Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Weekend in Kerala - Part 1

In order to get everything out quickly I have written in a stream of consciousness style - thus forgive the fragments and bad grammar.


Fly with Chris from Hyderabad to Chennai on Indigo. Flight only half an hour late.

Flight from Chennai to Kochi on Indian Airlines and departs from International airport. Flight apparently continuing to Kuwait via Cochin and Goa – even customs officials amused that we are only going to Kochi on a flight labeled to Kuwait. Confused bureaucrats require us to declare items such as currency, electronics, and foreign-made watches – fact that we’re only flying an hour within India escapes them. Glad we didn’t sleep through the Kochi landing and end up in Kuwait.

Land in Cochin/Kochi – don’t fall asleep and end up in Kuwait.

Palm trees everywhere

Lush tropical scenery, winding tropical waterways, cows grazing in green fields by the airport

Meet Karen at the airport and take a pre-paid taxi to the hotel. Taxi turns out to be an old ambassador – my first real taxi in India

Drive an hour through the same horrible traffic as everywhere else in India. Garbage everywhere – wonder how they can’t just pay poor people to collect it.

Le Meridien hotel on the water. Hotel has big 3-tiered pool. Welcomes us with coconut juice. Nicest hotel in Cochin, bathroom still has moldy ceiling.

After checking in, take an auto-rickshaw to Fort Cochin. Bargain with 4 rickshaw drivers before giving up and paying the inflated rate of 150 rupees ($3.50) for 14 km (8 Miles), instead of the 100 rupees the concierge said should be the maximum.

Drive through old streets with fruit stands selling entire branches of bananas. Walk along the waterfront during sunset where fishermen are pulling in their last Chinese fishing nets of the day. Fishermen use rocks and 6 men to pull the nets in, even though there are only tiny fish. Kittens surround the box of fish, pawing at the fish as the wriggle.

Walk along the beach around the old fort, watching Indians on vacation and people play fully clothed in the water of the Arabian Sea.

Roll up my pants and feel the water, warm but not gross like the Bay of Bengal.

Walk around the fort until dark, come upon a field preparing for a soccer match across from the white-washed St. Francis church, founded by the Portuguese in the 17th century.

Intrigued by the name, stop in a shop called the ‘Treasure Trove’ - apparently a popular name around Kochi (Treasure Trove Coconuts, Treasure Trove Tatas, Treasure Trove Dried Fish, etc.). Find crap, not treasure, although ‘Crap Trove’ doesn’t sound as appealing. We did gain a memory to treasure at the crap trove, as we watched a cat squeeze itself into a shoe on the door step.

Wandered around Cochin looking for Lonely Planet suggested restaurant labeled as ‘in the Brunton Boatyard.’ Looked for boatyard. Cursed Lonely Planet for not revealing that the ‘Brunton Boatyard’ actually has nothing to do with boats or yards, but is, in fact, a hotel. Enjoy good meal inspired by Kochi’s history, with a colorful history of the town printed in the menu. Enjoy euphemistic language recounting the ‘Portuguese visitors who stopped in for some tea and spices.’

After dinner attempted to find auto-rickshaw in tropical rainstorm. Stood in boatyard driveway beating off mosquitoes and realizing how the human race first figured out how to dance as we swung our bodies around trying to keep the mosquitoes away. Waited for hotel taxi after Chris ran down the street and was ousted from his potential rickshaw by men loading piles of bananas into the last available rickshaw.

Took long shower and went to sleep early.


I awoke bright and early to go swimming in the three tier pool. After taking a short swim I lay by the pool where it was already getting hot at 8 am, and had to go in when the mosquitoes converged. We had breakfast at the hotel and then headed back to Fort Cochin, in another auto-rickshaw, to see what we missed on Friday.

First we went to the ‘Dutch Palace’ which is actually Portuguese, then remodeled by the Dutch, and then lived in by the local Rajas, and is more of a house than a palace. It had an awesome collection of costumes from the Rajas and ornate sedans that people were carried through the jungle in, and I envisioned aunt may being hauled through the jungle by 6 guys in one of the sedans and wasn’t jealous. There were amazing murals on all the walls with scenes from the Ramayana, and a very naughty scene with Shiva and some milkmaids which was tactfully not described accurately in the information guide.

Afterwards we looked in some shops and went to Jew Town, which looks very much like a European city. Jew Town was built by Jewish immigrants to India who moved to Cochin when it was a thriving Portuguese port city in the 1600s, and there are still 7 Jewish families which encompass 20 people (all old) whose families have lived in India since before the Taj Mahal was started. We went into one shop and one of the Jewish ladies was there, and she looked just like an old woman in America. Completely white, wearing socks with sandals and a mumu, but speaking fluently in Malayalam, the local language, to the shop-girl. The Jewish people in Cochin speak a mix on English, Hebrew, and Malayalam, and I can only hope that a linguist has gone down to Cochin to study how their Hebrew compares with modern Hebrew, since I suspect it contains words that were used 400 years ago that aren’t used anywhere else today. I think we were really lucky to actually see one of the few people of a 400 year old culture that is about to die in India.

We went to the synagogue which was closed for Sunday and then wandered back to get an auto-rickshaw back to the Meridian where our driver sent by Ismail was going to meet us. We ate lunch at the hotel and then headed out on the 4.5 hour drive to Munnar, but weren’t confident in the quality of our trip when the driver asked ‘so, airport?’

It turned out that his boss had failed to mention that he would be driving us to Munnar and that he would be staying there for 2 days, so we had to stop by his house for him to pick up an over night bag, and he had to call about 5 people to tell him directions.

The drive to Munnar was amazing, first through the lower tropical crop-land full of coconut, pineapple, and banana plantations, then up through spice plantations, and finally into the jungly mountains. These mountains must have been where they filmed Indiana Jones, because no other place in India is as tropical.

We stopped at a ‘rest stop’ a spot on the side of the road by some waterfalls where men were climbing and jumping around and vendors were selling coconuts cut by machetes and banana chips, and I reeeeeallly had to go to the bathroom so I braved what I expected to be the worst toilet of my life.

I was pleasantly surprised when I got to the toilet, and although it was not the cleanest in my life, it had a seat and didn’t stink, which was more than I could ask for in most American rest stops, and I was able to relax for the rest of the trip. As we continued into the hills it got dark and we could see lightening in the distance. The roads were in poor condition, and there were crazy buses playing chicken on one lane roads. All of the taxis in these places are jeeps, and for good reason – we’re not even in monsoon season and the roads are full of potholes and mudslides. We were in a tiny car, an Indian version of a Ford focus or the like, and the driver kept stalling, since he didn’t seem to have a ton of experience driving a stick on a hill.

When we finally arrived in Munnar, it became clear that our driver didn’t know where our hotel was, even when we explicitly asked him if he did. He tried to drop us off at a random hotel which didn’t look fantastic, and definitely didn’t have a plantation attached to it since it was in the grubby town of Munnar, so we ended up having to call the hotel and have them explain to him in Malayalam how to get there. Cell phones are the greatest invention in the world.

I was never happier to be anywhere than when we arrived at our ‘hotel’ (which was really a bed and breakfast) and they greeted me by my full name. When we emerged from the car the temperature was about 72 degrees and not humid, and I couldn’t have appreciated it more. They took our bags to our room, took us to dinner in the homey dining room, and we relaxed in anticipation of the view we would have when we woke up.

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