“Airrrrr, waterrrrrr and laaaaaand” – my first grade Geography teacher chanted the three main modes of transport until we pony-tailed girls were sure to never forget them. While travel by land was a plain daily affair, air transport completed family vacations. It was the much-awaited – but timed – visits to the grandparents, their home on an island in the backwaters, that sparked my love for the ferry.
As with love of all kinds and sizes, it began with the unknown. “How much water is there in the river,” “Will we die if the boat breaks”, “How works the ferry” – curiosity trumped grammar in my little world. There were some answers but the fascination stayed because how could wooden planks and boards placed across two large canoes carry people and vehicles! So every time the car reached the water’s edge, out jumped a little girl with 5 rs ($0.08), stood on tiptoes to reach the greasy ticket counter and waited until the father maneuvered the car to climb onto a ladder placed between the ferry platform and the edge of the boat (craving to do justice to this bit but Physics is not my cup of my tea). If I promised to not go close to the railings, I was allowed to stand out in the open, letting the river breeze ruffle my curls and rouse up conversations I’d drown my grandparents in.
Yesterday, the ferry was about a little girl reaching her elders on an island where once there was no bridge. Today, two decades on, the ferry is the bridge that connects the old and the new, brings together kindred and the wayfarers, and tells her stories of the land and its people.
The ferry from Cochin, across to the tourist meccas of Fort Kochi and Mattanchery and back, is the best way to feel the pulse of the city and read its untold tales. Operated by the government, the services start around 5 am and run till 9 pm, at a gap of anywhere between 15-30 minutes. Mind the separate ticket counters for men and women, please. Gender is serious business in India (especially where tickets are involved), given that the line for ladies is shorter and moves faster. Then brace for the mad dash. Prepare to be jostled by families of 10 for the ferry ride is a celebration. Wait for the tourists to make that leap of faith between the boat and the jetty. Finally find your spot by the window and begin reading – people and the sights.
The tourists are always the easiest to identify, with their maps and guides screaming “100 things to do/ places to visit/ eat at in South India”. The travelers are a pleasure to meet. From culture to education, environment and travel, your conversations with them take you places. Halfway through this dialogue, you would have crossed Willingdon Island which is India’s largest man-made island and houses a wing of the Indian Navy. Turn your attention back to the bobbing heads on the wooden benches and you’ll notice the quintessential North Indian family on their summer holiday. The uber excited kids and their fascination with the vast expanse of water (the South has the larger share of India’s water resources) is a dead giveaway.
Then, the people of the land: purdah-clad women and their children tugging at the long fabric, the man from the island for only he confidently plonks a cycle right in the middle of the boat, the old men and their morning date with the newspaper, those dressed for work, and the average arty type headed to many of the several galleries and events in town. Yes, you most certainly cannot overlook the photography clan; bite down that urge to tell that man to keep his phone from falling into the water with all his selfie attempts. Instead be amused by the wonder a commonplace white-feathered crane brings about (“Seee, seeeeeeee, birrrrrd birrrrrdddd”).
Before long, the yellows, reds and blues of fishing boats stand out, trawlers pass by and the buildings loom – all reminders of land rising to meet you. Off you go at the end of a 20-minute ride, walking back on waters steeped in history, on people who harbor stories unheard. Off you go, away from the ferry, only to return to its brass bell clanging – announcing new journeys.