I heard, “lady, hey lady want to try?” Um, yes – of course I want to try, you obviously don’t know who you’re asking. The fishermen welcomed me aboard their boat, showed me the ropes (no pun intended) and then let me have a go. They sang their song, did most of the work and came up with a few small fish. After a while, when the novelty wore off and I was finished taking photos they subtly showed me the tip jar – of course, it’s India nothings for free!
Later that evening when I was again just wandering the streets this random guy asked if I was American? I didn’t think my outfit screamed American, but without much discussion I agreed to go with him (another American) to see some festival that he had heard rumors about. It turned out to be a great night, we were the only foreigners among hundreds, possibly thousands of Indians celebrating something. From what we gathered, it was a birthday for Shiva (one of the many gods). In the sandy lot men twirled with large, colorful headdresses to the beat of drums and scratchy music blasted from nearby speakers. It was kind of crazy, we found ourselves in this amazing festival, not understanding what we were celebrating, surrounded by colors, statues the size of small houses, flickering lights and being attacked by little kids as well as drunk teenagers.
My cultural tour continued at the Kathakali performance. Yes, I’ll admit the air-conditioned performance space was a huge draw but it turned out to be a very unique show. The first hour and a half or so I sat and watched as three hairy Indian men transformed themselves into a demon woman, a seductive “beautiful” woman and a king. The piece was an excerpt from a longer play, which was fine with me because there were no words; the actors use over exaggerated facial expressions, movements with their eyes, special sign language and screeching bursts of noise to act out the play.
Jew Town, I swear it’s called this, is the old part of Cochin. I spent the day looking in antique shops, watching woman sift through rocks to retrieve peppercorns, poking my nose in large storage areas holding garlic and ginger, taking photos of random fat babies, sweating, taking leisurely breaks at cafes and of course I saw the synagogue. Paradesi synagogue was built in 1568 (Paradesi literally means foreigners in Hindi); the synagogue, not surprisingly, has very very strict rules – you’re not allowed to take photos, have any bags, wear shoes or complain! The charming synagogue is a small, one room building tiled in blue and white from China and lit by several Belgium chandeliers tucked back at the end of a road – I was in and out in under ½ an hour and trust me when I say I read everything.
Feeling off I unfortunately didn’t sample any of the amazing seafood which I hear is really good there, I mean I helped catch some after all. After only two quick days I was ready to escape the heat and humidity and move on to my next destination further inland and higher in elevation.