A map of Kochi can be found here
Kochi is a very pretty city set on a peninsula dividing the Arabian Sea from a set of estuaries that make up part of the extensive Keralan backwaters network. The city was a major spice hub after it was occupied by the Portuguese in 1503 and is the first colonial settlement in India. I can’t think of a more idyllic place than Kerala for an unsuspecting explorer to happen upon the sub-continent, the waters are rich with fish and the the warm climate allows for lots of tropical plant growth which provide nesting grounds for a variety of bird species.
We got off the train in the area of town called Ernakulam and hopped on an absurdly cheap ferry to take us to the area of Fort Cochin. It’s a low-key but kind of upscale tourist town with a vaguely Caribbean feel, nice and quiet with much less vehicle traffic than most Indian towns. It’s a pretty place to wander and look at the local architecture or watch the Chinese fishing nets in action along the bay, and the cannons lining the bay side walkway made it easy to imagine the areas historic importance as water going transport hub for all the trading ships that came through here. We found a few really good restaurants serving excellent and refreshingly un-Indian food (you need to take a break here and there), and enjoyed our time not doing all that much.
Upon our arrival in Fort Cochin we were bummed to find out that most of
the hotels were booked up as it was prime tourist season and a lot of Europeans decide to take their winter holidays to Kerala. As we were walking around forlorn, sweaty, and tired a nice rickshaw driver asked us if we would like some help. By now we’ve learned the hard lesson that in India you don’t get something for nothing, no matter what you are told in the beginning. We’ve also learned that when you can’t find a room those annoying touts can actually come in handy, so we decided to take him up on his offer and cross the bridge of payment when we got to it.
He was actually very helpful and after a few stops found us a nice looking hotel in our price range. He was even very understanding when Andy decided that the man running the place was too insane to deal with and we didn’t want to give our hard earned money to some belligerent pain in the ass. The rickshaw driver took us to a few more hotels and after talking to one of the hotel owners he suggested the hotel we had turned down. We explained that the man was too crazy and he silently shook our hands and said, “He is crazy and a drunk and no one likes him. But you must go there because there are no other rooms in Fort Cochin.”
Well, we went slinking back and trying to ignore his belligerence we filled in the hotel paperwork and turned toward the matter of payment for the auto rickshaw. We assumed that he would get a commission from the hotel, but as he was really helpful we wanted to also give him some rupees. He wouldn’t accept our money and instead asked us to do him a favor. We knew it was coming as soon as he said it, he wanted us to look at some shops. We always threaten drivers never to take us to shops and would gladly pay more money for a fare than walk around some overpriced shop where the salesmen follow you around like a puppy dogs. We asked him what he got out of it and refreshingly he told us the truth. Every time the drivers bring someone to a particular shop the owners will give him one liter of petrol. Petrol goes a long way in an auto rickshaw, and at 50 rupees ($1 USD) per liter ($4 USD per gallon) we could see how this would be a boon to his business. It was actually kind of fun walking around the overpriced handicraft shops pretending we might actually buy something. At one point we saw something that caught our eye, but when Andy heard the price our ‘sales associate’ quoted he couldn’t help but laugh. Andy pointed to another older couple and suggested that he might do better helping them. Pissed off, the man walked away. Andy felt a little bad when I pointed out that one of his coworkers was already helping the walking wallet couple and that he was probably so peeved for having wasted his time with us and then having his nose rubbed in it.
Another part of town we went to explore was called ‘Jew Town’. Anti-Semitic sounding I know, but it is actually named that on the map. To us the area looked kind of run down and didn’t have much going on, with the exception of the Paradesi Synagogue which is a protected heritage sight. The buildings were brightly painted and pretty to look at, but it seemed really to only be a row of shops catering to handicraft seeking tourists. We were a little confused as to what the large draw was until we realized that it was the very old history of the area that was important nowadays. We have seen so many Hindu and Buddhist temples. mosques, and even Christian churches, that a synagogue in India was a rare sight to see. Apparently Jew Town changed dramatically in 1948 when most of the Jews emigrated to Israel, as of 2007 Kochi was believed to have only 13 elderly Indian-born Jews living there. That would explain the deserted local feel.
Walking back to our hotel we noticed an extremely dingy looking small building with a dirty sign tacked above the
door, on it was written one word. Toddy. Andy and I both did a double take. Toddys! We had been wanting to try the alcoholic drink made by fermenting the sap of a coconut palm and what better place than the ultimate dirty hole in the wall. We settled into our sticky plastic chairs and decided that although we were probably being charged a premium (100 rps!) for our toddy we were committed and ready to pay any price. When the bar owner brought it to us we were a little skeptical. It had been put into an old Kingfisher bottle (hopefully rinsed out we thought) and was covered in mud. Looks can be deceiving though and the toddy was delicious! And potent. It was kind of like a sweet tasting wine, and we figured alcohol killed bacteria so who cares what it was bottled in. It was well worth the $2 USD.
There was one more thing that every tourist has to do before leaving the state of Kerala; a scenic Keralan backwaters tour. We decided on the six hour tour where we saw a woman making coconut fiber rope, a coconut fiber mat production shop, some spice plants, and the boat drivers house. That boat driver has a sweet gig going, he talks on his cell phone the entire time we are trying to enjoy the scenery (as does any tour guide in India, and actually as does every single Indian every minute of the day on speaker phone and with lots of yelling) and then he took us to his house where he turned on Harry Potter for Andy, me, and the two others we were with and had his wife make us chai. After our guide had a sufficient rest at his house we headed back to where we started the tour for a lunch break. Our lunch was the absolute best thali I have ever eaten! Delicious curries and sauces served with rice, chapati, and papad on a banana leaf, an Ayurvedic digestive tea, and some warm rice pudding for dessert. After finishing lunch with the other couple we found out that they had only booked a half day tour so they left and we were sent to a different boat. The afternoon ride was peaceful and pretty and our new non-English speaking guide got a nice rest when he pulled over for an hour cigarette break where he motioned for us to sit on a bench and walked away. All in all it was a nice tour and scenery was gorgeous, but one deeper into the backwaters might have been even more exciting.