Thursday 10th December
Mumbai to Kochi
The hotel provided not just one but three wake up calls at 4am today. I imagine that they are used to weary travellers dozing off and nearly missing their flights. They have a very efficient and effective guest-evicting service here! It felt almost like being a school child again. Three requests to get out of bed to get dressed, two bell boys took our bags and put them in the waiting car, the chef appeared with two boxes of packed breakfast, three people at the reception desk lined up to say farewell and finally our guide was on hand to double check that we had remembered our passports and not left anything behind in our room. Finally the driver was ready and waiting to take the fastest route to the airport! How we ever managed to get as far as India without them all is a small miracle!
Having safely manoeuvred ourselves into the plane with no excess luggage charges we set off south to Kochi the journey being marred only by Bill's companion in the window seat who fidgeted the whole way, had to be repeatedly asked to turn off his phone, smeared most of his curry over the back of the seat in front, then insisted on removal of his meal tray before everyone else was served, demanded a cup of tea and on top of that played 'arm-rest wars', sniffed and snorted loudly and productively for the entire journey. Finally on landing his phones jettisoned themselves from his unraised tray table and vanished under the seats in front to increase his agitation further! Bill is a patient man, but there is a limit!
At kochi airport all was calm. So different from Delhi and Mumbai! We collected our bags, the guide picked us up and we drove quietly through the green countryside of western Kerala to Fort Kochi.
Kochi is a strange place with an unusual history. The west coast here is a series of islands connected by bridges and ferries. Kochi (formerly called Cochin) is a natural harbour, has a population of 600,000 and has the highest literacy rate in India. The majority of people here are Hindus - 55% , and the remainder are a cosmopolitan mix of just about every religion including many Catholics and six Jews. The official language is Malayalam, but children learn both Hindi and English at school. Fort Kochi is famous for its fishing and beaches. (It is also famous for its petrochemical and latex rubber industries and from the beach you can admire the oil refineries, tyre manufacturing works and can watch the tankers coming into the harbour...)
That said, the town is a fascinating mix of cultures - a blend of medieval Portugese and Dutch architecture, ancient Chinese fishing nets, British Raj and English village houses and churches alongside a Jewish Synagogue, all grafted onto the tropical Malabar Coast. It is a tour guide's dream!
We arrived at our lovely 'Heritage' hotel at the Old Harbour, built 300 years ago by the Dutch. Only 13 rooms around a beautiful garden and small pool. So different from the Trident!
On arrival we were given coconuts with a straw, decorated with red gerbera petals.
Our room 'Napier' was on the ground floor with a fountain just outside. It was lime washed in a colour that I call 'Indian gold' - a deep ochre yellow, with terracotta floor tiles, and niches full of Indian carvings. And it had a chaise longue, ceiling fan and air conditioning.
Having had only 4 hours sleep last night, it was great to slide into bed for a two hour power nap.
After lunch in the garden we were off on our tour. Mr Binu our driver and a local teacher to guide us.
We started off walking up the sea front a few yards away, where fishermen sell their freshly caught fish all arranged on ice. When we arrived the tide was flowing out rapidly carrying with it rafts of water hyacinths with avian passengers.
The Chinese fishing nets are quite something - an elaborate spider-like construction of four arms, each about 4 metres long in the shape of a flat pyramid with fishing net draped over and attached to them. The framed net is attached to a long arm which is counterbalanced by a series of heavy stones that come into play as the net is progressively lowered onto the ocean floor. It is then quickly lifted up by four men pulling on the cantilevered arm, lifting fish out of the water and onto the platform underneath. Clever stuff, especially considering that the design was introduced by the Chinese from Kublai Khan in the 1400s and has been in use ever since.
From the harbour front we walked along the pathway to the Mahatma Gandhi beach where a film crew were shooting an action scene, to the entertainment of the locals. Not quite Bollywood but there was no problem distinguishing the brightly dressed actors from the onlookers.
Next stop was St Francis church - oldest church built by Europeans in India. It was originally built from wood by the Portuguese in 1503 and was rebuilt by the Dutch in the mid 16th century in its present form. It is the burial place of Vasco da Gama the explorer.
Our walking tour took us past another laundry. This one was set up on a charitable basis to help people from the lowest Hindu caste (formerly known as untouchables) to find work. This group of people live together in a small community and wash, dry and iron clothes and bedding for the residents in the town. The laundry is washed and beaten clean in large tanks, spread or hung up in the sun to dry and then ironed or pressed using huge heavy flat iron boxes filled with coconut shell charcoal.
The Mattancherry Dutch Palace was next on the agenda. This was famous for its selection of ornate palanquins and for its extraordinarily well preserved murals of scenes from Ramayana and Mahabharata and the Puranic legends - essentially a graphic Bayeux tapestry style series of paintings depicting the myths of various gods being tested and worshipped. Each God was depicted with its traditional features such as the elephant head of Ganesh, the God of fortune, or the blue face and four arms of Vishnu, the preserver, holding the lotus flower, shell, mace and discus, Shiva the destroyer, or the monkey face of Hanuman, God of devotion (said to be president Obama's favourite Hindu god). Each deity was accompanied by its 'vehicle' which the god would use to travel about eg Ganesh rides on a mouse, Vishnu rides on a man-bird creature and Shiva, also being the God of sexual energy rides on a bull. Hanuman the Monkey faced god was able to fly and so did not need a vehicle.
We felt sorry for the goddess Sita who had to sit on a bed of hot coals to prove her purity. She passed the test, and is smiling widely on the mural but we imagined she might have had trouble sitting down for a while.
Despite our unfamiliarity with the mythology and legends it was all rather beautiful and detailed - especially for a mural painted with simple vegetable dyes in 1555. The palace was a gift to the Raja of Cochin by the Portuguese in order for them to gain favour and secure trading rights.
The afternoon was hot and humid, the guide spoke rapidly and at length in Hindi-English with a strong accent. The churches and palaces had no air conditioning and the fans were surrounded by crowds of tourists. Luckily the subject matter was just about interesting enough to make it all worth it but having sweat running down the backs of your legs and dropping off your chin is just not nice...
After all that information we wandered on through the bazaars of Jew Street on our way to the synagogue. There were loads of shops selling trinkets, and also spices, fabrics and antiques. We entered one of the latter shops displaying a huge 'snake boat', a massive long narrow racing canoe very similar to the ones we had seen in Hawaii.
At the back of the antique shop we found a cafe/restaurant 'Ginger'. An oasis from the heat, in the shade on the waterfront. By this time the tide has turned and the rafts of water hyacinths and white egrets that were travelling out to sea earlier on were now travelling back up the estuary and at a great speed.
We ordered ginger lassi and a cup of chai. Perfect. It fortified us for our penultimate stop of the day, the Jewish synagogue. Built in 1568, it was destroyed by the Portuguese in 1662, rebuilt by the Dutch in 1664, illuminated with Belgian chandeliers and coloured glass lamps, and then decorated with Chinese willow pattern floor tiles from Canton in 1762. It had a graceful clock tower with three faces - one with Roman numerals, one in English and one in Malayalam. There was an ornate gold pulpit and served just six remaining Jews living in Kochi. The youngest of these Jews is a 45 year old spinster, so, as our guide pointed out 'they will only need six more plots in their cemetery...'
After all that there was just one more stop to visit a shop selling beautiful silks and pashminas before we arrived back at our lovely cool hotel. We enjoyed a swim and then excellent and remarkable value dinner in the garden - local seafood with spices and coconut - original and tasty, and retired early, happily anticipating nine hours of lovely sleep under the cool ceiling fan.