samedi 7 avril 2018


Anthony Bourdain from Parts Unknown, in giving advice to travellers, had explained why it is better to concentrate on a small place on each trip, rather than trying to see, accommodate and be stressed by a hectic travel itinerary.
Somewhere, you can walk and expect the usual and the unexpected.
To me, that place is Fort Cochin, not Kochi or Ernakulum but the ancient port of Cochin, conquered by the Portuguese in 1495, the Dutch in the 17th century and followed by the British where a polyglot population live in a reasonably tolerant environment.

(view from Bristow's Bistro)
It had taken me 48 hours to get from Miami to Cochin via the airports at Philadelphia, Doha and Colombo and I arrived at the Bristow Lighthouse Hotel facing the Arabian Sea, to a warm welcome. For the next four days and three nights, I did not venture more than one mile by foot from the hotel. All meals were had at the hotel specially prepared by chef Rehman Vipin and attentively served by his staff. The GM, Rajesh Rajan was always at hand to make sure that the stay at the hotel was the best of the see breeze ambiance it is famous for.
 (Breadfruit tree at the entrance of the Bristow Lighthouse Hotel)

It is a small boutique hotel, converted from the residence of Sir Robert Bristow, the man who created the Willingdon Island in the middle of backwaters as they meet the open ocean, which was considered an engineering feat in the 1930s.
A labour of Love, the owner VG was to tell me later.
Sir Robert’s house now has just 15 rooms of which 4 are outside, varying in size and shape.
The house/hotel faces the Arabian Sea, the only one such in all of Fort Cochin. The views of the Sun setting down the Arabian Sea are just gorgeous. There is always a breeze and open air Bristow’s Bistro which has no windows lets in ample breeze to compliment your meal prepared by Executive Chef Rehman Vipin.
Fort Cochin beach and the ever-popular promenade along the backwaters (as the backwaters and the sea become one) are just a few feet away, secluded but not excluded.

There is a parade ground where popular meetings had been held, such as the attempt by the Dutch in the early 1600s to blow up the St Francis Catholic Church. It is surrounded by excellent examples of colonial residential architecture-namely Dutch and English. It is a sheer delight to walk around the parade ground, admiring the various buildings, occasionally we can learn about the history of some of them, such as David Hall built by the Yemenite Jewish merchant Ezekiel Rahabi, next to it, the distinctively British Cochin Club which at one time was so segregated that they even refused membership to Sir Robert Bristow’s Eurasian wife! (Who went on to found the LOTUS club).
St Francis Church, Vasco House, pop in to post a card at the Post Office, talk to Tarik, the owner/manager of Farmers Café, a delightful addition to the upper end dining of Fort Cochin. The middle and lower end dining along the Princess Street, a hangout of backpackers, is shamelessly of poor quality. You very seldom see Indian or local tourists in Fort Cochin (outside of the beach hours), even though I have seen an odd one or two, but it is not common.
 (no wonder people come just to watch the waves at sunset or sunrise)

 (tablet commemorating 500 years of Portugese-Cochin contact)
 (at every corner something waits for you, from quaint churches to the Dutch Cemetery)

Vasco da Gama square has hundreds of little stalls selling everything you can imagine but usually of poor quality, a poor Xerox version of made in china goods. Shopping is best done on the other side of the bay; I cannot imagine anyone coming to Fort Cochin to shop. If you are unfortunate, you may be lured into one of the ubiquitous Kashmiri shops, which have proliferated like parasites that sell things that have no relationship to Cochin, these shops are really an eye sore I highly recommend that you avoid stores that call themselves Antique Emporiums and such and displaying goods which are not local, These cunning merchants will sell you low grade merchandise passing them as Pashmina, and the innocent tourist is out of pocket for a 100 dollars or so (the original costs of these “pashminas” are about 3 dollars each, good quality Pashminas are very expensive.)
But outside of these silly tourist shops the real local life buzzes all around you.

(I always search for this mother daughter tribal family who make bangles and ear rings which I take to other parts of the world to be given away as gifts)
I have visited Fort Cochin on numerous occasions, have become a familiar face, and am greeted as such by the local dwellers, in this small corner of Cochin.

More than one tuk-tuk driver invite me to share tea with them in their favourite hang out in Rose Street, many of the small stall holders greet warmly. The grumpy owner of the Elite café complain about the crowding of the Princess street, the Muslim owner of the store on the corner of Princess and Bastion streets flash a smile of betel stains with symbolisms of their recently acquired wealth.
The local people are generally friendly (apart from the Kashmiri touts and others trying to wean a rupee or two out of you) and would start a conversation with you. I have enjoyed very many good conversations on this small area of Fort Cochin so full of history.
I had flown 10 000 miles (16000 km) and stayed 4 days and 3 nights at Bristow Lighthouse hotel and day 4 went back to the airport to travel another 5000 miles to Paris (8000 km). During the time I had not left the one sq. km area.

I had been here before so nothing urgent was beckoning, except for the desire to have Ayurvedic massages on a daily basis
Raghavan from Andhra Pradesh and SriKanth from Trivandrum conspired with the Chef Rehman to provide three breakfasts and three dinners, highlighting the Kerala cuisine. They know that I did not travel those thousands of kilometres to eat pseudo European food. So each morning and evening it was a medley of Kerala/Cochini food at its best. I had brought a Radius Merlot 2016 (Washington State) with me; so as the Sun began its descent around 6 pm, I would pour myself a glass, stare at the colours of the western skies. A slow dinner would follow at 730-8 pm, ending up at 10-11 pm with a nice cup of milk coffee or tea.
Was I bored? Out of question
Did I meet some new people? Yes
Did I have any unique experiences? Yes
Nothing was planned and everything went smoothly, things happened as it was supposed to happen, managed by the Sprits, as the Indians would say.
Look, there are dolphins out in sea, someone having breakfast at a table nearby pointed out.

That is how I met Dra. C and Miss J, a mother and daughter travelling team with wonderful stories of their varied travels, The other is a specialist Obs-Gyanae physician with a developing interest in Gyanaecological oncology and the daughter is an aspiring medical student whose recent international medical adventure was as an Intern at a clinic in Galle, Sri Lanka. They both had been to an Ayurvedic resort near Trichur and were enjoying the delights of Fort Cochin. (The mother had been here before more than once)
It was obvious that travel is knitted well into the fibre of our beings. During the last dinner time, we talked late into the night, as the impatient waiters were waiting to set up the tables for breakfast which would begin in a few short hours.
Rarely do I meet visitors to the hotel that becomes momentarily our homes.  Most tourists fill their agendas with itineraries resembling their office agenda and do not have the time to wholeheartedly explore the local lives lived in the places they visit.
When I said good-bye to them on the morning of my departure, I had the distinct feeling that I would see them again-somewhere!
My square kilometer of Fort Cochin, the attention by Suresh, SriKanth and Raghavan and chef Rehman, supervised well by the General Manager, Rajesh
Then this wonderful conversation and exchange with the doctora and her daughter.

Did anything else happen n my stay in Fort Cochin, which seemed aimless in the beginning?
If I say mystical, my experience of meeting a remarkable man on the second night of dinner, would not explain the scope of that encounter
The words of my Meskwakia teacher echoed in my ears: Stop searching for people, those who you need to meet will come across your path.
He and his wife, residents of Bombay, invited me to their dinner table and immediately I felt that I was in the presence of a special man! (A man who possesses the third eye, GM told me later). Instead of the natter about the What and How of our lives, we got into the why of our lives. I told him of my encounter in Madras in January 2009 with a blind astrologer and how he wanted me to find two women living in two different countries other than the one where I grew up, but were with me the first 30 months of my life.
A bond was created between me and VG and his wife S, we delved deeper, and his wife excused herself to attend to their two boys. Even though I have been involved in Humanitarian medicine all my professional life, I never recount the difficulties faced by me to bring health/disease care to the poor in some of the poorest countries in the world. The GM brought him my date and place of birth from the hotel registry (from copies of my passport he keeps). He was doing some calculations on his smartphone and he began asking me some questions about certain important events in my life, without my ever telling him. I told him of the world of spirits and symbolism that the American Indians are surrounded by. I told him of my various journeys to offer help to the indigenous peoples in remote parts of the world: Kalahari desert to be with San people, along the Amazon River to meet with the Tikuna, to Rapa Nui to understand the struggles of the native Easter Islanders.
I had a chance to say a prayer for him (connected to the American Indians, thanking my little brother Mauricio of the Omaha for his presence) and I was amazed at the power and effect of the sincerity of prayer (thanks to the Spirits)
This also meant I had a chance to talk openly to him, like no one else before him in India. My father’s work in Burma (I identify with Burma very strongly, told him my Burmese name, Aung Khant), my complete transformation in Australia (I consider myself an Australian, grateful for what that country has done for me, but now Cuba occupies the last physical space in my heart)
He had an insight into my life, I felt I had known for a while and considered him a good friend (two others in India comes close, both from Cochin, RN and MM)
It was already time to say good-bye and a day later I received this email from him.

It was wonderful meeting you. You have been an astounding account of dejavu wherein you feel you know the individual for many lifetimes. I truly enjoyed the time spent and your life is an inspiration for humility, selfless giving and the art of happiness. I wish and pray for your all round health, happiness and prosperity in all its forms gaja lakshmi.

I encircle you with my aura of love and protection. Please stay in our house next time in Mumbai. S and myself welcome you with open arms.

That is what happened to me
On this unplanned trip to Fort Cochin
10 000 miles away, and when I got there
I never went further than 1 km from the hotel
Bristow Lighthouse Hotel

I felt so grateful
So in the ambiance of the Spirits
So satisfied with my sacrifices for the drop of humanitarian work that I do

7 April 2018
I am preparing to leave tomorrow to where my heart is
The City of Havana
The Island of Cuba

Special thanks to Mr Rajesh Rajan the GM at Old Lighthouse Bristow Bungalow Heritage Hotel