Now that I come to think of it, the last time I was in Kochi I spent a day wandering around the sights of Fort Cochin on the northern end of Kochi island, and another day killing time in Ernakulam, eating in the Indian Coffee House and enjoying a James Bond movie in the company of the locals. I didn't hang around, and two days was probably one too many. I'm glad to say that, nine years later, Kochi is still the kind of place that forces you to kick back and relax.
I say 'glad' because India is currently suffering from a heatwave, and when India suffers, I suffer along with it. According to the very friendly man in the Dal Roti restaurant in Lilly Street, Kerala is currently five degrees hotter than it should be, and even the locals are finding it a bit much. 'It is like April temperatures in March,' he said, and boy, I can believe it. As I write this, sheltering from the midday heat in the covered veranda of our homestay, I'm literally dripping with sweat, and all I'm doing is moving my fingers.
It's doubly hard, because for both of us, Kochi rocks. Unfortunately it also rolls, pitches, lurks and yaws, because even though it's 48 hours since we hopped off the houseboat, the whole planet feels completely unsteady under our feet. I really thought that the backwaters would have left us by now, but the humidity seems to be perpetuating our sense of giddiness, and the thwack-thwack of fans everywhere adds to the constant feeling of movement. Perhaps we will get back home to find that southern India has officially turned to jelly in the heat; it certainly feels like it has, anyway.
So we've been hiding from the heat, and I've been desperately trying to stem my natural impulse, which is to don my bush hat, pop open the umbrella, and go walking in the midday sun. The dogs aren't bothering, so perhaps, just this once, Englishmen shouldn't either.
The Beach Front
Instead of trying to brave the daytime, we decided to wait until the sun had dipped before venturing out into Fort Cochin. It appeared that we weren't alone, for Sunday night is clearly promenade night in Kochi.
The island of Fort Cochin is the quiet, touristy cousin to Ernakulam's crazy city vibe, and it's where everyone goes for a romantic seaside stroll before the evening meal. And when I say everyone, I mean everyone, because the beach promenade is absolutely teeming with visitors, almost all of them Indian. As a result, it's a great place to explore, though perhaps not from a romantic perspective.
Let's not beat around the bush; the seaside in Fort Cochin is pretty squalid. The sea is grey, but not in the way that it's grey in England; in Fort Cochin the sea is grey in the same way that the water in the open sewers around town is grey. The foam is grey where the waves break against the rocks; the sand is grey on the two small beaches that litter the promenade; and the slime that clings to the rocks is the kind of radioactive green-grey that makes your immune system wince. On top of that, the grassy patches behind the promenade are completely smothered in litter, from plastic bottles to wrappers from the ice cream stalls that do a roaring trade in the tropical heat, and the nearby beaches are a disaster zone, smothered with bits of polystyrene, old flip-flops and the garbage equivalent of the hair from the bathroom plug-hole. It's not exactly paradise, though I guess that's all part of being at the entrance to a busy port.
Happily the locals crowding the shore are way more colourful than the seas of grey water and sun-bleached rubbish, and elbowing your way through the crowds is a fun way to reach the main drag in Fort Cochin itself, where fishermen demonstrate their Chinese fishing nets and sell fresh fish that you can eat in the restaurants set up right next to the seafront. It's atmospheric and fun, though I am assured that this is one place where being a white woman attracts the kind of opportunistic cop-a-feel local that us men simply don't come across. Perhaps romance is possible on the seafront after all...
For our first evening meal in Kochi, we decided that eating fish plucked from a quagmire was perhaps a treat best saved for another night, and decided instead to follow a recommendation we'd been given to try an evening meal at the Brunton Boatyard, the poshest hotel in Fort Cochin. We've thus far been happily staying in mid-range homestays and guest houses – a serious step up from my budget level travelling of nine years ago, but still a long way off the standard of international western hotel chains – and I've been delighted at what you get for your money. From something in the region of Rs1000 to Rs1500, you get lovely double rooms in period houses, with en suite bathrooms, comfortable beds and a complete lack of cockroaches. However, you also bump into the lower end of the travelling class that gives us all a bad name. I'm talking about those who still seem to think there's a British Empire, and treat the natives like subjects.
I witnessed a typical example in the bar at the Brunton Boatyard, where a pasty-faced Englishman with a pinched nose was arguing with the barman over the price of a drink. Clearly the man had ordered one drink and had got another, and he was refusing to pay the higher cost of the drink he'd had, and insisted on paying for what he had ordered. 'Nothing wrong with that,' you think, and you're right, but it wasn't the fact that the man was complaining that shocked me, but the completely rude way in which he was doing it. He refused to make eye contact with the barman, and just talked at him, rather than engaging in any kind of two-way conversation. 'That is what I ordered, so that is what I am paying for, and that is that,' he said, pomposity visibly ballooning in his upper chest like an elephant seal fighting for territory in the mating season. The barman looked furious, but he simply accepted with good grace, walking over to serve me, where I waited to pay my drinks bill. I tipped him heavily, by way of apology for my fellow countryman's utter lack of breeding.
This wasn't the first contretemps we saw in Kochi. A couple of days later our hotel manager could be seen effing and blinding at a rickshaw as it pulled away from the front door, the white arm of one of our fellow guests protruding from the back. The hotel owner was threatening to call the police, and although I have no idea what the problem was, the man in the rickshaw had been treating the hotel staff with an all-too-familiar disdain that I found as disconcerting as that in the Brunton bar. It seems incomprehensible to me that a hotel owner in a predominantly white tourist area would kick off such a public display of hatred without some kind of justification, and although I'm clearly guilty of jumping to conclusions here, there's a pattern of behaviour in mid- and top-end range accommodation that you very rarely see when you're travelling at the budget end (perhaps because budget travellers' expectations are lower, or perhaps because those who hate the locals don't want to live with them, and that's all part of the charm of living in a Rs50-a-night fleapit).
I don't know if there's any connection, but only the other month a British tourist was found murdered in Mumbai, purportedly because he had asked a woman where he could find somewhere to sleep, and the locals had interpreted this as a come on and had sorted him out (though the man had time to leave a message on his parents' answer-phone saying that he feared for his life, so the argument obviously simmered for some time). One can't help feeling that there is more to this story than meets the eye, and Kochi provided us with lots of fuel to add to the speculative fire.
But I digress, as we had yet to enjoy our meal at the Brunton Boatyard, and after drinks in the outside bar – a set of tables by the waterfront that was caged in on all sides, presumably to stop birds from swooping in and stealing the expensive hors d'oeuvres off the menu – we were shown to our table on the Seafood Terrace, a pleasant balcony overlooking the ferry terminal. The service was very attentive and the fish chowder made a pleasant starter, but as we waited for our main course, first one, then two, and then three or four large raindrops landed on the stone floor, each of them evaporating within two seconds of landing.
The diners all looked up at the same time, wondering what was going to happen if it rained; the only shelter was provided by a set of washing-line wires strung above our heads – again, to stop birds from swooping down and making off with the seafood platter – and as more drops started to fall, the lady on the next table asked the waiter, 'It's raining – what do we do?'
'It is not raining,' said the waiter, as droplets fell with increasing attitude onto his head.
'Yes, it is,' she said.
'It will be fine,' said the waiter, but clearly even his optimism couldn't save the day, for suddenly the taps turned on and a serious tropical downpour hit the Seafood Terrace, throwing everyone into a state of amused panic. The waiters seemed caught completely off-guard and initially huddled together under the awning near the door to the terrace, before realising that perhaps they should be doing something, namely rescuing people's meals and moving them inside.
Unfortunately the inside of the restaurant was full, and as the terrace diners filed inside, the maître d' looked like a rabbit caught in the headlights, as all his careful table planning went up in smoke. Luckily he managed to save his reservations system by channelling us all down into the bar, where we sat out the rest of our meal to the tune of air-conditioning and irritatingly piped chill-out music in the form of Enigma, Germany's contribution to the art of lift music.
The main course – the seafood platter – turned out to be very disappointing. Compared to the amazing fish in Varkala and the wonderfully homey cooking of the houseboat, this was bland, anonymous and utterly forgettable. The fact that it cost four times as much as a meal overlooking the sunset of Varkala only added to the irritation, but this is where I have to grab myself and remember that I'm not in the target market for posh hotel restaurants, so perhaps I just shouldn't frequent them. I like earthy eating holes and I don't aspire to haute cuisine, which is possibly why I spent most of my previous Indian trip rushing to the toilet and drinking oral rehydration salts. I can imagine that if I wasn't much of a traveller and I'd arrived at the Brunton Boatyard straight from an air-conditioned coach, then the strange sounds of the world outside would freak me out, and the thought of going down the waterfront to buy a fish from a fisherman and have it barbecued in front of me... well, it would scare me in a way that a fairly amorphous hotel restaurant experience wouldn't. Luckily I know enough about India to know that the world outside the hotel window is far from scary, but then again I don't believe there's still a British Empire, and I spend most of my time in India smiling, rather than sour-faced.
So we tipped the waiters handsomely, wobbled our heads to them as we left, and ducked out into the now-clear night air once again to soak up the post-thunderstorm atmosphere of the world outside the hotel.
The following day we visited the same tourist attractions that I'd seen nine years before, braving the heat to visit Jewtown and Mattancherry Palace, as well as the area round Princess Street, which has blossomed into a completely backpacker-oriented part of town. There are loads of tourists in Kochi, and they continue to pile in in their air-conditioned coaches, looking slightly worn out and rather oppressed by it all; one wonders if Coachy would be a better name for this part of town, as yet another dark-windowed coach empties its pale occupants into the sun, blinking and looking rather dazed. Luckily the backpacker scene has its advantages, and one of them is that there in the middle of Burgher Street is a little piece of Hampstead, perfectly preserved in every detail. I'm talking about the Kashi Art Café, which the Lonely Planet calls 'something of an institution.'
It's an oasis, is the Kashi, and if you ignore the hot weather, it's easy to transport yourself home, because it's a classic bohemian coffee bar from head to toe. The chill-out music is direct from Europe; the customers dress in what the locals consider underwear, but we consider to be shorts and tight T-shirts that leave little to the imagination; laptop computers are much in evidence, as is the hallowed Lonely Planet; the menu serves lattes and filter coffee served in a cafetière; and people chat away on their mobile phones, sipping pineapple juice and swapping travellers' tales.
And that sums up Fort Cochin, really. It doesn't feel like India, it feels almost continental, and as a result it's not quite as exciting as other more Indian destinations in Kerala. Happily there are pockets of excellence, and we fell in love with the aforementioned Dal Roti restaurant, which served excellent north Indian food in a quiet backstreet some distance from the main drag. Then again, the proprietor speaks perfect English, lived in London for six years, used to own a house in Epping, and returns there twice a year, so even here, you get the feeling that Fort Cochin is a world away from the hustle and bustle of India.
Still, that's half the appeal, I suppose, and as a place to wilt from the heatwave, it hit the spot. We sat around soaking up lime sodas by the dozen, we went to a kathakali performance – an enjoyable way to spend a couple of hours – and we recharged our batteries, ready for the next journey. Mission accomplished, then...