Guest Post by: Marwa Alansi is a Senior studying Human Resource Management with a minor in Diversity.This summer, Marwa participated in the India Business Exploration Seminar.
“What’s the difference between a tourist and a student?”
A tourist finds similarities across different countries and cultures, but a student finds the differences. That question posed by my professor followed me from South to North India. It was easy for me to point out similarities to other cultures while being in India, however recognizing the differences in cultures not just with other countries, but within India as well was challenging. This is why the first week of September was the most memorable and consisted of some of my favorite days while abroad. Not only was I able to see similarities, but I was able to highlight the differences I found across multiple cities.
We arrived in Kochi the night of September 3rd and although it was dim, and I was exhausted, I did not fail to recognize the immediate contrast against the city of Hampi, the ancient city we were in prior. After leaving the Kochi airport, we drove through strips of lights, busy streets and saw more modern buildings- the complete opposite of what I experienced in the historical and agricultural city of Hampi. The following morning, September 4th, further highlighted differences. Transitioning from Karnataka state where the weather was hot yet cool, to Kerala state which was dreadfully hot, was hard.
For our first official day in Kochi, we stopped by a fishing dock where we learned about the locals ‘Chinese fishing’ techniques- which is not something that’s common across India, it is very specific to the Kochi area because of the Chinese explorers that had come to that land around the 14th century and left their influence behind. Next, we walked to the 16th century St. Francis Church. This church was built by European explorers, the most notable being Vasco da Gama who later died and was actually buried in this church (but his body was later moved). Unlike many landmarks we had already visited, the architecture and structure of this church was not lavish and was not a big part of its glory and attraction. The St. Francis Church holds a lot of significance because of its representation of European settlement and long-lasting history. I appreciated this visit because I was able to witness the remnants of British colonization in a unique city like Kochi which has a complex history with colonialism because it was colonized 3 different times (by the British, Dutch, and Portuguese).
I also appreciated this visit because simultaneously I also learned something about American history. I never knew that Christopher Columbus went on his expedition looking for the riches of India, but instead landed in America and began calling the indigenous people there Indian, hence why Native Americans are sometimes referred to as “Indians”.
After these visits, we went to the Mattancherry Dutch Palace. This palace was not at all what I was expecting. I anticipated a grand palace much like the temples and other palaces we had seen in other cities- like in Hampi and Mysore. Instead, similar to the St. Francis Church, this temple was not an attraction because of its architecture and structure, it was significant because of its geographic history and interior art. The illustrations inside were preserved, intricate, and introduced us to idols like Ganesha and Ardhanarishvara. One thing I found interesting was learning that although the palace is called a Dutch Palace, it was in fact built by the Portuguese and later adopted by the Dutch. Having gone to the docks, St. Francis Church, and the Mattancherry Dutch Palace, it was easy to see the melting pot of cultures and influence left behind from all three, Portuguese, Dutch, and British colonization’s. Seeing this, made Kochi by far my favorite place to visit and learn about.
Another part of Kochi that I really enjoyed was ‘Jewtown’. Here, we were able to shop and visit a Jewish Synagogue where we learned that traditionally, women were not allowed in the main space, they had to stand behind a partition. This cultural insight helped us for when we went to a ‘Kathakali performance’ later that evening. In both cases, both the Synagogue and Kathakali culture don’t allow much female integration. In kathakali performances, there are female characters played by men because historically these dances were performed in places of worship where again, women were not allowed. Learning that women were not allowed because of the idea that their menstrual cycles made them too impure for such spiritual places, made me realize that the role and perception of women across various religions are quite similar.
With all this said, September 4th was an eventful day to say the least, but September 5th was quite the opposite. On Thursday the 5th we made the transition to our houseboats in Alleppey! I had been excited for this day since I got the confirmation that I was going to India. Although both Alleppey and Kochi are in the state of Kerala, there was a noticeable difference in the weather. Alleppey was much cooler than what we experienced in Kochi because we were on the water. I’m not the biggest fan of water, and can’t swim, but when we moved from the houseboat to a canoe, I surprisingly really enjoyed it. I was able to get closer to the land and somewhat interact with locals. I was able to see the difference in lifestyles in comparison to Kochi. For instance, in Alleppey, the primary source of work is agricultural. I saw this in different forms; locals raising hens for eggs, the chef on the houseboat using rice that’s specifically sourced there, etc. It was crazy to think that one minute I was in the modern, tech hub of India, Bangalore, then went to an ancient village, Hampi, and then ended up on a houseboat watching others use water as their sole mode of transportation. Overall, my experience in Alleppey was by far the most peaceful and unreal experience I have ever had. The beauty I witnessed was indescribable.
While Kochi was my favorite city to learn about, Alleppey provided an experience far different from any other place we visited. Together, these cities are why the first week of September consisted of some of my favorite days.