Many faces of Fort Cochin, India

This is a few days overdue but since I have a lot of free time here in Wyanad, I thought I’d finish writing about my time in Cochin and post it…  Sorry, I couldn’t upload any photos here but I have some nice ones of the Chinese fishing nets, etc.  Once I’m in a city with a faster connection, I’ll update.

I was in Fort Cochin for two days in January 2011, after Munnar and before Wyanad.

The drive from Munnar to Cochin (also known as Kochi) was rather long and uninteresting.  But I could feel how happy Glancy was to be going home.  There is no sweeter rest than a good night’s sleep in your own bed, right?  He told me it would take close to 4.5 hours to reach Fort Cochin and he was definitely right.  As we got closer to Cochin we began to see more traffic and congestion all around, and it took a while for us to cross several bridges along the way.  Cochin has its mainland city of Ernakulum, a number of islands including a man-made one called Willingdon, and Fort Cochin, the old part of town where I was staying for a few nights.  As a major port serving an important role in the spice trade Fort Cochin has seen its share of power struggles, and it’s been under Portuguese rule, the Dutch, and later the British.  But the history of this old city goes even farther back and to so many other cultures that I have been fascinated by it all.

By the time I checked into my waterfront hotel, it was already 2PM and I was starving.  Of course I didn’t want to settle for something easy; I wanted to have an authentically Indian meal, preferably seafood since I was right on the Arabian sea.  In a town like Fort Cochin where you have foreign tourists, it’s easy to find pasta, pizza, and croissants even.  In Varkala, every other restaurant was a German bakery but I’ve so far stuck with Indian food when I have a choice.  So I gulped down some water and set out to find a restaurant called Dal Roti, which was recommended by both of my guidebooks and by Glancy, my driver who lives in Fort Cochin.  If this were New York, I would have found this place within minutes but without a proper map things get a bit more complicated- the hotel gave me the most ridiculous, not-to-scale map ever, and told me to go find the post office because the restaurant was nearby.  I’ve had wi-fi here and there but even when I do, my i-touch has trouble locating me in India so it hasn’t been very useful.  The map in Lonely Planet didn’t help since I’m using a digital kindle version of it; the maps come up terribly small and cut up into several different pages.  I’m getting better at squinting my eyes and deciphering what it says but I was too hungry to concentrate this day.  Finally, Frommer’s automatically assumes that you’d be in a taxi so it doesn’t bother to include a local map!  I really liked my hotel and its proximity to the water but the downside to this fabulous location was the distance I had to walk to get to “the center” of town.  It wasn’t a bad walk (just about 15 minutes or so) but the midday sun was beating down on me and I was finally feeling the Indian heat.  Hungry, hot, and cranky, I was beginning to walk in circles and was about to give up when I heard someone calling my name.  I turned around and whom do I see?  Glancy!  He spotted me while he was running an errand and offered to drive me to Dal Roti.  But alas, all the effort was for naught when we arrived and saw that the restaurant was closed for the day due to all the staff being sick with the flu.  Argh!  Luckily Glancy recommended another place for me where I could finally get some Indian fish curry, and he kindly dropped me off in front of the restaurant.  Good guy, that Glancy.

I sat under a nice shade to have my Keralan fish curry.  Here in India, I think the term “curry” is used to talk about the sauce in general, not specifically the kind of turmeric heavy yellow curry we always see in the States.  I had two fish curry dishes in two days and the curries were quite different from one another.  They were certainly not very yellow- the first one I had was dark burnt orange and the one I had the next day was almost pale greenish white as if there was no turmeric in the curry at all.  But both had coconut milk and had pieces of green chilies for heat (I almost ate one thinking it was green beans!).

I felt so much better after eating and I was finally able to read the Lonely Planet map well enough to set my sightseeing agenda for the afternoon.  I went to Santa Cruz Basilica church first as it was practically across the street from where I was sitting.  Even though it’s a church, there are no shoes allowed inside so I walked in barefoot to admire the pastel colored interior of this Portuguese church.  There were some beautiful but simple stained glass windows and the alter was painted a bright shade of pastel blue.  It felt like a church you might find in the Caribbean.

Following my guidebook, I went over to the Dutch cemetery next.  It was locked but I could look in to see some of the old tombstones and a lone brown dog that seemed to be keeping an eye on the place.  I walked around the neighborhood checking out some of the European style buildings that seemed so oddly fit in with the Indian surroundings.  I particularly liked the Old Harbour hotel and the red bricked Koder House because they were so un-Indian.  The whole city was a mixture of old European buildings with Indian personalities, and it was fun to walk around and see what else I could find.  To take a break from the afternoon heat, I followed a sign for Fabindia (some call it the Gap of India) as I thought it might be nice to get something Indian to wear…  or at least do some window shopping in an AC environment.  The shop was small but packed with vibrant colored fabrics and prints.  I was a bit overwhelmed by the selections and I tried to ask for help, but the workers seemed only concerned with folding and re-folding all the merchandise, so after a few minutes of looking around I left.

The sun was beginning to dip towards the horizon so I walked over to the waterfront to see the famous Chinese fishing nets of Fort Cochin.  I read that these fishing nets were introduced by traders from the court of Kubla Khan.  It was definitely a sight to see; each fishing net is on a pulley system where at least four men have to work together to lower down and haul up from the sea.  There were just a handful of them along the shore and I could see how less labor intensive motor boats would be preferred than using these nets for fishing.  I’m sure they will disappear completely in the years to come; I’m lucky that I got a chance to see them in action.

I stayed in that part of town for some tea and dinner, because I knew that I’d be dining at my hotel for dinner the next night.  I got a few serious mosquito bites within seconds of my sitting down to tea.  I definitely have a strong allergic reaction to mosquito bites.  I’ve been doing my best to put on DEET based insect repellent but sometimes even during the day I am attacked.  The Indian mosquitoes really must like me.  The only consolation I can think of is the fact that I’m in a low malaria danger zone…

The next day I wanted to go to the Mattancherry Palace, also known as Dutch Palace, and the Paradesi Synagogue in Jew Town.   Yes, there is a section of Fort Cochin called Jew Town where a group of Jewish immigrants settled in the 16th century.  My guidebook called for getting an auto-rickshaw to get there but I decided to walk instead, so after a great breakfast by the sea I set off to the other side of Fort Cochin.  I strolled the main street along the waterfront still lined with spice and trade shops, men loading up sacks of spice, herbs, and tea onto large trucks.  As I was walking past a small roadside food stand, I was asked to have a cup of chai by a French traveler.  He had passed me a few minutes before on the way and he was just sitting down for some tea.  He wanted some company so I stopped to chat.  The chai I was given was so very sweet that I could barely take a sip but it was nice to have a friendly conversation with Thomas, who is traveling through India without a guidebook or a plan.  He would just ask people he met where and what he should do, and stayed in one place if he liked it or left if he didn’t.  He thought maybe he’d go to Goa next and asked me how far Goa was from where we were.  He didn’t know where he was headed that morning, so I suggested that we visit the Dutch Palace together.  I wondered whether traveling without any plans or even a guidebook would be liberating.  He seemed to enjoy it though; he was all smiles.

Having had this unexpected stopover, I was at least 20 minutes behind schedule (ha!  I, of course, had a plan) and it was already getting hot at 10AM.  But I took my time going through the palace museum.  It was built and given to the raja of Kochi by the Portuguese for the rights to trade in the 16th century.  In the 17th century when the Dutch took over Kochi, they claimed the palace and did some remodeling.  The museum had photos of the maharajas going back a few hundred years as well as some information about how the royal families lived.  But what I found the most interesting were the murals of various Hindu deities in vibrant red, yellow, and green hues.  Unfortunately the ladies’ bedchambers were under renovation and I wasn’t allowed to go downstairs to view the mural of Krishna.  Maybe next time…

A few minutes’ walk down the same main road took me to Jew Town and the only synagogue still open in Fort Cochin.  Glancy told me that there are still a few white Jewish people living in Fort Cochin.  Who knew there were Jews living in India?  The Paradesi Synagogue’s front room had a brief explanation of the history of the Jewish settlers in Fort Cochin (the first Jewish settlers came as early as 52 AD from Yemen and Babylon), and the main hall, which you had to remove your shoes to enter, was just behind it.  It was very small but sunny.  The floor was covered with hand painted white and blue Chinese tiles (my guidebook says they are Cantonese and no two are alike) and more than 20 Belgian chandeliers hung from the ceiling.  There was a balcony in the back where the women were seated to worship separately.  I had walked passed at least 3 Christian churches to arrive at this synagogue, and just this morning I was awakened by Muslim calls of prayer.  How fascinating?  Hindus, Christians, Jews, and Muslims all living together peacefully.

After walking around this interesting part of town, I took a ferry over to Ernakulum in search of contact lens solution and an ATM.  By the time I arrived on the Ernakulum side, it was already 12:30 and the sun was now really beating down.  After visiting and comparing prices at 4 different optical/contact lens stores I bought my contact lens solution (FYI- Bausch & Lomb @ New York City prices!  Sorely miss my Target brand solution), got some cash (@ a Citibank ATM), and took the ferry back to Fort Cochin.  I was terribly happy to make the journey back to the relative tranquility of Fort Cochin, as Ernakulum really had nothing to offer but a lot of dust, cars, and people.  I was tired, covered with dust, and drenched with sweat.  Welcome to India, I thought.  With my errands completed I relaxed and enjoyed the rest of the day in Fort Cochin.  I made a quick visit to another church, St. Francis (the earliest European church in all of India) and spent the afternoon sipping tea and strolling.

I loved my two days in Fort Cochin but it marked the end of my trip with Glancy, my trusted driver and guide.  We spent many hours in his car talking about everything from religion to going to the gym, from his communist taxi/tourist drivers union to his best friend who just went to meet a lady he will likely marry, from the India’s middle class to his love of Dire Straits (I swear, it’s his favorite band).  I’ll keep in touch with Mr. Glancy David and hope that one day soon I will see him again.  If anyone needs a reliable driver in Kerala, Glancy is your guy.  Let me know if you want his contact info!

This entry was posted in 2011, India, Travel and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Many faces of Fort Cochin, India

  1. vanillasense says:

    curry in India is just not what American curry seems to think it is. It is more like a mix of vegetables, spices and water to turn a dry vegetable dish into a richer, liquidy dish to have with our bread: roti. 🙂 Although most curries have turmeric, they dont turn absolutely yellow because the amount of turmeric out is minimal…just about a teaspoon. The purpose is to give flavour and not colour.
    Its great to read your posts, they are full of detail. Nice to know that some people even observe the people, and not just the buildings.

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