There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Saturday, 12 March 2016

Kochi, a Second Visit: Part 16 of India's Deep South

We said goodbye to the Xandari Pearl Resort; we had enjoyed a couple of days of idleness beside the sea but that was about as long as we can cope with doing nothing.

The 45km journey to Kochi took us along the coast, an area with many Christians and Thomas proudly pointed out some magnificent churches. Most impressive was the Roman Catholic Basilica of St Andrew in the village of Arthunkal. The first church here was built by Portuguese missionaries in the 16th century, but the current building dates from 1640. In 1647 a sculpture of St Sebastian pierced with arrows was brought from Milan and Arthunkal has since become a major centre of pilgrimage, particularly in the fortnight around St Sebastian’s feast day, January 20th, when the statue is carried in procession down to the sea. For some reason the pilgrimage attracts Hindus as well as Christians, but all are welcome.

St Andrew's Basilica, Arthunkal, Kerala
Further on, crossing one of the many waterways, we paused to photograph the 'Chinese' fishing nets (they are unknown in China). Although usually associated with Kochi they can be found all over the Backwaters.

'Chinese' fishing nets on a waterway south of Kochi
We reached Kochi around 9.30 and met local guide R in the Fort Cochin district.

The final day of our travels took us to Kochi
Our first stop was at the Church of St Francis. India's first European church was built on this site by the Portuguese in 1506. That wooden construction was replaced by the present building ten years later. When the Dutch took Cochin in 1663 the church converted to Protestantism and then, after the British arrived in 1795, it became Anglican.

The Church of St Francis, Kochi
We visited Kochi on our first Indian trip in 2009, and that tour also started here. That was pre-blog, but I wrote a post about the church and its empty grave of Vasco da Gama in 2011 (Kochi and Lisbon: The Two Graves of Vasco da Gama). It looked the same today, except for more scaffolding and fewer Gulf War generals.

Inside the Church of St Francis, Kochi
We told R this was our second trip to Kochi and he paused, looked at us and said ‘I thought we had met before.’ We too had been wondering, but that settled it, he was the same guide. ‘I'll find something different,’ he said.

But we could not miss the fish market which is the natural next stop after the church. Last time we were photographed with a small tuna,…

Us with a tuna, Kochi fish market, March 2009
…this time we photographed some pearl spots, tasty little fishes that make the perfect Keralan lunch.

Pearl Spots, Kochi fish market
The market is behind the most famous line of Chinese fishing nets. We did not go there with R last time, nor this, but in 2009 we walked there in the afternoon. In March little swims in this water and the operators are mainly fishing for tourists. For a fee, the net operators will allow you to do their job for them and we hung around until we were hooked and reeled in.

So called Chinese fishing nets, Kochi (march 2009)
The mechanism is more subtle than at first sight, large stones dangling from the ropes act as counterbalances so the net can be hauled up with relative ease, though the net captain kept telling us not to look up as we pulled.

Hauling up the Chinese Fishing net, Kochi (March 2009)
Our catch amounted to one small fish; with another small fish and a few chapattis we could have fed 5,000, but one small fish was only worth donating to a cat. He humbly showed his gratitude, as cats do - or rather don't.

Our catch disappears (March 2009)
Last time R took us straight to Mattancherry which is still home to the spice market, though on-line trading has removed the spectacle…

Mattancherry, Kochi
…and to the Pardesi synagogue which I blogged about in 2012 (Three Favourite Synagogues.)

Pardesi Synagogue, Mattancherry, Kochi
This time we lingered in Fort Cochin while R pointing out examples of Dutch and British architecture…

Dutch style? or British? I do not know, but not Indian, anyway, Kochi

 …(though we were not always sure which was which)...

Same caption as above
...and then took us to Santa Cruz Basilica, Kochi’s Roman Catholic Cathedral. There has been a church on this site since 1658, but Santa Cruz was dedicated in 1905 and was given Basilica status in 1984.

Santa Cruz Basilica Cathedral, Kochi
Cleaning work was going on and there were several No Entry signs but R marched straight past them, ‘My uncle was Monseigneur here for 25 years,’ he said as though this freed him from the obligation to observe signs.

The interior was more ornate than other Keralan churches we have visited…

Santa Cruz Basilica Cathedral, Kochi
…and having the Stations of the Cross painted onto the wooden ceiling was unusual.

Stations of the Cross, Santa Cruz Basilica Cathedral, Kochi
From here drove we through what R called the ‘Hindu district’ passing a small temple where donations of salt were apparently the norm (he had no explanation)…

Small Hindu temple and salt (no I don't understand, either), Kochi
 …past a small chapatti factory...

Small chapatti factory - or are they poppadums? Fort Cochin
…and on to the laundry. This is not the first laundry we have visited on our Indian travels. In Lucknow we had seen clothes washed in the Gomti River, here the washers thrashed and scrubbed in numbered booths.

Laundryman in numbered, Kochi Laundry 
The clothes moved onto the drying area, some on lines...

Drying clothes, Kochi Laundry
…others on the ground. We have seen whites dried on dirtier ground than this, but somehow they always come out looking immaculate.

textiles drying on the ground, Kochi laundry
Then to the ironing room. Most of the irons are electric, if ancient…

Ironing room, Kochi laundry
 ….but some are heated by glowing charcoal.
Not all irons are electric, Kochi laundry
Leaving the laundry we circumnavigated the vast Thirumala Devaswom Temple whose blank wall was forbidding…

Dull  and forbidding wall round  Thirumala Devaswom Temple, Kochi
…. and whose entrance bore a sign saying ‘Hindus only’. This is often the way in Kerala; Tamil Nadu temples are generally more welcoming.

The entrance to Thirumala Devaswom Temple, Kochi
The temple is on the boundary of Fort Kochi and Mattancherry, and we continued east to Mattancherry Palace, built in 1865 for the Maharajah of Kochi and now a museum. We visited in 2009 as well and on both occasions I totally failed to make it look remotely like a palace despite photographing various parts of the huge building from several angles. The Kerala style slatted windows and low eaves kept the interior cool but the elegance of the Kings of Travancore’s palaces at Padmanabhapuram and Trivandrum was entirely absent. It houses the Maharajah’s collection which includes some remarkable palanquins and a forgettable selection of paintings, sculptures, weapons and coins.

Mattancherry Palace
We said goodbye to R and turned towards the airport. At Kochi the Kerala backwaters reach the sea and the city consists of fragments of land separated by fingers of water. The city’s oldest parts, Fort Cochin and Mattancherry, lie on a peninsula and our route to Ernakulum, the modern city required us first to cross onto Willingdon Island.

Building a deep water port for Kochi required much dredging and the silt produced was dumped on a small rocky outcrop. By the time the port was finished in 1936 the outcrop had grown into an island 5km long and up to 3km wide, named Willingdon Island after the then Viceroy of India. A naval base and aerodrome were built and at independence these were handed over to the Indian forces. Further building has seen the island become part of the city’s commercial hub.

Over to Willingdon Island, Kochi
Rounding the end of the airfield we passed a couple of parked lorries with traditional paintwork….

Decorated lorry, Willingdon Island, Kochi
…and then left the island heading towards Ernakulum with the Cochin Shipyard to our left.

Over to the mainland by the Cochin Shipyard, Kochi
Ernakulum is a great place if you want to buy shoes or furniture, but not so good if you just want lunch. Eventually Thomas spied a small restaurant, one of a chain, he said, specialising in biryani. There was nowhere to park, but the management were so keen on our custom, they fetched the owner of a motorbike to shift his vehicle to let us could park outside.

We ordered Biryanis, mutton for Thomas and me, fish for Lynne. Biryani, of a sort, appears on the menu of every ‘Indian’ restaurant in Britain, but we had never before seen fish as an option. We ordered some water and as the waiter poured in the chilled drink Thomas’ glass exploded distributing itself and its former contents all over the table. We were a little taken aback, but the staff treated it as an everyday occurrence, moving us to another table and mopping up the one we had left. They need to change their glass supplier.

If this was a work of fiction I would finish on a stronger anecdote, but this being as truthful a record as I can manage, the exploding glass is all I have.

We ate our Biryanis (competent but not memorable) like condemned prisoners. It had been a memorable trip, but now there was nothing left to write about except the journey home.

A bucket salesman on the way to the airport provided one last picture, the rest was hard travelling but uneventful, which is as good as long-haul flying gets.

Plastic bucket salesman between Kochi and the airport
So our journey through India’s Deep South has come to an end. We had visited established tourist attractions, like Mysore and the Kerala Backwaters, and been to places where foreigners are rarely seen, like Rameswaram and Kanyakumari. I loved them all.

Finally Thank you….

To Pioneer Personalized Holidays of Willingdon Island, Kochi who made all the land arrangements with commendable efficiency.

And, most importantly, to Thomas Matthew who kept us safe through 1,600km of India’s often challenging traffic.

Thomas at Lamb's Rock, Coonoor
On two trips with Thomas (2010 and 2016) we have come to know him well. Cheerful and obliging, well informed about India and the outside world, a man of compassion who understands how things work and speaks better English than most ‘professional English-speaking guides,’ we have come to regard him as not just a driver but also a friend and travelling companion. I hope we will travel with him again some time.

India's Deep South


Friday, 11 March 2016

Marari Beach, Rest, Recreation and Refuse: Part 15 of India's Deep South

9th, 10th and 11th of March 2016

The village of Mararikulam is only 11km north of Alapuhzza so we arrived before midday.

Mararikulum  is too close to Alapphuza to mark on a map of this scale
The area was new to Thomas and in finding the Xandari Pearl Resort he was quick to seek directions from locals. Lynne pointedly approved; ‘so unlike your idiotic self’ being the unspoken implication.

The village is a ribbon development with a school, a couple of small shops and several well separated resort hotels.

The Xandari Pearl opened last year and while leading us to our bungalow the receptionist told us proudly of their green credentials. They grow all their herbs and vegetables, source fish from the local fishermen and have their own drinking water supply. The grounds contain 600 coconut trees and numerous mangoes and cashews.

Cashew nut, Marari Beach
‘We are very health-conscious,’ she continued, ‘so we serve fruit juice, tea and coffee but no alcohol.’ She tried to sell this as a plus, but whether as a consequence of Kerala’s semi-prohibition (we had met the same problem in another new hotel in Munnar) or of a Muslim management’s conscious decision, it was bad news to those who feel that hot days by the seaside without cold beer are like idlis without chutney. The nearby alternatives amounted to… well… nothing, so we would have to suck it up – or, more precisely, not suck it up. Fortunately enough rum had survived for pre-dinner drinks or night caps - or both on the last day.

Our bungalow was like a small Portuguese villa, painted white inside and out,.....

Our white painted bungalow, Xandari Pearl Resort, Marari Beach
 ….with a curving white wall enclosing a private garden.

A glass or rum in our private garden, Marari Beach
The interior was light and spacious with a door through to the outside bathroom; the toilet and washbasins under cover, the shower (and a small garden) surrounded by another curving white wall. I love showering in the fresh air - and the shaving mirror never mists up - but this was the finest outside shower we have yet encountered. The only drawback is that when visiting the bathroom at night, the step from the air conditioned interior to the hot bathroom (and it remains hot even in the hours before dawn) takes your breath away, while the return resembles entering an ice box.

Looking from the covered section of the bathroom to the outside shower, Marari Beach
I shall not bother with an hour by hour account of our three night stay as much of it involved lazing by the pool,...

Lounging by the pool, Marari Beach
…or wallowing in it.

Wallowing in the pool, Marari Beach
We ate breakfast, lunch and dinner at the hotel restaurant; there was nowhere else within walking distance and no tuk-tuks in Mararikulum. It seemed expensive at first – a single chapatti cost more than a ‘pure veg meal’ outside - but it was appropriate for the standard of the hotel and cheap enough by international standards. The menu was not long with full meals and lighter bites, and there was little that one or other (or both) of us did not sample. Seer fish in a masala crust, spicy tomato and vegetable soup, Kerala fish curry with tamarind and coconut, chicken salad with papaya dressing, chicken stuffed with nuts, vegetables and lime, lamb in yogurt gravy with hot pepper sauce and desserts of ice cream or vatalappam (coconut custard with jaggery, cashews, cardamom, cloves, and nutmeg) were all elegantly presented and straddled European and Indian traditions without insulting either. The Indian mackerel, selected from the fresh fish trolley, filleted then fried with a masala crust and served with ‘English’ vegetables was particularly good.

We drank lime juice or water (though cold beer would have been better). Carafes of the hotel’s spring water were set out an hour or more before serving. Sitting by the pool a raised arm would bring a carafe of water with floating lemon (good) and cucumber (not so) but that was never chilled either.

Breakfasts were good, there was a buffet but Indian breakfasts could also be ordered. My dosa with chutneys and sambar looked as good as it tasted.

Dosa with chutneys and sambar
We walked down to the village, the road was narrow and busy and there was nothing to see. At what we took for the centre we turned towards the beach passing a Hindu shrine,….

Hindu shrine, Marari Beach
… a Christian shrine….

Christian shrine, Marari Beach
…and a pool where one man cast his net, though there was an ocean less than 100m behind him.

A pool where one (eccentric?) man chose to fish, Marari Beach
We returned along Marari Beach, walking two of the ‘eleven kilometres of golden sand lapped by the warm blue Arabian Sea’ to quote the brochures. It is the home of fishermen and, around the water mark, as many small crabs as I have ever seen. Largely undeveloped, Marari Beach is in its natural condition, which unfortunately means covered in the detritus of our civilization, plastic bottles, single sandals, floats, pieces of rope, and more than a few things on whose origins I would not care to speculate. There were also ample dog faeces and a dead waterfowl, its decaying corpse being rolled in the shallows by the incoming waves. It is not the beach that dreams are made of, though it could be if the hotels cooperated to clean it up.

Marari Beach, Kerala
The white objects standing on their ends are polystyrene fishing boats (see below)
We spent a little time on the beach every day, accessed through the coconut palms and past a hut where a security guard ensured no undesirables found their way into the hotel's somewhat exclusive version of paradise. He gave us a cheery wave as we came and went, few of the other guests ever ventured out and I think he was glad to see somebody.

As we walked one afternoon a child appeared from the trees. 'Hello, where do you come from?' she asked. Lynne told her. 'What is your name?' She told her that too and, just as in the schoolbook this conversation comes from she asked 'and what is your name?' It was long and complicated as so many names are in southern India. Then the girl said 'Money.' 'No,' Lynne answered and she went away. She did not look ragged or poor, she was just trying it on. Tourism brings jobs and development, but not all its effects are benign.

We sat and watched the crabs popping up out of their burrows and scuttling along the sand. We watched the dogs, too who seem to live in the beach, chasing the crabs every time they put in an appearance. Perhaps the crabs are part of their diet - maybe most of their diet. The time spent pointing my camera at crabs who scuttled off as I was focusing was eventually rewarded with one decent photo.

Ghost crab, Marari Beach
There are 22 species of ghost crab. This is (probably) Ocypode Brevicornis or Ocypode  macrocera
I snapped a couple of birds as well, a stint or sandpiper of some description...

A stint or sandpiper of some description, Marari Beach
 …and an Asian dowitcher. I know little about birds and if anybody challenges my identifications I will quickly back down.

Asian dowitcher (I think) Marari Beach
 Of the fishermen, some threw their nets while wading in the shallows, others unfurled them from the usual local fishing boat…

The standard fishing boat along this coast
….while others pottered along on the polystyrene craft that can be seen all over the beach. Light and cheap they are popular with poorer fishermen, but although the boats are not very durable their constituent parts are almost indestructible and add yet more to the refuse on the beach.

Fisherman on a polystyrene boat
Lynne was happy to paddle in the warm water but regarded the steeply shelving beach and occasional waves with alarm.

Lynne paddles in the Arabian Sea, Marari Beach
Unlike Lynne I am naturally drawn to water, but I inspected the waves warily.

Watching the waves warily, Marari Beach
I had seen the filth on the beach and suspected the water might be the same. I could not see any floating turds or rotting cadavers, so I took my shirt off and waded gingerly forward. But the danger does not come from what you can see; was I walking into a broth of cholera, diphtheria and a dozen more deadly diseases I have never heard of and have no immunity to? I was still debating with myself when a sudden wave took the decision for me.

The wave makes the decision for me, Marari Beach
After that I might just as well swim. I did not stay in long and I kept my mouth shut tight, though doubtless there are a dozen other ways for death to gain entrance. [update June 2017. I can confidently say I came to no harm. I can also say I have swum in the Arabian Sea.]

Floating in the Arabian Sea, Marari Beach
Each evening we went to the beach at sunset. This has been a theme throughout this holiday, indeed in the whole blog, and our failures continued on Marari Beach. Since we reached the west coast the sun has regularly disappeared not into the sea but into a band of clouds above the horizon.

The sun about to sink into the clouds, Marari Beach
That is all I have to say about the Xandari Pearl Resort beside Marari Beach. It is a lovely hotel, the bungalows are all you could want, the surroundings are beautiful, the staff friendly and efficient - pity about the lack of a drinks licence. And why do Marari's collection of upmarket hotels not get together to clean up their shared beach - it is a disgrace.

India's Deep South