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Travelling amid the pandemic is a huge challenge. And more so when it is on a cruise. Nevertheless, I  chose to sail from Mumbai to Kochi on The Empress by Cordelia Cruises. After a day’s sailing, the ship docked at Kochi’s International Cruise Terminal. The sight of the Chinese fishing nets instantly triggered a sense of déjà vu.

After disembarking, I set off for a harbor cruise on a large motorboat that had two levels. Watching the unhurried pace of life of the fisherman, we passed by Vypeen, Gundu, Vallaradam and Bolgatty Islands. The river itself was dotted with water hyacinth which our guide explains is a non-native species that multiplies rapidly but dies when it meets the ocean’s saline water. The rains however have reduced the water salinity, so water hyacinth now thrive.

Chinese fishing nets. (Bindu Gopal Rao photo)

I spotted a whole lot of black headed Ibis and sea gulls as well, during the hour-long cruise.

Fort Cochin

My destination this time was to see Jew Town.  While I have been here a few times in the past, this time things were different. For one, the hustle and bustle of the space was completely missing.

“Kochi has been an important destination for containers. A fallout of the pandemic has been the rising cost of transport, as container shipping has gone up by six times and hence the prices of construction has gone up. Also, this is typically a busy time, but this has been only the third time I have found work,” said my guide.

Kochi’s St. Francis Church. (Bindu Gopal Rao photo)

As we walked ahead, stopping at the St. Francis Church, the first European church to be built in India with the oldest European settlement of Fort Cochin, again it was empty except for our group. Mulling over how life has changed, it was time to disembark at Fort Kochi, the oldest part of the city which happens to have a charming European vibe thanks to its Dutch and Portuguese history.

Vasco de Gama

The St. Francis Church, the first European church to be built in India with the oldest European settlement of Fort Cochin. It owes its origins to the Franciscan Friars who came with the Portuguese expedition in 1500 AD. The structure was originally made with wood but was rebuilt with stone and a tiled roof in 1516 and is dedicated to St. Anthony. The imposing cream hued facade facing west is surmounted by a bell-turret over the gable front and has an arched entrance flanked by stepped pinnacles.

European navigator for Portugal Vasco de Gama was laid to rest here in 1524 and the church has his tomb. His remains were removed and taken back to Portugal by his son in 1538. The North and South side walls of the church have several gravestones of the Portuguese and Dutch. Interestingly these have heraldic designs and armorial bearings a sign of the fine workmanship of those times.

Kochi’s Jew Town. (Bindu Gopal Rao photo)

Pardesi Synagogue

And as a last stop I headed to Jew Town where the empty road beckons us. There were a few shops open, several have closed permanently as well. I stopped at the Pardesi Synagogue,which is over 450 years old and happens to be the oldest in the Commonwealth region. The structure of the synagogue is built on Sephardic traditions and faces East towards Jerusalem. The main prayer hall has two brass pillars at the entrance symbolic of the pillars in the Temples of Solomon. Silver chandeliers from Belgium and colorful glass lamps dot the ceiling.

Most impressive are the tiled floors. Each of the 1,100 tiles were hand-painted 250 years ago by Chinese artists. The tiles bear unique willow patterns, with flowers such as lotuses underneath the willow trees.

Covid Has Changed Everything

Since it was lunch time, my guide suggested that I head to Mocha Art Café. A wood staircase brought me to a quiet café that seemed like an art gallery. Admiring the paintings on the wall, I ordered a cold coffee and found a small seating nook that overlooks the Jew Street. It is a bonus that the windows are painted with recipes and food imagery. As I sipped my drink, sitting at the window, I was struck by how quiet the place was, clearly a victim of the pandemic.

Which was also my first question at the store I visited. The owner told me that this was the typical holiday season when the streets would be abuzz with foreign tourists. “Corona has changed everything, even the spice markets have closed, and we hardly have any tourist coming now,” she rued.

Souvenirs At A Bargain

As a state that has been hailed for its efforts in managing the pandemic (India’s first confirmed COVID-19 case was here), Kerala has led from the front. With an approximate population of 35 million, the state has conducted 28 million tests, equivalent to 80 percent of the people who live there. Having had experience with the Nipah virus (that it curtailed successfully) as well as large-scale flooding, the disaster management has been top notch. This has helped the state manage the pandemic and be a role model for other states to follow.

Naturally, the prices of all the souvenirs have reduced to a more reasonable level. Without bargaining, I picked up a wooden cow head and an antique brass elephant as a memory of this trip. 

The marketplace currently was very calm, so it allowed me to explore the space at my own pace without feeling the rush. While it was great for me, my heart did go out to the vendors here. Sheila, one of the women store owners told me: “We have kept a very small margin now as the market has been closed for months. A few of us have reopened, but if you notice, most shops are still closed.”

As I bade goodbye to her, for once I hoped to see the crowds back at Fort Kochi for the sake of the local businesses here.