Cochin, But Not As We Know It

A vinodA barely perceptible ripple on the surface of the water alerted the beady eyes of the multi-tasking Vinod, who promptly dived into the lake, emerging seconds later, his small, wiry brown body glistening with droplets of water as he threw three live fish onto the gangway of our private Chinese Fishing Net to show them to us, before throwing them into the holding tank, to be killed just before cooking. His wife, looking on from the kitchen, nodded appreciatively, she was making us a traditional Keralan lunch and wanted to ensure that it was just right.

One silvery fish remained, whose tiny body glinted in the midday sun, as Vinod held it high above his head.  Spotting easy quarry, the resident Brahminy Kite in its nearby palm tree swooped down and grabbed it from Vinod’s outstretched hand. Its distinctive markings, white head and brown body contrasted with the clear blue of the Keralan sky, as it returned to its perch, its easiest meal of the day firmly in its talons.

Who would have guessed that this idyll was merely 30 kms from Cochin? Well, to be fair, me for one or, more specifically my bottom, having reached this enchanting destination by cycle.

A classic sunsetAs always, I had been disenchanted by the standard sightseeing offered. This happens in every city I visit. It hasn’t changed in the eighteen years I have been visiting India, in fact, if anything it has got worse. I visited Cochin for the first time eighteen years ago and exactly the same sightseeing is still being offered now as then. Driven off to St Francis Church to look at the grave of Vasco da Gama who was buried there for 14 years over 500 years ago, not a mention of the spices, food, Portuguese influences of his visit on the city, then to the Chinese Fishing Nets which are now plagued by touts selling tat and the fishermen won’t operate without additional cash incentive. The Dutch Palace, which was actually built by the Portuguese, has some nice frescoes but that is about it and then the Synagogue, still pretty, still interesting, but the run up to it has become a minefield of Kashmiri shops  – I mean, who really needs to buy a Pashmina in Cochin?

Where was the passion, where was the enthusiasm, where were the guides proud of their city, wanting to think a little differently and showcase something special to their clients? No, it is now all lacklustre and based around shopping – I HATE WHAT THE SHOPPING SCAMS have done to tourism in this country.  Here we are, in Cochin, which has a plethora of opportunity. Let’s talk about the spices which made trading here huge and caused virtual wars between the Portuguese, Dutch and British, what influences did each of them bring on the architecture, religions, or food of the area? In Fort Cochin itself there are at least 14 different communities living in harmony and 26 different languages spoken, from Gujurati to Rajput to Konkan to various varieties of Christian. Where is the information given about these, their food, clothing, religions, influences on the place as a whole? Who visits the spice markets or the fish auctions?  Even the restaurants have become mundane. I trawled the whole of the old fort and found just four restaurants who had considered the heritage of the place, Brunton’s Boatyard had British Railway Mutton Curry, Koder House had a starter and a desert of Jewish origin, Eighth Bastion serves Bruder Bread, an old Dutch recipe and Oceanis is the only restaurant I could find serving anything Portuguese. Yet none of that even comes into play.

A set of fishing boatsThus I was delighted when I bumped into Raju, last seen far too many years ago and who I had worked with on the BBC Holiday program back in 1999 when we featured the houseboats, there were only 14 in those days and beautifully, traditionally done and the tree houses in Wayanad. Even back then he was thinking differently. How fortuitous then that I bumped into him on this trip and he suggested I join his cycle ride, starting in Fort Cochin and ending up 30 kms away at a location to be revealed. I jumped at the chance.

As we cycled the old coast road, I had fields pointed out to me where they cultivate rice for half the year and prawns for the other half, the water switching from saline to pure with the changing seasons. We saw cormorants and herons and rollers and egrets hovering close by. We stopped at a small beach full of fishing boats, the men, just in from their night at sea, working their way through the spoils of their fishing nets and bought fresh, live prawns from them.  We cycled on, children jumping up and down and giggling excitedly at the sight of a white lady on a cycle, careering past them, racing with my guide, the grown-ups looked on incredulously, who cycles for fun? To them it is a means of transport only, and that is only if you can’t afford anything better. The next stop, a small boat building yard, making the small traditional fishing boats, both sea faring and backwater faring (who knew there was a difference?) being made out of local wood (Indian/Alexandrian Laurel and Artocarpus) coir ropes and sardine oil.

We continued on past multitudes of fishing nets and then stopped at a toddy shop. As with so many things in India, I have learnt the hard way and I know for a fact that I don’t like toddy, no matter how fresh, though I braved a sip. Still no joy, my taste buds it seems are sticking to their guns in that regard, but I was shown the hierarchy of who drinks where (fathers and sons are not allowed to drink in the same room), the production of and met the locals who gather every day to sip on their favourite brew and eat delicious food. Yes, the toddy could not tempt me, but, Raju knowing that I am more of a local than most locals, asked them to provide samples of lunch. I was promptly served two different types of fish, one  cat fish, the other tilapia, cooked in delicious chilli, coconut and coriander ‘gravys’ and served with traditional tapioca – they were divine, proper local cuisine and a far cry from anything I had seen in the Old Fort Area. This was the kind of experience I had come to have, pure, unadulterated (well apart from the toddy) Kerala.

Reluctantly moving on, sadly time is a rare commodity in my line of work, we cycled past a coir making village and saw the process of turning coconut into door mats and ropes first hand and then just as the pain in my bottom was beginning to detract from the splendours all around me, we had a change of pace. Off the bikes and into a small country boat where we met Vinod, who silently punted us along a stretch of backwaters to a stunning lake-side destination and our very own Robinson Crusoe Island, literally. One hut, three palm trees, Vinod our Man Friday and a Chinese Fishing Net.

A quick freshen up and on emerging from the hut, I spied Vinod, strolling along with a large knife in hand. The next instant, he was up a coconut tree, having spied the best specimen for my welcome drink, tender coconut water of course, served with a straw made from a lotus stem. This was  a first for me, and was true eco living.

A white catWe sat under a thatch shade, the breeze coming across the lake cooling us down and caught up on the last sixteen years and I heard fascinating stories of betrayal, murder, intrigue, it had it all, and that was even before I started on my own interim tales!  Vinod pottered around, a kingfisher dived for food, cormorants perched on branches and stretched their wings, a pure white cat lazed in a fishing boat. Other than that, there was seemingly not another soul around.  I don’t remember having such an experience before in all my years of visiting the destination. I had learnt, enjoyed, relaxed, taken a multitude of photographs and more importantly, been reminded just what a magical destination Kerala is.

Before too long, banana leaves were laid out on the table, Vinods wife arrived and I was treated to a home-cooked Sadhya Banana Leaf meal (albeit with some fish) and it was, quite possibly, one of the most delicious meals I have had in Kerala, no amount of hotel chefs can produce something so authentically home cooked. The traditionally proffered second and third helpings were no problem for me to accept, though I do admit to asking for a spoon, south India cuisine is so much harder to eat with the hand for the uninitiated than north India cuisine and this food was too tasty to have to cope with such frustrations.

We sat back, replete, whiling away the next twenty minutes or so.   Ordinarily, after lunch, there would be a visit around the local village, sadly, my time was over, I had other things I needed to explore. But an invitation to revisit was extended and readily accepted. A mere thirty kilometres from Cochin yet a world away, Kerala at its most traditional and certainly at its best, I am planning my next trip already.

A robinson crusoe island

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