Are you a traveler or a tourist? Yes, both mean different things. A traveler – unhurried, lacks the “need” to see/do things, explores beyond the ‘must’ eat, visit lists. A tourist – one for order, one who settles for a “simplified ABC version of the globe“. Highly subjective definitions, yes. Disputable, too. But it easily makes you and I a traveler every single day, at every other place. It makes me a traveler in my own land, in my own time. Friend to tourists and wayfarers, a commonplace storyteller, a forever traveler.
It’s been three days since the world erupted in a show of cultures and stories. World Tourism Day, they call it. Touted as a day to remember the “immense potential of tourism to drive inclusive economic growth, protect the environment and promote sustainable development and a life of dignity for all.”
But what if some of this dignity is already lost? Along with it the sense of identity and some history?
Like at the skeletons of Chinese fishing nets that cling to the pier along Fort Kochi beach. Listed on every travel guide, populated by lens-faced tourists, every photographer’s dream during a gold-tinged sunset. The cliched postcard picture, the fishing nets are almost an emblem of the many tourist-y offerings of Kerala. And an unsettling reminder of what has already been lost.
Chinese fishing nets, in use for the last 500 years and one of the tourist attractions in Kerala, are fast vanishing from the Kochi coastline as huge maintenance costs and poor catch is forcing fishermen to look for other alternatives. Called ‘Cheena Vala’ in local parlance, the huge cantilevered fishing nets are believed to have been brought by Portuguese from Macau, once a Portuguese colony. While some accounts mention that the nets were set up between AD 1350 and 1450 by traders from the court of Kubla Khan, some others say Chinese explorer Zhang He introduced the nets to Kochi shores.
Set up on bamboo and teak poles, the nets are fixed land installations for an unusual form of fishing — shore operated lift nets. Suspended horizontally over the sea, the nets give the appearance of a huge hammock. Huge mechanical contrivances hold out horizontal nets of 20 metres or more across. Each structure is at least 10 meters high and comprises a cantilever with an outstretched net suspended over the sea and large stones suspended from ropes as counter weighing at the other end. Each net is operated by 5-6 fishermen.Rocks each 30 cm or so in diameter are suspended from ropes of different length. As the net is raised, some of the rocks come one by one to rest on a platform thereby keeping everything in balance.
Today, beyond the photographs and footfalls, the nets have become a muse for tributes. Rickety structures whose men invite tourists on board for a feel of how things work. And if lucky (and ready to pay), you’d find yourself helping them yank the ropes to haul the net up. Only to see it empty. Dredging, pollution, change in currents – the reasons are many. And the few lone fish that do find itself in the nets, they make for a show of what once was. And form the operators’ side dish at dinner.
So then, come to see the Chinese fishing nets. “Don’t miss it”. Make it during the early hours or at sunset; the afternoon heat is punishing. Muster some courage, strap your cameras safely, and walk the narrow poles that hold the nets. Help the men haul the nets, listen to their broken English telling you about its history, take more than just one picture.
Come, as a tourist. As a traveler, too. See what remains, look back on history, and think of the big little ways you can immortalize this piece of coast.
But may be not ask what’s the catch?