Edit Blog Post
Published: January 23rd 2015
We touched down in Kochi
at 10pm and were immediately greeted by the warm embrace of a balmy Indian evening. We breezed through customs and caught a taxi to Saj Homestay in Fort Kochi. It was a one hour drive, and we finally arrived at 11.45pm. The place was fantastic! We dropped our packs, showered and then crawled into bed at 12.30pm (or 6am Hobart time). We’d been travelling for 26 hours.
The call to prayer woke me at 5.30am. The bustle outside our first floor window was slowly building and a bird with a monotonous call had started his day. I stayed in bed until 6am and then slowly began to organise my pack where I’d dropped it the night before. I felt incredibly rested.
We headed down to breakfast at 8.30am. A few tables were set up on a small balcony overlooking the road below. It was a beautiful setting, and the breakfast was fantastic. Fresh pineapple juice, pathiri
(rice flour pancakes) with vegetable curry in coconut sauce, watermelon and masala chai
(spiced sweet milky tea). A fantastic way to start the day!
We checked out around 11am and squeezed into a tiny auto
rickshaw (motorised tricycle with a passenger cabin) for a very quick 5 minute trip through the old township of Fort Kochi to Kaliveedu – our next homestay. It was set back from the road in beautiful quiet garden surrounds. We met Honey the dachshund who loved everyone (and was loved by everyone). This was a beautiful place to relax.
Our friends from England had only just arrived, and as we were talking with them our friend from the US turned up in an auto rickshaw
. After everyone had unpacked we headed out for a cold drink at The Munch Box and then on to lunch at Oceanos Sea Food Restaurant. I had a mushroom vindaloo with vegetable meals which comprised beetroot, cabbage, dahl and yoghurt curries with lime pickle, while Ren had the aubergine curry. It was sensational. I had another of what I think will be many masala chais
, while Ren had a ginger lime soda
(fresh ginger and lime juice with soda water). We wandered back to the homestay around 3pm in the heat of the mid-afternoon sun. Jet lag was setting in, so we retreated to our room.
We headed out around 4pm for a
stroll around the dirt streets of Fort Kochi. The heat from the sun was intense, but the breeze in the shade was cool. We chanced upon a makeshift hockey match on a dusty street corner, and it was fascinating to watch. We wandered back to the homestay around 5.30pm, and then headed out to dinner at the Koder House Hotel around 7pm. The place was reasonably upmarket, and we had a couple of musicians (a drummer/tabla player and flautist) sitting on the floor playing traditional Indian songs. We shared a Kerala fish curry
(white fish cooked in a red spicy sauce) and dahl tadka
(yellow lentils cooked with garlic, ginger and green chilli and flavoured with roasted cumin). They were superb. We shared the meal with our travel companions, and it was a great evening. It was loud and hot inside the dining area, and the atmosphere was intensified by the heat of the curries. It was a fabulous meal and a fantastic night. I cooled down with a few Kingfisher beers, while Ren had a sweet fresh lime soda
that was served in an exhibitionistic way that resembled a chemistry experiment (fresh lime juice is added to a tall
glass, then sugar syrup is poured in, a sprinkle of salt is added to the mixture and then soda water is poured from a height to create a volcanic fizz).
We wandered back to the homestay around 10pm and succumbed to jet jag. It had been a fantastic day.
After a great sleep, we managed to wake before the 5.30am call to prayer. We caught up on our travel notes and headed to breakfast at 7.30am. We sat down to idlis
(steamed cakes made from fermented rice and lentil batter) with sambar
(a dahl based thin vegetable curry) and chutney. The chutney had been mixed with coconut oil, and it was hot. Bowls of fresh bananas and watermelon were on the table, and I had two pots of masala chai
. It was another great start to the day.
We headed out at 9am for a walking tour of Fort Kochi. We dropped into Santa Cruz Cathedral Basilica on our way to the Chinese fishing nets on the water’s edge, and then continued on to St Francis Church. We jumped into an auto rickshaw
and headed to the Jewish heritage area (marked as Jew Town on the tourist
map), found ourselves in a slightly absurd Police Museum and then walked into a huge warehouse where piles of ginger were being packed by hand into large hessian bags. The smell was fantastic, but it didn’t take long to catch the back of our throats, so we made a hasty retreat. We wandered through the Mattancherry (Dutch) Palace where history and chronology seemed to have parted ways (and where I came to the realisation that I need to avoid museums when I’m hot and thirsty).
We decided to regroup over a cold drink, so we back-tracked to the Ginger House Restaurant (which we’d walked past earlier) and settled in on the waterfront with ginger lime sodas
, ginger ice cream and masala chai
. It was an ideal location to freshen up, and the ginger focus of the restaurant was incredible. We kept wandering through the Jewish heritage area and then decided to catch the ferry back to Fort Kochi. However, we missed it by two minutes, so four of us clambered into an auto rickshaw
and made our way back along the shoreline. The old narrow streets can no longer support the modern volume of traffic, so the trip was
We strolled back to the Oceanos Sea Food Restaurant for lunch and decided on a Kerala Christian homely meal. I opted for the Kerala fish fry
(fried fish marinated in chilli powder and Kerala spices), while Ren had the aubergine masala with vegetables
meal (deep fried aubergine cooked with Kerala spices). Both came with okra, aubergine, dahl and yoghurt curries with lime pickle, and both were sensational. I had a ginger lime soda
to rehydrate and Ren had a masala chai
. We were wilting in the early afternoon sun, so we wandered back to the homestay around 2.30pm to shower and recoup.
Feeling refreshed, we headed out at 5.30pm to witness a traditional Kathakali dance, which involved a 30 minute make-up session (where the male-only cast sat on stage and applied their make-up), a 30 minute display of traditional acting skills and a 60 minute traditional dance accompanied by three percussionists who occasionally managed to play in time. The make-up session was the equivalent of watching paint dry, the display of traditional acting skills was entertaining and the traditional dance was excruciatingly repetitive. At about the 90 minute mark a steady stream of people started flowing
out of the theatre. We stayed the whole 2 hours…
When the performance finally (FINALLY) whimpered to an end we breathed a sigh of relief and walked to the Old Harbour Hotel for dinner. We opted for cheese naans, lime and basil ice-cream and masala chai
. We were still full from lunch. We walked home around 10.30pm, as we had a fairly early start the following day. SHE SAID...
Cochin International Airport at 10pm was quite deserted, so we raced through immigration, got our bags almost immediately and were waved through customs. We were finally in Kerala!
Kerala is home to fresh fish, fierce chillies, coconut curry sauces and people who live off the land and waterways. Kochi
is spread out over a few islands and a strip of mainland. It was part of the spice trade for centuries, and as a result, cosmopolitan Kochi has a fascinating mix of cultural influences from within India and from the Chinese, Portuguese, Dutch and English. We have been told by many people that Kerala is ‘God’s own country’, and there are many large signs that advertise this belief too. I like people who are proud of their
land, but this may be taking it a step too far? 😉
The original Hindus arrived from the north of India thousands of years ago, and then Christianity appeared here in the early ADs (I’ve been told that India had Christianity before Europe did, but I would have to check this fact). The Muslims came to Kerala shortly after the establishment of Islam and a portion of the population converted. A sizable Jewish community has lived and traded spices in Kochi since the Spice Trade began, but most of them have emigrated to Israel, and there are only a few hundred people still living in the Jewish area called Jewtown. If ‘Jewtown’ sounds offensive (it does to me), I’m really sorry, but that’s exactly what the area is called.
The Portuguese influence on food, architecture and religion began when Vasco de Gama came here in the 15th century. The Dutch came next and left a legacy with the Dutch East Indies Company and some prominent architecture. And lastly, the crumbling remains of the British Raj are a reminder of Kochi’s most recent colonial masters. The main language of Kerala is Malayalam.
Back at the airport, we walked
into the balmy Indian night air, and found our driver waiting for us. Half of the hour long drive to our hotel in Fort Kochi was not that pleasant. What I had thought was smog was actually dust from kilometres of construction along the busy highway – they were building pylons for an above ground metro line. Even at that late hour, construction was still going on under the glare of large spotlights. Clouds of dust followed the trucks and cars that were trying to navigate the construction maze and dodge the construction workers who crossed the road as they pleased, causing a further barrage of horns. As we drove out of the congestion of Kochi (formerly known as Cochin) and crossed the bridge to Fort Kochi, it revealed itself as a low key city with a very regional feel.
Fort Kochi is on one of the small islands off the mainland of Kerala, and it is very different to the industrial estates and seedy port areas of the mainland part of Kochi. Our first night was at the well-reviewed Sajhome Homestay. Working on the tip that airport taxis find the old Fort of Kochi a nightmare to navigate
(especially in the middle of the night), we had organised a taxi through our homestay host Saj. It was a good decision, especially since by the time we landed we had been up for 24 hours. When we arrived at Sajhome, I loved it immediately. Saj had waited up for us, giving us a bottle of water and ushering us into our very welcoming room. He whispered that we could check in tomorrow morning and discreetly closed the door behind him. I showered and fell into bed at 1:20am (6:50am in Hobart).
We were woken by the call to prayer at 5:30am, followed by the noisiest birds in the trees outside our room. We didn't mind the early wake up call, and decided to get up and organise ourselves and our packs. Breakfast at Sajhome was a delicious affair of a pineapple smoothie, pathiri
(small flat rice flour pancakes) with potato coconut curry, a masala chai
(spiced sweet milky tea) and fresh watermelon. It was all amazingly good. I would highly recommend Sajhome to anyone who wants a local experience in Kochi.
After breakfast we moved hotels to the Intrepid Kaliveedu Lodge, as we started the India South
and North Intrepid Travel trip that day. We caught an auto rickshaw
(motorised tricycle with a passenger cabin) for the five minute drive down some small lanes further into the heart of Fort Kochi. We’ve been on a few Intrepid Travel trips before, but this is the first time we’ve come across accommodation that is run directly by Intrepid itself. The Lodge is a traditional 1940s home that has been converted into a small hotel with about eight rooms. The lawns and large gardens have an eccentric assortment of ornaments, a scruffy little pond and the cutest resident dog – Honey. Honey loved pats and tummy rubs, and no one could walk up the driveway without Honey running to them on her short Dachshund legs and asking for pats. Our room was very comfortable and very clean – there were mosquito screens on the windows, the ensuite had toilet paper and the hot water worked – what more could a girl ask for?
A really exciting aspect of our travels in southern India was that we were travelling with three friends. We met Brian last year on our Malaysian travels, and some of you may also remember Kim and
Lee from our Northern Thailand trip in 2011 and our Cambodian travels in 2013. We were so over-the-moon happy to see them. We all met in the foyer and went off to have our first lunch in India.
We had a few drinks at a newly opened bar called Munchbox before heading to lunch at Oceanos which wasn't licensed. Alcohol is quite restricted in Kerala, so only designated outlets have alcohol licences. Lunch was fabulous! I had aubergine (eggplant) in a coconut sauce with red Kerala rice. I had heard a lot of good things about Kerala rice, and all of it was fully justified. I also had a fresh ginger lime soda
(fresh lime and ginger juice with soda water), it was very refreshing...a little sparkle party kicked off with every sip.
We returned to the Lodge and relaxed in the aircon for a few hours before venturing out for a walk after the sun lost its sting. We meant to eventually end up on the Kochi back beach, but between the twisty, windy streets of Fort Kochi and the non-named streets, it didn't add up to the most navigation friendly area. The streets were narrow and
quite densely populated with skinny but multi-storey houses that were very close together. Most of the houses had large stars hanging outside the front doors, and we initially thought they were left over from Christmas decorations, but were then told that they signified a Christian house. The Hindu houses sometimes had little shrines or a little Ganesh statue or picture over the front door – I’m really not used to seeing religion being branded on houses. Another thing that caught my eye was the fact that the houses and gates didn't have house numbers but they had little plaques with the resident’s name on it. There were lots of Anthonys and Josephs in this area. 😊
We loved walking through the little local neighbourhoods and watching the daily routines running their course... kids were returning from school or heading off on bicycles in sports uniforms, women congregated at their gates with neighbours, men stood at the small stalls buying chais or newspapers. We stopped to watch a hockey game in front of a primary school and it kept us entertained for a while.
At the group meeting of the Southern India
Intrepid Travel trip (the first part of
the India South and North
Intrepid Travel trip) that evening we met Karni, our group leader. It was a full group of 12 people, but only eleven of us were meeting at that point. It was a very mixed group – Damien (Irish, living in Spain), Anya and Francis (Dutch and British, living in England), Elisabet and Gail (Swedish and British, living in Scotland), Chris (Australian), Rao (born in India, living in America… who joined us the next day), and of course Kim and Lee (South African and British, living in England), and Brian (American). We are always excited to start a trip, but having three friends travelling with us makes the whole thing even more exciting!
We all walked to the waterfront to have dinner at Koder House, a renovated mansion that serves fusion food. We stayed firmly on the 'Indian' menu and ordered a red Kerala fish curry
(white fish cooked in a red spicy sauce) and dahl tadka
(yellow lentils cooked with garlic, ginger and green chilli and flavoured with roasted cumin) with steamed rice. The hype about Kerala fish curries is all true! It was extremely tasty. We sampled many of the dishes on our
half of the table and the Kerala fish curry was the winner. There was a live performance of Indian music, with a tabla player and two flautists. It was lovely music, but it wasn't loud enough to be a stop-and-listen performance or gentle enough for background music - it was in that in-between volume which made dinner discussions difficult. I had a fresh lime soda
with dinner, and this time it came with sugar syrup on the side and a sprinkling of salt. This was fast becoming my drink of choice!
The evening temperatures in Kochi are absolutely perfect for walking. We arrived back at the Lodge to the pretend guard dog Honey barking the neighbourhood down, but only to run up and ask for a belly pat when we got close enough. Honey is bringing back many of my childhood memories of Peter, our family's much loved dachshund (my first dog).
We slept well and were woken up by the call to prayer again. It was a fantastic alarm clock for early morning writing and we wrote until breakfast. The Lodge has a cook and kitchen staff who made us all a fantastic breakfast of idlis
cakes made from fermented rice and lentil batter), sambar
(a dahl based thin vegetable curry) and a spicy pickle. The pickle was made from a pickle powder mixed with coconut oil. It was quite salty but worked well with the idlis
The day started with a walking tour of Fort Kochi. We walked to the imposing Santa Cruz Cathedral Basilica, which had beautiful paintings on the ceilings and lots of little side chapels decked out in neon lights. The cathedral could really have done with a good dusting and lots of small repairs, but it had a nice feel to it.
We walked to the waterfront where the harbour waters were busy with a lot of commercial and recreational traffic. There were men in small wooden canoes piled high with fishing nets skimming past us and commercial ferries transporting people between islands.
The main attraction in Fort Kochi seemed to be the collection of Chinese fishing nets. As the name suggests, the nets were thought to be bought to India by the Chinese and have been used for hundreds of years. It takes several men to raise and lower a net that is strung out
on a star shaped contraption and works on a weighted pulley system. They may be picturesque, but they are far from a viable fishing option anymore and are now merely a tourist attraction. The fishing industry here consists of hundreds of modern boats that fish overnight and arrive in the early mornings to supply the local fish market. It’s possible to buy not-so-fresh looking fish at the seaside shacks behind the Chinese fishing nets and have them cooked at nearby stalls and restaurants. However, this was purely for the tourists, and I didn't like the look of the fish (or the less-than-hygienic surrounding boulevard area).
We walked to St Francis Church, the first European-built Christian church in India and where Vasco de Gama was initially buried in 1524 (and re-interred in Lisbon 15 years later). The church had ugly but fascinating old linen breeze fans – long thin wooden poles were suspended by thin ropes from the ceiling, and long linen fabrics were suspended from the poles. On the side of the wooden poles there was a rope which, when pulled up and down, caused the fans to swing back and forth creating a breeze. They are definitely not
pretty to look at, but even in the cool season the church was quite warm, so I can only assume that they would need to work overtime to cool a full congregation in summer. I didn't like this church as much as I thought I would. And it was the first church I've been to where we were required to take our shoes off before entering.
Brian, Andrew and I packed into an auto rickshaw
and crossed the island to the Mattancherry area. We walked past the lovely old Jewish area. It would have been nice to visit the 400 year old Pardesi Synagogue, but it was a Saturday and the synagogue was closed for the Sabbath. We walked down the shop lined streets, which had a high proportion of spice shops and spice warehouses. We walked into a dried ginger warehouse, piled high with different grades of ginger and the air was thick with fine ginger dust (which immediately sent us into coughing fits). There was a very kooky and random Police Museum that we didn't really know what to make of – for the most part it was a collection of badly dressed mannequins in the different
uniforms used over the last 100 or so years. At the very least, the Police Museum has now set the benchmark of how boring a museum can be.
We kept walking... past antique shops, the busy bus stop and auto rickshaw
stand and the ferry terminal. We stopped for much needed refreshment at a stall selling coconuts. The coconut water was heavenly, and pepped me up for another few hours of walking.
We visited the Dutch Palace which seems to be a much loved part of the local heritage. The palace is wooden and old (as in 16th century old) and probably hadn’t been maintained as well as it should have been. Built by the Portuguese, it was taken over by the Dutch – who later presented it to the Rajas of Cochin. The rooms were dark and filled with fairly sedate exhibits, including some royal photos of seriously ugly and spooky babies. However, the wall murals depicting intricate religious scenes were quite impressive and my eyes were drawn to the fabulously carved ornate ceilings. One of the rooms was full of weapons from a traditional form of martial art that is unique to Kerala – kalarippayat
of the weaponry looked seriously vicious. No photography was allowed inside the Palace to protect the vegetable dyes used in the ancient murals (they could have just banned flash photography, but a complete photography ban was probably easier to control).
Another interesting aspect to our visit to the Palace was discovering that the line of inheritance of the local aristocracy is matrilineal. Called marumakkathayam
, descent and succession to the throne and property was traced through the female line. Apparently even today some Kerala families are bound by this system, and children take the surname of their mother and not their father. So if Grandma’s family had been bound by the marumakkathayam
system in her generation, her descendants would have been the Fernandez clan and not the Pereira clan. I think I would have taken in a lot more information at the museum if it hadn't been so hot and stuffy, or if the exhibits had been curated with a bit more care and/or flare.
After the Dutch Palace, we (Kim, Lee, Brian, Damien, Andrew and I) retraced our steps to the Ginger House Restaurant we had seen earlier. It was essentially in the back section of a fabulous
antique shop that had an enormously long and impressive snake boat displayed through the centre of the shop. The Ginger House Restaurant was really lovely and beautifully set in open rooms right on the water. As the name suggested, ginger was their specialty and we all opted for ginger lime sodas
to start with. The fresh ginger and lime juices came in glasses, with the soda and sugar syrup on the side. There is an art to mixing the drink without making a big fizzy mess. We were clearly still learning! I also tried their ginger ice cream which was very refreshing. 😊
After our three hour walking tour it was time for lunch, and Damien, Brian, Andrew and I caught an auto rickshaw
for the short journey back to Fort Kochi. Fitting three people in an auto rickshaw
had been a squeeze, but four people was just ridiculously funny. It was even funnier that the driver didn't compensate for the heavier load and still cut in and out of traffic at high speeds. There was also some creative driving involved to avoid the big spice trucks that took up about 70% of the narrow streets. It was a
fun, hair-raising ride.
We checked out a recommended cafe for lunch, but it was too westernised for our tastes, so we returned to Oceanos (which had been fabulous the day before). I had the thali
(several small meat or vegetable dishes served on a platter with rice) meal that Andrew and Brian had ordered previously and caused a case of food envy. I had the eggplant masala meal, which also came with the creamy Kerala red rice I've fallen in love with, fried and tempered okra, dahl, yoghurt sauce, a pappadam and lime pickle. It was delicious. However, I've sadly realised that as much as I love the concept of a thali
meal, the serving is much too large for me. I waddled back to the hotel for a much needed nap.
That evening we had tickets to a kathakali
performance at the neighbourhood Kerala Kathakali Centre. Kathakali
is a highly dramatised representation of a classical play and is unique to Kerala. The stories told (usually from a Hindu epic) are typically full of drama, and the actors use symbolism and exaggerated eye, face and hand movements to tell the stories. The performance was an excerpt from a
longer play. In the days when villagers would travel long distances for religious festivals, the performances in Hindu temples would last all night. While that must have been quite a spectacle, I was more than a little relieved that we were only being treated to an excerpt. The full performance of a story usually takes six hours. Fortunately, for demonstration purposes, we were able to watch a two hour version; and that was more than long enough for us. As some of you know, I’m not a huge fan of traditional performances, much less ones that run for hours! However I was looking forward to watching a summarised version of the art form.
It was nearly dark when we reached the entrance of the theatre near Santa Cruz Basilica. We filed in to find our seats. On the small stage, men were carefully applying thick makeup with the aid of tiny wooden mirrors. This was done in a slow and languid manner as the makeup preparation is seen as meditational preparation for the performance. The makeup was made from grinding different coloured stones and mixing the powder with coconut oil. A man in a mundu
(traditional white sarong) was
lighting oil lamps around the edge of the stage. He then carefully created intricate kolam
(symmetrical designs drawn with a fine white powder) on the floor along the aisle. The mostly foreign crowd was going crazy with their cameras, and even though flash photography wasn't allowed, flashes kept flashing. We had been allocated seats right in front of the aircon which was blowing an arctic wind over us, so once the lights were dimmed Andrew and I moved to the back row which was completely empty.
The man in the mundu
took the stage and two men lined up stage right, strapping on drums and beating a gentle (but sometimes out of time) rhythm. The man in the mundu
welcomed us and introduced the performance in English.
Before the performance started, an actor was summoned to demonstrate the eye movements and series of hand movements known as mudras
. Some of these proved to be less subtle than I had anticipated – there are multiple ways of saying ‘come here’, from a suggestive raise of the eyebrows to an emphatic pointing gesture accompanied by a fiercely stamped foot! The gestures became increasingly elaborate. My favourite (for its highly risque
and suggestive nature) was the one that represented the bee drinking nectar from a lotus flower. 😉
It apparently takes six to ten years to become sufficiently skilled to perform as an actor or as one of the accompanying drummers and singers. The actors spend entire lessons practicing one eye movement. I’ve been told that I can roll my eyes to good effect, so maybe I would be good at this. 😊
At last it was time for the performance proper. Two bored looking pot-bellied men in sarongs entered, and turned out to be the official curtain raisers – they hoisted a rainbow coloured quilt between them, and for the first ten or so minutes all of the action appeared to be happening behind it. The man who introduced the performance turned out to be the singer, alternately chanting, singing and providing short explanations in English. The gentle drumming had by now turned into an ear piercing raucous.
Each of the three performers engaged in a small ritual upon entering the stage, before bowing to the singer and the musicians. The plot seemed to revolve around the hero (with bright green face makeup) who was seduced by
a female demon (played very camply by a man with black makeup and fangs) masquerading as a beautiful maiden (also played very camply by a man with bright yellow makeup and a golden robe). The hero initially falls in love with her, but soon realises that he was being tricked and threw a tantrum. Ms evil black-face was forced to revert to her true demonic form and Mr green-face dramatically killed her. The campness of the whole evening was beyond compare, and I’m still not certain if that was intentional.
While there were movements that were recognisable as dance, the art lay in the finely nuanced facial expressions of the performers and their mudras
. It was fascinating, but the more subtle details were clearly lost on us. The makeup and introduction took an hour and the show lasted another hour. While it wouldn’t be everyone’s cup of tea, it was a glimpse into a unique part of South Indian culture, and I think it was definitely worth seeing at least once. Having said that, it went way longer than my tolerance for these things allowed…and when I clapped at the end it was very much in happiness that the
show had finally ended! 😊
After the performance we gratefully returned to the warmer night air to thaw out, and then walked to the waterfront. On Damien’s recommendation a few of us went to the Old Harbour Hotel for dinner. We were still quite full from lunch, so decided to have a light dinner of fresh-from-the-tandoor cheese naans – a naan
is a fluffy leavened bread made from all purpose flour and yeast, and it is traditionally cooked in a wood fired oven. I ordered my usual fresh ginger lime soda
, followed by lime and basil ice cream. I also tried Damien’s cardamom ice cream, which was very unusual and deserves another try (I think).
Fort Kochi has been a great place to start our visit to India. It’s been a gentle but intense introduction, and it has also demonstrated just how rich and complex southern Indian history is.
Next we travel north to the hills of Ooty in the westernmost part of Tamil Nadu.
Tot: 0.194s; Tpl: 0.037s; cc: 13; qc: 48; dbt: 0.0142s; 1; m:saturn w:www (220.127.116.11); sld: 2;
; mem: 1.5mb