The sun setting over the Arabian Sea.

A Semester in India: Kochi

KOCHI, Kerala — After leaving the beautiful Kerala backwaters, our bus began the short journey to the “Queen of the Arabian Sea,” Kochi. Soon, our tour group saw small groups protesting the entrance of two women into a prominent Hindu temple that previously forbade women between 10–50 years old. The protestors stopped our bus one time but waved us through after they saw that we were tourists.

As the financial, industrial, and commercial capital of Kerala, Kochi was the most modern city that we had visited up to that point in India. Developed infrastructure and contemporary buildings intermingled with an architectural and cultural blend of native Indian, Dutch, Jewish, and British influences. Surprisingly, the ruling coalition in Kerala is led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), and hammer and sickle flags dotted the city.

Fearing retaliation for not complying with the statewide shutdown issued by various organizations in response to the women entering the Hindu temple, the stores in this normally bustling city of 2.1 million people were closed, except for a handful of tourist attractions. However, as the day wore on, stores slowly began to open.

We had lunch at the Cochin Club, which was founded in 1914 and previously only open for British nationals, and then visited several historic sites including what is officially called “Jew Town.” Home to India’s oldest synagogue — the Paradesi Synagogue founded in 1568, Jew Town’s quiet cobblestone streets are lined with numerous spice and antique shops.

The next morning, we visited an open-air laundromat called a Dhobi (both the name for the clothes washing location and the name for the clothes washers). Dhobi is also a caste class, so like many other castes, there is a matchmaking website: https://www.dhobimatrimony.com/

When we were about to leave for our next tourist location, I spotted a nearby haircut location, and I got a quick haircut and deep tissue head massage for 80 rupees (about $1.12). Indian haircut prices make Great Clips’ prices look outrageous.

Left: Before… Right: After! I should have gotten a shave as well.

We then visited St. Francis Xavier’s Church, one of the oldest churches in India, which holds the original burial site of the first European to reach India by sea — Vasco de Gama — before his body was moved to his native Portugal.

Walking along the shore, we watched the rising and falling of Kochi’s famous Chinese fishing nets, cheena valas. Renowned Chinese explorer Zheng He is reported to have brought the nets to Kochi over 500 hundred years ago. Originally contemplating ordering freshly caught seafood, the seafood at the stalls looked a little too sketchy for our sanitized Western stomachs.

Left: A beach in Kochi. Unfortunately, not quite a swimming beach. Center: Doing our part to help the fishermen. We did not catch a single thing. Right: The Chinese fishing nets.

During our harbor cruise this night, we experienced a picture-perfect sunset over the Arabian Sea.

Kochi’s past, present, and future are tied to the Arabian Sea. From Vasco de Gama and Zheng He bringing European and East Asian influences, to the critical port and fishing that provide livelihoods for many Kochi residents, the sea is integral to this city.

The next morning, we had an early flight bound for the wealthiest city in India and the 12th richest in the world. Next stop: Mumbai.

Heavy influence of the Middle East on Kerala is evidenced here: Dubai Port World is a global port operator. More than one-third of Kerala’s GDP is remittances of Indian nationals working in the Persian Gulf.

Georgetown University student. I lived in India from December 2018 to April 2019. As it has done to so many others, India stole my heart.