Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Sleepy Kochi

The bus journey from Munnar down through the mountains and West to Kochi would probably have been quite pleasant had it not been for the increasing drama caused by Monique's ill-advised decision to consume copious quantities of water before leaving, producing an urgent need to pass that same water shortly thereafter. This situation wasn't helped by the combination of winding switchbacks and bumpy roads, placing additional strain on Monique's bladder. The world seemed to be conspiring against Monique – the continuous rain outside, the numerous waterfalls we passed, our water bottle sloshing about under our feet and and one person inexplicably pouring a 2 litre bottle of water out over the steps to the bus. Luckily the bus reached a stopping point just in time after a countdown that seemed to last forever; Monique hobbled off the bus and was lead to the toilets by a helpful passenger. I was alarmed to see the bus set off with our bags still on it just after I had disembarked, but thankfully the same helpful passenger informed us that it was just refueling and would return shortly, and then waited with us to make sure we got back on the right bus even though, as it turned out, he wasn't actually getting back on the bus himself – yet another super friendly person we have encountered in India.

After that drama the remainder of the journey passed smoothly. We arrived in Ernakulum and made a quick transition to a local bus to Fort Cochin where we planned to stay. For some reason both Monique and I had assumed that Kochi was a fairly sizeable city, and would therefore include the usual Indian city chaos and noise. We were therefore pleasantly surprised to discover that Fort Cochin is a tiny sleepy little place with plenty of green spaces with with huge old trees and kids playing football and cricket almost around the clock (irrespective of the weather and way past the point at which I would have thought it possible to see a cricket ball).

We had prepared ourselves for the temperature to increase after spending the majority of the previous week at altitude, but what we had not prepared for was the significant increase in humidity as we moved to the coast which sapped our energy. What was slightly more disruptive was our first meeting with the monsoon season. As a Brit I am extremely familiar with rain, however the rain I am most familiar with is the sort of grey drizzle which can, and sometimes does, persist for days on end. In the monsoon season when it rains, it really rains; water falls straight out of the sky in sheets and roads flood within minutes. Luckily the rains in Kochi were fairly predicable – a heavy downpour mid-morning and another in the late afternoon/early evening; consequently as long as you can avoid being out at those times, and you don't mind getting your feet wet in between, it isn't too problematic. We only got caught out once when we got soaked within minutes and were forced to take cover with some vegetable pakoras.

One interesting feature of Kochi that took a couple of days to get used to are the scheduled power cuts to conserve electricity. For one hour each morning, and one hour each evening the electricity goes out completely meaning no lighting inside or out, no power and, worst of all, no internet! In addition the cuts are staggered throughout the various parts of the city so potentially if you are moving in the wrong direction you can go without any power for quite some time (a restaurant owner told us a humourous story of a tourist he met who was strolling through the town and became convinced that there was something wrong with him because the electricity went out at each place at which he arrived). The combination of torrential rain and a lack of street lightening is potentially very dangerous, however we managed to avoid the worst of it by treating the power cuts as nap time.

Our first full day was a bit of an admin day. We made use of the decent internet connection at our guesthouse to catch up on some stuff, and we took a ferry trip back to Ernakulam to order some prescription sunglasses for Monique (to replace the ones stolen by the Goan waves) and bought a watch that I needed (having discovered that Kochi has one of the few HMT watch showrooms in India).

We spent the next few days ambling round Fort Cochin, checking out the few sights, including the Dutch Palace, the Synagogue and the Museum of Folklore (essentially a collection of various cool looking artefacts in a nice wooden building) and becoming familiar with the snail-like pace of life.

Fort Cochin is at the northern tip of an island and has a beach to the West (albeit not a very pretty one), an area of chinese fishing nets at the Northern point, and various harbours and ferry stations going round to the East side. In the middle is a web of narrow streets with various restaurants, interesting shops (where it is actually a pleasure to look at the various handicrafts and where we were actually tempted to buy souvenirs for the first time) and guesthouses interspersed with green areas. 


We also discovered a new negotiating tactic with rickshaw drivers in the area. A couple of very open drivers made it clear to us that if we allowed them to take us to certain government backed tourist shops for a quick browse then they would get a kick-back even if we don't buy anything, and our fare would be reduced. After some investigation it seems like the deal is that they get a token for one litre of fuel, which is worth about 70 rupees. This knowledge gave rise to such successful negotiations as “We're not going to pay you anything but we'll let you take us to one shop”.

Unlike anywhere else we have visited in India so far Kochi has a really artsy vibe with loads of really impressive street art. Those of you who know me will know that street art is an interest of mine so really enjoyed spending a good amount of time trying to seek out the best pieces I could find.

We also discovered a local artist whose work (impressionist street scenes) we really liked, and after some consideration we purchased two small paintings which we then sent home (after a bit of a run-in with a guy offering parcel wrapping services). Unfortunately we don't have any walls to hang those paintings on at present, but that is a minor technical issue at present.

However, throughout the peaceful, relaxed, artsy vibe something just wasn't right. Something that neither of us could put our finger on for a while. And then it dawned on us – there were no cows! After our first couple of weeks when every sighting of a cow wandering down a road was reason to comment and whip out our cameras the sight had become so ubiquitous that we had stopped taking much notice of them any more. However for some reason there didn't seem to be a single cow in Fort Cochin. Perhaps cows aren't allowed on the ferry? Instead of cows Fort Cochin has goats. Hundreds of them. They hang about in gangs (which appeared to be slip between the Black Tails and the While Tails, although a few brave ones seemed to have crossed the divide) playfully milling about the streets before rushing into shops en masse to loot it for whatever edibles they can find (when they're not being fed by Monique that is!).

We spent one evening at a traditional Keralan Kathakali “Cultural Show” which was really unique. Before the show we were able to watch one of the actors first applying his own make-up, and then having the remainder of his make-up, and various curved and layered pieces of cardboard, applied for him by his assistant (a deaf and mute gentleman who had been a make-up artist for many years). The transition from normal person to a larger-than-life cartoon-like character was striking.

The show, which involved two actors and three musicians, started with a demonstration of the traditional eye and hand positions. Next was a demonstration of the traditional ways in which emotions are portrayed in which the actor (a male actor with an incredibly expressive face playing a particularly unattractive female role) singled me out to demonstrate flirting, much to Monique's amusement. They then played out a rather drawn out scene from a play in which the female character is actually a male in disguise and attempts to woo a king but eventually ends up being killed by him. The whole experience was really interesting, but if it takes 40 minutes to play out a scene like that, then I don't think I could handle the full experience.

Later that evening we had dinner at what had become our “usual” (a good restaurant with a super-friendly owner who Monique wanted to take with us when we left) with an American guy named Joe who we had met at the show and who had been working in a hospital in Hyderabad (not the one which Monique had been admitted to) for a month as an eye surgeon. He gave us some really interesting insights into the medical practices he had encountered in India (e.g. regular power cuts during surgery). Suffice to say that the best advice remains not to get ill in India!

The only drama of any note in Kochi was our encounter with a rather inebriated young Indian girl one evening. When we were walking along in the drizzle and dark (power cuts again), said girl coasted past us on her bike, clipped a parked car and fell over. After watching fall over in the road as she tried to re-mount, I went to help her up; given the darkness, there was significant danger of her being run over as she lay in the road. Indeed, two cars were approaching from opposite directions, and it was a tense couple of moments. It very quickly became apparent that she was absolutely hammered after being plied with drinks by a group of guys. After walking with her for a while she assured us that her guesthouse was extremely close by and promised she would not attempt to ride her bike again if we left her to make her own way back. As soon as she could no longer see us, she promptly turned around, got on her bike and (as we stood watching) rode her bike diagonally across the road and into a ditch. We then spent the next 20 minutes of so walking with her along the unlit roads until she found her guesthouse and her grateful friends. In hindsight it was pretty funny, but it could definitely have ended badly wrong for her. After years of living in Birmingham city centre no act of drunkenness should come as a shock to me; I guess the fact that this constitutes drama speaks volumes for how quiet and relaxed a place Fort Cochin is.

Although we could happily have spent another couple of days in Kochi wondering around and napping through monsoon downpours and power cuts we thought it best to move on before our pace of living became permanently decreased to the point at which we would have to seriously reconsider our travel plans.

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