Stepping back in time in Fort Kochi

What a way to be welcomed to India!

As we boarded our flight in Colombo, I was pretty nervous. I mean, we were going to INDIA! It's somewhere that has been on our travel bucket list for a long time, and somewhere that seems to ignite love and hate in people in equal measure.

We've read the stories - you will be scammed immediately, all the time, people will try to steal the clothes you're wearing if you don't remain CONSTANTLY VIGILANT, there are beggars everywhere, and human excrement lines the streets.

While I'm sure that this is true in some parts of India, our experience so far has been amazing, and it's really easy to see how India can worm its way into your heart.

Just a goat on a scooter

As we winged our way into Kochi (also known as Cochin) an hour after taking off from Colombo, the excitement started to kick in, and we braced ourselves for getting to know another new country.

Arrival

As a disclaimer, we had taken the easy way out in terms of our arrival, opting to have our guesthouse send a driver to pick us up from the airport. Wusses, I know, but there's nothing worse than arriving in a new country, struggling with a new currency, and having a taxi driver take advantage of that! It can sour your whole experience of a country. Plus, it never gets old when you walk out of customs and immigration and there's a guy there with your name on a sign.

As we left the airport, we drove past the massive field of solar panels which 100% power Cochin Airport, making it the first fully solar airport in the world. 46,150 solar panels take up 45 acres, and generate 50,000 units of electricity daily. India was the first country in the world to set up a Ministry of 'Non-Conventional' Energy Sources in the early 1980s, and has set itself the ambitious goal of producing 40% of its total energy needs through renewable sources by 2030 - go India!

Our driver was a really sweet guy who chatted to us on our drive about life in India. He told us that in the South of India, there is a big focus on education. Education is very cheap, and most children finish high school, with a large number carrying on to complete tertiary education. He is convinced that this is what separates the South from the North in terms of the quality of life for its people - it all begins with education.

About 1.5 hours later, we arrived at our guesthouse, Good Karma Inn. After checking in with our friendly host, and set out to see what we could see, and get some food. As we walked through the town with the buildings bathed in the setting sunlight, it was hard not to fall in love with Kochi. It's cliched, I know, but with the delightfully run down buildings, women in brightly coloured saris and men gliding past on ancient push bikes, it really is like something out of a film.

We found ourselves at Farmers Cafe for dinner, eating beautiful food in a fantastic old building with an open courtyard, pinching ourselves constantly because we were finally in India! The power cut out about three times during the meal, but the staff appeared used to it, laughing and using their mobile phones to light up the restaurant. I said to Zev at dinner that I didn't want to jinx it, but Fort Kochi might be one of my favourite travel destinations so far.

A Kochi history lesson

Historically, Kochi was a fishing village, which was later discovered by Arabian and Chinese traders as a source for spices such as pepper, cinnamon, cardamom and cloves. In 1341, a flood destroyed the harbour, and the rebuild led to its development into one of the most important harbours on the west coast of India, primarily due to its importance for the spice trade with China and the Middle East. 

Spicing up the history lesson with photos of cool buildings

In the 1500s, the Maharajah of Kochi clashed with King Zamorin, the ruler of Calicut. When the Portuguese arrived, the Maharajah enlisted their help in protecting Kochi from the neighbouring King. To thank them for their assistance, he gifted them the area now known as Fort Kochi in 1503. Subsequently, the Portuguese built a fort in the area and a settlement behind it, founding a major trading area. In time, the Maharajah lost much of his power to the Portuguese, and Kochi became the first European settlement in India.

In 1653, the deposed Prince from the now powerless royal family, and the Prime Minister of Cochin invited the Dutch to oust the Portuguese (destroying the fort in the process). The town became the capital of Dutch Malabar, and became part of the major trading network The Dutch East India Company.

The Dutch managed to retain power in Kochi for 112 years until 1795, when the British defeated them. Foreign control of Kerala ended with Indian independence in 1947.

With such a diverse mixture of cultural influences, walking through Fort Kochi is a real feast for the eyes. The streetscapes reminded us of Georgetown and Melaka in Malaysia, with similar Dutch and Portuguese influences, and the remaining traditional architecture which has slowly been taken over by the Indian way of life creates a truly delightful melting pot town.

Meandering through Fort Kochi

We decided that the best way to see the sites of Fort Kochi was to walk, much to the distress of the 50 or so tuk tuk drivers who stopped us every 10 seconds to ask us if we wanted a tour. In their defense, it was REALLY hot, and an hour long tuk tuk tour only cost 50r (~$1NZD), but we were enjoying the walk (for the most part).

Unfortunately, we had managed to arrive on a public holiday, so some of the sites (like the museum) were closed, but Fort Kochi is so beautiful and photogenic that it really didn't matter. 

St Francis Church

Our first stop on the walking tour was St Francis Church. Constructed in 1503 by the Portuguese, this is believed to be the oldest European built church in India. The current church was built in the mid-16th century to replace the original wooden church. The church was also home to the remains of Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama, the first European to reach India by sea, for 14 years until his remains were relocated back to Portugal.

St Francis Church

From there, we walked along the waterfront, stumbling across a Royal Enfield motorcycle 'gang' out for a ride, much to my delight. I've always had a fondness for Royal Enfields, but this trip has cemented their place as my favourite motorcycles, and affirmed my decision to buy one once I get back to New Zealand. I'll even add a sidecar so Zev can ride with me.

The Royal Enfield gang that I hope to join one day

We detoured past the Dutch Cemetary, consecrated in 1724 and containing the graves of Dutch soldiers and traders, but found the gates locked. Apparently you can't ask at St Francis Church for the caretaker to unlock the gates, but we didn't find this out until later, so settled for peering through the locked gate at the cracked and crumbling headstones.

A short walk away was Santa Cruz Basilica, originally built in 1506, with the current church built in 1902. This church has an incredible interior that reminded me very much of Baz Lurhmann's Romeo and Juliet - full of bright frescoes and murals with more neon lights than you'd usually expect from a church, giving it an pleasingly garish appearance.

Santa Cruz Basilica

From here, we wandered back along the bustling waterfront to see the famous Chinese fishing nets. Dotted along the waterfront, these giant nets are around 10m tall, and can stretch 20m out over the water. Built from bamboo and teak poles, and elaborate pulley system allows a team of 4 fishermen to raise and lower the nets. As time wears on, and overfishing takes its toll, the fishing nets become more of a tourist attraction and less of a means for the fishermen to support their families. Increasingly, the fish being sold in Kochi come in from the boats that go out to the open sea, and the men on the fishing nets (often no longer 'real' fishermen, but touts instead) sell photo opportunities for tourists in place of fish. For a small fee, you can go out on the nets and help to lower and raise them, although it seems you're more likely to bring in rubbish from the dirty harbour than your dinner. Nevertheless we spent an enjoyable half hour or so sitting on the banks, watching the raising and lowering of the nets, boats returning from the sea with their catches, and all of the people bustling about.

Chinese fishing nets along the waterfront

By this time, the heat had caught up with us, so we stopped into a little cafe for some lunch, before heading back to our guesthouse to spend the afternoon out of the sun trying to make some plans for what to do after Kochi. Sadly, the appalling internet speeds thwarted us, hammering home our desperate need to sort ourselves out with Indian SIM cards as soon as possible.

Kalaripayattu

Later in the afternoon, after a delicious afternoon tea of samosas, chocolate cake and team, we headed out to a Kalaripayattu performance. Kalaripayattu is a martial art style originating in India, and the hour long display showcased individual movement routines, acrobatics, hand to hand fighting, fighting with weapons (including these massive flexible swords called Urumi which looked like they would dish out some SERIOUS damage), self defense, and the use of pressure points to disable your opponent. The show was really cool, and the two guys doing the demonstrations looked like an hour was probably long enough to be performing. Here's a quick video if you want to see some.

Dinner was a great local number, delicious curries at a roadside stall right in the hustle and bustle of the waterfront. The place was full of locals and tourists alike, and was an awesome way to top off our first full day in Kerala.

Sorting out SIM cards and Kashi's Art Gallery and Cafe

Despite managing to find the most useful guy in Kochi to help us sort out our SIM cards for India, this took up the better part of a morning. By the time we were finished, it was time for lunch, so we headed to Kashi's Art Gallery and Cafe. It was here that we found the work of an amazing Indian artist named Viviek Vilasini. I wish I knew more about art so that I could really explain his work, but I'll do my best! His photographic works take well known western images (the Last Supper, the Beatles crossing Abbey Road) and playfully inject an Indian perspective, at the same time creating a commentary on social structure and cultural identity in the face of increasing globalisation. Do yourself a favour and give his artwork a google.

Delicious iced tea and blueberry ice cream floats from Kashi's Art Gallery and Cafe

Since it was going to take a few hours for our SIM cards to activate, we again spent a frustrating afternoon trying to sort out our next destination on our terrible guesthouse internet. We finally managed to sort out a bus to Munnar, and some accommodation, and called it a day on using the internet.

Kathakali performance

For the evening, we returned to the cultural centre where we watched the Kalaripayattu performance to enjoy a Kathakali show, one of the major forms of classical Indian dance. For the first hour, you can arrive at any time to see the performers applying their make up, the vivid colours of which tell you about the characters - red characters are evil, green are heroes or warriors and so on. The make up itself is made by grinding rocks into powder and mixing it with coconut oil to make a thick paste.

Kathikali make up

Next followed a demonstration of the core 'language' of kathkali. The actors themselves don't speak, although there are musicians on stage that include a singer who narrates the story a little (although obviously not in English). Instead, the actors use complex specific eye movements and facial expressions to convey specific moods and emotions, and hand movements (almost like a sign language) to convey dialogue. This aspect of the performance was really interesting - the control these guys have over their faces is INCREDIBLE! And it came in handy in the play segment, as we tried to figure out exactly what was going on in the story.

Kathakali facial expressions

Luckily, in addition to our quick introduction to Kathakali, we were given  an information sheet when we arrived that outlined the plot of the play. Without that, even with our lesson, I would have been completely lost! Even though we'd seen them applying their make up, we hadn't seen the costumes yet, so when the actors came on stage in their elaborate costumes, it really was spectacular. Giant headdresses and huge costumes made the actors take up the whole stage.

Kathikali costumes

The play itself was the story of a prince who was sent into the forest to kill a demon who had been terrorising the town. Normally, a full Kathakali play would run for 3-4 hours, so we got the VERY condensed 45 minute version, that really cut to the heart of the action. It was really fun, trying to follow along with the facial expressions and hand gestures that we'd just learnt, but really, without the paper synopsis, I would've had no idea what was going on!

Once the play wrapped up, we went back to our Airtel guy to activate our phones (hallelujah - reconnected!!), and went in search of dinner. I've talked about the fusion of the architecture - we ended up eating dinner at an Indian-Mexican fusion restaurant, which was incredible! It certainly like eating a paneer quesedilla was the perfect way to wrap up our time in a Fort Kochi - a melting pot of cultures!

Lots of love,
S & Z
xxx