Below is a draft of the Kochi Chapter. I intend to have some writing about Chennai ready for next week’s blog post.
We left Varkala on 27th July, went to Kochi for two nights, then travelled to Chennai overnight, had five nights in Chennai, then went to Pondicherry for four nights. We came back to Chennai on Wednesday and on Sunday we fly to Thailand.
Kochi (or Cochin, many places in India have more than one way that their name is spelled) is north of Varkala, still in the state of Kerala. The train station we travelled to is Ernakulam Junction; just a week or so before we went the train station was flooded- see video below. Right now the area has been hit again by floods caused by the monsoon. Monsoon flooding has badly affected Kerala with much loss of life.
Kochi draft chapter (with some extra bits for the blog)
We spent the last few days in Varkala taking photos and saying our goodbyes, eating last meals at favourite places and experiencing minor twinges of regret about places we didn’t end up going to or didn’t go to as much as we’d thought we would.
On our last night friends we had made in Varkala took us out for dinner. At the end of the evening we said goodbye to the waiting staff. ‘We’ll miss you,’ we all said. The next morning we had a last masala dosa at our favourite breakfast place; the waiter went out and bought us some sweets as a gift. Then to a favourite cafe for last minute photos and a last coffee and we were off.
The train station at Varkala was busy yet felt comfortable. The train was late, we waited outside for a while; it was hot so we moved indoors where there were fans. We met a Spanish backpacker on his way to Kanyakumari and we talked about visiting there and Hampi, showing him photographs and chatting until it was time to go.
We were in 3 tier AC and there was a slight sense of fun sociability; a woman travelling with a little girl, the woman had a phone with a fun ring tone, they went up onto a top bunk together; a man and woman with a baby, they rigged up one of the sheets as a curtain to make a cubicle, a cosy nest for the woman and the baby. White sheets and grey woollen blankets were provided but several women slept under their own brightly coloured pieces of fabric.
Many people were already fast asleep or went to sleep soon after even though it was only lunchtime. The train goes all the way from Kerala to Delhi; when we travelled South from Delhi to Goa it took twenty-five hours and that was the fast train, some trains took thirty-six hours. Kerala is further South than Goa so the people going to Delhi must have been facing a train journey of thirty plus hours, at least. Maybe the best way through it is to sleep, and to eat.
Our journey from Varkala to Kochi was only about four hours. I had a cold and a cough and hadn’t slept well, as well as being mildly hungover from drinking a bit of alcohol and smoking cigarettes the previous evening. I fell asleep for a while, waking up when I heard a man coming through selling samosas, and we ate little deep fried samosas, a bit greasy, not as nice as the big thick baked ones we’ve had on trains before.
Arriving at Kochi (Ernakulum Junction) it was very busy and with more obvious poverty, outside the train station I saw homeless men, their hair clumped together in matted dreadlocks. I saw a bicycle rickshaw for the first time.
We got a rickshaw to the guesthouse and along the way were tarpaulin makeshift tents with cooking equipment on the pavement and washing lines of clothes. Besides some of these makeshift tents were ready made curtains for sale with metal rings in for hanging, hung in multi coloured rows on the washing lines.
It was a long rickshaw ride in the height of rush hour, the busiest place we’d been since Delhi. Our rickshaw driver stopped for no one, he didn’t let cars in, he just kept going. We were right inside the traffic and the fumes. I could see other rickshaws, scooters, people’s legs and arms, passing inches away from our rickshaw.
We passed a crowded bus stop; the people and the clothes looked slightly different, more done up, more varied. Women in kohl makeup with heavy gold earrings, glamorous, city looking; college students, boys and girls arguing and laughing with each other. Even the umbrellas were different; subtle, brown, prettily patterned.
We went over a large bridge, with lots of big dark green work boats, stocky tugs.
At last we came to our area. It was suddenly quiet; lots of trees and the smell of monsoon damp, with mould and moss on the walls. We passed a park with boys playing football. A boy rode past us on a bicycle, a football in one hand, steering and holding a pair of football boots with the other.
The place we were staying at was a homestay; a little house, the hallway and stairs looked newly done out in grey marble with a chrome bannister. Marble is everywhere, presumably it’s relatively inexpensive in India.
Our room was small and smelled damp and mouldy. I felt fatigued and a bit out of sorts and worried that it would be unhealthy. I took off my sweaty clothes and socks and lay on the bed for a while, dozing a bit before went out to eat.
It smelled better outside, maybe we’d become accustomed to it or maybe the room smelled worse. Nearby the homestay was a little stall, I bought soft mints for my throat, wrapped in a twist of newspaper.
There was a vegetarian restaurant just around the corner. The owner greeted us warmly, chatted with us and put a photo book of Kerala in front of me. It reminded me of being at my grandma’s and being given a big book of cats to look at (the restaurant was actually called Grandma’s Kitchen). The owner went out to the pharmacy and came back with little eucalyptus capsules for my cold.
We ate a good meal, a lovely veg thali, with many different curries including okra and the most amazing new dish, a green kind of mousse made from coconut and coriander, ‘Best eaten with this;’ the man said, a yellow sponge cake that was ‘in between sweet and savoury,’ ‘Gujarati idli.’ It was made of chickpea flour, and was spongy and moist and made a perfect combination with the green ‘mousse’.
When we got back to the homestay I watched a very long kitten video (the one from my Celebrating Others blog post) all the way through, then the last episode of Kiss Me First on Netflix, then sleep. Comfort food, TLC, picture books and kittens, it seems I’m not too old to benefit from those medicines.
The next morning I woke feeling better all round. Our long stay in our luxury guesthouse in Varkala had made me a bit soft; moving to less salubrious places was an adjustment and plus we’d got settled and had to uproot ourselves. However, it only took me a day to feel at home in a new place.
Our room was small and plain, painted white, with non-slippery tiles in the bathroom, mosquito mesh at the windows and was actually really clean. Clean sheet, under that another clean sheet, under that a clean mattress cover, and clean double bagged pillows. At the guesthouse in Kanyakumari, although the pillowcases were clean, the pillows were black with dirt under the pillowcases.
It was nice staying at a homestay for the first time, coming down for breakfast at the table set just for us. We had home made Indian breakfasts, puttu, steamed rice with green peas masala and sweet black tea in black china cups and saucers.
I went for a walk on my own, taking photographs of moss covered walls. Potted plants sat on the tops of walls and windowsills. The area was nice with lots of guesthouses. I met a family from Tamil Nadu. At an outside door I saw a purple curtain with metal rings like the ones we’d seen for sale at the side of the road.
We went out to explore the Fort Kochi area. Huge trees with actual plants growing on their branches, like an ecosystem all of their own. (I realise trees are an ecosystem of their own, this just made this visually explicit.) Some trees had dark green fur growing on them that hung down like a shaggy coat or tatty velvet braids. A dead tree had so many ferns growing on it that it looked as if it were alive again.
Everywhere we go has its own ‘things’. In Fort Kochi it was walls with words; words and moss. (These are two of my favourite things. I thought of Elizabeth Gilbert who wrote a big book about an early female botanist who specialised in moss.) A long stretch of once white wall was covered in a long poem, partially obscured by moss. Another wall outside someone’s house, spelled out a life philosophy from A to Z.
In a small park there was a group of boys playing football, next to them another group playing cricket.
We saw boys in school uniform on bicycles and girls in immaculate periwinkle blue uniforms with matching hair ribbons. It was Saturday; a rickshaw driver told us that normally school is Monday to Friday but some schools had had to close for two weeks during the monsoon, so they are going in at the weekends to catch up.
The rickshaw drivers were pushier than we’d been used to and repeated certain phrases, ‘Do me one favour,’ ‘No business,’ and offering a cheap starting price then saying, ‘If you don’t mind I’ll show you…’ and tried to take us to tourist places or certain department stores. This was the first time I’d experienced the department stall thing, (where the fare is less if you agree to be taken to a department store, in return the shops will give the rickshaw driver petrol vouchers). We did not want to be taken somewhere in the heat and subjected to the hard sell, so we just paid the full price. The people in the shops also had a particular strategy, they called out, ‘Do you remember me?’ which confused me at first.
Nonetheless, Fort Kochi area was very quiet for India, we met a French pair who had just ended up staying there for months, like we did in Varkala. The buildings were European looking, Portuguese, with decorative iron work railings. There were proper shops selling decent looking clothes (too bad my backpack feels too heavy, out of practice or accumulation in Varkala, probably both), and shops selling everything, including things we wanted; packs of tissues, herbal mints, dried apricots, nuts and soya milk! (We’d drunk all the soya milk in Varkala- none of the shops we had bought it from were restocking at that time- so this was very exciting.)
Walking around I’d suddenly felt fatigued and wanted to stop for a drink, my husband said, ‘How about there,’ I looked up and there was an opening leading to what looked like a green oasis. We went in and sat outside under an umbrella with a fan rigged up next to us. We drank sweet lemon sodas and ginger tea.
Although we both love Indian food, I admit that I did also enjoy the continental food available in Varkala, fresh salads with spinach, tomato and cranberries, and aubergine and tomato pasta. Knowing that continental food will be much less available outside of Kerala, when we saw an Italian place we stopped there for lunch. I wasn’t even that hungry, but when I saw that they had vegan pizza on the menu, I had to have it. It did not disappoint; thin stone baked base laden with vegetables including courgettes and aubergines and no cheese.
The pizza was good, but the menu made me smile. The use of the English language in India is slightly different to its use in the UK and sometimes sounds to my ears as over statements and understatements. So on the pizza menu is stated unapologetically ‘dreams take colour… we invite you to taste the flavour of a dream.’ On the other hand, a road traffic accident with multiple fatalities can be described in the newspaper as a ‘mishap.’
We walked down to the sea. There was a stall selling only umbrellas and sun hats (ideal for the monsoon); the umbrellas were opened and displayed at the front of the stall like colourful jellyfish, the sun hats with different coloured ribbons hung up all together.
There were lots of people selling fish. A few stalls aimed at tourists; birds nest coconuts like in Kanyakumari but without the little decorative birds. In Fort Kochi I saw some hanging up outside houses and wondered if they are actually bird houses, the model birds just there to illustrate what they are for (to human beings not to the birds). Monkey ornaments carved out of coconuts. A blind man styling the hair of a hairdresser’s doll’s head; I thought at first that he was offering hair styling but he might have been demonstrating and selling hair clips.
A small folding table, at first glance it looked like a pile of pink plastic butterflies on one side and a row of decorative Filofaxes on the other. On the way back I looked again, they weren’t pink butterflies, they were earrings on little pink plastic cards now laid flat on the table, no longer in a pile with the edges sticking up like wings, and the ‘Filofaxes’ were actually heavily decorated (coin) purses.
Shells. What we thought were plastic cars in boxes, but were actually mini sewing machines, kind of like staplers. Glass bottles of coloured oils. Cut fruit.
In the harbour there were big grey Indian Navy warships and huge red container ships, and at the edge on wooden platforms, Chinese fishing nets (big wooden swing like structures that dip into the water like a pelican’s beak), as well as fishermen using hand nets at the shore.
The Chinese fishing nets are a tourist attraction and we ended up going onto one of the platforms where the net was operated from, meeting the fisherman, taking photographs and of course handing over some money.
Unusually compared to where we’ve been so far, there were rubbish bins everywhere. Teams of workers were collecting rubbish in baskets and sorting it into sacks, presumably cleaning up ready for the season. The fisherman told us that the beach had been covered in rubbish, partly from littering but much of it washed up in the monsoon.
The beach dogs were different; strange looking, about the size of almost-grown yellow Labradors but with stumpy little legs, as if a Dachshund had ran amok… A big fat black Labrador lookalike sitting under a bench. A golden ‘Labrador’ asleep on a doorstep, rolls of fat clearly visible. Some of the street dogs in Varkala had begun to look thin… The cats were bigger and plumper too, not as big as most UK cats, but much bigger than their Varkala counterparts. There were lots of goats in Fort Kochi, white, black and white, thin-ish, just wandering around. I sat on a dilapidated mouldy bench at the foot of a tree and stroked one, I used to have goats when I was a child; I was even given a baby one for my seventh birthday, they had to sleep with my mum as they missed their mum. In Varkala I’d only seen the odd goat, tethered outside a person’s house, or once, having come loose and wandering down a path with her kids.
At dinner on our second evening we met two young Australians who had travelled all around Europe before recently arriving in India. We talked a lot, all swapping our India observations, ‘And what is it with all the shoes?!’ they said; they’d noticed the abandoned shoes phenomenon too.
Later in the evening by the sea, a man was selling tea from a bicycle, not chai, but black tea with ginger and jaggery (a kind of natural sugar syrup). My husband told him it was the best tea he’d had in India.
There were noticeable differences in dress. In Varkala I had seen Indian tourists dressed in Western beach clothes; shorts, short playsuits and short dresses. In Fort Kochi I saw Indian women wearing an everyday variety of Western clothes; a long navy and white striped cotton jersey skirt; a grey and navy striped loosely fitted cotton knee length skirt with a black t-shirt; a long brown hippy skirt with what looked like a band t-shirt.
Lots of blue cotton dresses; short sleeved, fitted, below the knee summer dresses in delicate pale prints; a dark blue dress with tiny black polka dots, and soft flowing block print blue flowery dresses worn over leggings or jeans.
A red kurti style dress but thinner and with a drawstring at the waist to give it shape; kurtis that were longer, softer, and with bolder prints; one brown with faces printed on it; one blue with big blue flowers.
Lots of long sleeved dresses, below knee, made of soft jersey material in dark reds or black with a rectangular shaped panel design in centre. I actually tried on some like this in Varkala, they fitted perfectly but I thought they would be too hot.
I saw two teenage girls wearing blue and brown plaid shirts with jeans, like the young Indian men wear, and another wearing a brown striped t-shirt and jeans.
Two young women arm in arm, one in a bright orange kurti with white trousers and a white scarf with little pink and blue stars on it; the other wearing a bright pink gauzy dress. A yellow, somewhere in between mustard and sunflower, starched cotton-silk sheen, fitted bodice, kurti/dress. The women are so narrow; no wonder the dresses I buy here don’t fit; Indian women are much smaller framed, I have to buy extra large or my boobs are flattened.
Sarees, the fabric made of squares of different colours with gold borders at the edges of the squares; brown sarees with gold trim. The shoes were different too. A woman dressed in black wearing the most beautiful gold spike heels; a young girl wearing white patent court shoes that were too big for her. Thick soled flip flops, some with heels, were sold everywhere.
We saw a little girl of around three years old walking with her dad, she was wearing chunky red floral flip flops. The paths were made of wavy bricks with gaps in between each brick and she walked slowly, intentionally, as if negotiating cobble stones, watching her feet, rolling her feet and the foam flip flops over the bricks and the gaps.
Our train to Chennai wasn’t until the evening and we spent our last day eating… We went to a bakery in search of namkeen cake (which I’d heard of as numpkin cake, got excited about, and looked up) to no avail, but we had fruit nan, banana bread, fruit salad and cardamom tea, and that was not long after breakfast.
An Indian man from Delhi who we met in Varkala told us a story of going out at 3am to a market in Fort Kochi and having an avocado milkshake; I try not to drink milk, but went in search of avocados anyway; in Varkala and previously in Goa, they have been out of season and unavailable.
I ended up having avocado on tasty sweet toast in a middle class cafe in a hotel, unfortunately they weren’t from India, they imported avocados all year round from the USA. Still it was my first avocado since leaving the UK (since eating my sandwiches at Northampton rail station on March 25th and eating an avocado bagel at Heathrow on March 26th).
I remembered about the avocados, of course, but I’d actually forgotten to look at the recommendations the man from Delhi had given us for Fort Kochi, and it was only when reading them at the end that I realised that we had gone to one of the places he recommended, by accident (Grandma’s Kitchen).
People recommend a lot of places to visit and things to do. Sometimes they’re people who haven’t travelled much and would like the opportunities we have. Often they are people who have been to places and loved them, like us going on about Hampi to people.
But the best thing about being here is just to immerse ourselves in each new place, explore the local area, wander around, find places to eat. If we plan everything out then there’s no space left for the spontaneous (or for just sitting around or napping). I’m learning to say, Maybe next time, and not worrying or trying to do everything.
The area around our homestay
Our room and possessions
The moss walls of Fort Kochi
See Instagram travelswithanthony
Thank you very much for reading
See you next week