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Medieval Portugal on the West Coast of India

Fort Kochi

sunny 38 °C

We found a guest house made for us, with three small bedrooms off a central living room all to ourselves for a very good price (~$23 a night)! The only problem was that the fan in our room seemed to do little but blow hot air around, even through-out the night. We’ve since been told that the modern flat roofed buildings are notorious for being uncomfortable in the heat. No wonder the old style gabled roof is making a small come-back!

Despite the heat, we had a great time. Christian and I enjoyed early morning walks, each day more or less following the same route. The seaside neighborhood features narrow roads peppered with churches and the odd palatial home dating back a few hundred years. By 7 am the public beach was already busy with local men swimming and playing soccer in the sand. The walkway heading north from there was the site of some of the first fitness buffs we’ve seen in India – though I can’t say any were running very quickly with the 28C/ 90% humidity of the early morning air. (We certainly have adopted more of a “stroll” especially by mid-day when the temperature is around 35C or so, with the same high humidity.)

Without as much as a thought about fitness, many fishermen in the area keep their torsos lean and firm raising and lowering huge cantilevered Chinese fishing nets on ramps built over the water. They chant as they pull or release the long ropes, and then race out to scoop up the catch with smaller, handheld nets. Other fishers raise and lower their nets from boats whose lanterns suggest they are probably out most of the night. All of them bring their catch to a small auction area where fish, squid and shellfish make an enticing display. We could have bought some there and brought it to a nearby stall to have it cooked - I’m not sure why we didn’t do that!!! Except that the kids were never with us and we didn’t want to exclude them (traveling as a crew of 6 has its challenges!) Or maybe it’s because it was such a tourist thing to do, and Christian has an aversion to following the guidebook.

On the other hand, we didn’t resist stopping at a wee tea stall near the Chinese fishing nets. There, we could get masala chai (rather rare in South India) and a delicious rice flour crepe (appam) rolled up around a mixture of freshly grated coconut and sugar. Now you know the real reason we took the same route each morning!

Later in the day (each day there), we enjoyed exploring other historic areas of the city – the old bazaar, the Dutch Palace and Jew’s town were all constructed around 500 years ago. I especially enjoyed walking through the district of Mattencherry, past the somewhat decayed cream colored buildings with their red tiled roofs. Huge portals leading to dark passageways and large courtyards were full of mystery and intrigue. Other shops were busy with the same activity of selling coir products or ayurvedic herbs (for example) that has presumably gone on in their premises for decade upon decade. Many others were overflowing with sourvenirs.

One day we tried (unsuccessfully) to visit the Jain temple but far better than that was the sweet shop we happened upon a little further down Gujarati Road (many of the Jains here originate further north in Gujarat State). It was the only bakery we’ve seen with a visible workshop. We found ourselves mesmerized once again, watching men shape, stir and deep-fry all sorts of sweet ladoos, julabs, halvahs and other delights. They were generous enough to pass samples through the latticed walls and eventually we made our way into the shop next door to purchase more. Christian and the kids make an effort to taste at least one Indian sweet a day and these fresh ones were the most delicious we’ve had (a tiny pinch of the super sweet stuff is generally enough for me!)

We were successful in visiting the Synagogue – the inside is beautifully tiled and has all sorts of gorgeous Belgium glass hanging lamps. It’s pretty remarkable that as long ago as the 1600’s, the maharaja took great pride in the fact that there was a Jewish synagogue, an Islamic mosque, a Christian church and a Hindu temple within a few kilometers of his palace.

Fort Kochi sits on a peninsula separated from the mainland by Willingdon Island. We appreciated the peaceful, historical flavour of Fort Kochi all the more after we took the ferry across to Ernakulaum - a huge, crowded, busy and noisy urban area - the largest city in Kerala and the industrial hub. But it seems that cities never really end along the coast of Kerala, at least in the south. The population density here is 900 people per square kilometer and that is the average. On the coast it’s even higher! After several bus trips, we determined that we’re really in the “sticks” when there is more than one paddy field or coconut grove separating one village from the next. The train moves more through rural areas, and just after I wrote this, we were happy to pass through lots of farmland a little further north.

Our main reason to head to Ernakulaum was to visit Gopi (I’ll tell you more about him in a minute). Our second reason was to check out the India Coffee House. This cooperatively run chain began in the 50’s – workers wear white uniforms reminiscent of the raj era with fan embellished turbans and serve by far the best coffee we’ve tasted in India for less than $0.15 a cup. We’re only sorry we didn’t discover the chain a little earlier in our trip!

In Jew’s town itself we were happy to look up Thomas, friend of Jo Turton who now lives in Victoria. He runs “Little Queen Embroidery Shop” selling the incredible Belgium lace and other fine hand work that women here have been producing for at least a few hundred years. Much of it is sold in Belgium, but there were many gorgeous pieces in the shop. It’s a dying art - most of the women who do the work are getting on in years. The exceptions are Thomas’ two daughters who help him both in managing the workers and in doing some of the embroidery themselves.

When Jo lived here, she set up a charity to aid the children of parents with disabilities. Thomas, Gopi and several others sit on the board and now keep things going at this end (Jo fundraises in England and Canada). We enjoyed meeting Gopi, the president of the board, who says that Josephine is like a tree that protected them all. Now that she is gone, board members are feeling the heat of the sun! Jo hopes to get back to visit Kerala soon, and perhaps she’ll get a volunteer program going to support the project on site. We wish we could have been of more help, but we didn’t plan the exact time of our visit to Kochi quite well enough (so that we could let Thomas and Gopi know). And, after more almost three weeks in Kerala’s coastal lowlands, we were feeling a need to have a break from the heat by heading inland and to higher elevations.

Posted by MogenStoft 04:18 Archived in India Tagged family_travel

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