We arrived at Haripad station for our final rail journey in India, a two hour journey to Kochi. We got to the station 45 minutes early and we sat around waiting for the train to arrive. About five minutes before the train was due we decided that it would be prudent for us to move further down the platform to give us more chance of finding a quiet carriage. We walked about 100 meters along the platform Before we were satisfied we were in the right place. The train pulled in and as it was a saturday the train was packed. We boarded the train then proceeded to walk about six carriages back through and ended up parallel to where we were originally standing on the platform. We found two available seats in a berth with a grandmother, her daughter and granddaughter. We put our bags on the top bunk and politely asked the daughter who was laying across all three of the seats to move along so that we could both sit down, which she reluctantly did. Five minutes into the journey and the elderly lady spoke to inform us that the daughter had a bad back and needed to lay down again . We moved our small day packs on to our laps and she stretched out. We're no experts, but the way that she swung her legs up on to the seat and that within five minutes she had sat up and was moving about quite freely aroused our suspicions. We placed our bags back on the seats and continued our journey a little more comfortably. We assumed she must have been cured.
This was the umpteenth time we had been on a train in India, but you wouldn't have thought it, as we had stood up bags on backs around half an hour too soon. We couldn't re-take our seats as they had been claimed by someone else in the over-crowded carriage. Oh well, so we stood for the remainder of the journey by the toilets and pantry (funnily enough we had the area to ourselves) and we counted cockroaches until we finally pulled into Ernakulum station, we got to almost a hundred.
A 30 minute rickshaw ride with a mostly blind driver (honest) and we were at our hotel. We were based in Fort Kochi which is central to many of the touristy sights.
Kochi is all about the tourists, rickshaw drivers are over-friendly and are desperate for business. 50 rupees will get you an hour tour around 8 of the main hotspots. Pretty cheap, right? But there is a catch, at this price, the passenger then becomes obliged to do the driver a 'favour' by going to three government run souvenir shops. At each shop the driver receives a voucher and when he has collected three different vouchers he receives two litres of fuel. We get our driver to take us around for about three hours and he agreed that we would pay him whatever we feel it was worth. He received his three fuel vouchers and got well over the 50 rupees per hour. We all did well out of the day.
The first stop was the St Francis church which was about 2 minutes away from our hotel, it's where Vasco De Gama was buried. 'Was' being the operative word as De Gama's remains were removed and repatriated by his son some time later. The church while having historical significance, was pretty dowdy and run down. I couldn't help thinking that, after all the colour at the Hindu temples, the grey building had let its side down.
Onward to the Dutch Palace (Mattancherry Palace), where hugely intricate murals depicting the Mahabharata (Hindu religious story holy book) adorn the walls and cover over 300squre feet and thankfully are for the most part complete. The palace was built by the Portuguese in 1555 and the colours of the murals are still so vibrant even after all these years. Unfortunately, no photos are allowed to be taken inside the palace, but at least the murals will last another 500 years or so.
From the Dutch Palace we went to the Synagogue, built in 1568 it is the oldest used synagogue in the Commonwealth. There are a few Jewish families that live in the area called "Jew town" and these families maintain and run the Synagogue equally as a tourist attraction. The road leading to the synagogue is lined with cheap souvenir shops selling everything from toy rickshaws to new antiques, even our rickshaw driver said that if it wasn't for the synagogue, not a single one of these shops would exist. The outside of the 'gog was pretty nondescript, the outer walls resembled those of a churchyard, complete with a clock tower and looked like they had been whitewashed. We had to hand in our bag and camera before we could enter and it wasn't entirely clear if this was for security reasons or so that they could sell us postcards of the inside. All bags deposited, we entered a small room that depicts the story of the Jewish coming to India, this happened around the 4th century. It was the merchants of the spice trade that were the original Jewish community in Kerala and the Synagogue was built on land given to them by the Raja of Kochi. Through the small court yard and into the pale blue painted synagogue Jan found the mezuzah (a small container that holds specified verses from the Torah, which is placed on the door frames of Jewish buildings and households. There was no glitz or glamour about the synagogue, but the finer details were what made this unassuming building interesting. The white and blue floor tiles were of Chinese design and each was hand painted and unique. The pictures were traditional designs of willow trees, giant chrysanthemums, bridges over streams and storks, not very jewish but very beautiful none the less. They had been given to the synagogue as a gift by a wealthy merchant and it would have been rude to say "Oi vey, they don't really go with our colour scheme"'.
Above, there were around fifty different chandeliers hanging from the ceiling, made with burgundy, blue, green, yellow glass and crystal. A few were electric with candle effect bulbs in them but the vast majority were candle lit. Most of these too had come by way of donation by local businessmen. The women's section was upstairs and contained a single chair, we were not permitted to go up there unfortunately. The bima where the rabbi stands is in the middle of the synagogue, the simple brass frame is reached by a single step and faces the aron kodesh (Torah cupboard), no thick velvet curtains here, just a simple plain cotton curtain. I managed to read some of the hebrew prayers on either side, I could recognise most of the letters and guessed the vowels, but Hebrew is a bit like that. We sat on one of the many wooden benches along the side walls and listened to the tour guides explaining the details of the building. In each case it was verbatim of what was described in the first room we had been in, we think the tour companies have a pretty good racket going on here.
The males that enter the synagogue are not expected to wear a kippur (skull cap) but they do have them on offer should one be required, wearing a kippur as a young lad was always a bugbear of mine as it was the 80's and I had a truly magnificently sculptured wetlook gel hairdo. Today things are not so complicated for me but it didn't occur to me to get one until we saw another gentleman with one and by that time it felt too late.
We jumped into the rickshaw and visited the souvenir shops mentioned earlier, with the rickshaw driver clutching his three fuel vouchers we finally drove back to the hotel.
The Chinese fishing nets are one of the main sights to see especially at sunset. A huge square net is at one end of a cantilever and is lowered into the muddy estuary waters. They are left submerged for some minutes or so before a gang of fishermen haul on thick ropes, assisted by about a ton of counterweight in the form of 10-15 boulders. As the men strain on the ropes the boulders slowly lower and the enormous net re-emerges with the catch. There are around fifty nets on one side thirty on the other side of the estuary. We sat and watched the fishing nets on their daily manoeuvres down and up, down and up. The fishermen, with smaller nets in hand go to scoop out whatever has been caught on this occasion. We were seated near enough to see the catch being placed into the smaller net,they looked very small and we wondered whether they would be eaten or used for bait. We walked a little closer to the net to get a closer look at their catch. We were beckoned to go aboard and look. The catch in the coolbox was minimal, maybe five fish, each less than 10cms in length. We were told that this was an hours worth of work. Now that we were aboard they asked if we wanted to join in in the pulling of the ropes. Cue for me, I'm already standing at a chosen rope post. I knew that this time the catch was going to be massive, lobsters, jumbo prawns, a tin or two of caviar. we all pull hard on the ropes and even with the counterweight, it is hard work. The nets come up, its completely empty, it really makes you appreciate the hard work these fishermen do. We lower the net again and we chat to the fishermen about their expectations for the future and the history of this particular net. This one used to owned by a Jewish family until 50 years ago, the current fisherman's father bought the lease from the Jewish family and have been fishing every day since. It had been a few minutes and they were due to bring the net up again, Jan's turn. She grabbed hold of a rope and pulled down with her left hand, switched to the right hand she was working furiously, the guys seem to notice her speed and had to up their game. The net broke the surface of the brown water, but it was too far away to see what was in there. The man walks along the wooden cantilever and scoops up the catch. She caught nine catfish, a couple were separated from the rest, we assumed they were keepers. The fishermen said we were good luck and should pull again, we declined mopping our brows and the sweat away from our faces. For the rest of the day she kept forgetting how many I caught and how many she caught and had to keep asking me to remind her.
We continued our walk along the promenade where friends sat on high walls eating ice creams, their legs swinging below them, absolutely carefree in thees precious moments. An older gent stood watching the ocean whilst listening to country songs on his phone that was in his shirt pocket, we stopped, sat for a while and watched the world go by whilst our toes tapped too. The people were happy here and it showed in their demeanour.
Our final full on touristy thing was to go and see a Kathakali theatre show. Traditionally the play is performed in the Hindu temple and is nine hours long. It tells the stories of the Mahabharata and the use of elaborate makeup, costumes, eye movements and hand gestures (there are 24 mudras) replace speech. Drums and hand symbols create the tension and highlight the action throughout the scenes. The actors and musicians have to train for a minimum of 6 years and anything up to 10 years to perform Kathakali and so it should not be dismissed as mere pantomime (which is kind of what it looks like to an untrained eye). The show we saw told the story of the killing of Baka by Bhima. The actors faces are painted using different natural colourings that once mixed with coconut oil turns into a paste. The colours were so vibrant and vivid, pea green (good) and devil red (evil) and ochre yellow (regular folk). Where required, they also place a seed in each eye that reddens the whites of the eye, now that's dedication. It would well be worth your time looking at YouTube for a short clip or looking it up on Wikipedia as its really quite fascinating.
Well no blog would be complete without the mention of some food. We went to two really great restaurants, Dal Roti a place we are going to email to get some recipes. The night we went, the northwest monsoon decided to do its nut. We walked about half a kilometre to the restaurant as the lightning burst above us and the thunder pounded in our chests. Just as we reached the eatery, the sky unleashed its fury and the rain came down like we'd not seen anywhere else. We had a Mary and Joseph moment where there seemed to be no room inside and so we sat in the porch, open at the front to the elements. Above us hung wiring like only Indians seem to know how to do and metal rails on the three closed sides. At least we were going to enjoy our last meal. The meal was exceptional and the owner promised to send us the recipe if we emailed him. Oceanos was the other stand out restaurant, I had giant prawns in an Indo-Portuguese sauce, cooked with whole shallots, crispy onions and fresh veggies, they were the nicest prawns I have ever tasted. Jan had a vegetable stew which was also pretty amazing but I think I'm starting to understand why vegetarians usually look so miserable.
The worst place we went to (possibly on our trip so far), was a typical tourist restaurant (we ate here due to the overhead lightning and thunder storm we were caught in on our first night). We started talking to another traveler, a Japanese lady, about where we had been and where we were going and we all agreed that this restaurant was overpriced and substandard. In brief the garlic rice had no garlic in it and the paneer tikka was covered with english mustard and shown a picture of a candle, not even cooked, whats that all about? Our fault for rushing to get out the rain, we must remember that we're waterproof.
After a nice, but stilted conversation with Akuri, she jumped in a rickshaw and we braved the rain for our short walk home. En route we were stopped by a chap who asked us if we wanted to be in a film. Apparently they needed western looking folk for a bar scene, we were to be picked up at 9, driven to the shoot, given breakfast, lunch, beers and we would receive 500Rs each. We quizzed him on the details, name of the film, where it was being filmed and the guy was pretty vague and wouldn't give us a business card. Jan was still keen but I just couldn't cope with the fame.
The next day we went off the tourist trail and wandered around the docks and the surrounding streets. Seeing the beginning stages of the traders preparing their exports, in many of the little run down shops we saw the buyers and sellers agreeing on deals for chillies, garlic and rice (a choice of twenty one different types of rice were on offer in one tiny shop). Often, as we walked down the narrow street we had to jump into shop doorways as vans or carts heavily laden with their goods trundled past. There were times where the smell of dried chillies was so overpowering, our noses burned and our eyes watered. We were just glad we weren't one of the fellows having to load the vans by carrying the sacks of chillies on their heads.
The shady walk was still hard going in the heat and we needed to stop regularly for liquid. This place isn't touristy, sitting having a Pepsi on the river front with the locals, the washed up rubbish lapping against the shore. It was really grubby, the tables were thick with grease and grime and we couldn't bring ourselves to eat in there. We thought about going into the bar, as we walked by the open doorway, there was a man washing in one corner another man shouting in the opposite dark corner. The smell of stale alcohol and urine in the air is not appealing, we move on suddenly not that thirsty.
Tomorrow we fly back to Mumbai where our Indian adventure had started, although we have a day in Mumbai we both strongly feel that our Indian leg finishes with this flight.