Luckily the local government hospital isn't the only thing we see while in Fort Kochi. A casual rickshaw tour offers a different glimpse of life in this South Indian spice capital. It's not the churches or museums that grab my attention with the story of this place, but the people. And the street goats.
Around every corner there seem to be random goats dodging rickshaws with a sort of apathetic dazed look. They plop down next to a curb or munch snacks in the middle of an intersection while everyone goes about their daily business hardly taking notice. I just have one question: do they belong to someone?
I am told that the street goats indeed have owners, although mysteriously absent. Some 1,500 of them are released every morning to scavenge about the city as they please. Each evening, they simply return home, just like that. That's how things roll in India.
Our first stop is the local laundromat. But perhaps that is the wrong word since there are no electronic washing machines involved in laundering clothes here. Everything from hotel bedsheets to fancy cloth napkins from nearby restaurants are dropped off to be manually scrubbed clean in giant cement vats that, quite frankly, remind me of the wash rack where we bathe horses at my barn. About 20 cement stalls with pools of not so clean looking water sit ready and waiting. How can this process possibly clean stuff? Another one of India's many mysteries.
The people working here look much too old to be laboring. They ignore our presence as we poke around. The whole setup seems entirely from a different century. I pick up a hefty manual clothing iron. It's filled with burning coconut shells that function by heating the bottom of the metal surface. Forget electricity, coconuts and arm muscles seem to work just fine.
We continue, weaving our way through the narrow streets of the spice district which is lively and filled with texture, color, and chaos. Men are hard at work, hauling huge sacks of potatoes, garlic, and ginger on their heads. Some push carts so oversized the work seems more fit for an ox rather than a single man.
We stop at a wholesale spice warehouse. There are so many things to look at, bags and bags of spices I've never even heard of before. Our driver points out frankincense, burned to ward off mosquitoes in the evening. Varieties of spicy red peppers, masala chai tea, cinnamon bark, nutmeg, sandalwood, and fresh cardamom.
India seems ever capable of overwhelming me with new sights.
Next door at a ginger factory, thousands of pieces of the root are laid to dry directly on the cement floor of a tattered courtyard. Inside the storeroom the light is dim, and three elderly women shovel heaps of ginger into burlap sacks. Their work kicks up such a cloud of dust, I begin to cough. The women, who must be near my grandma's age, laugh at us, bobbling their heads. We ask our driver what they find so funny. He says they think we're crazy for taking so many photos. I don't blame them. I often feel extremely displaced in this country, as if I am observing their lifestyles with just as much curiosity as they are observing mine.
At last we find ourselves at the water's edge where the famous Chinese fishing nets hover over the sea like scrawny wooden aliens. We pick our way through the garbage-filled beach and out onto a rickety wooden dock. The structures are ancient spaceships from another time and place, transplanted here by Chinese explorers.
We end our tour here just as the sun begins to set, signaling the evening march of street goats as they return home.