Life in Fort Cochin is a non-stop adventure assuming that by “non-stop adventure” you mean sitting around a lot whilst consuming tea and cake. Other activities include walking around looking at the various tourist attractions, but really really slowly so you don’t do everything in four minutes. More of a stroll, really. Or an amble. Yeah, a nice amble around town staring at things and photographing places of worship of various denominations, but only from the outside because I’m scared whatever deity resides within will curse my godless soul if I get too close and I’ll burn up on entry. I mean, I’m 99.99% sure there’s no manner of god but there’s no harm in being careful ay.
So there’s the the Santa Cruz Cathedral Basilica. I’m not sure if you’re allowed to be a cathedral and a basilica or if you have to choose one, but this place seemed content to hang onto its duel status. There’s also St Francis church and if you get as far as Jew Town you can look at the synagogue but you can’t go in unless you’re dressed appropriately whether you fear a smiting or not. I figured I probably wasn’t given that my little scarf frequently fell of my shoulders like the wanton hussy I am, so I strolled on. Talking of Jew Town, shop keepers here have a unique “come into my shop” technique an’ all, one guy put his fingers to his lips, breathed, “shhhhh…” as he pointed at a sign reading, “Hassle Free Shop.” In fact, they all had this sign. The whole bastard row of them. Another guy silently waved at me and pointed at his shop without saying a word. I liked it, it amused me, I’ve learned to enjoy the little techniques different areas adopt rather than get pissed off because you can’t walk three metres without someone trying to get you to do something you don’t want to. In Agra, rickshaw drivers would offer you their services of their Indian helicopter, and here they’re Indian Ferraris. Most shop keepers will tell you that “looking is free” but some will say, “Come and make your eyes happy without making your pocket unhappy!” Others will tell it like it is, “Come in, let us help you spend your money!” That’s a Jaisalmer one. A few places in Jaisalmer have signs up inviting you to “make your boyfriend better looking” with their range of menswear, or advising you that the bed sheet was magic. “No viagra needed.” I’m still not gonna buy your shit, guys, but I’ll high five you for effort.
During my little tourist saunter I visited two museums in an effort to appear to be an intellectual little shite; The Indo-Portuguese and the Dutch Palace, neither of which allow photography so I shall do my best to explain in writing. The former is a complete waste of ₹25 and you should only contemplate visiting if you have a penchant for morbid Catholic statues. No one does depressing like the Catholics do depressing, any excuse to depict some dude with some manner of pointy thing embedded in his flesh and blood pouring from various wounds. The more gore the better as far as these god botherers are concerned, Catholic artists must have stocks in the red paint industry. As well as the usual Jesus stuff there were a couple of statues of a bloke called St Sebastian who, it appeared, was tied to a tree whilst someone shot a bunch of arrows at him. Happy happy joy joy, Christianity. Oh, they also have the remains of a structure in the basement which I was allowed to take photos of and was informed it was the old fort, aaaaand that was all the explanation I got. Here it is in all its un-fortlike glory. Don’t say I don’t give ya nothin’.
The Dutch Palace museum is actually pretty cool. It’s ₹5 to get in which two tenths of fuck all in real money terms and hey, what else were you gonna do with your life? The palace itself has a load of murals depicting stories from the Ramayana which is one of the great Hindu epics. It’s pretty damaged now but it’s still pretty cool to behold and each scene is sort of explained on small boards below. Hindu mythology fascinates me. Any religion with so many gods must have some incredible stories to go with it and I’ve learned a few here and there as I’ve spoken to various Hindus. I figured that I’d try and find an English translation of the Ramayana until I found out it consisted of 24000 verses across seven books. Fuck that shit. I don’t have the attention span for seven books. This is pretty much also the reason I’ve still not read any of the Harry Potter novels. Nah, I’ll just wait for the movie ay.
Aside from the murals, they’ve turned it into a museum about the history of the state of Cochin as it was before independence and during the time of the Portuguese and then the Dutch presence. I find this fascinating. They had the authority to produce their own stamps and refused to become a part of the British postal system, and were even allowed to mint their own coins. I remember when they brought out the current 5p coin in the UK and the uproar about how tiny it was and how folks were concerned how easy they were to lose or for kids to swallow but basically the British just don’t like change and are partial to a spot of uproar over inconsequential things. But the British would have a nervous breakdown over the size of some of the coins Cochin used to churn out. They had a selection on display, some of them are tiny, like the size of the nail on your little finger. Assuming you have a nail on your little finger. If you don’t then I don’t want to know about it. Weirdo.
There are a few display boards about the clothing the Cochin royal family used to wear which pretty much just involved a cloth wrapped around the waist called a mundu and nothing on top apart from during ceremonies when they’d wear a randaam mundu around their top half. This went for the women too, they were generally bare chested on account of it being pretty much permanently hot here. Yep, proper tits out and who gives a shit. The women, just looking at the photos, seemed to wear stretchers in their ears too. Jewellry was limited to children because hey, who needs to be carting around that kind of finery when you’re only concern is trying to stay cool whilst dodging mosquitoes.
After I felt like I’d done a sufficient amount of strolling I headed to Teapot to reward myself for walking, like, a thousand fucking miles or something. Walking in the tropics isn’t like normal walking. There’s a significant amount of chaffing involved and the chance of getting a damp wedgie that’s impossible to subtly remove increases by approximately 56%. I needed to give my sore parts a rest and it had been several hours since I’d had cake.
There are actually a few cafes here which wouldn’t look out of place in Brighton and one of them, Kashi, has a menu to match apart from it being a fraction of the price of a Brighton menu. It’s the kind of menu you read whilst muttering, “Oh god yeah, that sounds good. So does that. Oh my god, and that too!” There’s pretty much nothing on the menu I wouldn’t like to stuff into my gob and wash down with a pot of loose leaf tea which they serve with milk on the side which is how the power that created the world intended tea to be served. True story.
And talking of walking, if you get fed up of it, wait for a tuk tuk driver to pull up and ask you if you’ll do him “one favour.” Basically he wants to take you to one or two shops where he gets given a fuel voucher for every five people he brings. All you have to do is look around for five minutes and get back in the tuk tuk, get taken to the next place, repeat, then he’ll drop you where ever you want (within reason of course) for free. Everybody wins, especially your inner thighs.
Anyway, whilst you’re perusing local souvenirs, one thing you’ll see a lot of is a green faced character glaring out at you from postcards and fridge magnets. He’s one of the good guys of a Keralan art form called Kathakali, born in the 17th century, which you can see pretty much everywhere in Fort Cochin. Performances last about an hour, but if you get down an hour beforehand you can watch men apply elaborate make up before they perform on stage in dress-like costume which doesn’t sound like anything new when you’ve worked with drag queens, but trust me on this one, it’s different!
The thing with Kathakali is that every muscle in the face is used. I sat with the guys as they put their slap on and one bloke told me he’d been practicing his art for 23 years and 9 years of that was just training. He told me about the characters and how they all had to learn all the make up for all of them. Different colours denote different qualities of a character. He was painting himself yellow to play Nakrathundi (and I’m not gonna lie, I had to Google these names after the show to make sure I had them correct). Yellow I think means female. The dude in the green make up would be playing Jayantha, son of a king and green make up meant noble men, kings, that kinda shenanigans.
So once they were all kitted up, the man playing Nakrathundi gave us a demonstration of the eye movements used in Kathakali and I swear, your eyeballs will ache just watching this. I tried it in the mirror when I got back home and it’s not fucking easy. Next he showed us some common emotions which again involve all of the facial muscles. It looks like they’re being electrocuted. I shit you not. The cheek muscles, the lips, the fucking eyelids, guys! Everything. He showed us love, fear, compassion and anger. Then he launched into gestures using his face, arms and hands: Sunrise, moon, deer, and bees sucking honey from a lotus flower which is pretty specific but hey, he nailed it. I couldn’t tell you that if I saw a bloke in a car park back home performing this particular action that I’d nudge my companion and say “Hey, look, bees sucking honey from a lotus flower!” In all fairness I’d probably take my friend’s arm and steer them in a wide berth around the random, flailing nutter. But in context it looks good.
And then it’s time for the main performance which was an episode whereby Nakrathundi turned out to be a demon disguised as a beautiful woman who went up to heaven, I think, to try and marry Jayantha who was mad keen for the idea at first. Then he wasn’t and I don’t recall why, but shit got out of hand and the demon revealed her true form and fighting ensued. Jayantha was understandably pretty pissed off at this, thinking he was going to get his end away with a hottie who turned out to be a psychopath, but instead of heading straight to the pub for a few beers and a commiseration session with the lads where they’d sit around and talk about how shit women are in between bouts of pool and darts, he just chopped her ears, nose and tits off instead. Well if that didn’t learn her I don’t know what will. Chicks ay, Jayantha? *rolls eyes*
Afterwards we got a brief demonstration of an Keralan martial art called Kalaripayattu, whereby two very serious looking young men threw some moves around interspersed with a few yoga poses, because India, and indulged us in a couple of lamely choreographed fights. I kinda get the feeling that out of all of the places where you can go and see this that this isn’t one of the best but hey, it killed a bit of time.
One thing that kills time but isn’t worth the time it does kill is a visit to the elephant training camp, Kodanad. You’re told you can help bathe the elephants then part with a bit of extra cash to ride them so me and a chick from the hotel, Franziska, shared a taxi there. But once you’re there you’re not allowed anywhere near them, never mind helping to bathe them, and despite the signs up advertising rides there ain’t nothing of the sort. So basically you end up paying for a taxi that takes two hours each way to watch a bunch of angry looking man scrub elephants for twenty minutes whilst shouting a lot. Now, I’m no expert on the training of pachyderms, I can’t train a fucking dog because as soon as they give me the eyes I’ll shift right onto the floor and let them have the whole couch, but do you really need to hit them with sticks so much? Is that a thing? Is it just like someone flicking us to get us to do what they want which is annoying but generally unharmful, or does it cause them pain? One particularly pissed off looking mahout kept threatening to throw rocks at his elephant when she didn’t do what he wanted straight away. After the bathing they take them away for feeding, then chain them all to a tree where they’re left to snack on palm leaves, aaand that’s your lot, kids. Sooo yeah. I read somewhere once that to train an elephant they break its spirit, I kinda thought that this place wouldn’t be like that because it’s recommended in the Lonely Planet which is usually all over the ethical stuff, but that’s very much the feeling I did get. I left feeling pretty shit about the whole thing. Partially because I’d paid a load of money for nothing, partially because I felt uncomfortable about the way they appeared to be treated. Buuuut anyway.
Fort Cochin. Actually not too bad of a place to be but I wouldn’t hang around too much longer. With the decaying sea life down by the nets and fuck only knowing where the “catch of the day” was dragged from, this whole place is cholera just waiting to happen. I’ll miss Kashi and its perfect tea, and spinach and cheese omlettes. But at the same time, it’ll be nice to get stuck into some proper, spicy Indian food again. Though I’m not entirely sure my digestive system would agree with me.
Fort Cochin, Kerala, India
Stayed at: Princess Inn