A Week in Cochin, Kerala, India
11.30.2007 30 °C
Now this is South India. We landed today, only 50 minutes after taking off, in Kochi (previously Cochin) in the state of Kerala. Kerala is famous for its "backwaters," which in Ontario would be a put-down, but here is a good thing. After seeing Mysore, though, we were worried as we drove for over an hour through the sprawl that is Kochi. Mostly, we were on busy, commercial thoroughfares, lined with huge billboards advertising waterfront condos. Blissfully, however, our stay would be in the part of Kochi called Fort Cochin. It's charming, calm, and a marvellous blend of historical influences. Our homestay, "Delight", set the tone. It's a lovely, white-picket-fenced property, with several rooms in a large, Portuguese-style heritage house, with a little annex and cottage added on the front. a "home stay" here is not like being billeted in someone's home, it's more like a "guest house" or "bed and breakfast." The small gardens are immaculate, and the owner, David, was warmly welcoming. He suggested (practically insisted) we get our lunch at Dal Roti, just around the corner. This made us suspicious, but Dal Roti turned out to be a wonderful restaurant, with an outgoing owner who helped us not order too much food. It is mostly north Indian cuisine. We definitely plan to go back.
So, with a nice lunch in us, we set off to explore the rest of the neighborhood. We were only a few minutes away from the "Chinese fishing nets," which line the waterfront.
Chinese fishing nets in Fort Cochin, Kerala
They're raised and lowered from the shore, using weighted ropes, meaning this group of fishermen don't even go out in boats. The frame for the nets is quite high, so they make quite a sight along the shore. As soon as the fish are taken out of a net and sorted, a crowd surges forward to buy them.
All this, however, paled in comparison (in Anica's eyes) to the playground in the village green, right in front of the fishing nets. There's a high slide, built to look like a giraffe, that is really cool. So we'll be going there each day, too! We have to keep a close eye on Anica, as this is the playground equipment of forty years ago: instead of being built with safety in mind, it seems designed to "thin the herd" of society using trial-by-playground during those formative childhood years.
After cooling down from the playground, we went to an Italian restaurant for dinner - expensive by local standards - it ran us almost $15!
We saw more of Fort Cochin today, and decided to stay on for a full week. It really is a nice place to spend some time, including spending time in our bright, spacious guest-room.
When Vasco da Gama arrived in Kerla, 500 years ago, "discovering" it for Europeans, there already were Christians, Jews, Muslims and Hindus living here. Five centuries later, in these two little villages of Fort Cochin and Mattancherry, all of these groups are still here. There's a Syrian Orthodox Church, a Catholic church, an Anglican church, a synagogue , a mosque, and places of worship. No wonder their motto is "God's Own Country!"
We had a surprise tonight when we heard a choir rehearsing Christmas carols! This was doubly surprising because, not only were we in India, we'd had no other reminders that it was Christmas season. And one month from today is Christmas!
Dinner tonight was a return to "Dal Roti." He had the Tandoori oven fired up for the dinner service, so that meant kebabs and Tandoori chicken on a big platter for us. We talked with the owner and his wife off and on throughout the meal. This is now officially one of our favourite restaurants in the world! The food, atmosphere, price and location combine here to create something that's quite rare. We'll be going back a couple of times this week, I'm sure.
Today we toured the backwaters by eco-friendly, non-motorized boats. Unfortunately, we had to take an hour-long van ride to get to the backwaters. I guess Fort Cochin is the frontwaters. The tour was otherwise very well-done. The guide, Tombi, seemed stern at first, but ended up good friends with Anica, able to play and tease her without scaring her.
First we went on a small, dug-out canoe that was poled down very narrow channels. On either side were peoples' homes. Women bathed in their saris or washed laundry on rocks. At times, with it being so quiet, it felt like we were sneaking past them in our boats.
Anica on our backwaters cruise
All the little stops taught us about the plants around us. There were "touch-me-nots" which withered under the slightest touch of our fingers. There was grapefruit, and the boatmen tore off strips of leaves as foot and arm grips, and scaled the palm trunks to throw them down. Tombi used a machete to crack them open and we sampled the grapefruit. Same with the coconut. We drank the milk, then ate the fruit, right from the freshly-dropped coconuts.
At the spice plantation, we learned that the green pepper berry on the branch could be made into black, white or red pepper, depending on when and how it was used. Anica was the first in the group to try cinnamon bark, which Tombi cut and peeled right off the tree trunk. We saw women spinning out coconut coil (rope) by hand. There were many other spices being grown in the plantation, which was part of a cooperative society. At one point in the small boat journey, we stopped to watch an elephant be bathed in the river by its handlers.
Lunch was a surprisingly authentic affair. We ate on an island, from banana-leaf plates. Spoons were available, but we tried to practice our Keralan skill of eating with just the right hand. You've got to get your whole hand involved to do it right. It never looks pretty, especially when done by unskilled Westerners, not to mention that I'm left-handed.
After lunch, we cruised a broader river in the larger, covered boats that can also be converted into houseboats.
We took the public ferry boat from the jetty in Fort Cochin across the water to Ernakulum. This busy urban centre held little charm for us, but we put in a few hours and got a few errands done. It seemed really hot on those busy city streets though!
Christmas star decorations for sale in the local bazaar in Ernakulum
Back in the tranquil village laneways of Fort Cochin, we ate at a restaurant down by the Chinese fishing nets that seemed popular. As I looked around, I noticed most of the other tables had teapots on them, with people drinking from coffee mugs. That seemed a little strange until the waiter asked me if I'd like a beer with dinner. Beer wasn't on the menu, though, nor is it anywhere in Cochin. Then I remembered what the guidebooks say about beer: it's served surreptitiously from teapots!
I had a coke.
Today we set out to see more of the cultural and historical sites in Fort Cochin and Mattancherry. The"Dutch Palace," actually built by the Portuguese to placate a local Raja, didn't take long to explore, but there were a couple of interesting features. Aside from the ubiquitous Ramayana murals, the lower level featured some decidedly more eroticized murals. Mostly, it was the animals enjoying themselves. From rats to deer to elephants!
Then there was the giant swing (no, nothing to do with the erotic art - that's why this is a new paragraph) where the Raja used to sit and receive public audience. I had a lot of questions about that: did he sit still? Did someone push him? Wasn't it hard to take his royal authority seriously when he's playing on a swing?
But, since large parts of the Palace were closed, we moved on to the Jain Temple, fending off a few tuk-tuk drivers. The temple was a nice place to wait in the breezy, shaded courtyard. We were made to feel very welcome, and I sat in on the devotions of a couple of women singing to the accompaniment of a temple drummer-boy.
Jainism is an offshoot of Hinduism, whose numbers are fewer than ten million, almost all in India. It is a very peaceful faith, whose most strict adherents harm no living creature, not even a plant. That makes eating a challenge!
As a symbol of their respect for all life, pigeons are feed daily at noon. We made sure we stayed for this. At the sound of the call, pigeons swirled (clockwise, I noted) around the main temple and descended to the side garden. There were perhaps a thousand pigeons. There were a few other people there, including a couple of Indian families with young kids, and we all were given birdseed. The men in charge commenced the feeding with a little song and prayer and then we were surrounded by birds, pecking gently from our hands, until the ground was thick with birdseed and we weren't needed anymore.
The proverbial "bird in the hand" at the Jain Temple in Cochin
The temple is in the Mattancherry area, and we had lunch at a former ginger warehouse (or "godown") on the waterfront. Mercifully, it was canopied. Mid-day here is very much "siesta" time because of the heat. They keep referring to "winter," but that's just confusing to us Canadians!
There was a blackout at dinner at Dal Roti's (power failure). They had no generator or inverter, so we were plunged into total darkness until they brought out three battery-powered florescent lights that looked like bug lights. There were only three so they kept rotating them, seemingly without any reason, among the six or so tables on diners. Oddly enough, it didn't faze us at all and we happily continued eating until eventually the power came back on.
This evening we attended a "Kathakali" theatre performance. Kathakali is the traditional performing art of Kerala, and is perhaps the world's oldest continuously-performed theatre form. It tells the stories of gods and heroes using a language of hand-gestures, movements, costumes and makeup. Traditionally, it's performed at length (sometimes all night long) in temples. Like Elizabethan theatre, the female roles are all played by men. The version we saw is admittedly, watered down for tourists, but still performed by the artists who have undergone years of rigourous Kathakali training in pursuit of this calling.
The makeup, in particular, is elaborate, and the audience is invited to arrive 90 minutes before the play begins to watch the process. That may have been a lot to ask of Anica. I myself vacillated between fascination with the process and the discomfort thought that we were literally watching paint dry.
Following that was a demonstration of some Kathakali conventions. You couldn't help but get a kick out of the nine emotions of the face being demonstrated (love, sarcasm, fear..). It was basically making faces elevated to a nearly religious ritual! The gestures were also universal; body language was demonstrated to communicate yes, no, come here, go away, etc. Less universal were the hand signals, which is a language of its own (although I swear I saw "ok" and the sign for stealing third in there).
That made the play itself hard to understand. Luckily, we had our one page English summary they gave us. It still was a long night for Anica (especially because we couldn't get dinner until after the show), who was just as interested in the antics of two kittens who'd climbed into the bamboo-walled theatre. But she was very patient, and when the show ended we went back to the "Upstairs Italian Restaurant" and had a nice meal (only marred slightly by the amplified, outdoor Mass being conducted in the Malayalam language across the street).
Today we ate, read, wrote postcards, updated the website, walked around and helped Anica with her school work, played outside with Anica. One of our typical quiet days. And, typcially for here, we now intend to go have one more meal at Dal Roti!
Today we went on a tour with a 1 hour long drive (no Gravol!). So after that we got to our boat and met our local guide (very nice). Then we got to the spice plantian and I tried some ciammon bark! Very spicy! On the way back we had cocunut milk and fruit. Then I picked up some palms, dipped them in the water and whacked the plants. Then we had Thali for lunch and the tenagge boys on our tour played coconut-ball soccer with me! Then we went home and had dinner. good night!
Today we got up and went to have breakfast. For breakfast we had pinapple, toast, butter and jam (Daddy also had coffe). Then we walked outside, found a tuk-tuk and said "how much would it be to go to the jetty?" "Fifteen rupees." "Okay." So we had a very nice driver, he told us that he had a 10 year old boy and a eight and a half year old girl. He also told us that a couple from Chicago who came here for the last six years bought him a two thousand doller (canadian) tuk tuk! When we arived at the jetty we found tickets to Ernaukulam quickly. After a fifeten minute ferry we arived in Ernaukulam. We dicedid to go to MG road but Mommy and Daddy had a fight (but just to keep things easy I kept out of it) We found a cloth shop and bought me two shirts. one said fun in the sun, the other futre princess! Then we went to an internet cafe (I'm french ha ha), then went to a coffe place. Went to the jetty, got tickets home, had dinner. Good night!!!
"Hello Sari, Hello Tuk Tuk No! Yes!"
Today we got up and had breakfast. Then we walked out and got to the Duth Palace. When we got there we took out our cameras and walked inside. After we came out we were very disappinted. NOT VERY INTRISTING! Then we walked down to the jain temple. I feed the pigens at 12:15 but I got bird poop in bettwen my toes!? Then we had lunch, went home, rested. Had dinner. GOOD NIGHT! P.S. (now listen up!!!) we had a blackout during dinner but they kept on stealing lights from people.
"We Shoped and bought a WALL HANIGING"
Today we got ticketsfor Kathakali (yay). Then we tried to look for an ATM with cirrus. No! Then we went shopping. we looked in one shop and he had somthing we liked for a good price. so we said "we'll think about it." Then we went into another shop, they had somthing we wanted but not for a good price. So we had lunch. Then we went back to the oneguys shop and bought it!!!! Then we went home, rested, saw a really long kathakhali show and had dinner. GOOD NIGHT.