Window on Kerala's Kochi

Kerala's Kochi - contrasts and conundrums

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A short sharp dagger. That's roughly the shape of the Indian sub-continent.

The state of Kerala lies on one side of the dagger's blade and reaches almost to the tip.

On a recent trip to Kerala, we travel directly from Singapore to Cochin airport and are impressed by the new terminal and THIS sign on the baggage claim carousel.

So, it seems, Cochin is a global leader, and we look forward to seeing other world-beating claims in the days ahead.

However, if this city is swiftly modernising, what is it with that confusion of wires? (above) The locals explain to us that they are not a sign of neglect, but more of preparedness, with extra hanks of wires on standby for the next emergency.

Fort Kochi is the oldest part of this city. Frequented by Arabian and Chinese spice traders since the first-century AD, Kochi was established as a port in 1341. Still visible around town are many reminders of its multicultural beginnings.

Some call Kerala 'God's own country' - and here, the proportion of Christian churches is much higher than many other Indian states where Hinduism and other religions predominate.

In India colour is king, and vehicles get in on this too. These highly decorated trucks and buses mix it with every other mode of transport on Kerala's uber-congested roads.

Within 30 kilometres of the city centre we discover a golden sandy beach, ideal for families. This is Cherai Beach lapped by warm ocean waters. Yet even these turn out to be a surprise. Find out soon...

Plants of all kinds grow in profusion in this part of the country as the heat and frequent torrential rains turn this southern tip of India into a massive greenhouse. These saffron-yellow golden trumpets and just one of so many other species. See others...

~~~

That's India - a place where not everything makes sense - but where visitors' senses are overwhelmed. Hang on tight for this mostly pictorial, whirlwind tour of Kochi, Kerala's fort city.

 ~~~

 

The waterfront and Chinese fishing nets

Most itineraries put this part of Fort Kochi first on the list. Not only are the 10-metre high Chinese fishing nets important for catching fish, but their apparent  fragility and a setting sun as a backdrop make irresistible 'photo-ops' for tourists.

Roadside, just metres from the water, we find this artist crafting fine-toothed combs from buffalo or ox horn. Each piece takes him a day to make, he says, yet his fee is 300 rupees (around A$6) each, and we buy several, much preferring these to mass-produced souvenirs.

Perhaps the next most-visited place is St Francis church, India's oldest Christian church, built in 1503.Portuguese explorer Vasco Da Gama was buried here briefly before his remains were returned to the homeland.

Nearby is another quirky hit (we are to find many of them!) an impromptu roadside appearance by a very un-Indian Father C. himself.

Inevitably the nets draw us back, to watch the locals fishing, buy freshly roasted peanuts from a vendor, just-caught fish.....

... or simply to marvel again at sunset over the Laccadive Sea (not the Arabian Sea, as many might think).

This waterfront area is a jigsaw of sandbanks and reclaimed-land that have now become islands, crowded with commercial buildings, apartments and hotels. As it is a long way to the mainland, and the roads are so congested, many people take a five-minute ferry trip instead, to Fort Kochi.

This is a local vessel. The ferries are much larger and have a more modern appearance.

Old meets new here too with huge international ships bringing in cargo, before loading up again.

~~~

 

WATCH THIS VIDEO to see more...

 

On our most recent trip to Fort Kochi, we had chosen to stay in a boutique hotel that was within walking distance of the waterfront.

Always a major concern when travelling, is finding a place for some good coffee and snacks, and this place, Qissa Cafe, became our favourite.

We kept returning for sandwiches filled with avocado and tomato, made using bread baked on-site.

Metres away, a cow walks freely in the street and her calf stops her so it can feed. That's India!

Looking for something special for a souvenir? Any auto rickshaw driver will happily take you to a government store specialising in fabrics, jewellery, artisan crafts and more. Haggling is allowed, but you should expect an (often lengthy) sales pitch and pressure to buy...

...although occasionally a sign like this hints that the proprietor understands!
 
~~~
 

Kochi streetside food

It seems there are no secrets to food in this city. Much of it happens on the street or in open shopfronts. Later  you will stroll through fresh food markets, but here it is all about spitting oil and the heat and crunchy results.

At Taste 'N' See Bakers in the village where our hotel was located, this young man is making tasty snackfood.

As you look at these pictures, notice how often the signs are in English. The British left this area in 1947, ansd it is still taught in schools, so finding someone who understands you is often quite easy.

Malayalam is widely spoken, and it is a rollicking, tongue-twisting language. Written, it is just as attractive - all loops, like embroidery. Above, is the first letter in its alphabet.

In Ernakulam, Kochi's city district, this man is fast and fearlessly shaving off thin slices of plantain (a type of firm banana) as he grips several in his hand.

He is making a top local favourite: banana chips.

Proud of his fried rice cakes, this man gives us a smile and a thumbs-up.

 ~~~

 

A tour with the 'King of Kochi'

Throughout India, auto rickshaw drivers (often simply called 'taxi' drivers) are everywhere. There are possibly hundreds in just the Fort Kochi area, and they work hard, know the area intimately, and charge just a few rupees per kilometre.

Let me introduce Shaheer (above). We met on Day One and he was so invaluable that we booked him every day. A lifetime living in the area made him the ideal guide and driver, and travelling with the King of Kochi certainly added a touch of class to our explorations!

As a child, Shaheer had played in these same streets, just like these boys, he told us.

While it is possible to walk around Fort Kochi, the maze of streets is confusing, and the tropical heat can be exhausting. At least open-sided auto-rickshaws are 'air-conditioned'!

So much to see, and a slow tour is essential to notice things like this.

For the local cooks, everything they need is within walking distance.

Here, they can select chokos, bitter melon, okra...

...blushing banana blossom...

... and the vegetable side of a healthy family dinner.

Just look at the range of fruits beautifully arranged in this store. Little wonder the proprietor is watching so proudly.

Flatbreads are made to order too, and can be topped with a ready-made curry sauce for lunch, or bagged up for customers to take home for dinner.

Even fresh cow's milk can be bought from the footpath....

...and of course every spice and herb you could ever need is available.

In Kerala, sunshine is in abundance. Japanese billionaire Masayoshi Son has been quoted as saying: 'God is so kind, he has given so much sunshine to India' and here it is making the laneside walls glow.

In Kerala, God is connected with more than just sunshine. Churches and shrines and chapels are never far away.

Next door in that street is another industry - candle-making for the church - a careful hands-on task, performed only by women.

~~~

Making it entertaining

Perhaps our biggest surprise was the street art in Kochi. 

Shaheer was delighted to drive us to many of the best spots and patiently waited while we photographed them. We felt that this was an appropriate one, as Namasthe (or namaste) is a term commonly used in India for 'welcome' or 'farewell'.

Many other countries are actively encouraging street-art, and some works are so professional, it seems a shame to have them on a wall in the open air, when they could be in a gallery.

In Kochi, however, they are displayed bright and proud, often unsigned....

....often with a witty innuendo....

....and sometimes as a backdrop for tourist memories.

Not all art is on the street though. Kochi-Muziris Biennale is India's largest contemporary art event, with a main exhibition as well as talks, workshops, film screenings and music. the 2018 Biennale featured around 95 artists from over 30 countries.

Several cafes, such as Kashi Art Cafe (above and below) and other buildings in this district are also designated as being worthy of a visit because of their artistic connections and exhibits.

This small courtyard cafe just metres from the Kochi waterfront has many art objects - as well as good food and coffee, arts in themselves.

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Meet the locals

Can you see what is in this lady's hands? She is crafting me a flower bracelet that she gives to me. A simple gesture of friendship and blessing.

End of day in a village street - but always there are flowers.

The children too are cheekily interested in us, and the cameras. This district of Kochi near the Jewish Quarter goes for brightly painted housefronts.

If you have to do a hot job like ironing, maybe it's best to choose the outdoors.

And so the generations go on. A proud grandmother introduces someone who will see even more changes and growth in Kerala than she has.

~~~

 

Fresh is best - exploring the markets

Travel brings surprises - and sometimes the biggest surprise is the similarities.

Recognise these? Chances are they are all in your home now.

But most of us cannot hope to find fish as fresh as this - roadside in Kochi.

Nor meat - killed and carved on-site.

Something that can be missed in modern cities - shopping and socialising

Fish, as fresh as it gets.

Soon to become the basis of a spicy crab curry.

It is said that India has around twenty varieties of bananas. Alexander the Great is thought to have the credit for sharing them with the rest of the world.

Cinnamon bark...

...and dried mace, the lacy outer covering of nutmeg.

Here are the base ingredients for a spicy dish.

Onions are the core ingredient of almost every Indian dish. If you are sensitive to them, it's a problem.

Q: Do you know what these are?

A: Indian gooseberries.

So much produce needs transport - so why not make it big and bright?

When delivering in narrow, busy arcades, often your head and shoulders are better than a trolley.

These glossy green chillies ...

....and these, will sell before the day is out.

We couldn't resist these small, just-roasted peanuts, and snacked on them as we kept walking.

~~~

Ernakulam

Ernakulam is the modern business district of Cochin where old and new sit comfortably together.

LuLu Mall is the main shopping centre complex and is as modern as any mall in the world.

All the major chains are represented here...

...yet in the huge supermarket there are aisles of rice and flatbreads. This woman is not considering buying peanut butter. All these jars contain ghee, the clarified butter used in almost every Indian dish.

Step outside and instantly you return to kerbside Kerala, with plenty of spicy, crunchy snacks to keep you going.

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Places to stay

In Fort Kochi we picked Tissa's Inn a place that was close to the waterfront and the older buildings, away from a major road, and with a swimming pool.

This clean and unpretentious place was exactly what we needed. It was very affordable and the staff extremely helpful. As it was set back a little from the street, and we had a room at the back, there was no road noise.

~~

By contrast, courtesy of the KTM, our hosts, we moved on to the Grand Hyatt Kochi Bolgatty, a five star hotel with every convenience...

...and this stunning view across Fort Kochi.

Downstairs, these pillowy, light-as-air poppadums were our lunchtime starter.

~~

Then, just before we would farewell Kochi, we stayed for several nights, again on Fort Kochi, at Fragrant Nature.

Opened in 2015, this hotel is jaw-droppingly beautiful. With its gallery-length mural and exquisite furnishings, we felt as if we had been parachuted into a French chateau.

Our room was just as elegantly appointed.

Just look at the view from our floor into the atrium!

A former post office, the rooftop has been preserved...

...along with the black wrought-iron staircase to the clock tower. There are wonderful views far across the waters from the swimming pool that was added during the renovations.
 
~~~
 

Kerala Travel Mart

As travel media professionals we had been invited, during our time in Kerala, to attend this event that takes place every two years.

 

 

This three-day event is a very important means of introducing travel agents and trade organisations who have sent representatives from around the world to the travel-related services that are available in Kerala. Local representatives of hotels, tours, events, transport and more, set up stalls and present their product to the hundreds. who attend.

Of course the displays were dazzling and there was a thrilling vibe amongst stallholders and visitors. Travel certainly makes people passionate about what they do!

One evening we gathered for dinner at the Crown Plaza Kochi, one of Ernakulam's finest hotels. We were entertained by suitably deafening music (see video above) and a massive buffet - as only Indian chefs can provide.

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Goodbye..... for now

All good things must come to an end, and finally it was our time to leave for the airport to return home.

As we are halted by traffic lights, a lad jumps out ahead of us, waving these light-filled balloons.

We can't buy one, of course, but we do take a photograph to remind us of this part of India which is also filled with so much energy and enthusiasm, movement and light.

Namaste, Kochi

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For more details on travel in Kerala contact Marvel Tours......

~~

COMING SOON ...our trip inland from Kochi.

 


 

Words and images: ©Sally Hammond

Video: © Gordon Hammond

~~~

Sally and Gordon Hammond travelled to Kerala with the assistance and hospitality of Kerala Travel Mart, and stayed independently for the rest of the time. Their opinions and insights remain their own.

 
 

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