Published: March 25th 2006March 11th 2006
The flight from Mumbai to Cochin/Kochi in central Kerala is fine and uneventful. The arrival in Cochin is like hitting a hot wet wall of air, punctuated by mosquitos. Its humid.
The Fort House hotel in Fort Cochin looks a little ramshackle as we arrive very hot and a little terrified by the driving (which rivals Mumbai's efforts) and some of the towns we've been through. Our first thoughts are for dinner (the restaurant at our hotel is known for serving the best Keralan food in the area) and a cold cold Kingfisher. With the food, we are certainly not disappointed. The fact they don't serve alcohol makes me sharply intake breath and make Toby worried for my health if not my sanity. The refreshing joys of fresh lime and soda will become important to us here! Here I discover the best Keralan fish curries I can ever remember and the delights of the Keralan pancake, a crepe filled with fresh coconut and sugar that have been fried together loosely with butter. Oh yum!
The "hotel" is basically a long row of 9 terraced rooms each with seperate entrances and a log porch stretching along all the rooms. They're big and lovely, quite basic and rustic in feel. The rooms all face over a big old courtyard with trees (and a shack housing the local tailor who makes Toby 2 shirts to measure for about a tenner!) and through which you walk along to the jetty which serves as an open air eating area. We will come to love this place and our room - for its lovely feel, and for its airconditioning. The draped mosquito net over the bed is necessary, but also adds a sort of almost fairytale feel. Its really charming.
Sitting on the deck in old wooden chairs sipping lime and ginger tea and reading, doused in mozzie repellent, is a lovely way to spend some time, even if it does make us feel like a middle-aged couple.
During the next days we walk for many hot sweaty hours, finding our way around the area and wandering along not quite knowing where we are most of the time, and getting much attention from locals and stray goats alike. The are more goats here than on the average goat farm! And more than double that amount of autorickshaws. Between those two and the mozzies, there is contant movement and activity... if it could be a little less humid, it would be just about right!
We explore Jew Town (seems un-PC in some way but we are to discover how very Indian that is! eg: the train station has signs about discounts for "handicapped" people, including a 25% discount for "uncontageous lepers" which clearly we can't fake a case for, but I'd love to give it a go!) and its synagogue and lovely handicraft shops and so on (Where I purchase a lovely little sandalwood elephant inlaid with camel horn. Apparently.), as well as the touting hassling owners who call you in continually to view their wares. Its a great realxing day, which also sees me add to my list of transport as we jump in an autorickshaw in the heat of the afternoon to head back to the hotel. I love autorickshaws, they dart around nearly hitting things but always missing as they buzz back and forth up the dust tracks that serve for roads.
The main part of Fort Cochin shops and a few restaurants, a mass of touting stalls and a lovely harbour-front lined with jetties and chinese fishing nets. If you've never seen one, its like a huge bamboo frame around a big net that is lowered in and out of the water by hand using a cantelever mechanism. They are beautiful lining the waterfront in the sunset.
We are here re-thinking our next plans as we realise we are going to make the rest of the holiday too stressful if we continue south for a few days to the backwaters, and then try to get to the hills in the west for some time and then get back to Mumbai for the 3rd test. We decide to do a daytrip to the backwaters instead, so staying an extra night in Cochin and then head up into the hills to a national park/sanctuary area we have read about. We relax a bit now we have formulated a plan and feel confident about our next move.
Cochin is nice, that we're a bit out of town is a major bonus as there are too many backerpacker types wearing tie-die and beads in town, but its a nice place to spend a few days.
We get hideously lost in the maze of Ernakulum (where we have to go to order our train tickets for a later part of our journey), but saved by a huge thunderstorm and our ensuing need for a rickshaw, we don't end up murdered by scary locals on the outskirts of town but rather in a great veg restaurant where one of the best meals we'd had costs us the equivalent of about £1.50 all up. What's not to love about that?
The day trip to the backwaters is lovely, if a long day. The morning along the main wide canals is fine, but not incredible (although the guide's knowledge of ayuverdic medecine and the plants we see is fascinating), much better being the afternoon on small wooden punts drifting along the narrow backwater systems with local guides, and going past villages and families going about their lives around the waters. Its beautiful and quiet and relaxing, which is quite a treat in India.
On the way back the most bizarre thing happens as, driving back into Fort Cochin, we happen upon a local hindu festival complete with chanting musicians and 3 large painted and decorated elephants in the middle of the road. They are all perched in front of a roundabout, with cars, buses and rickshaws driving by all around it as if its nothing at all. Its a great sight and I'm super excited by my first up-close elephant moment.
We also happen by the chinese nets in time to see them being lowered and raised for the evening catch. Its breathtaking to watch. And the catch is then sold to the vendors lining the street there to cook up fresh for the hungry locals and tourists.
It being our last night we settle in for a delicious meal - with lime and soda - only to discover that the Indians have found a way around the difficult licencing and religious issues about drinking, and that they serve you beer in a china teapot and mugs, if you ask for it. Can't they tell you this at the beginning for those of us too stupid to wonder out loud why so many people are drinking tea with their dinner??!
I could have stayed in our room in that lovely hotel for another week or so... but we both fear if we do that, we will never actually get around to leaving!
It had been quite a magic last day on the Keralan coast and we feel like we've been blessed with very good karma over the past few days. We look forward to that luck continuing as we prepare for a 6am pickup for the 7-hour drive up to Wayanad in the Western Ghats on the edge of Kerala...