Kochi, India (or is it Cochin?)
It’s Sunday (22 Nov 2009), and April and I have finally got a decent night’s sleep as we awaken in our room literally over the sea, in Cherai Beach Resort near Kochi. The A/C in our room works, thank god, which dries out there air a bit (feels like 140% humidity outside) and keeps it cool. Finally.
Kochi — or Cochin, I can’t figure out which is the more correct name but I personally like calling it Cochin because it reminds me of theÂ font — is in the deep south of India on the west coast, along the Arabian Sea. And the Cherai Beach Resort where we are is on a small strip of land between the ocean and the backwaters — a cross between a lake, river and swamp.
We catch a cab for the “half hour” (i.e., 1 hour 20) ride to Kochi. From the guidebooks I’m expecting a quaint European-style village, with beautiful historical sites like new world explorer Vasco de Gama’s church (and formal burial place), and an ancient synagogue. Kochi is, in fact, a very large, industrial fishing city, coated in a grime of dust & smog which has settled everywhere courtesy the torrential downpours and 100% humidity, uncleaned for those same hundreds of years.
We stop at the “Nieman Marcus” of sari shopping, Jayalakshmi Silks. Inside there are dozens of low seats aligned before a runway of sorts, where salesgirls in perfectly pleated saris (or is it sarees?) drape customers with fabric after fabric until the gaggle of family and friends in the seats all like it. Each sari is custom made from the fabric. It’s a fascinating spectacle to watch. For men, I find some amazing Diesel Jeans for $40, but can’t decide if they are real or if I need them, and skip it. Generally, though, their prices are sky high and we don’t get anything. In typical India style, the power goes out. Everyone keeps shopping like nothing happened under the emergency lights; even April doesn’t flinch at all and keeps looking through fabrics.
On our way to Jew Town — the big thing to see in Kochi — we make our driver pull over at a little store. We find amazing deals on fresh, fragrant local spices and also some cool jewelry. We spend a whole $20 on a huge bag full of cool stuff … and later find out that we actually overpaid by about double.
We round a bend and we’re in Jew Town — so named because of the synagogue there, and not for the high prices. We walk up and down a small rainy, tropical, dirty street looking through antiques. One of the stores is epic — the entranceway features a massive chariot, inside are full courtyards from temples, gold swinging chairs, a 100 foot long wood-carved boat, and massive pillars. Another smaller shop is full of the coolest leftover Jewish/Indian detritus I’ve ever seen. There are these “books” written in Tamil which look like a Pantone book — lots of little shoots of bamboo cut thin and flat with a hole in the middle-end, so they can fan out. On each “page” is etched tamil writing. They are supposedly 100 to 300 years old, and are selling from $6 to $50/each … wow.
We eat at a small shop, having a cake the shopkeepers mother (again, supposedly) made. We eat a very tasty mutton biryani (rice) dish with the very talkative shopkeeper chattering over our shoulder. We glimpse the most run-down looking museum (Dutch House) and then head to Kochi’s famed Chinese fishing nets. The beautiful and glamorous photos you can find online don’t actually do the reality of the place much justice. Just imagine: the smell of rotting, dead fish in 100% humidity. Add to it smog that makes the inside of a volcano look clean. You hear the incessant blaring squawk of thousands of black birds circling overhead and everywhere. Walls are stained from ages of torrential downpours, dirt, graffiti and settled smog. A cow stands in the middle of the park (the children’s park, no less!), irritated at something, swinging her head and swishing her/her tail back & forth. Men try and sell you fish, cats and kittens roam freely, horns honk constantly. This is what you don’t see in the pictures.
But the Chinese fishing net mechanisms themselves are pretty amazing. Big wooden logs, aged by years of day-to-day use and covered in moss, climb way up to support a massive net. A line of them runs down the river, all in a row. The river itself — filled with the invasive and disastrous water hyacinth — runs very quickly and we see boats drifting sideways at a dangerous pace as they try and cross. (Foreshadowing: this is soon to be us.)
I’m a bit hard on Kochi, but the guidebooks paint a pretty picture and the photos online are deceptively rosy. We were disillusioned by what we read online, something that seems quite common in this region.
Finally, the taxi driver that we hired for the day (1500 rupees — about $32) tells us that we need to catch the ferry home. (We came into town the long way, and so didn’t need a ferry to get here.) It’s dark, and we get in line of cars facing backwards towards the small ferry. (It’s about 2.5 times the size of the Balboa Bay Ferry in Newport Beach). When it arrives, we back through the streets of Kochi in a reverse line, and back onto the deck of the ferry along with 10 other cards, around 30 scooters and motorcycles, bicycles, and pedestrians. We’re packed on like sardines. The diesel roars to life (I can see the engine room down the hole on deck next to us), and we pull away in the dark, the pull of the river instantly turning us sideways. Frankly, after hearing the tales of capsizing ferries and all the deaths (there were more than 30 here last year), I’m somewhat freaked out. I’d always wondered why everyone dies in a capsize (just swim!), but now I realize that I’m trapped between cars, and we’d be crushed the moment the ferry even listed heavily.
My worries, though, are needless, and soon enough we’re back (well … eventually we arrive … this is India) at the resort for another wood-oven fired, very tasty meal and bed.
(Note: theÂ full photo gallery from India is here, with the post above covered in photos 0606 – 0761. TheÂ other posts on India are here … and the reason why we’re on this trip is the non-profit website we’re creating,Â Creative Offering.)