When talking about India people often say something along the lines of 'Expect the unexpected!', and 'Don't expect anything to go according to plan…'. And yes, I must admit my first taste of India certainly wasn't what I expected, but not for the obvious reasons…
That preconception of 'disorganisation' did not take long to surface. As we were sat on the Air Asia flight ready to depart KL for Kochi the Captain made an announcement. We were going to suffer a ‘slight’ delay as a passenger was having ‘issues’ at passport control and would not be allowed to board the flight, thus their luggage needed to be found and off-loaded. Still sat on the plane one hour later we were informed that it was now 30 people who had ‘issues’ and all their luggage needed to be off-loaded. After sitting on the plane for 2 hours we finally began moving and were soon airborne.
I have been warned by many people who have visited India to be prepared for a sensory overload, the craziness, the poverty and the mass of humanity that seems to sum up a country with a population of 1 billion +. All these comments seem to be perfectly in line with the documentaries and news reports I had seen on TV as well as newspaper articles and a few books I had read. Hence I was surprised by how ‘normal’ my first taste of India was. Maybe it is because of the 7 years I have spent in Cambodia, or maybe as one friend put it a few days before I left for India, ‘Kochi is a very soft introduction to India!’.
So yes, myself, my Khmer business partner Tina, her husband, her son and her parents all arrived in Kochi for a week. For me it was a quick initial taster of India just to ensure I didn’t totally hate the place before placing my order for a £2,500 custom built touring bike, for the others they were just intrigued after watching many Zee TV and Star World Indian films and soap operas which are shown on Cambodian cable networks.
Initially here’s a selection of some of the things that ‘surprised’ me:
Francis (not really the name I expected an Indian to have), the taxi driver who met us at the airport warned us that it was now ‘office-time’ i.e. rush hour, so would take some time to drive to our guesthouse. I was expecting grid-lock and mayhem. However, whilst there was ‘heavy-ish’ traffic we did not encounter any long queues throughout the 90 minute journey, and all the traffic was quite orderly, even by western standards, nothing like the free-for-all that epitomises Cambodian roads…
With the sense of excitement I always have when visiting a new destination I arose early on our first morning and went for a wander through the winding Fort Kochi streets and along the misty sea wall promenade. It was 7am and I was surprised to see that hardly any shops or street food sellers were open and not many people were out on the streets. Cambodia is a hive of activity by 6:30 in the morning. As it transpired most shops don’t open till about 10am. However, whilst exploring the colonial era lanes I did come across a park where a bunch of kids were playing an impromptu game of cricket – of course, what else!
I was also pleasantly surprised by how clean the streets were, no big piles of stinking trash at each corner. Even the numerous ‘everyday’ towns we drove through on the way up to Munnar all appeared clean and relatively orderly. Also I did not see any ‘holy’ cows roaming the streets, in deed Fort Kochi had goats roaming the street… Plus hardly any beggars or street kids…
Many of the local restaurants and cafes we visited had a menu written in English, very helpful. Yet surprisingly about 75% of what we ordered was met with the iconic Indian head wobble and ‘Sorry not have’. This really left us lost for words when shortly after arriving in Munnar, a small misty town up in the mountains surrounded by tea covered hills for as far as the eye can see and further, we sat down in a café and seeing that the menu had tea on it – of course – it was the obvious choice to order, ‘Sorry sir, tea no have’. We sat dumbfounded as we again looked out of the window to a hillside covered in tea bushes!!
Around Kochi and the 130km drive up to Munnar I was surprised by the countless numbers of churches and small shrines dedicated to saint this, saint that, and saint the other, yet only 3 or 4 hindu temples. Indeed, many of the Indian people we met had names such as Anthony, Francis, Paul etc. Obviously the legacy of the Portuguese, Dutch and British colonial preachers for the best part of 500 years…
Also around Kochi and on the drive through the numerous small towns on the way to Munnar I was surprised and struck by the prevalence of gold on red hammer and sickle communist flags and wall paintings. I really hadn’t imagined communism to have such a presence in democratic India. Indeed Communism and Christianity seem strange bed-fellows. Another very noticeable aspect of the drive was all the hand painted shop signs and roadside wall advertising making journeys and settlements very colourful, and much more ‘traditional’ than the oversized and overpowering modern billboards that were all pervasive.
According to the Rough Guide Kerala is one of the Indian states where the consumption of alcohol is the highest. However, surprisingly (and disappointingly) every ‘local’ restaurant we went to did not serve alcohol! Apparently alcohol can only be served in government licensed outlets / bars and there are only 350+ of these in the entire state. I walked past a few of these authorised bars, usually attached to a lower end hotel, and peering into them they did not look too welcoming, dark and dingy with no windows – definitely a male orientated bastion! I heard that the higher end, tourist orientated hotels and restaurants serve alcohol but it is pretty pricey. I did manage to consume one bottle of Kingfisher up in the mountains of Munnar. However, having said all that our driver did explain ‘Toddy Shops’ to me. I couldn’t quite figure out if they are actually legal or the local authorities just turned a blind eye, anyway these are where a lot of locals go to buy their alcoholic beverages. He informed me that traditionally ‘toddy’ was an alcoholic drink made from coconuts. Well I love coconuts so ‘toddy’ sounds tasty so I asked Francis if he would take me to a ‘Toddy Shop’. After turning down a side road for a couple of kilometres and driving through rice paddies Francis suddenly announces proudly, ‘Here is a ‘Toddy Shop’’. The only building in view is a low level rather stark looking concrete ‘home’ with no obvious signage outside. We pull into the earth driveway and a bear chested man wearing only a dhoti appears on the front porch. Francis and the man chat away in Malayalam, the Keralan dialect, and shortly after I am invited in. The interior is as stark as the exterior with empty walls and a few wooden benches and tables and no other ‘customers’. I sit on one of the benches just as the dhoti wearing man returns with a bottle of cloudy looking liquid and a small glass. I pour the liquid into the glass and bring it to my lips expecting a delicious coconut flavour, instead a not too pleasant aroma hits my nostrils. Taking a small sip the drink has very little semblance to the coconut from which it is derived, if anything it reminds me of the rice wine back in Cambodia, but not quite as harsh, which is far from the top of my favourite tipple list. With Francis and the dhoti man looking on, but not willing to join me, I feel obliged to finish the bottle. About 30 minutes later, feeling a little light headed, I am blinking as we re-enter the harsh midday sun light. Whist not being the finest alcoholic beverage out there I guess it does its job!
A very welcome surprise was that despite eating only in ‘local’ cafés and restaurants none of the 6 of us experienced the much moaned about ‘Dehli Belly’ In fact the only ‘Dehli Belly’ we did hear about were the many adverts for Aamir Khan’s recently released Bollywood movie of the same name!
And finally, not a surprise but a fact – very friendly people who are friendly questioning but not too intrusive. I had heard that Indians are the world’s greatest when it comes to staring, getting very up-close and personal to have a jolly good stare. I did not encounter this at all, sure people looked on from a respectful distance seeing a white man and a family of Asians, but no more than people from any other country when they see someone or something out of the ordinary.
So, with the many surprises out of the way let me tell you about some of the highlights.
Whilst the small town of Munnar itself is nothing to get too excited about its surroundings were beautiful, and apparently a popular destination for honeymooners. Endless mountain sides covered in the verdant green of tea plantations with their higgly-piggledy pattern, which from a distance look like mountains made from broccoli. This was the first time I had seen a tea plantation in real life and it was amazing. Seeing a small group of women hand plucking the tips from the bushes and placing them in hessian sacks on their backs took me back to childhood geography lessons and the image on the front of the ‘PG Tips’ box. The 35km switchback road from Munnar to Top Station is a true delight, passing lakes and climbing up through the mist to 1,900m passing some of the highest tea plantations in the whole of India. I felt a real sense of awe looking out across the tea covered mountains and valleys. Added to this the climate was wonderfully cool, below 15OC at night, I was thankful for the thick blanket the guesthouse provided!
Kerala has been a major spice grower / exporter since around 3000 BC, and this was the main reason for colonial interest, initially with the Portuguese in the 13th century. Just outside Munnar we visited a ‘spice garden’. For sure it was a very touristy set up and we were taken on a short ‘garden’ tour where examples of all the locally grown spices have been planted. It was interesting to see the true origin of household spices, a mixture of seeds, roots, leaves and bark. We were shown the following ‘plants’, cardamoms, ginger, pepper, nutmeg, cinnamon, tamarind, chillies, turmeric, cumin, all spice, and cloves amongst others. However, the one which really impressed me and which I hadn’t heard of before was ‘Stevia’. Our guide broke off a leaf and motioned for me to chew it. Wow! how sweet, the leaf tasted just like sugar! Apparently it is used as a natural herbal sweetner, especially for those on low-sugar diets. It is particularly popular in Japan, they even use it in the production of Coca Cola, yet some other countries have bizarrely banned it, the USA being one of those. It has been said that as stevia is a naturally occurring sugar substitute it cannot be patented and it would pose a big threat to the US based commercial production of the artificial sweetner Aspartame.
Two nights in a row we feasted on excellent seafood and fish freshly caught in the iconic Fort Kochi Chinese fishing nets. As the sun begins to set over the sea we watched 4 wiry looking guys pulling on ropes attached to cantilevered teak logs, counterbalanced with large boulders tied to the wooden arms by alarmingly looking frayed ropes. Slowly, with black ravens crawing and swooping overhead expectantly waiting for any cast-offs they can get hold of, the net raises out of the water. Once it is fully raised one of the guys goes and transfers the haul to a smaller net and brings it ashore emptying it into a bucket. Quickly the catch is sorted into different types of fish, prawns, squid and the occasional crab if lucky. Inspecting what is on offer we take 3kgs of prawns, a mix of white, brown and tiger of various sizes, a kilo of silver pomfret, and a couple of red snapper – as fresh as can be! Then it was off to a nearby ‘street’ restaurant where they cooked our catch – steamed, grilled and curried. The prawns have to be the best I have ever tasted…
And talking of super fresh food – one afternoon we decided we would take some meat along to the ‘bring your own food and we’ll cook it’ restaurant. We hopped into an auto-rickshaw and asked him to take us to a local market where they sell meat. He looked a little confused. ‘We want to buy meat’, another quizzical look, ‘Ummm meat, you know, pork, beef, chicken…’, ‘Ah, ah, chicken I know!’ with a wobble of the head, and with that we were off put-putting around the winding back streets of Fort Cochi. After a few minutes he slows to a stop and motions across the road to a narrow alleyway. Looking into the alleyway, which had a small open sewer running along its length, there was definitely no sign of a market, it was now our turn to look confused. Looking back at the rickshaw driver he once again waved his hand in the direction of the alley saying ‘OK, go, chicken have’. With some scepticism, and holding our breath to avoid the smell, along the alley we went. After about 50m it opened up into what appeared to be the courtyard of someone’s home. Suddenly a head popped out of a window of a small concrete building and looked at us. Rather bashfully and with a shrug of the shoulders I said, ‘Chicken?’, to which the man smiled, his head disappeared and a few moments later, whilst pulling on an apron, he was walking across the courtyard towards a chain link ‘workshop’ that I hadn’t really noticed before. ‘How many? He asked, ‘One…’ I guessed. As he opened the door of the workshop and bent over a low wooden panel I suddenly realised what was happening, and sure enough he straightened up holding a flapping and squawking chicken by the neck for us to inspect. Well at this point the squimmish me took hold and I walked back around the corner of his home and allowed Mao to take control of the deal. Just as I was out of sight I heard the final death squawk and within five minutes we were presented with a plastic bag full of skinned, gutted and chopped chicken…
I chose a Sunday to go and explore Ernakulum, the main city area of Kochi, not a wise decision. After getting off the ferry from the island of Fort Kochi I headed straight to the normally bustling Market Street, only to be greeted with metal shuttered shop fronts along its entire length. Initially confused I suddenly realised it was the ‘Holy Day’, Sunday, and I guess this heavily Christian area still respects the ‘Day of Rest’. It very much reminded me of England 30 years ago, the days before 24/7 retail therapy took precedence over religion.
So, whilst my visit to Kochi and Munnar were not at all what I was expecting from the country, and although I did not feel the ‘buzz’ that I had anticipated I certainly enjoyed the 6 day taster. From the very small ‘snapshot’ that I experienced it all appeared quite civilised and organised – two words I didn’t think I would be using to describe India!
As I boarded the bus back to the airport I took one final look at the raised fishing nets standing proud in the midday sun, and the ferry approaching across the strait from Vypeen Island, and with a touch of excitement and nervousness realised that the next time I see those nets would be when I am on that ferry with my bike having cycled all the way from Mumbai!!