Kerala is a real melting pot, and the coastal city of Kochi is a perfect example of the cultural mishmash of India's southwestern corner. On the way to Kochi I spotted plenty of Christian churches, which is unusual for India, and I also spotted lots of political flags smothered in hammers and sickles; Kerala was the first state in the world to freely elect a communist government, and it still has communist rulers. In Kochi itself things are even more blatant; 20 per cent of Kerala is Christian, but you could be forgiven for thinking it's a much higher proportion.
From statues of Jesus holding out his hands in supplication to signs declaring that 5 March is 'Stalin Remembrance Day', Kochi feels different from the rest of India in more ways than one. Even the locals seem more friendly and relaxed than usual, and as I took the ferry from Kochi's twin town Ernakulam across the bay to Kochi itself, I fell into conversation with a middle-aged man from Bangalore who was visiting with his girlfriend. He gleefully told me all about the three-week holiday he was on, and as the boat plied its way across the harbour mouth, the conversation flowed freely.
'We took a lovely trip up into the hills yesterday, about 100km on the bus,' he said.
'Oh yes?' I said. 'How was it?'
'Wonderful. We walked up into the top of the hills there, and the most amazing thing was the plants. 5 ft high, they were, all growing wild in front of our very eyes.'
'Plants? Err... yeah, right, sounds great.'
'Yes, and they just chop the leaves off as they need and leave the rest to grow naturally.'
'It was great. We bought five tolas of oil for a great price.'
And then it clicked. A tola is 11.6 grams, and it's the weight system used for selling hashish, marijuana, bhang or whatever else the locals need to maintain their red-eyed look of wonderment. My new-found friend kept talking, unconcerned by the turn our conversation had taken, and proceeded to try to persuade me that I should buy one of his tolas at the knockdown price of 400 rupees, 'a lot less than I'll get when I go to Goa and sell it to the tourists there,' he said.
But I was on the ferry to catch the sights of Kochi, a difficult prospect through the haze of hash oil, so I thanked him for his kind offer and slipped into the crowds on the ferry terminal, quite happy just to get high on my surroundings.
The Backstreets of Kochi
Kochi has a wonderfully eclectic collection of Portuguese churches and backstreets with a Jewish overtone, not to mention a beach with the strangest fishing tackle you've ever seen; it's a superb place to wander round on a lazy Sunday afternoon. The imposing St Francis' Church is the oldest western church in India, with the original building dating from 1503 (by contrast, St Mary's in Chennai is the oldest British church, dating from 1678). One Sunday, outside the church, I watched a cricket match played out under the shade of the palm trees, complete with cricket whites, a manual scoreboard and locals playing their own games of catch round the boundary, oblivious to the action on the pitch.
Meanwhile, out on the bay, the fishermen operate their Chinese fishing nets. These strange wooden constructions consist of huge nets attached to one end of a long pole that can be raised and lowered by judicious use of counter-weights and levers. The actual catch they get is pretty poor, probably due to the large numbers of container ships docking in Kochi's busy docks, but the contraptions themselves are quite an attraction, whatever the results.
And down the road from the ferry terminal is Jewtown – yes, it's actually called that – which was originally set up in 52 AD at the time of St Thomas the Apostle's voyage to India. By all accounts the Portuguese, who arrived here some 500 years ago and a few hundred years after Jewtown had been founded, were quite surprised to find a Christian presence already here; they weren't so impressed, though, with the locals' total ignorance of the Pope. Jewtown, which is now reduced to an old synagogue and a few little backstreets crammed with craft shops and spice traders, is a picturesque and slightly unusual area, and although the number of resident Jews has reduced drastically, it still retains the feel of a suburb apart from the rest of Kochi.
It's also home to Mattancherry Palace, a decrepit old building that contains some of the best Hindu mural paintings I have seen, depicting scenes from the Ramayana and Mahabharata. Top of the list is a cheeky little scene of Krishna, everyone's favourite wide-boy, fondling a number of blissfully happy milk maids with his two feet and six hands, while at the same time playing the flute and getting quite a few rub-a-dub-dubs himself in return. Good old Hinduism: Christianity and Islam could learn a few things about being happy from the Hindu legends.
Returning to my hotel by ferry after a truly worthwhile wander around Kochi, I grabbed some supper and set out to explore Ernakulam, the main city of the two and home to the larger hotels, the biggest shops and the most insane rickshaw drivers. And to my amazement I discovered something that would be more at home in a coastal town in England than in India: Ernakulam has a promenade. Ignore, if you will, the piles of discarded packaging drifting into mounds round the tree trunks and the familiar smell of half-decomposed sewage wafting off the humid bay, and you have what is, by definition at least, a promenade. The clientele aren't quite the Edwardian couple with parasol and pram, but what the strollers lack in aesthetics they more than make up with their numbers. Backing this aromatic concrete pathway are huge posters of Christ1 and large tower blocks whose lobotomised architects obviously thought that the Stalin era had the art of building down to a tee; but surely the most astounding fixture on this seaside extravaganza is the bridge.
Bathed in the saffron suffusion of sodium lights, the Ernakulam walkway bridge is like something out of The Jetsons and is just as anachronistic. Made from finest concrete, with steel hawsers artistically supporting the structure's roof, it's a favourite spot for the locals to hang around looking cool, shooting the breeze and inhaling the heady fumes of the nearby sewers. Perhaps the popularity of the bridge has something to do with the four ice cream kiosks sitting on either side of the small canal that the bridge crosses, which themselves are protected from the outside world by huge piles of discarded ice cream tubs. But whatever the magnetism of the thing, walking across it is like running the gauntlet.
Coming from the comparative darkness of the promenade, where homely couples take their little children for a stroll to sample the fresh sea breeze, the sodium shockwave of the bridge is like turning the corner into a boy racer's Escort with all its extra headlights on high beam. Smarting from the glare, I wandered across the centre of this space-age monstrosity in a bit of a daze, only realising when halfway across that everyone lining the bridge's railings was staring right at me. Pausing only to make sure that there was nothing obviously wrong with my appearance, I met a few gazes head on, smiling my teeth off in a show of bravado matched only by the terminally stoned or the incredibly rich; of course, following the rules of Indian engagement to the letter, those who caught my beaming gaze smiled back with genuine glee. This is the Indian reaction to westerners: they're delighted to be singled out of the crowd and smiled at, and a little embarrassed to have been caught ogling you in the first place. This is why I grin at absolutely everyone in India; they love it so, and the response is an instantaneously heart-warming grin that makes ecstasy look like aspirin. You've just got to love the locals round here...
1 Christ gave me the spooks in Southern India. Perhaps it's too much exposure to images like the Turin Shroud, but the pictures of Jesus smothered over Kerala made me think of graveyards at night and that incredibly disturbing glazed look on yer man's face as he bleeds to death on the cross. Normally pictures of the Son of God are faintly comforting, even if I don't actually worship his dad, but in Kerala I found myself preferring Krishna fondling the milk maids to the bearded distress of the crucifixion.