Today we moved away from Alleppey, up the coast to Kochi (Cochin); still within beautiful Kerala.
After street food and the obligatory chai, we hopped on to a dodgy looking bus; the worst we’ve seen yet, only to be confronted with a massive puddle of vomit by the front seat. Moving away instantly, we sat down and packed away our huge packs (Indian buses don’t seem to be designed to accommodate for luggage), only to be informed by an English speaking man and a rather large, belly-out older lady who just simply stood over Jake and eye-balled us, that actually, this is a ladies only seat; Jake – you’ll have to move. So, whilst Jake was relegated to sit with the men up the back [who all fell asleep on him], I was wedged in between the window and two very portly ladies who spent the two hour bus ride staring at me.
Down from the bus in Ernakulam, Kochi, we had to then get a ferry over to Fort Kochi, 3.5km or about 20 minutes over sea. Finding the ferry was easy enough, but buying a ticket was an unorganized, inefficient, chaotic ordeal. To put a positive spin on things, let us call it a “learning experience – a lesson in queuing in India.”
In a small room there are two very long lines that form in front of one ticket booth, staffed by only one person.
There is a normal queue – used only by men (with about 40 people lined up at the time), and a ladies only queue. Neither of these seem to be moving, although the ladies queue was significantly shorter (about 10 women). Next to the ladies queue is what I can only describe as an unofficial queue; more like a group of men who stand there, trying to pay off the ladies to buy them their ticket so they don’t have to line up.
Each passenger is strictly forbidden from buying any more than two tickets at one time apparently, as is explained by many different signs within the room, and you can absolutely not buy a return ticket – how absurd to think that you might want to return to the mainland at some point. These rules make competition fierce between those in the unofficial queue, and the men were relentless with their questioning and underhanded money transfers.
I joined the ladies queue and stood in the line surrounded by men on both sides – both the unofficial queue and the men’s queue – and then the next 20 minutes were just ridiculous, eye-opening and uncomfortable.
Whilst standing in the line that never seemed to move, it felt like I was the unwilling star attraction in a parade that everyone had come out to see. The men stared, and stared, and then stared a bit more, all the while, shoving money at me (and other women) and asking for me to buy them a ticket.
Between ignoring the staring and the constant hands shoving money at me for tickets, I spent my time being pushed, shoved, hung off, coughed on, squeezed and leant on by the woman behind me. First she hung of my backpack, scrunching my clothing with one of her hands and tapping my arm as though it was a natural habit; as if that would make this line go faster. At one point, a lady at the very front of the queue must’ve recieved her ticket, and the woman behind me shoved me forward so hard – before anyone else in the line could even move forward. Ah, lady, please! Talk about impatient… I ended up pulling my backpack around onto one shoulder and shoving my elbow hard into my pack every time she leant on me, in the hope she’d back off, oh, you know, even slightly, but it just made her cling to and then push me even more. I gave her the look. Even that didn’t work… I was at a loss.
By the time the queue had moved forward and I was the next customer, I thought it was over, but then I had to fight off her hand that shot out over my shoulder, clinging to her rupees in the hope she could purchase her ticket before me. I don’t think they quite understand the notion of a queue, but there was no way I was letting this pushy woman rain on my unwilling parade!
I held up two fingers to the ticket master and he took my rupees. Without knowing the cost of the ticket, and being unable to ask on account of being unable to hear and almost trampled by men and the clingy bitch behind me who kept slapping her arm about over my shoulder like a wet fish, I had faith the non-corrupt ticket man would return my change and my ticket… which he did…for three people. Oh, what’s that – only two tickets allowed per person?
When I finally fought free of the irritating woman and the crowds of men, I realised I’d been short changed as well having been unfairly charged for three tickets instead of the two I had asked for, and was apparently only allowed.
Furthermore, all this happened under the watchful eyes of Indian policemen.
Ordeal aside, we had to laugh at the craziness of this situation and the event that was unfolding before us… two queues that were going wild with impatience. You’d think that maybe this ridiculously inefficient system might’ve been upgraded to something that worked a little better, but again, this is not our culture; all we can do is observe, laugh, and get ripped off in the process.
We spent the afternoon in Fort Kochi not doing too much; just exploring, browsing books stores, walking, trying to work out if we go to Goa or Mysore next (the tough decisions we are forced to make these days) and then attempting to book train tickets for tomorrow night, which didn’t work. We spent the evening walking along a not-so-nice stretch of rubbish and litter “beach”, past the famous and fantastic-looking Chinese Fishing Nets and stall after stall after stall of fishmongers selling their latest (still alive!) catches.
Kochi is well catered to tourists and the locals are really friendly and welcoming (even the ones blatantly scamming you!) That, and there are ‘free wifi’ signs outside every café and guest house , shops selling all types of silks, pashmina scarves and brightly coloured fall-apart-the-next-day hippy pants, tailors wanting to sew you up anything you could possibly want, handicrafts and government souvenir shops with salesmen just desperate for you to “just only looking, looking is free,” and gelato shops that sell “the best coffee” apparently.
With the question of Goa or Mysore? still remaining, we wern’t sure where we’d end up tomorrow – getting to Mysore sounded expensive and difficult and involved the words “Government Bus” which automatically made me think twice… with train time tables not lining up and seats unavailable, we decided we’d stay one more night.
Our second day in the Fort was wonderful, spent simply enjoying the Fort and what it has to offer. Jacob went out early and bought back some South Indian street food for breakfast; dosas, idilys and pitthu along with a pea curry sauce and obligatory chai, and we started our day with a true Indian-style breakfast.
We decided today we would head to Mantacherry and to Jew Town, an area of the Fort that once, hundreds of years ago, was occupied by hundreds of Jewish people. Our guest house owner explained to us that 400-odd years ago, when banks didn’t exist, the wealthy Jews living here in the Fort kept their money safely in their family homes. The men would go to work and the women would stay at home with the children, ensuring the money was kept safe. At one stage, a group of Muslims began invading the Jewish people’s homes when the men were at work, murdering the women and children and stealing their money. This problem continued and the Jews were forced to ask the King for help. The King decided to combat this problem, he would give the Jewish people their own area of land, which is now known as Jew Town. It was located right next to the Palace, complete with gaurds at the entrance to ensure the families were safe. When Israel became its own country, many Jews immigrated to Israel, leaving behind only a few families in Kochi. Now, there are only a few Jewish people remaining. We were told contradicting numbers, so I guess the best I can do is note that there is somewhere between 8 and 24 Jews living still in Kochi. There are no longer any living Rabbis here, therefore the single Jewish Synagogue is now no longer in use.
We were approached by a driver who claimed he spoke very good English, and “although I’m not an encyclopedia, I have a good “Product knowledge” (knowledge of this area). Cute.
The next three hours or so giving us a fantastic tour of the Fort and through several different sights, giving us insight into the area, the people, the history, the culture, the lifestyle, and India.
We visited the ‘first Church in India’, and passed several old Dutch, Portuguese and British houses, as well as some that once belonged to Jewish families (most of which are either now fancy hotels, cafes or owned by rich Keralans).
We were given little brief history lessons along the way, as well as life lessons, a language lesson in the Mayalalayam – the dialect of Kerala – and just really fascinating stories and information.
We visited the local laundry – where around 55 Tamil people – I think for memory we were told 40 men and 15 women – spend their days tirelessly washing, scrubbing, beating, bashing, hanging, drying, ironing and folding every hotel, hospital, restraurant and paying customer’s clothing. The area was fascinating; the people washing stand in a small ‘section’ – completely immersed in a pool of water to just below their knees – scrubbing and rinsing and then ringing and ‘bashing’ (the best way I can describe the motion) the laundry against a hard surface. Inside the building, elderly people spent their time moving HEAVY coal powered (fuelled by burning coconut shells) irons over people’s jeans and shirts, finally folding them in immaculate piles. They all gracefully stopped to smile and wave at us, and Jake was given a brief job to iron a patch of denim.
We visited a fruit market to buy some pomegranates and bananas, and then we asked if our driver – Salim – would take us to get some chai. He proceeded to take us to ‘the best place in Kochi – famous, he told us, for sweets and the best samosas in Kerala. That’s a big claim to make when we’re in Samosa country… Before we entered, we got to watch the makers of all the various Indian sweets (which all involve either lots of oil, lots of sugar, lots of ghee, lots of pastry, and most commonly, a mix of all of these ingredients.) They graciously smiled for us and went about making their sweets with such speed and accuracy, sitting on the hard floor in the heat of a tiny kitchen area, surrounded by pots and pans, woks filled with boiling oil, vats of mixture and powders and other things, all bare footed and shirtless. It’s truly amazing, how these people work.
We had chai and samosas, and Salim ordered us a sweet he thought was the best for us to try – I’ve decided that I do not like Indian sweets (thank goodness, I do not need more sugar – the sugar in Chai is enough to fatten me up way more than I’d like!) , they all seem to taste the same to me; oily and overly sweet with a nothing-else taste. Indians sure love sugar. I’ll be lucky to leave this country without having developed diabetes simply from the few cups of chai I consume each day.
We visited the Dutch Palace which had some beautiful and incredibly detailed (so detailed it was overwhelming!) murals on several of the internal walls. It was really interesting.
We visited a spice market in action, as well as a ginger factory; both were fascinating to see but of course, we didn’t buy anything. Not that we wanted anything, but thankfully we can graciously use the excuse “Oh, we’re Australians – our customs have strict rules would confiscate anything we bought.” That excuse – which also happens to be true – actually works here, the locals say, understandingly, “ah, Australians. No, you can’t buy”, unlike in Sri Lanka where the sellers enthusiastically told us of course we can take fresh spice into our country.
Even though I’d specifically said NO SHOPS when we hired him, when it came to the end of the tour, Salim begged us to visit one shop for him – of course – so he could “get points”, ensuring we just have to walk in and look and leave. I begrudgingly dragged my ass from the tuk tuk, a little pissed but not surprised that we’d have to walk through a shop filled with wooden elephants, carpets, scarves and jewelery – none of which we want – and continually say no to pushy sales people.
Which, is exactly what we did, escaping – eventually – after the salesman had begged us to buy just one thing. “Not much money for you, just small money for you” he explained, further backing up his begging with a story that his boss will scold him and doesn’t like giving the staff their pay packets when they don’t actually make any sales, and that this business will most likely probably might be closing soon because it’s not doing good business without our single not much money sale…
The evening was spent wandering about and drinking copious cups of chai. We booked our train tickets to Goa tomorrow – we were only able to get Sleeper Class which will be… interesting to say the least – and took a stroll. We ended up back at the Chinese Fishing Nets where a fish auction was taking place as a boat had docked and was unloading new big fish.
Tomorrow we embark on our first Indian railway journey – a 14.5 hour sleeper class, 850km journey from Kochi, Kerala to Goa.