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The Jews of Kochi, India

Even though you know exactly where the water taxi is headed, the first glimpse of the sign at the end of the dock can be unsettling for any Jew steeped in the dark memories of Russian pogroms, the Warsaw Ghetto, and the Holocaust:

However, a name some might consider insensitive is actually giving directions to a fascinating and historically important neighborhood of Kochi (formerly Cochin), the capital of Kerala state in southwestern India.

Jews have lived in Kochi for centuries, although their precise arrival date is a matter of debate.  Some scholars argue that Jews first appeared following the reign of Solomon and the destruction of the first temple in Jerusalem in 586 BCE.  Others assert they were Spanish merchants of the second century BCE trading for pepper and other rare spices.  Some historians claim Jews settled in Cranganore, an ancient trading port near Cochin, after the sacking of the second temple by Roman legions in 70 AD.   Unfortunately, none of these historical arguments can be substantiated, and the earliest firm evidence of a Jewish presence in southwestern India is a set of copper plates dating to 1000 AD that record grants of privilege to the Jewish community from the Emperor of Kerala.  In 1524 Muslims attacked the Jews of Cranganore over a trade dispute.  They fled to Kochi where they flourished under the protection of the Rajah of Cochin who gave them liberty to practice their religion and deeded land near his palace for homes, shops, and synagogues. Residents called this area “Jewtown,” a name it maintains to this day.  In the early 1600s the Portuguese occupied the city and persecuted the Jewish community as part of the ongoing Spanish/Portuguese Inquisition. This abuse lasted until 1660 when Kochi came under the rule of Dutch Protestants who were accepting of this Jewish presence.  Again the community prospered, first under the Dutch and then, starting in 1795, the British.  By the 1940s Kochi was home to thousands of Indian Jews and a vibrant ethnic community of merchants, traders, and scholars.  However, with the creation of the State of Israel many in the community emigrated; those that stayed saw either their children or grandchildren leave. The population decreased rapidly and today only a few dozen Jews, most quite aged, still call Jewtown home.

Interior of the Paradesi Synagogue in Kochi, India

Although most Jews are gone, reminders of their 1,000-year presence still abound and offer insight into a religious community that few know anything about.  One of the earliest houses of worship in Jewtown, the Paradesi Synagogue, was completed in 1568, and it is the last functioning synagogue in the city.  (100 years ago Kochi had seven Jewish houses of worship.)  The word Paradesi means “foreigner” because at the time of its construction most members were “white Jews,” a term Indians used to identify first-generation Jews of European and Middle Eastern descent.  The synagogue is an exquisite building in the Sephardic style and houses historically important Torah scrolls, gold crowns, a floor of 18th century hand painted Chinese porcelain, and the original copper plates given to Joseph Rabban, the earliest known Kochi Jew, in 1000 AD.  On the outer wall is a tablet inscribed in Hebrew from an even older synagogue (no longer standing) constructed in 1344.

Religious services are held every Saturday morning, but as there are no longer any rabbis, services are led by elders of the community.  Jewish visitors are welcome as this is often the only way to obtain a minyan, the quorum required for conducting public prayer. Afterwards guides conduct tours of the building and describe the long and fascinating history of the Kochi Jewish community. In 1968 the synagogue celebrated its 400th anniversary with a ceremony attended by Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi.

Typical Religious Symbols Inscribed on the Windows of Buildings in Jewtown

Following your visit to the synagogue it is interesting as well as informative to stroll along “Jew Street” to see reminders of this ancient community etched into the architecture of virtually every store and home, even though for the last 60 years most merchants and residents have not been Jewish.

Store in Jewtown Selling Religious Artifacts and Souvenirs

An enjoyable way to complete your visit is to shop for a memento of this once proud community.  A couple of Jewish residents sell religious antiques, handicrafts, and souvenirs to the few Jewish tourists who make it to these distant shores.  The stores carry ceremonial objects used for the Sabbath celebration–e.g., tablecloths, wine glasses, challah covers, candle holders–as well as items used in Jewish festivals, including menorahs (candelabra) for Hanukkah, Seder plates for Passover, and groggers (noisemakers) for the raucous holiday of Purim.

Jewtown is located in the Mattancherry neighborhood of Kochi, a 30-minute boat ride from the main Jetty in the central city. Half-day (3-4 hour) tours of Jewtown are available from virtually every travel agent in Kochi, and they include boat transportation, meals, and English-language guides.  They often include other sights of interest in the Jewtown area, including the Rajah’s Palace, Fort Kochi, Bishop’s House, and the Chinese Fishing Nets of Kublai Khan.

(Read about our no-cost holiday to India following a six-month working vacation in Mauritius in On The Other Guy’s Dime: A Professional’s Guide to Traveling Without Paying.)

Intermission, Part Two!

Dear Readers,

I will be traveling in Spain for the next three weeks and will not be posting or blogging while away.  (I hate to admit this, but I will be traveling ON MY OWN DIME.  Ouch!)  Please feel free to read or reread any of the 84 articles posted on this blog over the past year.  (Or feel free to enjoy my new book, On The Other Guy’s Dime: A Professional’s Guide to Traveling Without Paying.)  When I return in mid-April I will have much more to share with you about working vacations, living overseas, and the joys of short-term cultural immersion.  Until then, happy and safe travels.

Happy 2011!

I want to wish everyone a Happy New Year, a year that I hope will include some adventurous and culturally rewarding travel to places far and wide.  Your loyalty and continued readership have made this first year of “OtherGuysDime” a rousing success.  Its 73 posts were viewed almost ten thousand times–the equivalent of thirty fully loaded Boeing 747s–and over 100 people have contributed comments, thoughts, and opinions. These numbers far exceeded my wildest expectations when I first began posting last March.

In the coming days and weeks I will offer up more travel stories and helpful advice on planning your working vacations, short-term sabbaticals, and career breaks, and I invite you to continue reading, commenting, and sharing your ideas.  Happy and safe travels–and please send some email when you arrive.

My New Travel Book

My book, On The Other Guy’s Dime, is available in paper and e-book formats from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Apple.  Read about our adventures on Facebook and follow me on Twitter:  


OK, dear readers, it is time to stretch, go to the bathroom, and buy a bag of popcorn.  I will be taking a brief hiatus from these writings to travel to Malaysia and Japan and, yes, the trip will be on the other guy’s dime!  (Is there any other kind?)  I return in mid-November to resume my story and pass on yet more information and advice.

But until then I have wonderful news about the publication of my new book On The Other Guy’s Dime: A Professional’s Guide To Traveling Without Paying. Publication is set for November 15th, and it is now possible to preorder the book, either directly from the publisher, Itasca Books or on  (Eventually, it will be on both Barnes & Noble’s and Border’s Web sites, but not quite yet.

So, please use this brief intermission to read (or reread) any of the previous 61 blog posts, and then check back in a few weeks when this narrative will be resumed.  Even easier, just hit the Sign Me Up button in the right-hand column and you will be notified by email when the next post has been put up.  Enjoy the break, and I will be back blogging shortly.


Back To Africa

Even though we loved our time in Kenya, since Ruth and I subscribe to the not again school of travel (see Two Schools of Traveling Thought) we really wanted to see another part of this vast continent.  One of the pleasures of a working vacation is being able to pull out the atlas and decide for yourself where to go rather than having that destination be selected for you by a company, funding agency, or professional society.

Our Kenyan friends and colleagues told us that if we enjoyed our three-month stay in East Africa we really should consider a trip to Zimbabwe, the country called Rhodesia until 1980 when it won its independence from Great Britain in a bloody civil war. After reading about its rich culture, natural beauty, and superb historical sites, Ruth and I decided that a working vacation in Zimbabwe would be an excellent way to relive the delights of our Kenyan safari, now many years distant, but with different places to explore and new people to meet.  Not long after sending email inquiring about summer teaching opportunities at the University of Zimbabwe, the best university in the country, I received a reply from Rob Borland, chair of the computer science department, inviting me to teach at UZ during the coming winter quarter–oops I forgot about that Southern Hemisphere thing yet again!

The New Mathematics and Information Technology Building at the University of Zimbabwe

At that time Zimbabwe was the success story of sub-Saharan Africa, and its capital, Harare, was one of the loveliest cities on the continent. This is hard to fathom given conditions there today—famine, cholera, hyperinflation, and civil unrest—all thanks to a once-benevolent president, Robert Mugabe, who devolved into a brutal dictator with a death grip on power and an intolerance of public dissent.  (Conditions are actually much worse. In a recent article in the New York Times columnist Bob Herbert wrote “If you want to see hell on Earth, go to Zimbabwe where the madman Robert Mugabe has brought the country to such a state of ruin that medical care for most of the inhabitants has ceased to exist.”)

However, in 1992 things were quite different and Harare was a charming city of pedestrian malls, upscale shopping, and outdoor cafes, all frequented by a large, thriving black middle class. With its broad downtown avenues shaded by Jacaranda trees and lined with busy stores, it would be hard for most Americans to believe they were in Africa.  Rather than the images of ramshackle housing and malnourished children that routinely fill our newspapers and airwaves, you would encounter Africans lunching in bistros and driving late-model American and European cars on modern, well paved city streets.  It was a city that, at least in 1992, would utterly shatter your stereotype that all of sub-Saharan Africa looks like a Sally Struthers public service announcement for “Save the Children.”

This shattering of stereotypes  is another important reason to travel, especially to unfamiliar regions and places where your imaginings are far removed from the reality.  For example, a  working vacation in a country like Turkey (or Morocco, Tunisia, Jordan, Malaysia) will end those misconceptions about Islam and day-to-day life in a modern Muslim society–exactly what happened to my Classics professor friend as described in Official Confirmation.  A long-term stay in a city like Mumbai, Delhi, or Bangalore will certainly change your perception that India has nothing to offer visitors but crowds, poverty, disease, and privation.  The friendliness and warmth of the residents of Nairobi (including those in the slums of Kibera) would go a long way toward ending the misguided view of Africa as nothing but tribal hatreds and violent crime.

So, on May 26th, 1992, Ruth and I set sail from the Minneapolis International Airport for a three-month teaching sojourn in the city of Harare, Zimbabwe but not before making a couple of fascinating stops along the way, in Lisbon, Portugal and Cape Town, South Africa–exactly as detailed in Getting From Point A to Point B in Style.

Two Schools of Traveling Thought

There are two types of world travelers—the repeaters and the not agains. Repeaters have found their dream destination and go back year after year to the same village, the same B&B, the same lake. They are the couple who return every March, like swallows to Capistrano, to that quaint little inn in the south of France; who pre-book every year at their special hacienda on the Mayan Riviera; who canoe the same rivers and eat at the same restaurants, year in, year out. In contrast, the not agains love the places they have been but prefer instead to seek out new sights and unexpected adventures. Repeaters are the “bird in the hand” group, not agains the “two in the bush.”

I have no quibble with repeaters and congratulate them on discovering their one perfect Eden. Even better, the task of locating the next working vacation is far simpler for repeaters than for the not agains. After completing the first employment contract, sit down with school, agency, or institute administrators, tell them how much you enjoyed your stay, how professionally and culturally rewarding it was, and ask if they would be interested in hosting a return visit in the near future. Assuming you have not screwed up too badly and funds are available, there is a decent chance they will be eager to invite you back, and the planning for your next working vacation will have been fully accomplished. Nice and simple.

I followed that path myself after a 2007 cold call resulted in a six-month visiting professorship at Columbia University in New York City, home of my now-grown children and grandchildren. I renegotiated that initial offer into a return visit for the 2008-09 academic year and beyond.  I just completed my third teaching stint at the school with plans for more in the near future.

However, in 1992 my wife and I definitely belonged to the latter group, the not agains. We loved all our working vacations and found every city where we had lived—London, Jerusalem, Nairobi, Sydney, Istanbul—a destination not yet plumbed to its fullest depths. Each site still tempted with possibilities of fresh explorations and new discoveries. When we would return home, bubbling over with stories about the sights we’d seen and the people we’d met, friends and family were sure that our next trip would take us back to the same place—working vacation redux. However, in almost three decades of travel, until our return to New York City and Columbia, it never has. As much as we’ve enjoyed and savored each and every trip, when it came time to think about the next one we would stare at a world map and see too much unexplored space, too many countries not yet experienced. The U.N. has 192 member states and so far we had lived and worked in five. It seemed much too early for reruns.

I would love to hear from readers which of these two schools of thought best describes your own traveling philosophy.   Whether for a brief one- or two-week family vacation or a long-term working adventure do you prefer to fall back on the tried-and-true or are you more about exploring the as yet unexplored?  Please share.

Official Confirmation

While working in Turkey I received e-mail from a colleague, a Classics professor who travels annually to Greece for his research. This year he wanted to add a stopover in Turkey to view its many historic landmarks—Ephesus, Troy, the Temple of Aphrodite—but he and his wife were somewhat hesitant, scared off by the misguided perception of Turkey as unclean, dangerous, even somewhat sinister–perhaps they had seen the movie Midnight Express. When they learned that Ruth and I were living in Istanbul they wrote to ask if we might consider being their guides to the city, helping them avoid the problems experienced by naive travelers visiting a strange, new place. We were more than happy to accommodate, and I made arrangements for someone to pick them up at the airport and take them to a nice downtown hotel.

A Typical Street Front Cafe in Istanbul.

For three busy days the four of us walked the old city, saw the sights, sipped strong coffee at outdoor cafes, ate at local restaurants without getting sick—one of their nagging worries—and went to my favorite clubs to listen to superb Middle Eastern music. Their fears soon dissipated, and my colleague realized how silly he had been to wait so long before visiting this magical, not sinister, city. (He has returned many times since.) Before departing he thanked us profusely for being such excellent hosts and making him feel safe and relaxed in an unfamiliar place.

For us this was “official confirmation” that Ruth and I had completed the transformation from working-vacation newcomers to experienced, knowledgeable travelers. Here was a Classics professor, whose area of study is the Eastern Mediterranean, including Turkey, asking a computer scientist (of all people) for help in seeing the country and navigating its social and cultural maze. From the “Nervous Nellie” in My London Epiphany frightened by the mere idea of moving to England, by the completion of this sixth working vacation (England, Israel, Australia, Kenya, Japan, and Turkey) I had gained the confidence needed not only to live and work overseas but to guide others through the orientation process needed to feel comfortable in a strange, new culture.  Creating that same sense of self-confidence in my readers is exactly what I want to accomplish in this blog and with the upcoming publication of my travel memoir and how-to book “On The Other Guy’s Dime.”

The Ubiquitous Simit Salesman, Found on Virtually Every Street at Every Hour of the Day

As September 1, our departure date, approached Ruth and I reflected on how much Istanbul reminded us of New York City, not in terms of history, ethnicity, or architecture, but in terms of scale, vibrancy, and its citizens unbridled enjoyment of life. It is a city that never sleeps. Two in the morning is prime time for the thousands of people enjoying the Taksim music scene; the cars, taxis, and buses clogging city streets; street vendors hawking simit, Turkish bagels, and döner kebabs. It is a city where you can spend countless hours shopping, eating, and drinking apple tea while strolling the hundreds of neighborhoods that sprawl over this massive urban area. During our three-month stay we explored perhaps one-tenth of this fascinating city. I can’t imagine how little you would drink in given only one or two weeks.

Cities like Istanbul demand time, lots and lots of time, to understand and appreciate their many religious, historical, and cultural riches. A working vacation is the perfect way to get that time without having to burn your housing, employment, and family bridges behind you.

Eat Pray Spend

This is not the post I originally planned to put up–that one will appear in a few days.  Instead, it is an emotional response to the embarrassingly bad and thoroughly unrealistic “chick flick” Eat Pray Love and its relationship to what I am trying to accomplish in this blog.  Although the two may seem quite different, there are a number of unfortunate parallels.

In the movie a privileged Manhattanite divorces her husband and sets off on a worldwide search for enlightenment and self-discovery.  She rents a lovely apartment in Rome, one of the most expensive cities in the world, meditates in an Indian ashram, and winds up in a luxurious home on the island of Bali.  Nowhere, though, is there any mention of how she is paying for this voyage of self-discovery, a year-long odyssey whose out-of-pocket costs would probably run more than $100,000.  Furthermore, in the movie the heroine deals only with such problems as zipping up her jeans after a few too many pasta and pizza dinners, while in real life recently divorced women spend far more time fighting over shared assets, coping with anger, and stressing about how to pay the bills.

OK, why am I being so harsh on this Hollywood pot boiler?  Why dwell on what is nothing more than an excuse to spend a couple of hours munching popcorn while enjoying some lovely scenery?  The answer is that the unrealistic fantasies of Eat Pray Love are being reproduced daily on hundreds of travel blogs scattered across the Internet.

Like the Julia Roberts character, many of us dream about spending time on a tropical island paradise or in a Himalayan hideaway, and there are many sites that feed these fantasies–stories of people (I call them “privileged nomads”) who quit their job, sell the house, kiss friends and family good-bye, and set off around the world. However, when you dive into their “About Me” page you often discover they are either 1) independently wealthy, 2) have come into a significant windfall, 3) are living off the largesse of parents or exes, or 4) are knowingly denuding their life savings. Since most of us do not fall into any of these categories we erroneously conclude that our fantasy of living and working overseas is an unattainable dream; something that happens only in B-movies and to the “other guy.”  Unfortunately, that skepticism spills over to other places, including this blog.  After reading about my working vacations in London, Sydney, Jerusalem, Nairobi, and Istanbul they believe that, while enjoyable to follow (the blog equivalent of a B-movie), they could never have the kind of adventures described in these posts.

My passion for travel writing is to convince you that living and working in some exotic, overseas locale is not an unrealistic goal and not a scriptwriter’s fantasy. If you are a professional with a marketable skill, e.g., doctor, nurse, lawyer, teacher, banker, business person, engineer, scientist, artist, etc., there are many host countries eager to exploit your skills by offering temporary employment for periods ranging from one month to one year. And, unlike Julia Roberts, by earning enough money to cover most or all of your travel expenses you need not be a lottery winner, rolling in alimony, or the scion of a wealthy Wall Streeter to fulfill your dreams.

As I wrote in Getting Out of That Rut, one fact that is quite clear to me is there is no shortage of working vacation opportunities, only a shortage of the motivation needed to go after them.  I hope you will read this blog with a different attitude from the one you had watching Eat Pray Love.  I have no desire to write popcorn escapism, and my goal is not simply to entertain you with fun stories–reading someone else’s adventures may be a pleasant diversion, but it is nothing like the thrill of experiencing those same adventures for yourself.  I hope you will read the current and future posts on this blog with the sincere belief that these adventures are not something that happen only to the “other guy” but, instead, represent a life style choice available to anyone with the drive and energy to make it happen.

Our Elegant Georgian Colonial on the Bosphorus

After a week of eating well, reveling in Greek history, and swimming in the turquoise-blue water of the Aegean, we flew to Istanbul where my teaching assistant, Mr. Albert Levy, met us at the airport. Yes, that is his real name. Albert is a fourth-generation Turkish Jew, and he was our entrée into the 500-year old Jewish community of Istanbul. The school did not assign him to me for that reason, and he was as surprised as me to discover that we shared the same faith.

Albert drove the forty miles from the airport to the school while I sat back and took in the horizon-to-horizon sprawl of this massive city. As we drove, visions of our “modest” Nairobi apartment raced through my head (see Doubts and Fears), while I played guessing games about what our on-campus housing might look like this time. Bare light bulbs dangling from the ceiling? Maybe. Western toilet? Hopefully. Comfortable mattresses? Doubtful. Hot shower? No way.  Reminding myself of the enjoyment we had on that Kenyan working vacation in spite of the less than plush accommodations (see Sharing The Secrets), I decided I could make do with whatever lodging the school might provide. Fortunately, my fears were unfounded. That summer my wife and I lived like an upper-middle class American couple, comfortably ensconced in a leafy, well-to-do suburban neighborhood.

Bogazici University, originally called Roberts College, was founded in 1863 by two American educators from New England. They purchased a large, wooded plot on a steep hill overlooking the Bosphorus and set about creating a university where English was the medium of instruction, admission was open to students of all races and religions, and the curriculum would be modeled on the American university system. In 1912, John Stewart Kennedy, a trustee and wealthy donor, gave the college money to build six homes as the academic traditions of the time dictated that senior professors live on campus to be near their students. Since the school was founded by New Englanders, these stately homes were set on acres of forested land and constructed in classic Georgian colonial style, complete with chimneys, porticos, white wooden siding, and black shutters. These dwellings would not be out of place in the better sections of Boston, Hartford, or Providence, but they certainly looked strange plopped down in the middle of Istanbul on the border between Europe and Asia.

The Walkway to our Georgian Colonial in the Middle of Istanbul.

Today, these large, comfortable homes are no longer allocated to individual senior faculty but are used to house visitors coming to the university for short stays. Two, three, or even four families might share a single house, depending on family size and length of stay. However, since this was summertime, when there were far fewer visitors, we were its sole residents. We ended up with a beautiful colonial home on five-plus acres of forested land in the middle of a densely packed urban area of thirteen million. The only comparison I can offer is to imagine yourself living in an elegant New York City residence situated smack in the middle of Central Park. Some Turkish visitors to our home jokingly commented we were living as well as, perhaps slightly better than, the president of the country. While a bit of hyperbole, there is no doubt our housing that summer was superb and totally unexpected. We unpacked our suitcases with very large smiles on our faces!

When a school chooses to provide on-campus housing, rather than have you locate it for yourself, it can fall anywhere on the spectrum from minimally acceptable, as in Kenya, to off-the-scale luxurious, as was the case that summer in Turkey. All you can do is hope for the latter but be willing either to accept the former or to say to your hosts “Thank you, but no.” and then find and pay for your own accommodations.