Crew: Nick Thomas and Liz Vernon
India to Oman
Equinox greetings from the Arabian Sea where we lie becalmed 100 miles off the coast of Oman. Our diesel is finished so we just have to sit it out and pray for wind.
Cochin India Local boats Coracle barge transport
Meanwhile, we can tell you about Kochi (Cochin), India, where the first thing to grab our attention was the political activity, -no apathy in the state of Kerala. Red flags were flying down every street for a big CPI (Communist Party of India) rally to protest against FDI (foreign direct investment). No sooner were these rolled away than they were replaced by Congress Party flags for the local election campaign and visit of Sonia Gandhi. Then came a DYFI rally, (Democratic Youth Federation of India), red star on white, -lots of marching and speeches well into the night. We devoured a choice of daily papers to try and follow all the comment and analysis of these events. Then came the visit of George Bush which brought forth a great deal of opinion, and plenty of photos of anti-Bush demos. In Kochi the Anti-Bush Campaign committee organised a three day human rights film festival. All this was happening in down-town Kochi on the eastern side of the harbour, a short dinghy ride from our anchorage.
Traditional "Chinese" fishing nets Fort Cochin
On the other side of the wide harbour lies Fort Cochin, the historic part of town with warehouses built by the Portuguese and the Dutch and the elegant administrative buildings of the British in their lovely gardens. The warehouses line the waterside, long and low with ochre walls and red tiled roofs. No one’s bothering to preserve this heritage and much of it is crumbling to rubble, but enough warehouses remain, their splendid wooden portals and rows of shutters intact, and are still very much in use by wholesale traders. You could think yourself in the 17th century as you walk the narrow streets past the spice merchants sitting amongst their sacks with samples on display. The spices are the finest: cumin, cardamom, fenugreek, mace and especially pepper, the ‘black gold’ of the Malabar Coast. There are also sacks and sacks of rice and tea and piles of cashew nuts and nutmegs. Up the coast from this is another unique feature of old Kochi, the Chinese fishing nets, which reach out over the water on the seaward side. The huge nets are suspended from great wooden booms and manipulated by weights and at least four men hauling on ropes. It’s a remarkable sight to watch them slowly descend into the sea every five minutes or so and slowly come up again, with or without a catch.
As well as these historic sights, we’ve seen some Kathakali, Kerala’s traditional dance. This is powerful theatre, -elaborate gestures and a whole language of facial expressions executed by men in breath-taking costumes and extraordinary make-up. The make-up takes over an hour to apply, and you can get there early to watch. The stories are of gods and demons and the creatures who finally appear on stage certainly bear little resemblance to anything human. We were lucky to coincide with a festival at the Shiva Temple where the Kathakali was performed every night. The festival also involved elephant processions with drums and trumpets, the elephants resplendent in their finery while young men stood on their backs twirling colourful parasols. India has certainly lived up to our expectations!
Kerala backwaters ....Boat and boatman
Yet another unique experience to be had in this part of India is the Kerala Backwaters, (the context for Arundhati Roy’s ‘The God of Small Things’). The backwaters stretch for miles inland, -a vast area of rivers, canals and lakes. People live in small communities at the water’s edge in the shade of lofty trees and get around in canoes and longboats. The boats are poled along through the shallow water and it’s all very quiet and leisurely, a seemingly idyllic way of life far from road traffic and urban pollution. People work in cottage industries: rope-making from coconut fibre, extracting lime from shells, fishing, growing bananas and coconuts. And since this way of life in its tranquil setting has become a tourist attraction, taking groups on boat trips through the backwaters provides another nice little earner. We went on such a trip, spending a very peaceful day being punted along amongst the water lilies under the tropical trees.
Bolgatty island sunset
All of the above makes Kerala a hot spot for tourism and the great majority of the tourists are from India. Our anchorage was on the route of the harbour cruise boats, packed with people enjoying themselves on holiday; women in their best saris, men jiving wildly around to blaring music, children bursting with excitement. We would all wave madly at each other as they went past. As well as harbour cruise boats the ferries plied all day between the various jetties and then there were all the traditional fishing boats working the waterways linked to the sea. The smallest of these were no bigger than a basket! Every day, according to the tide, they came paddling past, two to a ‘basket’, often a woman or child as the second person, and usually singing. We have never seen anything so fragile on the water, or so charming. Sometimes they stopped at Tokomaru to ask for water. It was strangely incongruous as on one side of our inlet was Bolgatty Island with a posh hotel in beautiful gardens and on the other was the heaving commercial centre of down-town Kochi with its high rise apartment blocks, hundreds of shops, throngs of people, wild traffic, churches, mosques, temples, hotels, schools, colleges, and of course, daily demos; a really happening place.
Indian Ocean sunset
We spent our last evening with John (an old friend of Nick’s who lives in India) and his friends, walking in the garden of the Bolgatty Hotel and watching the parakeets and kingfishers, herons and bitterns. John’s Tamil friend, Val, identified the Koel for us, a bird we have heard all through Asia and never seen. It was a pity to spend such a short time with them, but our visas expired and we had to go.
Indian Ocean sunset
We left India on 10 March for the 1400 (nautical) miles to Salalah in Oman. After a lively day or two all became quiet and gentle as the wind and waves died away leaving a glassy calm. And it has stayed that way for two weeks. On a perfectly flat sea Tokomaru can glide along on the merest breath of wind; and so we proceed. Slipping along at 2 knots is the best we can do. When there’s no breeze at all we motor, carefully logging the hours so as to ration the fuel. We carry 250 litres of diesel which will take us about 500 miles, only a third of this windless passage. While this is all a bit worrying (we’re already behind schedule) these conditions are blissfully comfortable, especially at night when you can stretch out in the cockpit, warm and dry, and gaze at the stars for hours.
Indian Ocean Sunset
500 miles out from India, we met some Sri Lankan fishing boats, quite small boats to be so far from home. There was no wind, and we were drifting about aimlessly, putting off the moment when we would shatter the peace by starting the engine. They came alongside for a friendly chat and we had fun exchanging goodies. We got a coconut, a watermelon and some instant noodles in exchange for dates, biscuits, mints and a torch. Another one came over and we asked if they could spare some diesel (they carry tons). They would only agree to this in exchange for ‘smoking’! So we struck a deal and it was all smiles and action. They took our jerry cans onto their boat, turned off their engine and stated pumping. Meanwhile we were given some advice on fishing techniques when they noticed our line and they gave us a new lure. And so we got an extra 50 litres of fuel and we gave them its value in dollars as well as the cigs – having diesel delivered to your boat in mid ocean is worth more than a few packets of fags! Then we pressed on westwards into the setting sun as they headed the other way, homeward bound.
And so we potter along. Sometimes we are richly entertained by dolphins. The whole sea comes alive from horizon to horizon as hundreds of dorsal fins cut the silk-smooth surface. The more energetic leap right out of the water and land with great splashes. Some come over and play in our bow wave (if we have one!). If they’re feeding, this makes the fish jump and the flying fish take to their wings, and then boobies and terns come swooping down to join in and the whole dance goes on. However, this doesn’t happen very often. For the most part it’s a desert out here and after two weeks of crawling across the Arabian Sea, yard by yard, we are getting frustrated and demoralised. We’ve run out of gin and are not having much luck with the fishing, so it’s corned beef again tonight! We’ve saved enough fuel to get us in to the port of Salalah. No doubt we will get there, and then we’ll find an internet shop to send you this, and you’ll know we made it! So, from our little ship in the big empty sea, best wishes from Liz and Nick
|Website © Nick Thomas and Liz Vernon 2008|