Fort Kochi

Our stay in Kochi was a pleasant kick off to our Diwali vacation in Kerala.

Not wanting to waste a moment of Tom’s time off (but also excited to return to Bengaluru on Friday night to welcome our brother-in-law Michael for a visit), we decided to start our trip to Kerala with a flight to Kochi on Friday evening. It was our first time back to the Bengaluru airport since arriving at 3 am on July 31. Our first time through, we were a bit too bleary-eyed to appreciate what a lovely airport it really is. It’s clean and airy, with a wide variety of eateries. Not a bad place to wait for a flight. Once boarded, we arrived in Kochi (also called Cochin) less than an hour later. Our bags arrived quickly, and we were greeted by Patel, holding a “Ms. Melissa” placard. Patel had been sent by the Chiramel Residency, a really lovely spot to stay in Kochi, and he took us directly there. We arrived at the homestay around 9:30 and were greeted with question of whether we wanted to go have dinner now, but all we wanted was our bed.

Kochi goats 2
Goats walking the streets of Kochi.

Saturday was our day to explore Kochi. We got up to a breakfast of scrambled eggs, toasted white bread, and corn flakes, not having yet learned that we would only be offered bland white person food if we didn’t specifically ask about Indian breakfast. It was perfectly fine, though, and provided all the sustenance we needed for the morning. We then headed out to be greeted by an adorable herd of goats walking down the street. We were soon to learn that goats are everywhere in Kochi, mostly untended although some have collars. They were crazy cute.

From our homestay in the Fort Kochi neighborhood, it was just a short and pleasant walk to our first sighting of the Indian Ocean. It was cloudy and grey, but still kind of thrilling to be looking out over a whole new ocean. All along the rocky waterfront, it looks like they’re developing paths and patios that will probably be lovely public spaces in the coming years. Interestingly, the first 10-15 feet of the water are completely filled in by greenery that could be some kind of flowering kelp or maybe salt water lilies or lotuses. It’s so dense that it put Tom in mind of the man-eating island in Life of Pi, and made him wonder if this could have been the inspiration for that segment of the book.

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As we walked along the water, we quickly came to the Chinese Fishing Nets, famous in Kochi. It is believed that they were introduced to the area by a Chinese explorer in the 14th century, and are still in common usage today. They’re really beautiful and kind of amazing to watch, as a system of pulleys and rock weights lower and raise theses huge winged nets in search of fish. We didn’t see much being caught, but we did see impressive displays of fish for sale very nearby, accompanied by places that would cook your fish for you on the spot. Not being fish eaters, we moved on.

Kochi streetFrom there we walked through nice neighborhoods, marveling at the minimal garbage and well-maintained sidewalks, totally charmed by the lovely storefronts and pretty buildings. We eventually found our way to Mattancherry Palace, built by the Portuguese as a gift for the Maharaja in the 16th century (largely as an apology for sacking the temple) and then expanded by the Dutch when they established themselves in the mid-17th century. From the outside, it doesn’t look like much, but inside there are magnificent 16th century murals covering the walls and an impressive display of old artifacts. There are also a lot of really informative panels that explain the history of Kochi and the whole Kerala region. We learned there about the matrilineal heritage of the royal family that ensured a valued place for women in the culture. One impact of this was an early commitment to educating girls as well as boys through the kingdom.

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We left the palace feeling hot and hungry so happily wandered through the Heritage Arts Antique Shop to the Ginger House restaurant in the back on the water. The antique shop was chock full of cool old stuff and the restaurant provided a truly lovely setting for a tasty meal. The Heritage Arts Antique Shop is on Jew Town Road near the intersection with Jews Street in, you guessed it, an area called Jew Town. There is a very old Jewish community in Kochi that traces its roots to the time of Solomon. The community grew in the 16th century with Jews fleeing the Iberian Peninsula, and shrank in the 1950s with many emigrating to the newly formed state of Israel. Today, the community is quite small but well regarded. Their 16th century synagogue is down a lovely little alley with a big clock tower at the end (added in the 18th century). Sadly, it was closed when we were there, but we look forward to returning some time. The outside is a bit nondescript, but the inside is supposed to be beautiful.

Having walked the waterfront perimeter of this peninsular part of the city, we decided to cut straight across on our way back to our hotel. This gave a us a chance to walk through residential neighborhoods, encounter many more goats, and stop off at the Kerala State Beverage Center. The first two things were very nice, the last one not so much.

Kerala is not a dry state, but it seems a lot of people wish it were. We had read suggestions to bring alcohol with you and not to expect it to be served in most hotels and restaurants. In fact, we didn’t visit a single hotel or restaurant that served even beer and wine during our whole stay in Kerala. We thought it would be nice, though, to have some wine with us in our hotel rooms and it seemed easy enough to stop off and buy some. Little did we know that the alcohol buying process in Kerala is awful. There is a clear intention to create a furtive, shameful process. We almost walked right past the store, because it isn’t an actual store. It is a dimly lit storefront with a heavy wire cage in the front of the window, which you can’t even seen from the street because of the cement wall constructed to force you to move through an uncomfortably narrow opening to talk to the people inside. We waited in a long line with a bunch of men and one other western woman. When it was finally our turn to tell the men what we wanted, they refused to make eye contact and generally looked at us like scum, which seemed to be how they looked at everyone. They were willing to sell us the wine we requested because they had to, but they wanted us to know what a disgusting thing we were doing. We walked off feeling a bit demoralized, but perked up when we got back to our lovely little room for a rest.

Kochi Restaurant 51
At Restaurant 51

That night, we headed to a romantic dinner at Xandari Harbour’s Restaurant 51. Such a lovely setting! We had the restaurant to ourselves since we arrived at the absurdly early hour of 7:30. There was a woman playing a keyboard softly as we listened to the waves from the water next to us. The food was very nice and the service was lovely. When we returned to the hotel, we headed to bed, ready for the next day’s adventures in the mountains.

On Sunday, we knew to ask for masala dosas for breakfast – yum! We expected to be picked up at 9 by Ansu, the driver who would be our companion until he left us at the airport on Friday evening. At 8, we were told that Ansu was already there. This was a sign of things to come – Ansu was always early, always prepared, and completely reliable. At 8:30, we headed down to load up the car and got on the road to Munnar (see Into the Keralan Mountains).