India, days 1/2: Kochin

The initial shock of India, despite being much described in Shantaram and similar lit and films (Best Marigold Hotel, beloved by pensioners world-over), was mild. After the descent from the clouds, there was a shock of the green, lush growth, then touchdown. That was followed by a relatively clean and orderly course though the airport building teeming with returning pilgrims, some of whom had green or blue appendages over their headscarves, touting their travel agency.

The approach to the city was long, though lush and emerald green, passing over the backwaters and was finshed by a nice boat-ride to Fort Kochin, the oldest part, which served as trading port for centuries. Fort Kochin, after centuries of being a key post on the spice route and being ruled by the Portuguese, the Dutch and the English, is now a bit of tourist town, with two notable colonial churches, a mucky beach opening towards an LNG port and a row of scenic and creaking Chinese fishing nets, which were first erected in 14th Century. There are food stalls, homestays and lots of shops selling authentic wares, all of them a bit sleepy given the small tourist population these days.

Neighbouring Mattancherry district, however, is a bustling mess of small shops, wandering goats, and mucky canals. There is also a big, slightly derelict palace the colonialists built to keep the local ruling family sweet, and a synagogue, which only adds to the already amazing religious variety in town (there is also a large Christian community, much of it belonging to CSI – Church of South India). The streets are filled with tuk-tuks buzzing back and forth, and all sorts of craftsmen. The smell of Kochi and its canals is pungent, and made me appreciate why strong, overpowering perfumes are favoured in the Middle and South Asia. Thankfully, there are scent and spice shops a plenty, all asking you to have a look.

Funnily enough the streets of Kochin reminded me a lot of Gornji Stoj, an unlovely village in Montenegro close to Ada Bojana. Stoj, however does not nearly as illustrious or exciting a history, but its founders and denizens seem to have taken a lot of architectural and urbanist cues from India, if not the lush vegetation and general friendliness.

The heat and humidity made a tad dizzy, and thus the highlights of my days were a long nap and a 12 hour sleep, aided by a super-strong bottle of King Fisher and a decent, north-Indian thali. This afternoon, my adventurous friend (aka F), spotted a local session of potion brewing. The resulting produce, which supposedly helps with ailments ranging from headache to paralysis, was tested on a few onlookers, including us by smearing the oily liquid containing numerous herbs, over our brows and on our nostrils. Given my profuse sweating, some of the liquid instantaneously ended up in my eyes, so I started tearing up, losing my street cred.

Given the small number of tourists, we only managed to speak with three, all of whom were expats in the UK, who returned home. One was a Maltese programmer who came to India to learn about the culture of his beloved. The others were a Kiwi guy and his Kiwi-sounding-yet-Dutch girlfriend who are on a long trip around India, enjoying the free time after abandoning London.

We also made acquaintance with a few fishermen who allowed us to tamper with their motorised 14th Century Chinese nets. They were sweet, gregarious and took photos of us. They also suggested a donation of 1000 rupees, afterwards, yet were content with 100. Not to forget there were also a lot of touts, all of whom are excited to find out where we are from. They seem to know about Croatia, less so about Serbia. We always tell them we’ll come back. We never do. But it’s ok.

Food wise it is as amazing as expected, there was a decent meal at the Crafters, where we had amazing local appams (pancakes made of rice flower) and vegetable stew. Then I was brave enough to have some veggie bhajis from a street stall ( meaning: not brave at all given their deep-fried goodness) and then we finished it off at a swanky Mahabad Junction hotel, where we had good Mahi-Mahi fish, lovely curries all in a nouvelle-cuisine-y setting with lovely music playing on the patio.

The adventures should start properly tomorrow, as we go to Munnar, the mountainous, tea growing district.

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