And so to Kerala. It’s over 1,600 miles between Delhi airport and Cochin International Airport, but, thanks to the miracle of air travel, once you discount the bureaucracy and chaos of Indian airports, the journey can be made in just over 3 hours. Of course, adding in the taxi rides to and from the airports, along with said chaos and bureaucracy, hotel door to hotel door takes around 9 hours, leaving you tired, a little on edge and totally unready for Ernakulam and everything it has to offer. I’d been “in charge” of booking the hotel and given that I’d planned for us to take the 13 hour train ride from Ernakulam Town to Madgaoan on the leg to Goa, I’d picked a hotel close to the railway station. It was late when we arrived and it was soon pretty clear (even given the lowering of expectations) that the name this particular establishment had chosen for itself; “The Sidra Pristine”, was obviously an exercise in hope over reality. A terrible night passed, with a seemingly endless children’s party taking place in the corridors and daylight revealed that, apart from the proximity to the railway station, both Ernakulam and The Pristine had little to recommend it to the weary, experience hungry, traveller. We needed to be in Cochin proper and a morning was wasted in effecting a cancellation, a re-booking and another seemingly interminable crazy taxi journey before arriving and unpacking (again) at The Fort Bridge View Home Stay/Hotel (never did see the bridge).
Having lost some time, due as much as anything else to my lack of research and ensuing panic, I took what was left of the afternoon to make my first visit “Jew Town” an area of Cochin. A Jewish community commenced settlement in Southern India as early as the 12th century and further waves of Jewish immigrants continued to arrive, many having been expelled from Iberia in the 15th century. The great majority of this community left India for Israel in the mid 20th century, although other groups also left for Commonwealth countries, most notably Australia. It’s an interesting area, there are several synagogues, mostly now unused and the architecture reflects more the Portuguese influence (which, given the history of the wider area is hardly surprising. The Jewish Cemetery is one of the more odd “tourist attractions” my tuk tuk driver took me to see, but I declined the offer, I’m not much of a fan of graveyards.
The economy of Cochin town (Fort Kochi), separated from the bustling port by the outlet into the Arabian Sea of the Periyar river, is now mostly reliable on fishing and tourism for its health and “Covid” has hit it hard. 100 rupees, plus a 20 rupee tip gets a tuk tuk for an couple of hours and a full afternoon can be had, with the driver waiting patiently at each stop, for 150 rupees plus tip. Not only do these guys, who’ve had little or no income for over two years, negotiate the narrow streets with skill and not a little humour, they also know the best places to visit. Hence our stop off at the Indo-Portuguese Museum, a fascinating place, now somewhat neglected by lack of visitors and the money they bring in, but one of those “hidden gems” where, if you had the time, you could spend hours learning about the long and often troubled history of this part of the Sub Continent. The custodian we met was a walking, talking encyclopedia of knowledge about this place. The main exhibition resides in The Bishops House and, if you ever do visit, I highly recommend, if you like this sort of thing. I was surprised at the request not to take photographs, but I kind of understood, there are images on the internet https://www.keralatourism.org/destination/indo-portuguese-museum/336/ . There are times when five nights isn’t really long enough to soak up both the atmosphere and the culture of such a place.
Following fierce negotiations on our third morning in Kerala we secured the services of a larger tuk tuk, for the day, for 300 rupees (just over £3), he was to drop us off and pick us up when requested, using the medium of Whats App, our plan being to wander along the eastern side of Fort Kochi, spending a little longer in Jew Town, before eating lunch somewhere and ending up watching the sunset over The Arabian Sea. It’d take forever to relate all the little adventures we had and the things we saw, our setting out for the day coincided with the beginning of the school day. Children in uniforms, many of them girls as young as seven or eight, cycled amongst us as we putted along, seemingly un-phased by the “rush hour” traffic. Businesses were beginning to open their doors and office workers, labourers and others made their way towards beginning their daily routine. As always on this trip I was keen to meet, talk to (if possible) and photograph the “ordinary” people. As such I wandered into a landing dock where one boat was left to be unloaded of its catch, after trawling during the previous night. I could see several men on the deck mending nets as the last of the fish were landed, the colourful boat looked seaworthy and well equipped for its job. I’m not sure they’re all the same, TBF.
The small fish were being packed by a team of men and women, ready, no doubt for onward shipping by road, but the two guys doing the hardest job (although definitely the coolest) were the chaps shovelling crushed ice into baskets which was then poured over said fish. The ice was in large blocks in the back of a lorry and was crushed by a crude diesel engine driven machine. They seemed happy in their work and, although we communicated only by sign and expression, they were happy to be photographed going about their business. I have no idea if they’d been out fishing or not, it seemed to me highly possible they had, the whole operation seemed (possibly surprisingly) to be well coordinated, which gave me the impression they were all (apart from possibly the women) part of one team.
Just beyond the fishing dock (of which there are several in the area) I caught sight of this chap in his boat. He was a distance away, so it was difficult to make out what exactly he was up to, but given the vast amounts of rubbish travelling up and down the river, dependent on the tide, I’m guessing he’s either contracted by the local government, he’s doing some kind of community service, or, more likely, he’s harvesting recyclables to sell on for cash with which to feed his family (if he has a family). Pleasure craft and a huge cement works on the far bank offer a contrast to this mundane and obviously precarious existence, but if he is a rubbish harvester, what ingenuity, if it manages to feeds him and pay his bills.
Rounding the northern head of Kochi the foot traffic increases and the paths are flanked by street vendors selling cheap toys, sweets, simple cooked food, ice cream, cold water and fresh fish caught using the Chinese Net method. Interspersed with these are fish shacks (I suppose we’d call them pop-up restaurants) selling freshly cooked fish which are operated by the (Indian) Chinese netters (in the main). The guy in the orange cap is gesturing to me to come and try my hand on the net, but I’d been forewarned that once they have you on there they apply (gentle) pressure for a tip or to get you to eat in their particular shack. I like my fish (more of which in a further episode) but I want to be able to pick when and where I eat it (although I’m sure the shacks are fine) so I kindly, from a distance, declined the offer. We did stop and eat a more than acceptable ice lolly, not unlike the Mivvi of old, which cost the princely sum of 20 rupees (about 4/6).
The beaches are strewn with rubbish and weed and carrion birds take full advantage of whatever there is to peck at. This is no place to come if you’re looking for a sandy beach holiday. Although we weren’t the only tourists wandering around it’s clear that the local people, especially young adults, come for the sunsets quite regularly. It’s reminiscent of the type of gatherings you might see in Europe. The young men are quite forward and very tactile with each other, with arms around shoulders and hand holding being quite commonplace. There’s an element of coquettish shyness in the young women, although it’s clear they like the attention. The couples who were together, but clearly not married, were mostly being shadowed by stern looking elders, either parents or grandparents. “Courting”, apart from the cultural nuances, is carried out in much the same way throughout the world, or so it seems. Sunset photographed, with bonus crow, we messaged the tuk-tuk man and returned to the hotel, ready for food and beer.
We sacked off the train ride. I was outvoted, by two to one and, although I could have taken the trip myself (leaving Ernakulam at 2 am and arriving in Goa at 3pm) it somehow didn’t seem the right thing for me to do. I won’t go into the machinations of how we reached the decision, or how the almost impenetrable bureaucracy of the Indian Railways system contributed to it, but we decided to instead, at some not inconsiderable extra cost, to fly to Goa, via Hyderabad. at least it was only to take nine hours (but I get ahead of myself). As my birthday treat, I’d booked a day out on the Viacom Backwaters, an hours drive or so from Kochi. This was one of the things I’d personally picked to do and, although it wasn’t “action packed” it provided a further insight into the lives of rural Indians for whom, apart from the advent of lawn mower engined boat power and satellite dishes life remains much the same as it has for many a year. Fishing, coconut harvesting and the growing of cassava, banana and yam, along with some rice provide a subsistence economy. Tourists provide a little bit of icing on this “mean” cake. We stopped to drink freshly harvested coconut milk and one of the boatmen who punted our barge dropped a sickle in the water as he tried to bring down several nuts. In he went, staying underwater for a good while, until he found the precious blade. He was typical of the people we saw in this area, small, wiry, dark of skin and of indeterminate age. The joy on his face at retrieving the knife and returning it back to the woman who’d loaned it was a picture in itself.
We spent a leisurely couple of hours traversing the wider lagoons and canals, coming across the occasional house, some of them with crude fish (or mussel) farms and getting an occasional wave from the local people. Although I did see lots of birds, a turtle and a water snake, none of which I managed to photograph adequately well enough, I was very disappointed not to see monkeys in the trees and elephants wandering around the forested islets and river banks. Apparently, the only elephants in this part of Kerala are in sanctuaries. Disappointingly, after lunch it came on to rain which scuppered the canoe led exploration of some of the narrower canals, but we did manage to drive a little further into the hinterland to witness a couple of the local craftspeople at their work.
A side product of coconut harvesting and one which still offers a living to many people in the area is the making of coir ropes. A video clip would have been better and I promise you, even if we hadn’t turned up this lovely tiny old lady would have been making her ropes, whatever the weather. I couldn’t ascertain how the spinning would have been done pre-electricity, no doubt there’d have been an Indian version of a “yawk up” but whatever the case the skill remains the same. Without being in any way judgmental I’d guess this lady was of the same “tribe” as our two boatmen, she may have been in her sixties, but could well have been either older or younger. Her gap toothed smile was genuinely warm and infectious, even as we stood in the rain, watching her do something she’d been doing, day in day out, for many a year. We also paid a short visit to a small factory where women worked on hand looms, making towels and school uniform fabrics. More insight into a way of life, largely unchanged for generations https://keralabackwateronline.com/daily-conducted-tours/.
What a way to end a birthday. As our back waters tour had ended early, we returned to Kochi in time to visit this most amazing of https://kathakalicentre.com/ places. A performance of a 17th century art form, complete with make up and “acting” technique demonstrations. Music and traditional singing provide a backdrop to a performance of stunning power and visual spectacle. The actors communicate with sophisticated hand and body gestures and practiced eye movements, along with the odd grunt (for emphasis). The stories are short but spiritual deep and meaningful. There’s a handy crib sheet for those in the audience who don’t understand the Sanskrit vocals and the narrator provides a full explanation prior to the performance. It takes six years (at least) to master the art of Kathakali and it’s a way of life, more than it is a job. One of the highlights, amongst so many, of this wonderful trip. A definite “must not miss” if you’re ever Kerala way on.
Next Time; Goa, Flying, BeerReflections
© Colin Cross 2023