It all started with a bowel movement..too much street food in Mumbai or maybe a smoothie I had, forgetting that ice is an immediate red flag at shoddy establishments. Either way, I had to go, and I needed to find a place immediately. I already knew what would happen if I didn’t. I was aware that my body was rejecting what was inside. I came into India expecting to be sick; at least I made it 10 days before I got a bug.
I was walking along Bazaar Street in Kochi, a port city in Kerala five hours north of India’s southern tip by train. Bazaar street is a beautiful strain of rotting colonial warehouses taken over by modern, but outdated paper-billed family run businesses. There is one block of rice vendors with big colorful trucks parked outside. Men, usually middle aged to elderly, march 65lb bags of rice from truck to dock or dock to truck non-stop each day working with a striking similarity to ants. There’s a block of maritime hardware stores; another of onion vendors; then a block of a row of stores selling plywood. Each row is specialized. Different businesses sell the same thing.
The bottom floor of each building usually has a corrugated metal garage door that’s always open displaying a manager punching numbers on a calculator and recording details on copy paper. It’s antiquated business, but not as antiquated as the original structures they inhabit. The whole street of rotting warehouses is lined with beautiful old doors and four paneled shutter windows. Iron jail bars replace glass windows. The walls are lined with chipped paint, revealing the colors the structure wore over time. The place has an age-old beauty. The layers of history are engrained in the urban fabric, unchanged and unmaintained over time.
Knowing I needed to go, and needed to go quick, I rushed up to a second floor, hoping that whoever I found first would offer me a bathroom. As it turned out, I ran up to a cafe/art gallery/artist residency situated on the second floor of one of these buildings. I figured it would be worthwhile to introduce myself as an artist and share my drawings, but before I could get past introducing myself by first name, my stomach growled and I hit the 10 second countdown. “Hi, great to meet you! I’m David. I’m really sorry but do you have a bathroom I could use?”
I disappeared for 15 minutes, maybe longer. I returned to the founder of the residency gallery space with embarrassed and guilty eyes. But nevertheless, I explained who I was and what I was doing. It turned out that their artist ‘resident’ room was unbooked and I could move in until Friday.
I didn’t have a place to stay in Kochi past the one night I booked in a guesthouse, so I luckily, thanks to my food poisoning, found an amazing creative base with a large studio space. It’s in one of the colonial warehouses. My room is amazingly outfitted with tiled floors, a swing, jail-house style windows, you need to reach through the jail bars to close the wooden panel shutters. It’s all open air so the mosquitoes are a real problem, but the bed in the room has a tent-style mosquito net so I’m comfortably sleeping in what feels like an adult-friendly childhood fort. It’s great.
I’ve been having crazy, vivid dreams because of my malaria pills. They are so lucid and real that dreaming is not really like sleeping.
I started a large-scale painting of Kochi from an aerial point of view, all from memory. It’s pretty graphic. I like where it’s headed though.
The best way to get around Kochi is hitching a ride in a three wheeled motorized Tuk-Tuk. I’m staying in a part of the city called Fort Kochi that houses all the tourist attractions and therefore all the tourists. I’ve quickly learned that the Tuk-Tuk drivers get deals and discounts if they drop westerners off at certain galleries, restaurants, or spice shops. I figured that out quickly and it’s turned out to be huge bargaining weight. Here’s a sample conversation:
Driver: Want a Lamborghini ride?!—all they’re Tuk-Tuks are Lambos or Ferraris.
Me: I’m trying to go to Bazaar street in between the Chinese fishing nets and the Jewish Market.
Driver: 100 rupees.
Me: Thats outrageous, I’m not a tourist. This is only 3 minutes away. I’ll go for 20.
Driver: You want, I take you to St. Francis Cathedral, Chinese Nets, Synagogue, and Spice Port all in 1 hour. Full tour! Special price, just for you.
Me: I’m not a tourist. It’s okay, I’ll just walk.
Driver: Okay, okay, what’s your price.
Me: No more than 30.
At this point, they either drive away or are entertained and continue.
Me: The last guy I talked to said he’d go for 50 and that was too much.
Driver: 60 (classic Indian sideways head nod)
Me: What about swinging by a place where you get a free tshirt or a lunch coupon? (All I have to do is go into the place and chat around with the salesman. I just ask them questions like: whats the most expensive thing in here? How can you verify it’s authenticity? After they think they’re in for a big catch, I reveal I’m traveling around the world with a backpack and can’t carry an ancient Chinese waredrobe around Asia with me. Sometimes the drivers like hanging out and after stopping by one place where they get treats, just drop me off at my destination for free).
After a day and a half here, I’d say one out of every five tuk tuk drivers recognizes me.
All the fun in Kochi hasn’t come without downsides, however. First of all, I was pretty darn sick. With the stomach bug came feverish symptoms. I downed about 7 liters of water yesterday and slept it off in between waking up to urinate six or seven times. I’m feeling better today, but don’t have an appetite. Yesterday, walking home from a restaurant where I dined off some buttered rice, I was followed home by a man on bicycle. Every square inch of his body was covered with tumors. He has a skin disease and I felt terribly sympathetic for him, but it was also a nightmarish sight. He followed right next to me for about 10 minutes in the dimly lit street as I walked alone, slightly lost trying to find my hotel. He was begging for money and followed me right back to my guesthouse, so I walked past it, back to the main street and dipped into a grocery store. I was going to tell the shopowner I was being followed if he came in, but he turned and left. It was one of the more rattling, scary couple minutes of my life arriving in a brand new place with a deformed man stalking me through the dark.
The art gallery here seems like a great place. Tomorrow night, there is a live band coming to the space. It’s great being in the company of like minded creative people, especially being lucky enough to stumble into the place by chance.
Fort Kochi looks eerily like Venice. It’s a series of Islands on the Arabian sea, one or two were man-made, dredged to make more port space available. Over it’s history, Fort Kochi was were traders from Portugal, China, the Middle East, and India all met to do trade. It has influences of all those places in its architectural designs. There is a current, but rusted, system of water buses to get around via water. I rode one yesterday to go into the non-touristy center, Eranakalum and buy canvas. The water lies eerily close the land. If the water wasn’t calm, it would slop right over the edge onto the port, coast guard, navy base, hotels, resorts, and homes. There are no dikes, no embankments, the land dips only about 6 to 8 inches before it becomes water. It wouldn’t take much to kick the water over.
This past weekend I was in Goa, a mid-way point between here and there. it was useful to break up the train ride into two 13 hour segments. In Goa, I rented a motorcycle in one of the most basic rental agreements of my life. A woman who rented said she was all out. She called a friend and five minutes later it rumbled in front of the shop’s porch. We bargained a price, 600 for two days (5 dollars a day) and I paid him. They needed a passport copy as ransom. I didn’t want to give them one, but they agreed to hold on to my debit card. No signatures, no forms, nothing. I asked does it work? They said, yes. I asked is it safe? They said yes. That was good enough for me. I explored Goa on bike visiting temples, beaches, small towns. At one point, the most life-threatening, I found myself on a highway. There are no lanes in India. People pretty strictly only pass on the right, so I hugged the left side, only passing really really slow scooters. A cow was walking up the highway, into oncoming traffic. In the U.S., that thing would have been pelted and sent home for dinner, but here the cow is holy, so it parted the traffic the way moses parted the sea. Not really what a first timer on Indian roads wants to deal with though.
Over and out.