Monday, 25 August 2008

Fix Up, Look Shark

Arriving in Cochin felt like heaven compared to our rather traumatic departure from Colombo. Check in and customs were disorganised to say the least and it took us nearly two and a half hours to get through the system. In India we arrived to chirpy customs officials, smooth passport checks and a taxi system so efficient it even printed the cab’s number plate on our ticket. It had been raining so the coconut trees were glistening, as were the romantically retro white ‘Ambassador’ cars, an elegant Morris Minor type affair straight out of the 1940s.

Cochin is a large town that sprawls over several peninsulas and islands, each connected by rather ropey-looking ferries and a swish new toll bridge. Fort Cochin is the oldest part of the area and acts as little tourist enclave away from the hectic city across the waters. After being shown photos of our hotel proprietor’s grandchildren, we walked the short distance to Princess Street, the tourist hub of the sleepy district. Fort Cochin is famed for its delightfully chic cafes, and the first we visited, aptly named Teapot, was one of the best the town has to offer. The interior was a mix between colonial cool and shabby French farmhouse, and one wall was adorned with teapots of all shapes, sizes, material and colours. Even the tables were made out of old tea chests. We drank sweet, spicy chai from terracotta beakers and had our fill of creamy coconut curry and ‘death by chocolate’ cake.

We were due to leave Cochin the following evening so decided to head to Ernakulam Junction train station to book a sleeper train for our journey to Bangalore. We took a rather rickety ferry across the harbour, and on finding the station, proceeded to fill in the most comprehensive form imaginable. Quite why they needed my mother’s maiden name, occupation and distinguishing features to book a train seat, I’ll never understand.

That evening we dined at one of the many outdoor restaurants, but one of the few that sells alcohol. Our beers were served in white china, prohibition-style teapots, making us feel like we were not only the height of 1920s cool but dead sneaky with it. We were sat next to the restaurant’s tandoor with a perfect view of each naan being rolled, seasoned and being gently baked inside the hot, drum-shaped oven. Fresh fish, prawns and marinated chicken were also flung inside and left to sizzle away.

The next morning we strolled along the shore amongst giant Chinese fishing nets. These ancient contraptions yield a variety of different fish, which are all for sale still half alive from stalls that line the coast. We were made to promise five different salesmen that we’d be back at dinner to eat their fish, none of which we honoured. Lil got up close and personal with a little shark, much to the amusement of the surrounding fishermen.

Our next stop was the Dutch Palace, and home of the Cochin museum, just along the coast at Mattancherry. The palace was nothing to look at from the outside, but held some real gems inside. The highlight was a small room that was entirely decorated from scenes from the famous Hindu epic, the Ramayana. In this tale the heroic Rama, struggles against the odds to rescue his wife Sita, who has been captured by the demon kind Ravana. With the help of monkey god Hanuman, and some other colourful sidekicks, he pursues and slays Ravana and rescues his grateful lover. The paintings were exquisite. Each face was so expressive and costume so ornate that it felt as though the story was happening in that room. The rest of the building was rather typical of Indian museums; full of objects with explanations of varying quality. The disorganisation and inconsistency is no doubt due to their current revamp and when the additions have been made I’m sure it will make a very fine museum.

After a brief lunch back in Fort Cochin, we collected our bags and headed to Ernukalam station. I’ve never seen a train as long as the one we caught. Although slowed by our rucksacks, we had to walk for at least five minutes to reach our designated carriage. The blue leatherette seats were sparse but comfortable and would later unfold to create three bunk beds for the overnight leg of the journey. Chai-wallahs, jewellers and booksellers flashed their wares to customers, braking up the journey along with beggars, shady ne’er-do-wells and dancing children. It’s not difficult to see how the midnight’s children of Salman Rushdie’s novel of the same name formed in his imagination.

Some eleven hours later, we arrived in bustling Bangalore, tired but excited about the next leg of our two month trip.

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