The first thing I remember about Kochi is the heat when we got off the train. We’d been in an air conditioned bubble for 48 hours (that’s how long a Kerala express train ride takes) and while the train had prepared us to the intense green tones of the tropical vegetation, coconut palms, banana trees and plants floating on the water, we couldn’t imagine how hot and humid the tropical weather of Kerala could get to be. As we stood on the platform, trying to figure out what the right direction to go to was, we began sweating, and I felt happy – the last days in the north were fresher and fresher and I was dying for some summery feel.
Once out of the station at Ernakulam, we took a rickshaw to the ferries, where we jumped on a boat to Fort Cochin. Kochi has three urban components: Ernakulam, Fort Cochin and Mattancherry. Many visitors stick to Fort Cochin and we were no exception, as we wanted to stay close to the main sights and attractions.
The relaxed atmospehere in Kochi is contagiuos, and it looks even so unusual if you have started your trip in the north. It may also be the weather, but you feel like you want to slow down. Maybe sit in the shade, drink a fruit juice, and see life flowing in front of you.
It happens that there is no one real India but several “real” Indias – Kochi, and all Kerala for that matter, is the educated, literate India. The India that exports IT brains and engineers (the majority of them work in the Middle East, others work in Europe or North America). The India where the communist party is freely elected every two or three terms. The India where income is distributed more equally among the population. The Christian India (75% of Christians in India live in the south), the India of Catholic devotees going to mass on Sundays, and peacefully sharing the social space, outside churches, with Hindus and Muslims.
Fort Cochin is small and it takes no time to walk through it. The main sights are the San Francis CSI church, where Vasco da Gama, the Portuguese explorer, who died in Kochi was first buried (his body was moved to Lisbon after some time), the gothic Santa Cruz Basilica, the Indo-Portuguese museum, and the Mattancherry palace. Along with this sights another typical part of town to see is the seafront in Fort Cochin, where the chinese fishing nets are. These are photogenic land installations used for fishing. A few meters before the nets you’ll find a spot where Tamil fishermen sell tunafish to fishmongers from neighbouring areas.
Rickshaw drivers will approach you to offer you the opportunity to take a sightseeing tour with them for a low price (between 20 and 40 rupees). But be aware that they’ll also take you to shops where they’ll try to sell you every sort of thing, and where obviously the rickshaw will earn a commission. Nothing wrong with it if you really want to buy something, but if you’re on a long term trip like us you really can’t buy things and you have to find alternative ways to help the local economy. Also, the shops rickshaw drivers will take you to are evidently (and ‘touristly’) overpriced… which takes the pleasure out of your shopping.
Among the many restaurants and eateries in town we found one, called Ocean (in Elphington street – but they have no website) offering a menu of Indo-Portuguese cuisine. We couldn’t avoid trying it. A little more upmarket than our budget but we said, who cares if it’s just for once? We broke our temporary vegetarianism (which we had observed in the north) and indulged in some delicious tunafish (myself) and chicken (Romana) recipes.
We had a walk at the seafront, near the chinese fishing nets, and got invited by a group of fishermen to visit them the morning after very early, and take some pictures. It was a very interesting experience, even though the shooting conditions weren’t the best, and I only got half of the shots to look as I wanted.
The fishermen explained to us that due to some untimely heavy rain (the days before we visited) a huge amount of floating plants (which they call African plant) had populated the sea, jeopardizing the chances of a good fishing conditions.
Always along the waterfront you find a number of stalls selling fresh fish, and promising to cook it for you at one of the restaurants they work for. Another annoyance to be aware of, which we heard from other people, but didn’t experience directly is that even if you negotiate a low price of the fish, once you are at the restaurant they will increase the price of any other item you order (for instance drinks, or side dishes) so that in the end you might have saved on the fresh fish, but paid more on the other components of your dinner.
When it was time to leave, we took a bus to Alleppey, from which we would take a ferry to Chennamkary, where we would experience how life looks like in the Keralan backwaters.