How a Strike Ruined my Weekend

This past weekend (June 26th and 27th), me and two other ex-pats in Bangalore (French, Italian) decided to go to Cochin on the west coast of India. After spending most of my time at the 900 meter elevation of Bangalore, I was really excited to get down to sea level and touch the Indian Ocean for the first time, ever.

We were on the usual plan: overnight to get there on Friday night, sleep somewhere Saturday, and get back overnight on Sunday. This means that when we arrive in a new place, we usually do so at a hilariously early time. We arrived in Cochin at 5 am, before the sun had risen, and began our vague walk towards the shore.

Cochin is in the Indian state of Kerala. The local language is Malayalam. The city itself is on the northern end of what is called “the backwater”, a large area of complex saltwater lakes and bays. The Place To Stay in Cochin is Fort Cochin, at the west end of town on a peninsula. While you can get there from the train station by land, it’s actually faster to get there by the municipal system of ferries. This reminded me a lot of the very cheap and fast municipal ferry system in Bangkok.

As soon as we got off the train, an autorickshaw driver asked us where we were headed and, there being no reason to lie, we said we were going to the main jetty to get to Fort Cochin. He said “No ferries today, there is a strike, you have to take rickshaw. 200 rupees.” For anyone who hasn’t traveled in this part of the world before, saying something is closed or unavailable is a common tactic if someone wants to rip you off. The other ex-pats had traveled less than I had, so I just told them to ignore it and we kept walking. Although I thought saying a “strike” was new. I had never heard that one before.

It was like a ghost town all the way to the jetty. This was supposed to be the biggest destination in Kerala. We’re in the middle of the low season, but still. We were looking for the tourist office too, because we wanted to take an all-day tour of the backwater. We ran in to some other early-morning locals, who repeated the strike story. Nobody’s English was that great, so we didn’t get any satisfactory explanations about why there was a strike. I took longer to be convinced that the other guys, holding onto my skepticism due to the amount of traveling I had done. But it seemed that large sections of Cochin were genuinely on strike. There were very few boats on the water, the tourist office never opened on time, and the regular ferries were not running. What the hell was going on?

We found a group of tour operators who offered to take us by an indirect route to Fort Cochin taking an hour. They initially said 800 rupees, but we argued them down to 500. This was more expensive than going by land, but land travel is for shmucks.

We finally arrived in Fort Cochin by around 8:30 – 9 am, and got to see the awesome Chinese fishing nets, a local attraction. A bunch of locals convinced us to walk out on the nets and help them raise it up and down. This isn’t what we intended to do when we walked out on to the net. It’s kind of like how a salesperson shows up at your door and wants to just talk, and 5 minutes later you have a useless vacuum. Well, we “helped” them catch 5 fish or so, which is amazing considering the net was down for about 2 minutes. And then they asked for some money, saying it was all “for the tourists”. We should have known. It’s not like they needed our help to raise and lower the net. It’s like a carnival ride, where you get to experience an agrarian lifestyle for a couple minutes. Goddammit. We gave them about 100 rupees.

But back to the point. So, the entire place was shut down. We managed to find a cheap home stay, but walking down main roads every single shop would be closed, except those that were really practical, like post offices. We wanted to walk to the area known as Jewtown, but everything was closed there except one art gallery and a few sketchy shops in an alley. What the hell was going on this weekend? Were the zombies? Where were the people looking to take my money?

So it turns out that what was happening is called a hartal. It is a government-mandated strike. The ruling party of Kerala is the Left Democratic Front, a majority of whose members are part of various Communist parties. What they organized is called a Hartal in India.

It is strange because the origin of the hartal concept seems to be to protest to whoever is in charge, so a government mandating the strike doesn’t seem to make sense. Ostensibly, last weekend’s hartal is to protest the central government of India deciding to raise gas prices.

One undertakes a strike to effect the economic state of another party. From my perspective though, it seems that Kerala is saying to the central Indian government “We think that raising gas prices will cause trouble for the economy, so we’re going to shut down our entire economy for a single day. There, are you happy? See what you made us do to ourselves?” I kind of makes Kerala sound a little immature, and I don’t even know how this really affects the rest of India. Would most people in Ottawa notice if, say, Edmonton decided to not have local buses running on a Saturday? No. That kind of just fucks over your own people. How does this government remain in power? I mean, maybe it affects multi-state businesses in a small way, but still.

This article has a good description of the hartal I experienced. It causes significant trouble for the local economy (like I said, you seem to be screwing yourself over more than the people you are trying to protest). People who are already wealthy have a free day off while poor people who run local businesses have to close to support the government, and travelers like ourselves can’t spend as much money as we would like.

Apparently Kerala is famous for its hartals, staging over 100 a year in recent years. The one we experienced was 6 am – 6 pm on Saturday, June 26th. I don’t know if others are shorter or longer. It was estimated that due to the 223 hartals in 2006, 20 billion rupees were lost. That’s $500 million Canadian dollars. Nuts!

Here is a great website that catalogues the negative effect of hartals:

Well, we made do. We met a girl who was from Montreal, and hung out with her most of Saturday. The first and only Canadian I’ve met since I left (I’m writing up this blog entry on a lonely Canada Day). We went back to the Chinese fishing nets and actually bought a huge butterfish this time, which they butchered and cooked right in front of us, and then we ate all of it. End-to-end.

On Sunday, we found a boat to give us a tour of the backwater. A sketchy guy convinced us not to take the big tour, but it turned out he wasn’t that sketchy and we ended up on a boat that was just the three of us and the driver, rather than a big tour boat. The backwater, apart from the palm trees, chinese fishing nets and rice patties, reminded me desperately of my cottage in the Muskoka area, which I am missing out on this summer.

Some locals fishing, mooching off our internal combustion. Except that kid holding on in front was inhaling a ton of exhaust.

Due to a completely uninteresting complication, our return train ticket wasn’t what we thought it was, so we ended up taking a bus back. Before getting on board, I picked up 2 States, an novel that describes an Indian couple from different states who want to get married. This is actually a really big deal. The more I find out about marriage in India, the more crazy and different it gets. The point of the novel is that it takes nearly 3 years for two people in love to convince each other’s families that they should get married, because one is from Punjab and the other is from Tamil Nadu. They have dodge multiple arranged marriages on the way.

Conveniently, one of the other Indians on the bus was going to the fourth day of his sister’s wedding. You read that correctly: fourth. His sister was a PhD student in chemistry, the groom had finished his PhD in Biophysics. He seemed excited that they had similar subject areas. The crazy part was that the bride and groom had only met in person a couple days before the wedding. He had put up an online ad, she answered it. He was working in the US and couldn’t come back. Their families got together and talked. She saw a picture of him. And then here we are. Four day wedding. And this is from 2 PhD people. I guess I had this belief that this only happened to really uneducated people, but I’m clearly wrong. The more I hear about how Indian marriages are run, the more I think the “arranged” part isn’t actually that bad. It’s kind of a paradox of choice thing; if you have the choice, you will always be considering what you could have if you made a different choice. Whereas if the choice is made for you, you learn to work with it. Not that I would ever want this for me or my children, but I see how it works.

Until next time, rangers.

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