Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Fort Cochin, India

Our journey from Munnar to Fort Cochin included a long bumpy bus ride down from the mountains, an auto-rickshaw from the bus station in Ernakulum to the boat jetty, a half-hour ferry ride across the bay, and another rickshaw into Fort Cochin.  The trip took about seven hours and the total cost for all of this was only $2.61 per person.  Incredible.

Bus rides and taxi rides in India are an experience.  I really enjoy seeing the houses and businesses speed by, the varied landscape, cars loaded with families, peanut and orange vendors at the crowded bus stations, cows munching on trash on the side of the road…but I have to brace myself to be coated in dust and grime during the ride.  Most buses we’ve traveled in have no windows, and the ambassador taxis keep all four windows rolled down since there‘s never any AC.  We appreciate the breeze since it’s hot and sticky otherwise.  But when the bus or taxi picks up speed, the dust picks up too, and I close my eyes to keep my contact lenses from being pelted by sand.  When we stepped off the bus in Ernakulum, I wiped my forehead and the tissue turned black.  I had stepped onto the bus that morning freshly showered, and now I was wearing a sampling of the dust and diesel exhaust from the broad swath of Kerala that we’d just crossed.

I liked Fort Cochin immediately.  It’s a laid back coastal town (really, a collection of islands) shaded by tall trees and the high walls of its Portuguese, Dutch and British colonial architecture.  Along the water, a line of Chinese-style fishing nets that are weighted with huge stones and lowered and raised by groups of men haul in the daily catch of seafood that disappears into kitchens in all the locals homes and restaurants.

We spent our first morning in town wandering the streets.  We headed across town from the old Fort area where we were staying toward Jew Town by walking down Bazaar Road, which runs parallel to the water.  Most of the way, there were no other tourists, and no tourist shops, which I loved.  The streets were crowded with locals, women in saris carrying umbrellas for shade, out shopping for rice and vegetables.

We had to elbow through the crowd to make our way forward (I’ve learned to be pushy in India, otherwise you don’t get anywhere- my Western inbred politeness is useless here).  We passed doorways where men sat at worn wooden desks arguing over bowls of various grades of rice or dried beans; I assumed they were negotiating prices for the greater stock- big burlap bags piled high in the backs of the rooms.

When the sun got too hot, we popped into the churches to sit on a bench for awhile and appreciate the shade and the calm.  I’ve been surprised by the religious diversity in India- I was expecting mostly Hindu temples but in southern India we’ve seen a majority of Christian churches, with mosques, temples, and even synagogues sprinkled in between.  The church architecture looks European but the insides are Indian-influenced riots of color, and Jesus and Mary often wear fresh jaimalas (flower garlands).

Goats roam all the streets.  Most of them have a bell or a length of rope around their neck, so it looks like they belong to someone somewhere…but they’re left to wander, sleep in shady spots on the sidewalks and munch on the weeds growing up along fences.  I watched one goat stand alone on the sidewalk, blurting out his “blaaaaaa” over and over again with a wide open mouth, toungue stuck out in the air for emphasis.

We visited Mattancherry Palace, built by the Portuguese in the 1500s for the local maharaja in order to secure trading privileges.  There are beautiful Hindu murals that have been preserved on the interior wooden walls depicting scenes from the Ramayana in colorful and gold-embossed detail.  Old sepia-toned photos showed generations of the royal family; the men in heavily embroidered long coats just like Mohit wore for our wedding, and the women bare-chested, with long dark hair, white cloth wrapped around their waists, and wearing heavy gold jewelry.  We stopped afterwards for lunch at a pretty upstairs room painted in blue and white.

We whiled away the afternoon in antique stores selling bits of carved wood and cast bronze salvaged from old homes.  We bargained hard and bought a set of four big iron keys and two carved panels of wood with small windows in them to decorate our walls at home.  We’re feeling comfortable making bulkier purchases in India since we plan to ship a box home from Delhi.

At night, we followed the sounds of
classical Indian music into the candlelit courtyard of a fancy hotel with dark wood-beamed ceilings.  Three musicians sat on the edge of a pool backlit by a tree strung with blue twinkling lights.  I really enjoyed listening to the tabla, sitar, and flute while tasting my first glass of Indian wine, a shiraz cabernet (not so bad).  A skinny black cat wandered between the tables mewing loudly.  After he rubbed up against my ankles and sat down purring loudly, I gave in and shared leftover bits of naan and the tails of my masala prawns.

While staying in Fort Cochin, we also took a cooking class with the pleasantly bossy and motherly Leelu, crowded into her tiny kitchen with a dozen other tourists from Holland, Britain, New York City, and Australia.  The chapatis we rolled and cooked ourselves were a bit misshapen but still tasted just as good with the dishes of carrots and cabbage (thoram), eggplant (baigan masala), and tuna (Keralan fish curry) that Leelu demonstrated.

We also bought tickets to see a Kathakali performance.  For the first hour, people filtered in casually and stood at the edge of the stage to watch the three male performers carefully apply thick face paint; one face in bright green (the hero), one in black (the female evil spirit), and one a yellow-red pantomime of a woman (the “beautiful maiden”).  Next, one performer came on stage to demonstrate the careful hand movements and exaggerated facial expressions used to tell stories in wordless Kathakali performances.  Finally, the performance, accompanied by live drummers and a vocalist.  The performers came onto stage in huge costumes and headdresses.

Our next stop is Mumbai…I’m a bit apprehensive about what it’ll be like after these few weeks in relatively calm Kerala.  I just finished reading “Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found” by Suketu Mehta.  I loved the book, though its detailed stories of Mumbai’s extremities; the slums, organized crime, gentlemen’s bars, and Bollywood have me wondering what we’re in for…


  1. more pictures of mohit and kate!
    party time!

  2. where's ritchie?

  3. Loving every entry. The photos and the writing are equally vicariously.