If anything, our two-day stay in Kochi was educational. To get there, we left Bangalore early in the morning and arrived at the Ernakulum train station around five that evening, ten hours later. To get to the older, touristier part of Kochi we needed to catch a ferry. On the map in our guidebook the ferry terminal didn’t look too far away from the train station, so we decided to walk. Of course, this took longer than we expected but it was ok as it was fairly cool since the sun was setting and it gave me a chance to take in my first taste of Kerala. Just outside of the train station we spotted dozens of red flags, and drummers performing a synchronized routine—almost like an Indian version of a drumline. It was a parade advertising a political event for Kerala’s communist government. We walked on and finally arrived at the ferry terminal. Our fare was 5 rupees for both of us—what a deal! By this time it was dark out and we couldn’t really tell where we were going, but based off the other tourists on the boat, we figured we were headed the right direction. Disembarking from the boat we continued with the same logic and followed the “white folks” down the road towards the hotels. Eventually I made Matt stop to check the map in the guidebook to make sure we were heading in the right direction. Just then a man pulled up on his motorcycle.
“Do you need a room?” he asked, handing me a card for his homestay. Normally we dismiss anyone off the street who tries to show us a room because the room price will be higher to pay for his or her commission. This time though, we decided to go with him for a couple of reasons: 1.) it was his homestay (ie no commission), 2.) he quoted a fair price right away, 3.) the business card looked nice and the rooms looked clean, it pays to have a good graphic designer. Upon inspection, the room turned out to be ok and for the first time in India, we stopped looking after the first hotel. After a day of train, ferry, and walking, finding a room so easily was quite a relief.
Our brief stay in Kochi was unexpectedly educational. The first night we received a comprehensive overview of how long it took to walk around the old section of Kochi via the map on the back of the business card. Granted, it wasn’t a very big map, but our host was very thorough and enthusiastic. “Go this way to intersection, there’s two restaurants; one veg, one Italian. Don’t go here to this restaurant, they use old food…” Although his thoroughness took a little bit longer than usual to check into our room, it worked to our advantage as he helped us find a couple of activities during our stay in Kochi: the Katakali show and a backwater tour. We decided to go with the show the first night and take the backwater tour our second day, and then leave on the third for Varkala via KSRTC buses (Kerala State Road Transit Corporation).
Since the Katakali show didn’t start until 5:30pm, we had some time to kill, about a whole day. We walked around the shore area where we watched our next lesson: how a Chinese fishing net works.
One end has a big net, the other a bunch of weights (aka rocks tied to ropes and little fishermen). The nets would stay in the water for about 2-3 minutes and then the fishermen would use the lever to pull it back up, hurriedly gathering their catch before the birds ate it. Each net is basically a big seesaw made to catch fish. Actually, it’s probably more complex than that, the mechanics at all. But at least we got the basic idea down.
Finally the next educational part of our day came: it was time for Katakali. Katakali is a form of theater that intricately incorporates elements of music, acting, costume, and religious stories. The show actually begins before the performance with the actors putting on their make-up. It’s a pretty elaborate process, including pieces of paper that get pasted to the some of the actors’ faces.
Since I was completely unfamiliar with the art form, I didn’t know what the make-up was supposed to look like and each time they added a new color or line of dots (or for one guy a paper flower on the tip of his nose) was like adding another layer of ornaments and lights to a gaudy Christmas tree.
Crazy costumes completed the look, right done to long silver fingernail tips. Before the story began, one of the actors demonstrated some of the facial movements for the audience (all tourists; all taking lots of pictures). The actors don’t use words, so the facial and body movements are an important part of the story. Picture normal acting, and then picture it exaggerated with eyes blinking multiple times over to signify one emotion or another. If I was a little kid, between the crazy make-up and costumes together with the facial movements, I would probably be a little freaked out by the actors. The final thing we deduced from the performance was that it was an interesting experience but for our short attention spans at the end of the day, it could have been reduced to about 25 minutes—5 minutes to show the different stages of make-up, 10 minutes for the demonstration, and 10 minutes for a condensed version of the story. Three hours was just a little too long…
The next morning we woke up early to catch our bus to the starting point for our backwater tour. Our boat had no motor and was powered by two guys pushing the boat along with long poles.
The pushers walked up and down the sides of the boat pushing us along all day. They must have walked a few miles on that 15 foot strip of wood. With no motor, the ride was quiet and peaceful. We reclined in our rattan chairs and took in the scenery—lots of palm trees and lily pads.
Before lunch we made two stops to observe some of the local industries—coir making and calcium carbonate production. The coir is rope made from coconut husk.
The outer portion of a coconut is soaked for 6 months to strengthen the husk. After this time it is easily removed from the shell and much stronger that before the aging/soaking process. Then these ladies gather it up in their aprons while spinning wheel lady does her thing. The apron ladies slowly walk backwards as the husk spins itself out of the aprons into strands of coir. The strands are then spun together to make the rope. At the coir stop we also learned what pepper looks like before it ends up on your table in a little shaker.
As for the calcium carbonate (or something like that—it’s used for painting, purifying, pharmaceuticals…), this stuff is made from shells. Lots of little shells. They dry out the shells and then at the factory (a couple of sheds with a big furnace) they burn the shells until it become white powder. The finished product is packed up and shipped off.
Calcium carbonate. There you have it. (Hopefully my explanation wasn’t too technical for you, feel free to email me for the dumbed-down version). After the educational part of the tour was over, we transferred over to a small canoe to explore some smaller channels as we waited for our lunch to finish cooking.
The “traditional Keralan meal” was tasty and filling; I think all the passengers returned to the boat very full. Due to the pushing, the boat ride was extremely slow-paced, and after a while the novelty of the scenery wasn’t so novel. The passengers put away their cameras, and everyone kicked back for a siesta during the final portion of our tour, waking up just in time to get off the boat for the bus ride back to Kochi.
The last interesting part of our stay in Kochi (besides seeing the same Korean couple that we’d seen in Hampi and Bangalore on our ferry ride and at the Katakali performace) was that we met 3 UC students. The first two we met sat behind us on the bus to the backwater tour. Upon hearing English spoken with an American accent, I immediately started to eavesdrop (it had been a while). It only took a few tidbits of information for me to deduce that they were UC students on EAP (the same program Matt studied abroad with 3 years ago). #1.) Explaining how a Guinness widget works by comparing it to “a lime soda like the ones they serve by school.” #2.) Talking about Magic Mountain, a theme park in Southern California. #3.) Discussing journals and how MLA is preferable to Chicago style, and wow, so and so’s research was SO interesting. The third tidbit was the cincher. Using my advanced dectective skills I already knew the girls behind us were college students from California, but no CSU student would talk about writing guidelines and research as enthusiastically as those two. (CSU alumi, I mean no offense by the previous sentence as I find discussing the pros and cons of Chicago vs MLA during a backwater tour of Kerala kind of strange myself.) They had to be from the UC system—UCLA and Cal to be exact. No wonder. The third UCer we met was also from Cal. Being a solo traveler with probably not much else to do besides eavesdrop (like myself at times), he honed into our American English and said hello. Matt doesn’t think to much of us meeting 3 UC students in one day (“We’re all over the place,” he says), but I thought it was kinda cool. It’s not everyday you meet three people from the same university system during your stay in Kochi.