Finally, we trotted off to the airport to make our way to India. Forsaking one of the best airlines in the world, we opted for an Indian airline which would carry us, as well as a full load of Indian nationals heading home for a holiday, to Kerala in Southern India – Jet Airways and three hours to Kochi (Cochin). At this point we were independent travellers so we found our own way to the accommodation and marvelled at the chaos that was India’s driving discipline. Driving was no more than organised mayhem but everyone appeared to appreciate everyone else’s presence and whilst we saw the potential for so many accidents, we never actually witnessed any. We ached from tensing our bodies at frequent near-misses and were glad to finally arrive at our very nice ‘home-stay’ hotel, budget of course, in the centre of town. Kochi is built around a saltwater lagoon on the Arabian Sea and remains the capital of Kerala. Famous for ageing hippies, spices, a church or two, architecture, Chinese fishing nets, tightly packed streets wafting the scent of cinnamon, cloves and salty sea breezes, we looked forward to some exploring. Talking of cloves; one thing you really don’t want to do is to crack a tooth and lose a filling on your very first day of a sixteen day adventure in India. An annoying bit of something managed to secrete itself into the gap between two molars and no amount of prodding and poking would shift it. Some floss, hastily fashioned from a piece of string found lying around did the job. The foreign body was sharply ejected, along with a filling and slice of enamel. Doh! This would mean a visit to the local dentist and that didn’t bode well. Not one to pre-judge though, a local dentist was found and with no appointment necessary the journey was made to a room above some abandoned shops. As one would expect, there were some displays and notices for the practise of good, oral hygiene:
Sadly, other hygiene matters were clearly lacking, such as cleanliness, but we would not be judgemental. An oral examination was made by someone who was not the actual dentist but a stand-in who had, apparently, once been a dentist some time ago. Yep, there was trouble with them there molars but nothing a quick root-canal could not fix. Immediately jumping up from the chair with a promise to return for said root-canal the following morning, the examination fee of 100 rupees (about £1) was paid and a hasty exit was made. For the next sixteen days the chewing of food was confined to one side of the mouth only.
Meanwhile, back in Kochi…
Narrow lanes are lined with houses built by the Portuguese, Dutch and British, all in their own individual and very distinctive styles. Wandering aimlessly about to savour the delights of this marvellous country, we came across a local festival which was in the middle of a ceremony to bless a new fishing canoe. Without too much interruption, we made our way in, just to be a part of the ceremony, for no other reason than ‘because we could’.
Look carefully, somewhere centre and background, and you should see a couple of white, tourist faces looking on at something they really didn’t understand.
The Kochi area is also home to a very small community of Jews whose descendants sailed into exile some 2,000 years ago. We visited a synagogue where no amount of pulling would loosen any of the very old, hand painted, delft floor tiles – a little souvenir perhaps? We wandered around Jew Town – which is its actual name and not a disrespectful term of mine. A tourist hotspot where all manner of new ‘antiquities’ can be purchased along with T-shirts, shawls and fashion jewellery galore. If the truth be told, only one family, of Jewish persuasion, now resides in Jew Town and the youngest of them is in their eighties.
Another tourist ‘must see’ is the Kathakali show, a 500 year old traditional dance drama that tells of local myths and legends. An hour before the show is a show in itself; the application of the colourful make-up and some costume preparation. In the smallest of theatres we watched a story about Lord Krishna, which was loud, colourful and surprisingly entertaining, as it goes.
Down by the water we found the cantilever Chinese fishing nets that reminded us of the ancient links that India had with the outside world. The nets still fish but there isn’t a China man in sight these days. The government maintains and subsidises the Indian fishermen who now have control of the nets. They will let you get close, take a picture or two and they’ll even operate the nets for your pleasure – for a handful of cash, of course. As we found out later, such nets can be seen all around the Southern area so we’re glad that we utilised our zoom lens to get the snap we wanted.
We saw, and knew anyway, that India’s sights are not restricted to quaint villages with locals walking around in loincloths. Modern India is everywhere and the enormous wealth is overtly displayed alongside abject poverty. Here in Kochi, along the waterfront, the rich and famous reside in their penthouse suites while the populous below live hand to mouth.
Whilst the ‘haves’ lord it up in their posh suites and dine on fine food and wine, the ‘have nots’ are confined to living and eating where their budgets dictate. Flat, pancake type bread and sauce being the staple diet of most.
This incredibly tasty lunch, a local dish called ‘Kerala Thali’ , cost little more than 50 pence. It’s what the locals eat and we too enjoyed it in this local cafe. Unfortunately, the fizzy drink depleted the food budget for the week.
During day one and two we settled in and acclimatised to the cooler weather, the curry breakfast, lunch and dinner (oh yes, it never changed) and the more sedate pace of life. We wandered and took in the sights, sounds and quite pleasant smells. Most surprising was how clean everything, and everybody, was. How courteous the people were and their positive outlook on life and living. During our sixteen day adventure we travelled by foot, by car, by bus, auto-rickshaw, cycle-rickshaw, by train, boat, ferry, canoe and elephant.
Travelling by public bus is always a dangerous affair.
Who in their right mind would hang off the back of a moving bus?
We managed to cram in so many other delights during our short stay in Kochi; the Santa Cruz Cathedral Basilica (housing the only statue in the world of a seated Christ, allegedly), the Mattancherry Palace, a cruise around the harbour, shops, restaurants, the park, the local dentist and a lot of walking.
Next morning, we awoke early to head North to Guruvayur and prepared for sensory overload.