Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Kochi and the Kerala Backwaters

Kochi is a town spread over several islands and peninsulas on the Malabar Coast in the south-west of India. The town had a colourful colonial past involving Chinese, Portuguese, Dutch and British merchants and invaders. Cycling over several bridges to reach Fort Cochin, the popular traveller’s hangout at the tip of one of the peninsulas, we were still very much in India, with hectic traffic, horns beeping all around us and rickshaws competing with buses and cows for space on the dusty streets.

Turning a corner not far from the Basilica in Fort Cochin it was as if we had ridden into a bubble of calm; we took a sigh of relief. We were surrounded by leafy streets and tranquil guest houses and restaurants. Tourists meandered peacefully along unhindered by touts. It really felt like we had stepped into a small European oasis, just a hundred metres from the chaos of India. ||

We found a cosy home stay near the Basilica. Ours was one of four upstairs rooms in a house run by a few motherly Indian ladies that made us feel instantly at ease. Exploring our surroundings, we quickly found the few streets packed with great cafes, relaxed restaurants, souvenir shops and internet cafes. For a change from our usual Indian fare, we really enjoyed the cafe lattes, pizzas and chocolate cakes, and most of all a non masala dosa breakfast.

A short walk took us to the sea shore where fishermen were busy repairing their huge Chinese spider-like cantilevered fishing nets, or selling their catch to passing traffic.

Chinese fishing net in Kochi   Fishermen repairing nets

Kochi was a great place to get things done, especially those items that have been waiting patiently in our “too hard basket”, such as visits to the hair dresser and dentist. There were yoga and cooking courses, massages, backwater tours and dance performances on offer, and everything was no more than 10 minutes walk from our home stay.

On our first evening, after we had finished hanging out at the trendy Kashi art cafe, we visited a traditional Kathakali dance performance. Kathakali is an ancient traditional art form of Kerala. The dancers were ladies dressed in bright green, blue and yellow costumes and decked out with golden jewellery and head decorations. They wore small bells around their ankles and elaborate makeup emphasizing their eyes and mouth. The dancers were accompanied by a drummer, a singer and an older lady who was the choreographer and assisted in keeping the rhythm on track. The dance was very expressive, with ankle bells ringing from the stomping feet, graceful arm and head movements and captivating facial expressions. 

Kathakali dancer   Kathakali dancer 2 

The following morning we were picked up to do a day trip to the famous Kerala Backwaters, a network of waterways that fringe the coast. We had expected a larger group, but somehow it ended up being just us and a young Israeli couple, whereas normally there would be 20-60 people in the group.

Being such a small group, we got to choose the boat in which we wanted to travel. We chose a simple boat made out of wood and bamboo, tied together with coconut fibre rope and shaded by a canopy made of palm fronds. We were told that a boat like this takes about 2 months to build and is made almost entirely of natural materials.

Tourist boat in Kerala backwaters   Old man punting our boat

The boat had no engine but was powered by two lean 60-year old men, one at the front and one at the back, standing in the full sun and punting with long bamboo poles. Slowly we moved through the natural canal network between several islands. The canals were fringed with coconut palms and ranged from wider expanses on the main thoroughfares to 4 foot wide canals that had our boat struggling to push through the the dense reeds flanking the sides. Guy had a go at punting the boat and found it highly enjoyable until 10 punts later when he had to retire due to fatigue. 

His colleague punting in front

Our young guide, Vipin, had an huge variety of interests. He speaks 7 languages, studies Graphic Design in the morning and Sociology in the evening, teaches kids English and Maths in between and works as a guide during the day. We felt pretty lazy in comparison.

We drifted past many small villages and Vipin explained that the villagers make their living through a variety of means that are all dependent on the backwaters: toddy (coconut beer) tapping, coir (coconut rope) making, collecting and selling mussel meat, extracting calcium carbonate powder out of the shells, selling sand collected from the bottom of the canals, making coconut oil and keeping goats and chickens for milk and eggs. Villagers were washing their clothes in the backwaters or having a bath in the water as we floated past, and many used small dugout canoes as their local transport. Meanwhile, our journey was accompanied by the rhythmic waves Indian music coming from a housewarming party and following us across the waters.

Backwater view   Local villager

We stopped to visit a family and admire their garden. It was an amazing tropical garden containing several herbs for cooking and medicinal purposes, as well as bananas, coconuts, yam, tapioca, ginger, vanilla, pepper, chilli, nutmeg etc. The family also made and sold delicious tapioca chips, which we munched on and shared with the men punting our boat as to ensure their energy levels were kept topped up.

Lunch   Villagers making coconut rope

After a relaxing day cruising the backwaters of Kerala, we spent a couple more days in Kochi. Freddie attended a cooking class and finally got introduced to some of the secrets of Indian cooking that she had always wondered about while Guy had the mind numbing task of doing his tax return. We both had a much needed hair cut and a check-up and clean at the dentist. We finally managed to book our flight to Thailand and catch up on some overdue emails. And we visited the nearby SOS Children’s Village, which provided an inspiring insight into the way the charity helps orphaned children.

Kochi was a great place to hang out for a while, but after 5 days we were getting restless and keen to make our way further south, to finally reach the tip of India.

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