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.)

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On My Own Dime, This Time

My wife and I recently returned from a glorious, six-week Pacific odyssey during which we visited the Cook Islands (see Relaxation, Island Style), Sydney, Tasmania (A Tasmanian Toilet Tale), Laos (The Beauty of Travel; The Ugliness of War), China, and Korea.  Unlike virtually every other destinations discussed in this blog, this trip was on my own dime.  Yes, dear reader, I hate to admit it, but I paid for this rather lengthy holiday myself!  Before leaving I joked with friends not to tell anyone as it could ruin my carefully cultivated reputation as a world-class schnorrer–Yiddish for freeloader.

March of the Monks in Luang Prabang

However, even though I like to poke fun at myself for our many no-cost overseas jaunts,  I still enjoy a non-working holiday to an exotic locale as much as the next guy.  On this trip we lazed on the pristine beaches of the Cook Islands, sampled the theater and restaurant scene of Sydney, motored through the mountains and forests of Tasmania, marveled at the historical beauty of Luang Prabang, cruised the Mekong on a small riverboat; spent a few days in the lovely canal city of Suzhou, China, and were wowed by the massive urban chaos of Shanghai and Seoul–all without working a single day to pay the freight.  It was a superb trip that only confirmed my decision to take early retirement.  As long as there are no financial constraints, why would you ever postpone the joys of retirement until you are too old and infirm to enjoy them?  I am sure you have heard the truism voiced by Sen. Paul Tsongas: “No man ever said on his deathbed, ‘I wish I had spent more time at the office.’”

The Lovely Canal City of Suzhou, China

However, as much as I loved our time in Asia there are many differences between a family holiday (even one as long as six weeks) and the short-term overseas postings called working vacations I have been espousing on this blog for the last two years and in my most recent travel book, On The Other Guy’s Dime.  Most family vacations have amusement, entertainment, and personal pleasure as their primary goals–you take a holiday to relax, eat well, see sights, both natural and man-made, and enjoy time away from your regular routine.  By contrast, a working vacation, while enjoyable, is meant for personal, professional, and cultural growth.  You take a working vacation not only to see sights but to become part of a different culture, make friends, learn new ways of doing things, expose your children to the world around them, and use your professional skills in new and different ways.  These are very different goals.

The Soaring, Neon-Lit Skyline of Shanghai

For example, during our stay in the Cook Islands I never made close friends with any local Polynesians.  In Laos, I did not have the opportunity to celebrate Buddhist life cycle events with neighbors or colleagues.  Not having a job in Shanghai meant I did not get a sense of what it must be like living in a booming metropolis of 20 million that is changing on an almost daily basis.  Staying in a tourist hotel in Seoul prevented us from having the chance to live, play, and shop in one of the fascinating neighborhoods scattered around the city.  Our trip to Asia was a wonderful way to see these countries but not to experience them.

So, go ahead and enjoy those family vacations as much as you want and as much as your wallet will allow.  However, please don’t use the excuse that you don’t need a working vacation because you and the wife just returned from a cruise to Alaska, a week in Florence, or ten days diving in the Caymans.  Holidays and working vacations are totally different beasts that have totally different purposes.  Being a tourist and living as part of an overseas community serve very different roles, and you really should experience both.

On The U.S. State Department’s Dime

In an earlier post (The Clues Are All Around You) I addressed the single most common question from readers of this blog:  “OK, you convinced me of the personal, professional, and cultural benefits of short-term working vacations.  Now, how do I find them?”  Fair question, and in that post I talked about one possible technique–being hypersensitive to clues about overseas opportunities that appear in newspapers, magazines, TV, and radio, and which emerge from on-line discussions and personal interactions.  Some of my most rewarding postings came about from something I read, such as an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education about summer school teaching shortages in Israeli universities, or something I saw on TV–a news segment about the Royal University of Bhutan, the first university in that remote Himalayan hideaway.

However, there is an even better source for working vacations–the Fulbright Grants Program, sponsored by the U.S. Department of State. The  Fulbright program is the single greatest source of paid overseas opportunities in the world–each year they pass out 1,200 grants to 140 countries for periods ranging from three weeks to one year.  I have been lucky enough to receive four–Mauritius (1995), Malaysia (2001), Nepal (2004), and Mongolia (2006).  If you are a teacher, doctor, nurse, lawyer, engineer, scientist, artist, musician, librarian, or other skilled professional, there is a high probability that Fulbright has a need for someone with exactly your skills.

In the coming weeks and months I will be authoring a series of articles about the Fulbright program, including some “tricks of the trade” for writing a successful proposal.  (I am batting .800, with four out of five.)  These posts will be on a site entitled The Wandering Educator, and I want to invite everyone to read them–I will post links to the articles as soon as they appear.  Even though they are on a Web site meant primarily for educators please remember that the Fulbright program is NOT, repeat NOT, limited to academics.  It is open to any U.S. citizen with a useful skill, a sense of adventure, and a desire to see the world.

The first post, entitled “The Fulbright Program,” went up today, and it highlights a number of common misconceptions about the program.  If you have been motivated by the arguments in my blog to consider a working vacation then these are posts you simply must read.  As I write in that initial article:

Fulbright is the very essence of what is so great about working vacations: You have an amazing cultural experience, become part of a fascinating overseas community, and do not quit your job, sell your home, or kiss friends and family a permanent good-bye–they will all be waiting for your return.  Best of all, you do all this on the other guy’s dime!

The Beauty of Travel; The Ugliness of War

In the 1960’s and early 1970’s I was fiercely opposed to the Vietnam War. I protested, marched, sat in, and obtained a deferment by teaching at a local college.  However, I think this opposition was more closely related to my deep-seated fear of fighting in the steamy jungles of SE Asia than to any inherent pacifism or fundamental opposition to the horrors of war.

Sculpture at COPE Constructed From Remnants of American Cluster Bombs

However, 40 years later, those horrors were brought home in a most unusual and unexpected manner.  My wife and I recently finished a lovely visit to Vientiane, the capital of Laos.  Unknown to me, from 1960 to 1972 Laos had more bombs dropped on it than any other nation in SE Asia.  The areas surrounding the Ho Chi Minh trail, which runs the length of the country, were a vast dumping ground for American artillery, rockets, napalm, and, worst of all, cluster bombs.  Sadly, many of these Vietnam-era armaments are still active, lying in wait under the soil for the unsuspecting farmer to plow a new field, for the bicyclist to take a new short-cut into town, or for the young child to chase an errant baseball.  Each year almost 5,000 innocent Laotians lose arms and legs to these hidden remnants of the Vietnam War, certainly one of the low points in our country’s history.

While in Vientiane we had the good fortune to visit COPE–the Consortium for Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprises.  COPE is the country’s valiant but limited attempt to provide rehabilitative services to the tragic victims of unexploded ordnance (UXO).  With a full-time paid staff of only three, along with many dedicated volunteers, they provide artificial limbs as well as the occupational and physical therapy needed to use these new limbs effectively.  For example, I observed a 12-year-old boy who had lost both hands to a UXO learning to type on a laptop with his mouth and a pointing stick.  It was a highly sobering experience, and you can only imagine how you feel as an American knowing it was your country’s own munitions that caused the pain and suffering before your very eyes.

Examples of Prostheses Produced by COPE for Bomb Victims

Surprisingly, there was absolutely no animosity or hostility directed toward either my wife or me.  In fact, the staff at COPE gave us a welcome that could not have been more warm or sincere, and they were proud to show us what they have been able to achieve with limited funds.  The staff focuses on meeting the needs of the present and looking toward the future, not dwelling on the mistakes of the past.  I have to say they showed a level of forgiveness and understanding that I might not have been able to achieve if the situation were reversed.

Laos is now opening up to large-scale Western tourism, and I recommend it as a fascinating destination with lots to see and enjoy–not to mention great food and one of the best beers in the world (Beerlao).  If you do go, please make sure to include some time for a visit to COPE.  It is an amazing place that will leave you emotionally drained, spiritually uplifted, and filled with food for thought.

(Read more about my visits to SE Asia in my book, On The Other Guy’s Dime: A Professional’s Guide To Traveling Without Paying)

Relaxation, Island Style

The Cook Islands, an independent nation in the South Pacific near French Polynesia, is a unique place–quite unlike any island where we have lived or worked. It is what tropical travel used to be like before the arrival of infinity pools, big dollar casinos, Jack Nicklaus-designed golf courses, and slickly

View From The Patio of Our Beach Bungalow in the Cook Islands.

packaged lounge shows. The place is so low key the largest hotel is only two stories high and most people, ourselves included, prefer to stay in modest bungalows or cottages situated on the oceanfront.

In the Cook Islands you drag yourself out of bed in the morning, put on a bathing suit and flip-flops, and walk (or motorbike) to one of the little mom-and-pop food shacks on the beach. You eat at picnic tables on the sand, enjoying fish brought in on boats just that morning, while sharing stories with others at the table, and those others are often locals as there are not a large number of tourists. The locals are of Polynesian descent. They are extremely proud of their heritage and culture and are trying to maintain it in the presence of powerful Western influences—rock music, cable TV, and the ubiquitous Internet.

For example, many women dress in sarongs, men still wear those flowery short-sleeve shirts you see for sale all over Hawaii, and they prefer to speak their traditional Polynesian language–Cook Island Maori—rather than English even though everyone is fluent in both. Boys and young men still climb palm trees to harvest coconuts and make them into food, baskets, and fishing nets, and they still fish on foot in the shallow, clear blue lagoons. The things we often associate with high-end tropical island resorts are mostly absent–no parasailing, no jet skis, no tennis courts, no golf, no swim-up bars–just lazing on the beach, sitting on the porch reading, going out to eat, and (there is a lot of this) enjoying beer and rum drinks in the evening.

We did a lot of snorkeling–good coral, lots of colorful tropical fish–and we did go to the Cook Island equivalent of a luau with dancing, singing, and fish barbecued over an open flame. We also did a lot of hiking since the center of the island is mountainous and filled with scenic jungle walks–it looks a bit like the site where they filmed the movie Jurassic Park.

The Cook Islands today are what Hawaii must have been like 50 or 60 years ago before the arrival of Sheraton, Hilton, and the Intercontinental. I do not doubt it will change dramatically in the coming years (as I am sure it already has) because of the dominance of Western culture and the financial lure of large-scale tourism. But, right now, the Cook Islands is certainly is one of the least stressful, most enjoyable, and most beautiful places we have ever been.

(Read more about our travels to the South Pacific in my travel book, On The Other Guy’s Dime: A Professional’s Guide to Traveling Without Paying.)

A Tasmanian Toilet Tale

(Dear Readers.  Rather than take the six-week hiatus I had planned I have decided to share some experiences from my Pacific Rim odyssey.  While not related to the theme of this blog–working vacations–I hope you find them fun to read.  Enjoy.)
The Museum of Old and New Art in Hobart, capital of the Australian state of Tasmania, is an architectural gem–a glass and granite structure hanging over the Derwent River just a few miles from downtown. It has been called a “must-see” by Lonely Planet and is a top-rated attraction on Trip Advisor.  Based on this lofty praise, we just had to give it a go.
The collection is, to say the least, uber-experimental, and the museum’s goal is to  challenge and upend your comfortable notion of exactly what constitutes art.  I was okay with the tattooed pigs and the cement mixer made of stained glass, but I have to say I started to lose it when I entered a room containing the jewel of the show, an installation called Cloaca (Latin for sewer or toilet) by the Belgian artist Wim Delvoye.
Cloaca is a giant Rube Goldberg contraption built to model the human digestive system. Museum staff shove junk food, such as burgers and fries, into the end of the machine that looks like a garbage disposal.  The food is chopped into small bits and is gravity fed into a washing machine-like component filled with stomach acid that spins and churns the pulp.  From there it travels through a set of curved PVC pipes containing digestive bacteria that break down the particles  even further. Finally, about one hour after “eating,” Cloaca exudes big piles of shit onto the floor through a round hole in its bottom–real, honest-to-god, lifelike brown turds that are for sale in the gift shop right next to rolls of toilet paper emblazoned  with the artist’s name on each sheet.
About now you may be scratching your head saying “Huh!”  But Delvoye has anticipated this and is ready for you. The show contains a 30-minute video entitled, appropriately enough, “Is This Shit Art?”   There is a serious analysis by Christie staff on why Cloaca’s shit is a smart artistic purchase and should increase in value–after all, unless the machine gets diarrhea there is only a limited amount of product.  The video also includes a group of New York/London art cognoscenti explaining to bewildered museum attendees, in lofty language, the visionary nature of Delvoye’s work.
Count me among the bewildered.

The Flying Postman of Broken Hill (Rerun)

(The following story first appeared on June 7, 2010.  I think readers who did not see it at that time will enjoy looking at it now.)

One of the joys of a working vacation is that it gives travelers time to uncover a region’s hidden gems–those quirky, idiosyncratic places too often overlooked by Frommers or The Lonely Planet but which give you a good feeling for life in the host country.  Well, quirky is the very essence of a place called Broken Hill, Australia.

Typical Red Rock Landscape of the Australian Outback

The Australian outback is a starkly beautiful area but, because of temperature extremes (summer temps of 120F are not unusual), poor infrastructure, and immense distances, it can be difficult to visit.  Many tourists skip the region entirely, limiting themselves to the urban pleasures of Sydney and Melbourne and the clear blue waters of the Great Barrier Reef.  Adventuresome types who venture into the outback usually do so on a two- or three-day fly in to Alice Springs and Ayers Rock, the two main tourist centers.  However, limiting yourself to these popular destinations is like visiting Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon and thinking  you have experienced everything the American Southwest has to offer.

My wife and I were on a working vacation to Sydney, Australia where I was teaching at the University of New South Wales.  Our three-month posting gave us sufficient time to investigate some of the interesting destinations that lie beyond the skyline of Sydney, including the barren landscapes of the Australian outback only a few hundred miles inland.  Based on recommendations from colleagues and neighbors, we set off during school holiday for a part of the outback rarely visited by tourists–the small mining town of Broken Hill, about 630 miles west of Sydney.  We boarded the  transcontinental Indian-Pacific express for our 12-hour train trip and watched in fascination as the lush greenery of the Pacific coast gave way to an austere, arid land that shimmered orange and ochre-red in the setting sun.

We arrived the next morning in a place that could easily have been the setting for a John Ford western.  Broken Hill was settled in the 1870s when a massive silver deposit was discovered nearby, followed soon by valuable caches of zinc and lead.  Like roughneck mining towns of the American West (think Deadwood or Dodge City) it grew quickly and was a haven for drinking, gambling and prostitution.  However, in the 1970s and 80s, as metal prices declined and mining employment dwindled, Broken Hill and the surrounding region had to reinvent itself, and today its major industries include sheep farming, craft shops, movie production (Mad Max 2, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert), and a nascent tourism industry to which we were happy to contribute.

The Famous Palace Hotel in Broken Hill.

We toured an underground silver mine, visited the galleries and craft shops lining Main Street, took a walking tour of historic buildings (including the famous Palace Hotel built in the 1880s, see photo), and learned about the Royal Flying Doctor Service of Australia and School of the Air which meet the medical and educational needs of a region where the nearest public school may be 500 km distant and the closest pharmacy a 10 hour drive!  However, the highlight of our stay was the day spent with Mr. David Furnell, the famous “Flying Postman of Broken Hill,” whom we contacted from Sydney to book a most unusual outback tour.

Once a week Mr. Furnell pilots his single engine plane to more than two dozen sheep stations strewn around the outback, carefully avoiding the kangaroos playing tag on the runway.  To ward off boredom he invites guests to join him for the day, at absolutely no cost, as he lands, takes off, lands, takes off, … dropping the week’s collection of mail into steel drums, broken refrigerators, old washing machines, and other weird postal receptacles plunked down at the end of the makeshift runways.  If the station owners are home they often welcome Dave and his “temporary assistants” in for lunch and conversation, especially as they may be the first visitors at the station in weeks.

The Famous Flying Postman of the Outback (Photograph courtesy of AAPImage, Australia)

I cannot imagine a better way to learn about life in the outback than seeing it from an altitude of a few hundred feet and sharing a sandwich and cold drinks with ranchers striving to eke out a living in this remote landscape.  It gave us a good sense for what outback life is really like for those who struggle against this harsh and unforgiving landscape.  I doubt if your typical two-week “Highlights of Australia” tour would include sufficient free time to allow you and your family to spend a day with Mr. Furnell and residents of the sheep stations of Western New South Wales.  Pity!

So, when enumerating the many reasons for choosing a working vacation in place of your standard family holiday, add to that list a chance to get off the beaten path and see parts of the country casual tourists will never experience.