Sunday, June 10, 2012

Kochi.



Last night, Mai and I decided we would take it easy today. That began with a leisurely breakfast around 9-ish. We headed back to the restaurant so Mai could get her last meal of masala dosai. Like so many others, she had gotten addicted to this typical south Indian breakfast food. We planned our day over our meal.


Our day would unfold something like this:
1. We would both check out of the Meridien hotel. Mai would leave her luggage here.
2. We would take a taxi to the Taj Malabar where I had booked a room for the next two nights.
3. We would figure out a way (hire a car? taxi?) to take us around to see the sights in Fort Kochi.
4. Go to a cooking class in Fort Kochi. The class was from 4-6pm. I had made arrangements for the class before I left DC and yesterday, on our way to Alleppy, I confirmed with the instructor, Meera, that I would be attending the class as planned but that there would be two of us coming, not one. (Thanks to Sandeep for letting me use his iPhone to make the local call.)
5. Have the driver take Mai to the airport and I would find my own way back to the hotel.

We got task #1 over with as soon as we were done eating breakfast. I had already checked out earlier in the morning so it was just a matter of waiting for Mai to settle up her bill.

The concierge got us a taxi and we were soon on our way back to the Taj. By now, we recognized the route and the road on Wllingdon Island that led to the hotel's entry gate.

A few nights ago, Mai had commented about how there was no reception desk at the Meridien hotel where we had been staying for work. Two nights ago, when we came to the Taj for our farewell team dinner, she noted that there was a reception desk at the Taj. Well, all I can say is that you know you are staying at a 5 star hotel when they greet you as you enter, escort you to seating area, hand you a towel to freshen up with,serve you drinks, get your passport from you, return back with a pad to sign the necessary forms and hand you your room key. So, even though there was a reception desk....as Mai commented, we never to stand before it :-)

We arrived well before check in time so my room was not yet ready; it would be at least 30 minutes or so. Mai and I decided to head over to the gift shop. The young woman who greeted us at the door escorted us over even though we knew where it was. You are escorted everywhere here.

The shop really didn't have anything that interested us so we headed back to the lobby and went to the Travel Desk to talk to the concierge about our plans for the day - that would be items 3, 4 and 5 on our itinerary. After a few minutes of discussion, we decided that what made the most sense was for us to hire a car for the day. The driver would take us around to see the key sights (which there aren't many), drop us off at the cooking class (I had the directions), bring me back to the hotel and then Mai back to the Meridien to pick up her luggage and then take her to the airport. That was easy.

A few minutes of waiting later and my room was ready. Mai came up with me to check it out before heading back downstairs to the jewelry shop.

I had a nice corner room with the view of the docks on one side and the backwaters on the other. Lots of nice amenities and a super comfy bed! I took a few minutes to freshen up and then headed back downstairs to meet up with her.

We got in our car and told the driver the game plan. We then left our day in his hands. He told us the route he would take us and asked for our approval but since neither of us knew what he was talking about, we just agreed. I figured it would just be the *standard* route that all tourists are taken on. He did mention that we would first go through the area known as Mattancherry and then from there, head back to the Fort Kochi area.

Our first stop was to a beach area that Pete had also taken us to two nights ago. Of course, that was at night so we couldn't see anything. Before we got out of the car, the driver had warned us that the beach was dirty. We decided to check it out anyways. It was dirty but as far as I was concerned, no dirtier than other places I had been to in India. The water here is a bit rough so it's not a popular place for swimming. Even so, the place was pretty crowded with people walking along the promenade as well as walking along the water's edge.










On our way back to the car, we spotted a vendor selling fresh coconut juice.  I was tempted to get one but decided to wait til later; not quite thirsty yet.





Next stop was just around the corner from the beach....an old Dutch cemetary. The gate was locked so all we could do was take a quick look, snap a couple of photos and go.













From the cemetary, we headed to St. Francis Church which is a well known landmark. It is a Protestant church that was built by the Portuguese in 1510 and it is believed to be the first church built by the Europeans in India. The famed explorer, Vasco da Gama, was originally buried here; his remains were returned to Portugal at a later date.

















Though it was Sunday, service was already over so we could enter inside. It's a small and simply decorated interior.













We continued on our trip. As we drove along, I couldn't help but notice the size of the trees. They are huge meaning they are old. The weather here is so damp that full sized fern plants grow along every inch of a tree's limbs giving the trees a very fuzzy look. 

The neighborhoods here a quiet, tree lined streets. It's Sunday so the traffic is light. At one point, our driver pointed out a bunch of men huddled around a shop window. That was the liquor store and the men were in line to buy toddy. Funny how liquor is sold on Sundays here - you would never find a liquor store open on Sundays in my neighborhood.

The Indians take drunk driving seriously. At one point, our driver slowed down the car, rolled down his window and puffed into a breathalyzer. Apparently, those sorts of checks are routine and considering that liquor is sold on Sundays, it's not surprising the police were out in force.

According to our driver, the fine for the first offense is 200 rupee, 300 rupee for the second offense and if caught a 3rd time, your license is suspended. The fines don't translate into much in terms of US dollars but for people who may only earn 100 rupee a day, the fine is hefty.

Next destination on our driving tour was to see the famed Chinese fishing nets.

The Chinese fishing nets (Cheena vala) are huge wooden structures that hold out horizontal nets.  Each structure is at least 10 meters high and comprises a cantilever with an outstretched net suspended over the water and large stones suspended from ropes as counterweights at the other end.  It takes several fisherman to operate the net.


Rocks suspended from ropes of different lengths. As the net is raised, some of the rocks rest on a platform thereby keeping everything in balance.

It was earlier thought that the nets might have been introduced by the Chinese explorer Zheng He but recent has shown that the nets wereintroduced by Portuguese Casado settlers from Macau.

Today, not much is caught in the nets and as expected, they are a popular tourist attraction.

By now, it was late in the morning and although not the best time to be fishing, there was at least one net down in the water. Mai and I stood watching as another net was raised. It's fascinating how a they use a simple system of ropes and poles weighted with large rocks, to raise and lower the large nets into the water. It is a crude but effective pulley system. Both Mai and I were wondering exactly what kind of fish they could actually catch with nets located so close to shore. We came to the conclusion that the Chinese nets were mainly for show, that the *real* fishing was probably done using the wooden boats that lined the shore.

There was promenade that ran along side the shore. We decided to head down one end to see if we could get a better view of the nets. I wanted that iconic shot of all the nets lined up in a row. No luck as I could only a view of a few of the nets, several of which had been let down into the water; not a pretty picture.

The promenade went for quite a distance but there really wasn't much to see so we turned around. Heading back towards the car, we crossed a park like area. There were vendors selling everything from coconuts to umbrellas to souvenirs. Surprisingly, there were no *wandering* vendors.....you know, the ones that come up to you with goods in hand trying to get you to buy something from them. I was tempted to get the fresh coconut juice but decided to hold off - there would be time for that later, when I'm really needing to quench my thirst.

As we drove along, Mai noticed all the goats wandering about the streets. They take the place of the cows that you see in the cities in the north. As best we could guess, based on the fact that most have some sort of a collar around their necks, the goats belong to someone. But they seem to just roam free. The real brave ones just plop themselves down in the middle of the road and drivers just go around them. According to our driver, the goats are a Muslim thing (find explanation) and it's perfectly acceptable that they roam around freely. We had to dodge the occasional one as we drove along.
 

After the nets, we were off to the Mattancherry Palace which is also know as the Dutch Palace. The palace was built by the Portuguese and presented to the Kochi Maharaja in 1555. It acquired its present name in 1663 when the Dutch carried out some extension and repairs. Today, the palace houses a museum that has murals depicting Hindu temple art as well as portraits of the Kochi Rajah. Of course, no photography allowed inside. I'm not much of a museum person to begin with and having gone to countless many in developing countries, most are not worth visiting as displays are rarely described. I would have gone in had Mai wanted to but she wasn't interested either. On the palace was another building that looked interesting - a small chapel perhaps?? But it was closed so we moved on.

The Mattancherry Palace is obviously a popular tourist attraction. Tour buses as well as local buses packed the small parking area outside the front entrance and a small row of shops, mainly selling souvenirs, flanked the road opposite to the entrance. There, nestled in the middle of the row of shops was a pathway that led to a ferry dock. I wondered if that was the dock for the local ferry. I made a mental note to ask the hotel concierge as I might want to come back tomorrow and explore more of the area on my own.


On our way to the next stop, our driver asked us if we would be interested in going to a spice shop or to a souvenir shop. We said *no* to the spice shop and *yes* to the souvenir shop. He must get a deal from the spice sellers because he drove us there anyway. We again said no so he drove onto the souvenir shop. I never intend on buying anything going into these sorts of places but inevitably, I come out having made a purchase. This time was no different. I bought a wooden wall hanging with carvings of Shiva and Lakshmi and Mai left with two pashminas. The hanging is bit too heavy and bulky for me to carry on the plane so I'm having it shipped to the US. Hopefully, it will arrive to my home around the same time as I do.

Back in the car, we headed to our next destination - the Santa Cruz basilica. Our driver thought the church was closed for morning mass but would be re-opened to the public around 3pm. I can't remember what time we arrived at the church but it was closed. Mai and I walked around the grounds outside. There were a few opened windows but I'm too short to have had much of a view - other than of the ceiling :-(

On the church grounds was a smaller chapel that housed what looked like a baptismal font.

On our way out, we saw the sign on the wall that indicated that indicated the hours that the church was open to the public. It's Sunday today and the window for public visit was small and we had missed it by a long shot. Oh well.

Somewhere in the Fort Kochi/Mattancherry area is a Jewish neighborhood, complete with synagogue. For some reason and I can't remember exactly why, we didn't go even though the driver had told us the place would be open at 3pm and he would swing by. Later on, I found out that the dress code for the Synagogue visitors is nothing sleeveless and long pants. Since I was wearing capris, I wouldn't have been allowed inside so just as well for me that we didn't go. Mai's a very easy going person and since she had even less of an idea about things to see in Kochi than I did, she was not at all clued in on the fact that we didn't go.

Apparently, we had pretty much seen the key sights and we had at least an hour and half to kill before our 4 pm class. So, our driver took us back to the area around the Chinese fishing nets.

He parked the car on a quiet side street and Mai and I made our way back to the nets. This time, we were located in the opposite direction from where we first saw them. A small row of fish vendors lined the promenade. The moment we saw the vendors, we remembered that Pete had brought us to this exact same spot two nights ago.

We walked along the promenade and soon found ourselves back at the very same spot that we had been earlier. The same nets that were down in the water then were still down now.

We decided to double back but this time, we stopped at the coconut juice vendor. He offered up two types of coconuts that he simply referred to as *red* and *green*. The red variety is slightly smaller and is actually orange yellow in color. The red cost 30 rupee and green 25. Neither Mai nor I had ever had the red one before so I handed over 60 rupees for two coconuts.



I made Mai pose for the photo with a goat! Had to have the goat in the shot....just for Mai, to remind her of her day spent here. :-)

We wandered a bit further and came across a small park. We had a few more minutes to kill so we found a bench to sit on and just chatted. I have known Mai professionally for quite a few years but this is the first time I've ever spent anytime with her outside the office. She's very easy to talk to and I've enjoyed every minute I've spent with her.