Warm weather, prescription massage, exploding Santa Claus, pleasant promenades, torrential rain, friendly people, quiet backwaters, fishing boats, and unusual beach culture; welcome to Cochin, Kerala.
Cochin was a nice escape from the smoke and December cold of Varanasi. This is a place where Indians themselves come to holiday and get away from it all. In Ernakulam, the area where we stayed, many people headed for Marine Drive, which is a long promenade dotted with boat tour areas, ice cream shops, travel agencies and electronic emporium type stores. They strolled leisurely along it or else found a shady spot and curled up to sleep. Benches, walls, old logs, or even on the ground, it wasn’t important as long as there was shade. Walking along Marine Drive you could easily be forgiven for thinking most of the people there were homeless.
The most active people on Marine Drive are the boatmen selling harbour tours; a one or two hour trip around the harbour to see all the main sights – there are a long list of them. After doing a one hour tour I decided that the boatmen had just cleverly created interesting names for things; a large sign saying ‘random piece of coastline’ or ‘enormous industrial pipe area’ most likely wouldn’t have the same appeal for potential customers, but it felt like that was pretty much all we saw. Nevertheless, it was a relaxing way to spend an hour and well worth the 50 rupees for the trip.
Kerala’s other watery attraction is the backwaters. These consist of both open water areas and narrow canal type areas. It’s possible to do one day tours, or if you go to Aleppy you can organise a stay on a houseboat. We did a one day tour which consisted of the open waters in the morning and the narrow canal type areas in the afternoon. There was a guide for the morning section. His demeanour was more of schoolteacher than guide; despite his attempts to connect with people his style was too abrupt for it to happen convincingly. I thought it was just my impression but judging by the almost non-existent level of tips he got from other passengers, it wasn’t. Despite this it’s a really interesting way to see the area and the fishermen who propel themselves along with long poles to get to the fishing areas.
In the canal type areas you are on a smaller boat with a boatman who uses the same long pole method to propel the boat as the fishermen. It’s like being in a Gondola, Kerala style. It’s a relaxing cruise, and while there is a lot of greenery, and a few local people and kingfishers along the way it’s not quite as impressive as the guidebooks make out. It’s still very worth doing though.
About an hour’s drive out of Cochin is Cherai beach, regarded as one of the most beautiful beaches anywhere they told us at our hotel. It’s a nice beach, with nice sand. Nice, but nothing special as beaches go – I suspect the idea of being one of the nicest beaches anywhere was thought up by the same people who came up with the names for the boat tour attractions on Marine Drive.
Indian beach culture is very different. Firstly, there are mainly men, and the few women that are there are very conservatively dressed in saris. Many men were in swimming trunks but it’s not the done thing for Indian women. Nothing wrong with this as culture is culture. But a strange side effect of this is that many men tended to head to the part of the beach where there were foreign women in bikinis and then proceed to stand or sit around watching them. Furthermore, they are about as subtle as a punk rocker in a church choir. Many of the foreign women tended to just ignore it, but it does make for an uncomfortable feeling and thus a less pleasant beach experience if you are a woman.
On the way back from the beach I saw something that I had never seen before. There was some construction work being done – laying underground pipes. This in itself is not unusual, but what was was that there were families doing the digging. In some areas it was women wearing saris with kids nearby, in other places both husbands and wives worked together. They spend 6 hours a day digging in the heat for about 300 rupees. It’s a hard life, but like most people in India, they do whatever they have to do. Just like many of the things that I saw in India, it reminded me how lucky I am.
Another reason why people come to Cochin is for Ayurvedic massage; a type of therapeutic massage that is reputed to help a whole range of medical conditions. As a result it’s generally necessary to see an onsite doctor before you can get your massage. I hate seeing doctors at the best of times and after doing my best to avoid them in Japan I had no intention of travelling half way across the world just to end up in a doctor’s office. Luckily for me, you don’t need to see a doctor for a relaxing massage so I immediately signed up for one of those.
On arriving in the massage room I saw a table that mediaeval torturers would have considered a thing of beauty. Standing next to it were two masseurs wearing aprons that looked like the ones butchers wear. My instincts told me that my massage perhaps wasn’t going to be as ‘relaxing’ as the person on reception had said. I stripped down and they put a loin cloth on me and told me to get on the table. Then began the most unrelaxing relaxing massage I’d ever had. It was a slow day they told me later, so that was why I had two masseurs instead of the usual one. They each took a half of my body (left and right) and began to work away in tandem. You may think that sounds good, but it felt like they were having a competition, and my body was the battle ground. After the massage finished they put me in a steam closet. Continuing with the general creative direction of the decor, this also looked like a machine of torture. Generally, it was an interesting experience despite the fact the massage wasn’t quite as I expected.
For New Year’s celebrations we headed to Fort Cochin (after fighting with the hotel staff who suddenly decided that their News Year’s celebration was compulsory and we would be charged for it whether we attended or not). We had read about a huge exploding Santa Claus and it sounded pretty interesting. It wasn’t. It takes place near the beach area of Fort Cochin and is super crowded. Despite the Santa being about 10 metres tall it’s still a little difficult to see it unless you fight to get nearer the front. At midnight (or thereabouts) firecrackers go off and the Santa burns for a few minutes, and then everyone turns around and heads home. Somewhat of an anti-climax, but on the plus side though there is generally a nice new year spirit around, and it’s nice to soak up the atmosphere. Unfortunately for us, at about 12:15am the heavens opened and rain came down in buckets. We sheltered under a very narrow ledge at the entrance to a hotel along with about 25 other people in a space that was only big enough for about half that amount. We had to stay there for about 1.5 hrs as it became impossible to get any kind of transport because of the sheer number of people.
In Cochin there are also a few small venues that perform a traditional Indian type of theatre called Kathakali. It’s really interesting to see, especially if you watch the make-up process beforehand. There are no words in the performance and all the emotion and action is communicated through facial expressions and movement. It’s highly recommended. We picked up a ticket in the morning which turned out to be a good move as your seat is allocated in the theatre according to your ticket number so we were at the front.
Finally, as with Varanasi, I found the friendliness of the people (in most cases) a great part of the experience.
This is the last part of my blog entries on India. I hope you have enjoyed them and find them useful if you ever go. Please feel free to comment below.