Farewell South India
Trip Start May 01, 2010
23Trip End Jul 15, 2010
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Our last stop in the steamy south was Fort Kochi, the entrance to the Keralan backwaters and an historical meeting point of cultures from all over. Part fishing town, part cultural centre, part tourist trap, we were in for a treat!
The bus ride from Alleppey, although no more harrowing that usual, was made interesting by the fact that it was being used by the local police to transport a prisoner (handcuffs and all) to the regional courthouse, about an hour out of Alleppey. Kian and I were squeezed into the back seat with all our backpacks tucked in around us. For most of the ride, as it was standing room only, one of the policemen was standing with his back right up against Kian's shoulder, luckily not holster-side, with the prisoner in front of him. Nice to see the local constabulary taking the environmentally friendly option
Our homestay in Kochi was tucked into the jungle, down a long, winding alley lined with homes. It was quiet, peaceful, and had a wonderful rooftop garden complete with hammocks. Our hosts, Ashley and Sheeba, took us in like family members, and were very concerned that we see absolutely everything and eat at all the best restaurants.
Kochi is a melting pot of Indian, European, and Asian cultures. For centuries, people have come to Kochi to take part in the spice trade, and as an entry point to other parts of the south. This colourful history is evident in the architecture, places of worship, languages, and food. But the most striking image of this fascinating town is of the Chinese fishing nets that line the old town harbour. The long levers that operate the nets look like gigantic spider's legs massaging the shallow water. Narrow planks lead from the shore to the barges from which the fishermen work. Groups of five men, lean and shirtless, slowly lower the nets into the water. After waiting a few minutes, each man takes a rope attached to one of the arms of the net. Together they raise the net out of the water, and using smaller nets and their hands, they scoop out any prawns, shellfish, crabs, or fish caught in the net. The process is repeated around 250 times a day
We watched the fishermen for some time, and then noticed that at another net, tourists were being shown the process up close. We decided to try our hand at it as well, with some success. Although it wasn't too difficult, I have a feeling I wasn't pulling my weight equally. Even with the easy time I had, however, I wouldn't want to do that 250 times a day!
After building up our appetite at the nets, we wandered along the harbour front where the fishermen were selling the fresh fish. We picked out a couple, then took them to a small restaurant nearby where they fried it to our tastes. (Although they seem to interpret our tastes somewhat - more on that later).
As I mentioned, Kochi was (and still is) an important port for the international spice trade. The road from Fort Kochi to Mattanchery (also known as Jew Town) is lined with spice, tea, and perfume shops. Upon entering, we soon found our senses overwhelmed. Fresh vanilla, saffron, cinnamon, cardamom, caraway, cumin, etc. filled the air with a heady aroma. The natural oil perfumes were fresh and sweet. I wanted to buy everything as I fantasized about future meals, but managed to restrict myself (somewhat).
We rented old-school cruiser bikes to go to Mattanchery and check out the synagogue and Dutch palace. Jew Town is a wholesale market area and filled with every type of goods imagineable. In the evening, when we stopped by a local shop to buy water, the owner mentioned he had seen us when he was buying supplies for his shop in that area
We decided to check out the English-language mass at the big Catholic church on Sunday. The interior of the church was decorated in bright pastel colours with flashing lights surrounding statues and the stations of the cross. Although I found this a little strange, it still didn't prepare me for what came next: true to form in this country, the service was LOUD. We stood for the entrance hymn, and the sound of a synthesizer pumped out at top volume from the choir loft. The music could be loosely described as country-folk-synth-pop-rock, and every song seemed to get louder and louder. The priest's mic was also on so loudly that it made it extremely difficult to follow the sermon, as the echo lasted produced by the sound bouncing off the ancient stone lasted longer than each word, and they all became jumbled. Not exactly a relaxing religious experience, but definitely an interesting cultural one!
Kochi has a couple cultural centres showcasing local music, art, drama, and martial arts every day. One night we went to an Indian classical music concert with sitar and tabla. The next night we decided to check out the Keralan dramatic art form of Kathakali
During our time in the south, we have been having trouble convincing people that we like spicy food. I think they hear us say "spicy" but in combination with the colour of our skin they translate that to mean "medium-to-mild." We made an attempt with our fried fish to convince them of our strong pallettes, but it still came out medium. Kian suggested we try to channel my father during our next restaurant meal: he is well practiced in the art of convincing people to add extra chillies to his dinner. We imagine his coversation with our Indian waiter going something like this (best imagined in his voice):
"Ok, so I know you are looking at us and thinking, they are white, they don't know anything about spice. But I need you to know, we like our food hot - really hot - so I want you to make it as if you were making it for your own family. Ok? We can handle it. Extra spicy!"
In the south we clearly didn't get this sentiment across. Let's see how we fare in the north!