Kerala, Part 1: Fort Cochin

There are many problems with trying to post in India, the most important being that internet is surprisingly difficult to find. (There are plenty of internet cafes, mind you, but sometimes internet is out on the whole street, and many places we’ve been don’t have wifi, so I can’t use my own computer and hence the posts I’ve already written.) The second main reason is that I wouldn’t even know where to begin, and so I just sort of don’t post, for fear of not doing it justice.

However, now that I’ve been here four weeks, it’s getting a little absurd, so I am biting the bullet and simply posting now. The rest shall simply have to come later, out of order, but that somehow seems appropriate.

For nearly two weeks now – one and a half and a little? – we’ve been in Kerala, which I suppose you could call, “India’s southernmost state,” mirrored by Tamil Nadu on the eastern side. The tourist motto here in Kerala – I don’t know long it stretches back historically, but I don’t think it’s entirely tourist-originated – is, “God’s Own Country.” I am rather inclined to agree, though my personal favorite moniker for it is, “The Jungle Book.” My first thought upon arrival in Goa was of The Swiss Family Robinson, and, similarly, Kerala immediately became The Jungle Book for me. (I have since developed an unfulfilled fascination with Rudyard Kipling, which was already beginning last fall and with which I intend to deal upon my return to reliable internet and a well-stocked library…whenever that may be.) In any case, that should give you some kind of idea of Kerala’s natural beauty and impressiveness; I’m not sure why they chose the particular phrase, “God’s Own Country,” but I find it particularly interesting since it is one of the most religiously diverse states in India, with a strong history of religious (and all other sorts of) tolerance. It also has the highest literacy rate in India, with the area around Kottayam, which we just left, having one hundred percent literacy, but that’s only tangentially relevant. The other wonderful thing about Kerala (okay, there are many) is the people, who are overall the nicest and friendliest we have met, not just in India, but anywhere on this trip.

I am getting ahead of myself, as usual.

We arrived in Fort Cochin first – rather, we arrived in Cochin (or Kochi, whichever you prefer), which, as best I could gather, is the name for a conglomeration of port cities, of which Fort Cochin/Kochi is the oldest and prettiest – and, after a nice but loud ferry ride there and a picturesque if hot walk to our homestay, fell completely in love. Our subsequent exploration of the small “old town” only cemented this. Fort Cochin is the only city/town I’ve yet encountered in India where you can wander around cute streets and find little cafés and not feel constantly hassled or crowded; we have several layers of European colonialists to thank for this, from the Dutch to the Portuguese to the British. But of course. As a Westerner, you have no idea how much you love space until you come to India for several weeks and then suddenly find yourself in a European-designed town that gives you room to breathe, and then you realize that it’s the space that’s such a relief. Indian cities are, in a word, overwhelming. They can be fun, but anyone will tell you they are exhausting (dirty, hot, crowded, pushy, busy, noisy, smelly, disorganized, and on and on), and most of the people I’ve met, particularly Indians, try to avoid them if possible, preferring the more rural areas. Which should tell us something, I suppose.

In any case, Fort Cochin was a breath of fresh air, and we spent a few days exploring the bookstores, café-hopping, going to the few museums and churches and other significant buildings, and walking out to my other newest fascination, the town known as Mattancherry. Mattancherry has been for ages a huge center of the spice trade between India and the rest of the world. While much of that trade has now shifted from the bazaars to behind closed doors, walking down Bazaar Road is still very much a fun experience, with men still haggling in warehouse shops filled with open sacks of all sorts of spices and other food goods, and others pushing carts down the street. The buildings are old and ramshackle, but beautiful. That seems to something one could say about a lot of things here. Continuing down the street, you eventually end up in “Jew Town,” which is exactly what it sounds like, except that there are now only 60-70 Jews left in Kerala, when there was once a thriving, influential community. They came after the destruction of the Second Temple, before the proliferation of Christianity, and were well-established long before the introduction of either Christianity or Islam into southern India, and, even after those religions, everyone continued to exist peacefully. I was particularly impressed to see how even this small remaining community is important in Cochin, and as respected as their Jain, Muslim, Christian (Catholic and Syrian Christian), and Hindu counterparts. If you find any of this interesting and have some time on your hands, look up Samuel Koder and the Koder family of Fort Cochin and see what you can find – I intend to do the same sometime soon.

We spent the rest of our time in Fort Cochin enjoying the excellent food and cafés, and going to see a performance of kathakali, a kind of traditional Keralan performance involving dance, music, singing, and some serious facial expressions and other movements. And really cool face paint. We actually saw another performance the other day, further south, at a temple as part of a festival (but more on that later), which should tell you that this is fundamentally a religious art, generally performed at temples. The stories performed are those from the Ramayana and other religious and heroic epics of Hinduism; I’ve also resolved to read at least the Ramayana sometime in the near future. Kathakali is seriously impressive if you’re at all interested in any of the related subjects, and the performance in Fort Cochin was aimed at tourists, which meant that they also did a demonstration before the actual show which explained the face paints, the various facial expressions, the mudhras (hand movements), the music, the full-body movements, etc. This actually helped us to enjoy the subsequent “real” performance even more because we understood the nuances of the whole art. It really was quite impressive and thoroughly enjoyable. Very interesting.

In case I’ve sold any of you on Fort Cochin yet – I hope so! It’s awesome! – I have to plug a couple cafes that you’ll have to go to when you visit.

First of all, Kashi ArtCafe is the kind of place I would love to own someday. I could totally live there, and we missed it when we left. Their menu changes daily, and they offer one breakfast and one lunch. Additionally, they have amazing press coffee, lime soda (among other great drinks), and a lovely patio garden area. The food is all local, fresh, probably organic, the bread is hearty brown stuff that makes you miss real bread (hard to get in India, where the best you get is usually flimsy white stuff that they give you because they think you don’t want Indian flatbreads), the fresh cakes are to die for (no, seriously, the chocolate cake…), and they have great soups and lots of vegetables. It’s all a little fusion-y, but in a very good way. Lovely ambiance, and cool travelers seem to pass through there. Oh yeah and there’s a really cool art gallery…

The same guy just opened a dinner restaurant, called Shala (I think that’s the name). Seriously, it opened about five days before we went there per our waiter at Kashi’s suggestion, after he realized we’d returned to that place several times. Same sort of deal with the fresh, organic stuff, but it’s much more traditional Keralan, with the fish curries and stuff. We chatted a bit with the owner, and he’s just the sweetest guy, really cares about his restaurants and clients.

Also have to plug Teapot, just nextdoor to Shala. Lovely little cafe decorated with teapots from all over the world, and excellent tea to match. They serve an interesting variety of foods from Western breakfasts to Indian snacks to sandwiches to amazing cakes. Love the decor, again, and it’s a lower-key alternative to Kashi, in case you feel you ought to not to go the same place every single time, or you decide you don’t want whatever Kashi’s serving that day.

We actually loved Fort Cochin so much that we only went to Munnar, in the mountains, for two days, so that we could pass back through Fort Cochin for a day on our way down south to the backwaters. Yeah, we’re crazy, and actually kind of wished we could have stayed in Munnar longer, but that’s what happens when you find somewhere you really like.

Next time, I’ll write about Munnar, hopefully, and the backwaters, because those were two absolutely amazing experiences. At the moment, we’re in Trivandrum, the capital of Kerala, for a few days, staying at another amazing homestay with a retired colonel who cooks and is writing a cookbook with memoirs. Amazing. The people here are just wonderful, right along with their beautiful surroundings.

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