Well, the ‘cooling coastal air’ we were hoping for didn’t quite happen.
As it turns out, Fort Kochi is the hottest place on the planet. There’s no breeze at all, thanks to the massive naval base which is hogging most of the coastline, and the narrow streets don’t offer much protection from the relentless sun.
The change in temperature from chilly Ooty, where we were decked out in our down jackets, woolly hats and hiking boots, to Kochi, where we couldn’t walk five steps without needing a break, was striking to say the least. Luckily, Kochi is also one of the most touristy places we’ve been in India so far and so locals are used to seeing sweaty tourists roaming around in shorts and strappy tops, unlike everywhere else where you have to wear long trousers and cover your shoulders.
Fort Kochi is a colonial fishing village, just outside of the main centre of Kochi, Kerala’s capital. It’s full of little streets lined with charming cafes, juice bars, seafood restaurants and very swanky hotels.
Sadly, however, we weren’t staying in one of the swanky hotels and our homestay, although nice and spacious, was unbearably hot and no match for the giant Keralan mosquitos. Jamie pulled off some wizardry and saved the day by somehow managing to use his phone as a remote and hack into the broken air con system in the room to get it going. Sadly, though, there’s no hack for mosquitos. Neither DEET or the magical ‘water lily oil’ we picked up in Mysore did anything to deter them and my legs are paying the price for it now.
Mosquitos and heat aside, we had a great few days mooching around Kochi and trying out our first of the famous Keralan food, which is easily the best we’ve had in India so far. On our first evening, we headed to the popular Dal & Roti for the best fish thali yet, which was also the most expensive at 290 rupees (compared to the usual 80-120) but well worth it. We also tried the local Fish Moilee, a deliciously mild coconut curry, along with with a Prawn Biriyani, which isn’t Keralan but was incredible anyway.
We spent most of our time in Fort Kochi milling around enjoying the peaceful streets and admiring the beautiful buildings.
Stopping for shade and fresh lassis in the harbour.
Checking out the colourful murals around town (including one of Santa, of course).
And watching the fishermen with their Chinese fishing nets in the harbour.
We also checked out the Maritime Museum, housed in two old bunkers next to the naval barracks. Rather a dry museum with room after room of long wordy posters explaining the history of the Indian Navy, but interesting to learn some more about the Portuguese influence on the South Coast (we had no idea that Goa was still under Portuguese control until the 1960s!).
We also spent an evening learning about traditional Keralan Kathakali dancing, which is mind bogglingly intricate and a strange combination of beautiful, moving, hilarious and totally incomprehensible. In Malayalam, the state language of Kerala, Katha means ‘story’ and Kali means ‘play’ and Kathakali performances are dramatic reenactments of Hindu epics and religious legends. Normally, they last for eight to nine hours but ours (thankfully) was an abridged ninety minute demonstration of the Killing of Kichaka.
The performance started with a brief introduction to Kathakali, an explanation of the makeup and a demonstration of the main gestures, expressions and eye movements. The makeup is naturally coloured rocks mixed with water and of the Kathakali performers have different coloured skin which demonstrates their personality – green means warrior, but sometimes there’s a mixture of green and red which means a warrior with ‘an evil nature’; demons have black faces; women and monks have yellow. Sometimes they even dye their eyes red to demonstrate pure evil.
It takes six years to train as a Kathakali dancer and it’s not hard to see why. There’s no talking and instead the story is acted out through the use of mudras and facial expressions. The singer demonstrated how the performers control the pace and tone of the music using their eyes and showed us a few of the major expressions and mudras. It’s impossible to explain without seeing, but the company performance videos on this page give you a good idea if anyone is interested! (We decided not to compete with the front row of people filming half of the performance on their iPads and the other half reviewing the film they’d just taken instead of watching the actual live event).
From Kochi, we headed an hour down the coast to Alleppey, the hub of Kerala’s famous backwaters. Another hilarious bus ride being bounced around in a rollercoaster with an Indian man attempting to nap on my shoulder, but a short one of just an hour and half.
Read more about our adventures in Alleppey in the next post, including a soul-searching afternoon with an Indian teenager, non-alcoholic alcoholic wine at a stranger’s birthday party, a boat ride to who knows where and, of course, more curry.