45 minutes after our final presentations with Dr. Sudarshan, the head of Karuna Trust, I traded in my salwar suit and outdated copy of “A Practical Guide to Labour Management” for non-wrinkling travel pants, a t-shirt, and Lonely Planet’s guide to South India, headed to the bus station, and took an overnight bus Kochin. Just one week ago I was spending the final night of my internship on night duty at the FRU and last night I fell asleep listening the boisterous German family staying next door to me at the Sapphire Tourist Home. Stepping out of my “intern” shoes and shifting to traveller-mode has been an intersting transition. Following the loftily descriptive advice of my travel guide is such a far cry from working so intimately with people in the intense Karuna Trust hospitals. Nevertheless, I’m having a fantastic time learning from India in this completely different, albeit less dramatic, lens. Here’s a run down of what I’ve been up to:
Shrestha and I spent out first day in Kochin running a whole mess of errands to prepare for the rest of our travel. Early the next morning we headed off to Munnar, tea capital of Kerala, for our first full day of touring. It’s no surprise that the landscape made it onto the cover of our Lonely Planet—even through the sheets of rain (the monsoons barely took a break the whole time we were there) the place is breathtaking. The hills look like they’ve popped out of a Dr. Suess book: manicured tea-trees neatly arranged in rows cover the hillsides, creating a surreal zig-zagged pattern of greenery. We went on a 6-hour roadside trek, drank enough tea to make us jittery and have to pee every hour, and bought our fair share of local teas and spices. My purchases were black tea granules, cardamom, cinnamon, vanilla beans and homemade chocolate to whip up some Munnar-inspired ice cream when I get back to the States.
The next highlight was cruising the backwaters of Alleppey on a houseboat with a group of young cigarette-smoking, vodka-drinking French tourists we met at our hotel. The crew handed us coconuts with straws in them as soon as we got on the boat, and we spent the day cruising through the maze of backwater channels, listening to bad pop music from Tamil Nadu, napping, and eating. The boat crew cooked us a giant feast of rice, curries, chicken, fish, and giant tiger prawns we picked up on a stop to a nearby fishmonger. We ended our day walking along a nearby beach.
Yesterday Shrestha and I finally had a chance to see the sites in Fort Kochin, all of which were closed the first time we tried to see them. The Pardesi Synagogue and Jew Town have been the highlight of my trip so far. The inside is arranged like so many other Sephardic synagogues I’ve seen—a large rectangular room with glass chandeliers hanging from the high ceiling, benches arranged on the sides facing the bima in the center, and an upper floor for women to sit while they worship. The covered arc in the front of the room houses the Torah. In this synagogue the floors are lined with intricately hand-painted tiles imported from China and there are rickety old fans to keep the congregants cool from the humid Indian heat. And there are also tourists, for not only is this the place of prayer for the local Jews, it’s also a museum, and getting closer every day to becoming only that as the community quite literally nears extinction.
It was awesome to experience such a precious corner of my own Jewish heritage, here, in the middle of India. Not just in the hyperbolically American “Awesome!” sense of the word, but in that thie place filled me awe, inspiration and admiration for all of its history. Sitting there felt close and familiar even though it was a world away from the Jewish culture and community I know at home. When I met Sarah Cohen, an old Kerelan Jewish woman, at her home and hand-embroidery shop, she had the same feisty, irreverent and frank spirit that characterizes so many other older Jewish women I know. But the most bizarre feeling was bearing witness to a people—also my people—that are about to be no more. There are only 7 Keralan Jews left here, and all of them are in their 80’s and 90’s. Within the next generation they will all be gone, the only thing left will be their history and stories.
Before I head out on my first day solo (Shrestha headed off to Manali last night) I own a major nod of gratitude to CASI. Thank you for the opportunity to experience ironies, contradictions and richness of India by sending me to the delivery room of a government funded hospital in rural Karnataka. Thank you for soaking me to the bone in Munnar and warming me back up with tea and chocolate. Thank for casting me off on a houseboat through the backwater channels of Alleppey and filling my belly with tiger prawns and calamari. And thanks for stoking my Jewish identity crisis (!) bringing me Kochin, where tonight I’ll be attending a Shabbat service in a 400 year-old synagogue with the last 7 Jews left in Kerala.
Tomorrow I fly to Sri Lanka. Elephants, leopards, ancient ruins and ex-pat surfers await. Good luck to the rest of the CASI crew in whatever your post-internship plans are, be it travelling or decompressing at home.