Feeling weak and a little shaky, from a night of vomiting and poor sleep, we finally arrived into Kochi, Kerala, in Southern Coastal India (also spelled Cochin). We went from a super chilly morning in Udaipur, feeling underdressed, to being slapped by the warm wet towel feeling of a hot and humid afternoon in the tropics. Kochi is one of the larger towns in the South, with a population of 600,000. It took us almost two hours in horrific traffic to finally make it to Fort Cochin, the older, historical neighborhood that we were staying in. Situated on a promontory by the ocean and reached only by bridges or ferries, this part of the city felt like an oasis of calm in comparison to the inland congestion we had already driven through. The streets were broad and lined with majestic trees, including banana and coconut palms. We heard birds cawing and spotted kingfishers and bee-eaters. It felt like a vastly different country from the primarily desert biome of the North. Our homestay was located down a winding alley with rooftop views of neighboring homes amidst tropical trees. Without air-conditioning, and an inability to open the windows unless we wanted to be devoured by mosquitoes, we tossed and turned all night in a pool of sweat. We had a tiny room, with a king and a single. As I was still recovering from being sick, I got the single to myself, while Dan was kicked and smothered by Stella and Gabriel.
With only one full day to explore, we hired an auto rickshaw driver to take us on a tour of this part of the city. Our first stop was a laundry establishment. It was here that the steep costs for washing clothing finally made sense. So far, we had been quite shocked by how much more costly it was to have our clothes cleaned in India vs. any other country we had visited. This is because you have to pay per item, as opposed to per load, or by weight. Large clothing items usually cost us about 30 rupees, which is roughly 50 cents. With small items, like underwear and socks costing 10-15 rupees, or less than a quarter. For a family of four, this could really add up. One large load of wash could cost us over 20 US dollars. It was here that we witnessed how each item of clothing is vigorously scrubbed by hand, repetitively beaten against cement (or a rock), wrung out in a tight corkscrew, and hung to dry without clothesline pegs, but rather a clever tuck between two tight ropes, then ironed with a crazy, heavy, metal iron (sometimes heated by coals!) and folded.
Our onward stops were to various temples and churches, including Vasco de Gama’s original place of burial, an old Dutch palace turned museum, to spy an elephant in a backyard, to learn about the local spice commerce featuring ginger, see the famous Chinese fishing nets, which are an elaborate counterweight contraption to catch local bay fish, and to sample fresh coconut juice.
Somehow, our tour missed a visit to the historical Jew Town, so we planned a separate excursion to window shop and see the still-standing Pardesi Synagogue (built in 1568, partially destroyed by the Portuguese in 1662, and rebuilt in 2 years with many subsequent additions), with a parish of 6 Jews(!). It was a lively area, made all the moreso by a wedding party that was drumming and dancing through the streets as an escort to a bride and groom being driven to their new home.
Our last night was the most enjoyable, as we watched a traditional Kathakali performance in an intimate wooden theater. Originally, these dramas from the Hindu epics of the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and the Puranas, could last an entire day, but our program was only an excerpt. The show we saw was geared toward giving tourists a quick and condensed understanding of this art form. First, we witnessed the transformation each man went through to inhabit their roles with elaborate makeup, freshly ground and mixed from natural ingredients. One actor had to be aided by an artist who constructed a mask out of paper and glue which was applied to his face. The final touch is to insert a seed into your lower eyelid, which stains the whites of your eyes red. Before the final costume reveal, one actor showed us some of the skills that a performer must master before becoming a professional. Specifically the mastery of facial expressions, eye control, dance-like poses, and detailed hand positions (mudras), which are part of a strictly formatted style – a lexicon of movement that replaces any spoken dialogue. After our quick lesson, three performers, accompanied by two drummers, and a singer, performed a chapter from an ancient Hindu text. I was riveted. One of the last scenes ended with the strangling murder of a monster prince, that was one of the best breath-holding deaths that I have ever seen.
I was sad to leave Kochin, as I felt like there was more culture we could have absorbed, but we were trying to hook up with the American family we had met in Jodhpur, in the Southern beach town of Kovalam. Thus, we embarked on our FIRST 6-hour, Indian train ride, in general class, to Trivandrum. Departing at 5 AM, we were lucky to enter an almost empty car, and secure our 4 seats and luggage storage space. Within 3 hours, our car was packed beyond capacity, with 4 to 5 people to every 3 seat row, and the aisles packed with standing commuters. The grubby ceiling was covered with metal fans, about 1/5th in actual operation. Our adventure continues…