India | Cochin: January 18-23, 2009

January 18th, 2009

Yesterday there was supposed to be the Elephant March (the main reason we actually came to Thrissur)… and well… we didn’t get to experience it! Apparently, it only happens in a few select villages and the actual March that leaves Thrissur and goes all the way to Trivandrum was cancelled a few years ago. Well, thanks Internet… for the misinformation! Ah well! No biggie, since we did some of the festivities on TV taking place in a small village. This too, apparently, we could’ve caught it if we’d left earlier today. However, none of the hotel staff was even aware of this event. Besides, it looked quite a bit crowded, so we rationalized to ourselves that it was all for the better. So, we just did some work today, ordered in from the hotel, and retired late at night.

Today we took a taxi from Thrissur to Cochin – a 2 hour journey. Before leaving Thrissur, we checked out one of its main cathedrals – the Basilica of our Lady of Dolores, or Puthen Palli as it’s known locally. It was a stunning, white church with quite a tall steeple that could be seen from anywhere in Thrissur. It was actually immensely pretty set against the cloudless blue sky. Inside this large cathedral, we saw a very simple approach to Gothic architecture, comprised of large blue arches and brown columns. Even the main altar was fairly humble, yet impressive. We left Thrissur and after an uneventful two hours, we reached Cochin. It’s a large city and thankfully, we weren’t staying in it. We’d booked a hotel in the historic Fort Cochin area, a more touristy area that was right next to the sea. On the way there, we passed a large river that separated Cochin from Fort Cochin and apparently this river – the Periyar – is part of the large network of waterways and canals that forms what is known as the “Backwaters” of Kerala. One could hop on a boat and travel deep into the interior of Kerala on the backwater alone. However, we weren’t exploring the backwaters in Cochin; we’re leaving that for Alleppey, widely regarded as the heart of backwater country.

We checked into our hotel, opting for a larger room than we’d reserved. It was a clean and decent hotel; however since Karthik’s not feeling too well, we’re just staying in today and possibly tomorrow as well. His throat is hurting and now he has a slight fever. Since he refuses to see a doctor, Penny’s given him some Tylenol, some homeopathic medicine, cold compresses on his head, and after some leg massage he’s finally fallen asleep! We’ll see how he feels tomorrow.

January 20th, 2009

The historic day of Barack Obama’s inauguration! Really been looking forward to this day for some time now, especially since Obama’s not been on the radar or news circuit for a while and we’ve been experiencing some sort of withdrawal. It’s sad, but true! After all the hype and everything, not so uplifting speech…but totally understandable that he’s in a “get things done” mode, and wanted to reflect that. Just giving hopes is not enough…and he’s acting accordingly. We continued to watch the coverage (we made sure this hotel had CNN!), the round of presidential inauguration rituals, the motorcade and walk down Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House, and all that jazz. Looking forward to how he shakes things up. We stayed up till 4 am, but had to hit the bed. Karthik’s still in pretty bad shape, nursing a fever, and coughing up all sorts of neat stuff. We’re extending our stay here, since Karthik will likely stay in tomorrow as well to get better.

January 22nd, 2009

Stayed in the past few days since Karthik was sick. Finally headed out today, taking an auto to one of the more historic and touristy portions of Fort Kochi. Glad we’re in this area, so we wouldn’t have had to run around for an hour to get somewhere. Driving around the area, it felt like going a bit into the past – a lot of old buildings, historic mansions, quaint little streets; a mix of Dutch, British, and local. We were dropped off by a local Dutch Palace. Some palace! It was old, beat-up building and we just said ‘pass!’ I’m sure whatever was inside might’ve knocked our socks off (even though we just wear sandals!), but c’mon, the Mysore Palace is a palace; this was an old shed with windows! After this, we were near the waterfront, and we observed the many large tankers, fishing boats, canoes, and tourist boats coursing their way along the wide waterways. There were also ads for backwater tours, but we’d wait till Alleppey.

We then walked and entered what was called Jew town – arts/crafts. Here, it was a complete tourist mecca! Supposedly, this is one of the few remnant Jewish communities in all of India and dates back to the times of Christ when holy men and traders alike from Palestine made their way here in search of fortune to make or a flock to lead. However, there were few visible ‘signs’ of it being a thriving Jewish community, since it was almost entirely populated by Western tourists and arts/handicraft shops. It was only in the lane containing the only synagogue that we saw some houses with the Star of David decorating the window grill or some Hebrew letters on a sign. We weren’t all that curious to check out the synagogue, so we checked out some of the art/crafts shops. One shop in particular had some pretty unique stuff – one item, a “tribal” Ganesh statue totally stood out and caught our eye. It was a tall, wiry bronze statue of what resembled the Lord Ganesh, except it was all minimalistic and tribal, right down to a thin, puny trunk. The stuff was all too expensive, however, and we weren’t in the mood for hardcore shopping just then.

We walked around, exploring the neighbourhood, spotting a few other unique establishments such as the Spice Shop, which was actually a chic boutique selling all sorts of crazy scented oils, perfumes, incense, books, and yes, spices! But, here was the MOST annoying thing - people staring constantly! It was the most pestering thing, sort of like a slow Chinese torture. What were we, freaks? It was just the locals that kept looking at us; of course, the exotic tourists were just a ‘normal’, everyday thing. Useless! So, it actually got to us to the point where we just said, screw it to Jew Town, and we hailed an auto outta there. We told the guy we were going to see a Kathakali (the main dance form of Kerala) performance in half an hour. He was a cool guy, so he took us along the scenic route. We stopped by a large cathedral, the main one in Cochin. It was about as big as the one we’d seen in Thrissur and styled in a similar form of architecture. However, the interior was a lot more ‘rustic,’ with wooden beams and lintels forming the ceiling. The columns and arches, however, were made of stone and decorated with colorful tiles. It seemed like a very humble, low-key place of worship. From there, we headed over to the theater where the dance performance would take place.

The theater was actually just a large room with a bunch of seats laid out, with the stage forming a semi-circle in the front. The stage itself was not too large, but not so tiny that a show couldn’t be put together. Around the stage near the ceiling were sculptures of hands in various poses, called “Mudras” – each of which has a unique meaning during a dance performance. We were here to actually watch the performers apply the colorful make-up that is so unique to this form of dance. There was an older man sitting on stage with his legs crossed, doing just that. He looked at the growing audience with a sort of “so this is who I’m entertaining tonight” half-smile. He had in front of him several containers containing all sorts of colorful powders, and most of the paint was made from mixing the powder with oil. There was also a mortar and pestle to grind and mix some powders together. It was pretty neat to watch this being done in front of our eyes. As we sat in the audience, some French woman started talking to Karthik… dunno how she figured out that we can put together a few French sentences, but she did. Imagine having that sort of assumption travelling in South India that a random Indian-looking dude (like Karthik) could speak French… not knowing of course of his many years spent in Montreal! Craziness!

In time, another performer came on stage – a younger guy already wearing some make-up and a ‘rim’ around the jawline. This rim is typical to the costume, as it frames the face along with make-up and a head crown to create the classic image of Kathakali. He too sat down and started applying make-up, this time more of the ‘green’ that completely covers the face and is also indicative of the Kathakali costume. We learnt that the green indicates a good character while red denotes bad or evil. At this point, a lot of the tourists came up to the stage to pose with this performer. He also made various facial expressions using his eyes, eyebrows, and mouth. It’s pretty cool just how expressive it becomes along with the vibrant and colorful make-up. Once they were done applying the make-up, they went backstage.

After this, a few guys walked on to the stage; the MC, the instrument players, and another performer (not wearing typical make-up). As the MC explained just how Kathakali works, the performer went into a routine of doing various eye and facial movement to portray the palette of human emotions, from joy and anger to jealousy and sadness. Although it looked a bit comical, it was fascinating to watch. So the dance combines facial expressions, costumes, hand positions, and music to bring about the entire performance – all without speaking a single word. The dance we were going to see tonight was about the story of a handsome prince who was being wooed by a female monster in the guise of a pretty woman. Interesting!

Both our friends walked onto the stage in full costume, the older man playing the role of the monster woman and the younger guy as the prince. The prince’s costume was quite impressive, with a tall crown, long dreadlocks, a huge billowing frock, and a large sword. All in all, it was convey royalty, awe, and respect. Somehow, the older man pulled off the role of the monster woman. So the story went on, set to the instruments and a classical singer – the monster trying to flatter the prince and convince him how wonderful a union with her would be; the prince rebuking the monster’s advances and claiming his father would be disapproving; and then the monster becoming increasingly aggressive out of desperation. Eventually, the monster became angry and reveals its true form, no longer disguised as a pretty woman. The prince stood up, disturbed and betrayed, pulls out his sword and mortally wounds the monster. The climax was quite something, with the music becoming loud and the expressions on the performers’ faces vivid and strong. Overall, we were satisfied with our Kathakali experience. Tired, however, from the day, we just grabbed an auto and headed back to the hotel.

That night, we were watching an interview on an Indian news channel with Anil Kapoor, Irfan Khan, Dev Patel – the actors from Slumdog Millionaire, joined by its director, Danny Boyle. It was really annoying to see how defensive Indian media is getting over this movie! Plus one of the leading actors in Bollywood, Amitabh Bachchan, slamming the movie due to its ‘unfair’ portrayal of India’s poverty. Man… get over it! It’s a good movie… and the majority of the population of this country IS poor. And so what’s wrong with showing that to the rest of the world?! Just because wealth and opportunity are coming to some classes of Indians doesn’t mean that you start to pretend that those at the bottom don’t exist anymore. So bloody annoying!

We then watched some news coverage of Obama in his first few days in office. He’s right on it… getting things done…passing executive orders… dishing them out one by one! Wicked! Super wicked!! Well… it’s off to bed now. Tomorrow we do some more sightseeing around Cochin, hoping Karthik continues to improve.

January 23rd, 2009

Today Karthik was feeling much better, so we headed out to check out more of Cochin. We (especially Karthik) had been looking forward to a performance of Kalaripayat, a martial arts form unique to Kerala. Sometimes called the father of all martial arts, it is the oldest form that is still practiced today. It is a style of defense and attack that is closely tied in with Ayurveda, the ancient Indian art of healing. The teachers have an intimate knowledge of pressure points all over the body, called “marma,” that can be used to paralyze someone, impair organ function or breathing, and as well, reverse these deadly moves to restore function and movement. This knowledge is only passed on to the pupil after twelve solid years of instruction. Kalaripayat is also known to use several types of weapons, including one called the “Urumi,” a long flexible sword that can injure or kill someone from a distance away. All in all, ‘cool’ stuff! A legend has it that an Indian sage/monk, Bodhidharma, came upon Kalaripayat, learnt it, and in his travels to China, founded the famous Shaolin monastery there based on what he had been taught.

So, armed with all this information about Kalaripayat, Karthik was looking forward to the performance quite eagerly and Penny too was intrigued and curious about the whole thing. The theatre itself was a low-key affair, with a few chairs arranged in front of a raised stone platform serving as a stage, behind which were many weapons hung on the wall. The structure itself was a large ‘hut’ with a thatched roof and it all seemed quite ‘authentic.’ The main instructor came on stage and introduced himself and his fellow martial artists, went on to describe the martial art for a bit, and started the show. They showed some basic warm-up sequences and then got into the fun stuff, like sparring with various weapons: sword and shield, bamboo staff, the urumi (long, flexible sword), spear, and even knife. They then proceeded to display some really impressive skills with hand-to-hand combat, demonstrating various ‘locks’ in which one can ‘freeze’ an opponent and render them immobile. These were the coolest part of the performance, because no matter which angle you attack, you can be brought down to your knees and crying out in pain! They showed several tackle-and-lock moves, each getting more and more complex. In some of them, one could simultaneously use their hands, knees, and elbows to lock an opponent in three to four different places!

The performance ended, and most of the audience had left. We approached the main instructor and gave him a ‘donation,’ thanking him for the show. After this, he insisted we stay and observe some more techniques, some of which he called ‘secret.’ One of the other artists came back on stage and proceeded to show some really, really impressive tackle-and-lock moves, some in which he was able to render two people motionless and locked, while still having an arm free to defend himself. Karthik was also encouraged to join in at this point. He showed Karthik how to defend onself against different attacks and involved him in some of the defensive techniques, bringing Karthik down like a big, stuffed doll with no difficulty! In one particular move, two other artists attacked him and were brought down and locked into place, upon which Karthik also attacked and was locked into place on the floor along with the other two! It was all pretty impressive and Karthik began to work up a sweat. We then thanked the martial artists for this ‘bonus’ show and with no major injuries, except those to Karthik’s ego, we left the theatre having thoroughly enjoyed the performance.

We began walking towards the waterfront area, towards the Fort Kochi beach and check out the famous Chinese fishing nets unique to Kerala. At the waterfront, there were tons of fish vendors with their goods spread out in front and it all smelt quite funky! We could then see the fishing nets and it was damn cool! Huge nets were spread out between really long trunks of wood and all this was balanced by a collection of heavy rocks, forming a sort of lift-and-pulley system. There were several such fishing nets in place, assembled on a makeshift wooden pier off the shore. And then we saw them in action! The fishermen lowered the massive nets into the water, waited for a while, and then lifted it all back up. Right now, there wasn’t much of a catch save for a few fish. Apparently, the best time for them to fish is the morning – we think most of this was being done for the tourists at this time of day!

We continued walking along the shore towards the setting sun, to find a spot we could just sit and see the sunset. It was a very rocky shore, so we just found a bunch of rocks on which to sit ourselves. Then came the dog! It was a stray dog, not a particularly endearing one at that. It had some sort of ‘red eye,’ and looked kinda crazy. Worried that it might bite us and give us rabies, we tried to shoo it away the best we could. It kept coming near us and we stood up, trying to balance ourselves precariously among the pile of rocks. Then, somebody else started throwing small pebbles at the dog and this did the trick. It went away, and we were left alone for a while. Then, after some time, it came back and started wandering the small beach in front of us, but keeping a distance away. Darn dog! We ignored it and enjoyed the sunset instead. It felt peaceful here, with the water in front of us, small boats meandering about, large fishing nets to our right, and the sun setting to our left. It was a chill scene. Then, as it started to get darker, we got up and walked back the way we came.

We were looking for an auto to take us back, but we just kept walking for a while. We passed by several ‘chic’ guesthouses, backpacker hostels, trendy restaurants, new-age Ayurvedic massage centers, hip cafes and expensive shops. This was definitely a spot catering to the Western tourist, of which we incidentally saw a lot of in Fort Cochin! This neighbourhood was definitely quite cool, but also outside our budget. We eventually got an auto, hopped in, and headed back to our hotel. We’d booked a taxi for tomorrow to take us to Alleppey, the entrance to the main backwaters of Kerala. Let’s hope the hotel we’ve booked turns out to be a decent one!

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