Cochin or Kochi & Calicut (or Kozhikode) to Ooty Fri 22 May – Tues 2 June 2009
NB Attention all animal lovers!!!! (Update 21 May 2010 -Penny has some helpers but is still very keen to hear from animal lovers and helpers whether qualified or not.)
Penny Shepherd the English overlander and vet we mentioned below has just contacted us as she needs volunteers to help out in her animal shelter in return for free parking for overlanders and/or free accommodation. It's a great spot!! If you're interested please contact Penny on her Indian mobile 09746018456 or via email email@example.com or check out her website at http://www.maddogstrust.com
Kochi - also known as Cochin is an amazing city with an eclectic history. The rainy season has already kicked off here and there are frequent heavy showers. We headed to Fort Cochin the older part of town as it is a lot quieter than the main part of town -Ernakulam- which is a full on modern city. Fort Cochin was lovely with beautiful old houses set on winding streets - but sadly we had no luck finding a camping spot.
We drove around asking at hotels but maybe they were all too up market as we got nowhere. As one man snottily told us "this is not part of our culture." Finally a good Samaritan roared up on his motorbike. Kumar runs the nearby Green House guest house and he said we were welcome to camp there. This was a great idea but a failure in practice as our truck couldn't fit down the narrow winding street..and we ended up stuck half in half out! Kumar then took Andrew all around town on his bike trying to find somewhere. He asked at a nearby church and the Father was very welcoming- unfortunately he had to ring his "higher ups" and they said no. Christians are definitely not as accommodating as Buddhists in this regard!!
Finally we found a park at the guest house of a friend of Kumar's which was being renovated. Unfortunately it poured with rain all night which cascaded off the roof at such an angle we got soaked!! By this time I had developed a cold and so we dripped back to Kumar's and decided to lock the car up in a nearby car park and take a few nights at his guest house which was very good value being low season. The Green House was a great home stay - a real home away from home with a fridge, kitchen and TV and very clean comfortable rooms. Kumar is an unbelievably helpful guy who offers a huge list of tours/services as well as great accommodation. We'd really recommended it as a place to stay - Kumar can be contacted via email on firstname.lastname@example.org
No longer homeless we dodged the showers to have a proper look around Fort Cochin. The area was colonized by the Portuguese, Dutch and English who all left their mark. Thus we saw buildings straight out of an English village next to 500 year old Portuguese houses and Dutch churches - an interesting mix.
The Portuguese Bishop's House is surrounded by beautiful gardens, nearby is St Francis the oldest European church in India, built by Portuguese Franciscan friars in 1503, and the Santa Cruz Basilica originally a 16th century Portuguese church this was destroyed by the British and rebuilt in the 19th century. The Basilica had amazing interior murals.
We also saw the Mattancherry Palace- a gift from the Portuguese to the Raja of Cochin in 1555- this was later substantially renovated by the Dutch. No pictures allowed sorry - but there were beautiful murals round many of the walls - all completed in vegetable colours they were exquisite. We nearly got stuck driving out the entrance but made it with millimeters to spare!!
As well as Hindus and Muslims there was a very strong - mainly Portuguese - Roman Catholic influence everywhere - the Indo- Portuguese museum was full of religious relics - but far more interesting we thought was the nearby Jewish community. A boat load of men women and children arrived on the shores of what is now Cochin in the 5th century and amazingly they have remained - 5 families still here at the last count- to this day. Other than a period of religious persecution by the Portuguese they remained free to self rule and were greatly admired and respected by the Indians, Dutch and English for their scholarship.
There is a lovely old synagogue at the centre of the area known as Jew town. This is a big centre for the spice trade and increasingly antiques and artifacts - many from Kashmir which is a modern development! Originally built in 1568 it was destroyed in the 17th century by the Portuguese and rebuilt by the Dutch. It is a really interesting building - with ancient hand painted Chinese floor tiles and an old clock tower. The interior was hung with hundred of glass lamps - unfortunately you couldn't take pictures - so we took a picture of a card - hopefully it'll give the idea!
We had a wander around Jew town - full of interesting little shops to poke around -as mentioned there has been a mass invasion of traders from Kashmir - they are very charming but incredibly hard sell. Beware - if you accept an invitation to go in for a cup of tea you rarely leave without making a purchase!
Between rain showers we also wandered along the beach and saw the Chinese fishing nets. These are quite a sight - originally (you guessed it!) coming from China they were introduced by traders in the 14th century and have remained in the area to date. They are huge heavy complex structures with a net like a ladle which is lowered and pulled up by a system of weights and counter weights. They take a minimum of 4 men to operate. On the sea front are rows of fishermen selling fish prawns and crabs, which you can then take across the road to have cooked to order and enjoy an al fresco (or under plastic sheeting at the moment!) seafood meal.
Walking back we saw a first for us in India - a snake charmer. Managing 3 quite vicious looking cobras this guy had a paralyzed leg which he dragged after him - apparently the result of a bad bite - occupational hazard!! It was an amazing display, though definitely not a game to play at home!
UPDATE!!! After speaking to the people at Wildlife SOS (see Bangalore page when it gets written!) we've been informed that snake charming is now illegal as it is very cruel. The snakes are defanged and their mouths sewn up and they often die after a week or so and are replaced with new ones. We didn't realise at the time but won't support ths practice again.
We took the opportunity to drop our washing off at the local dhobi - this was huge - you were given a number for your bundle so it didn't get lost out on the field! This was next door to the compulsory Toddy Shop - selling lethal coconut alcohol- every town has one but we've not dared to venture in!
Whilst in Varkhala we had run into a nice guy called Abihilash - who is the sales manager for Mercedes in the Kerala area. We needed the car's oil changed and he put us in touch with a good supplier and was very helpful. We also had to go and see Toyota in Cochin - as we were leaking oil slightly from the differential; we discovered that the bearings need changing. This is a bit of a hassle as India doesn't have these parts so we have to get them shipped over from Australia. Apparently Bangalore is the best centre for getting this sorted out. We hadn't been planning to go there but it looks like we will be now! Our September end of visa date seems to be looming ever nearer - looks like we won't be back in England for Xmas - as we'll need to get a fresh India visa. Seems crazy not to really take advantage of being here with the car it may never happen again. Anyway thanks to the guys at Toyota for all their help.
Fort Cochin is a pretty arty place - and we were regular patrons of a great little café - the Kashi art café - which not only exhibited work by local artists it had amazing western meals - we love Indian food but a change is all to the good - especially loved the spinach quiche!
On the subject of art we also took in a Kathakali performance at the Kerala Kathakali Centre. This is an ancient Keralan art form which literally means "story play." Originally dating from the 2th century the present form dates from the 17th century.
Based on Hindu epics - the stories tell tales mainly dealing with that old struggle of good versus evil. The elaborately made up actors do not speak - their hands and eye movements tell the story accompanied by drums and singing. We initially saw the actors apply their makeup which was very interesting in itself followed by a short adaptation of part of a play which was fascinating.
The next night we headed back to the centre for a performance of classic Indian music - using the Veena (like a Sitar) and 2 types of drums from the North and South of India. . The musicians just improvised and played for an hour and it was wonderful. Highly recommended. See the centre's site www.kathakalicentre.com for further information.
So thus immersed in culture we sadly said goodbye to Kumar and went to pack the car and head on. We were packing up when we were approached by a really nice couple from Dubai. Corinne and Stefan were very diverse being German/Finnish they were raised in Brazil have lived in numerous exotic locations and now live in Dubai. They are keen to one day do an over landing trip and by the time we'd swapped a few travel stories somehow hours had gone by and we decided to stay on one more night and arranged to meet up for dinner.
This was very lucky for us as when we met up that evening Corinne and Stefan had a very kind offer for us - they were staying in Koder House a very up market local hotel. They were flying out that night at midnight but had the room booked (including breakfast) until midday the next day. Would we like to move in? Yes please!!
Koder house was originally the home of a Rabbi who belonged to a renowned local family. It was a beautiful period home painstakingly renovated. Our room was amazing - having a walk in dressing room, and lounge as well as a bathroom it was big enough to host a cricket game! 80 sq metres in total. At 5,000 rupees a night (approx $140 Aus) it was pricier then we can afford at the moment but for the quality on offer a fraction of what the cost would be in the west. See their site www.koderhouse.com if we've tempted you! So we waved Corinne and Stefan a fond farewell and enjoyed the TV, Jacuzzi and comfortable beds for 12 hours!! Incidentally Corinne is a professional photographer who has had a number of exhibitions. I thought her work was excellent to have a look at a selection of her pictures and some of the services she offers check out her site www.corinnelund.com
So once more we set off to leave Cochin - this time we actually got 2km down the road! We had seen a land rover with British plates a few times but always at a time we couldn't talk. We saw it parked and it is a rule of the road that you always chat to other overlanders - so we went to leave our card - and we met an English lady called Penny. We had lots to talk about and she had rented a house locally where she is running an animal shelter - so she invited us to stay the night. Cochin has become a bit of a Hotel California for us - we keep checking out but we can never leave!!
NB: Please see details at the top of this page if you're interested in helping as a volunteer at Penny's shelter in return for free parking for overlanders and/or free accommodation.
Penny & her husband Brian together with their 3 dalmations made the journey from London to India (via Pakistan and Iran) 2 years ago. Penny is a vet and she has now rented a large house where she and Brian live with their dogs and a collection of stray dogs and cats. Sadly one of her 3 dogs died of a brain tumour but there are 2 remaining - father and son Monty and Worcester- very well travelled hounds! We went dog walking with Penny and picked her brains extensively about her trip. Monty and Worcester were very good company too!!
Anyway finally on Saturday the 30th May just when we'd started to think we'd never make it we REALLY left Cochin and got a couple of hours up the coast to Calicut or Kozhikode a port set on the Lakshadweep Sea. We had no parking problems here. By luck we went straight to the Beach Hotel and were received with open arms!
The Beach Hotel was a lovely old building - originally established in 1860 - it was initially the British club but became a hotel in 1890 and was completely renovated recently. Again it has some lovely antique touches - have a look at their site www.beachheritage.com The manager of the hotel had one condition for letting us stay - he wanted us to have an interview with the local newspaper. Obviously as veteran stars of print by now (!!!) we had no objections and the next morning not one but 2 sets of journalist/photographers appeared as we were having breakfast!! It was all ok - the usual stuff about if we like Kerala etc - but we did get an awkward grilling on the recent Australian problems - why is it people in Australia hate Indians so much ………….we said how shocked we were by the recent spate of race related attacks too. It was pretty embarrassing.
Anyway we set off to do a bit of site seeing and quickly found a guide - Althal who showed us around for the day. Calicut - which is where Calico cotton comes from - was once a very significant port, Marco Polo passed through on his travels. It has long had strong trade links with Dubai and every other person seemed to have family working there. Not surprisingly - Althal worked there for some time as a driver and the money he made was incredible compared to what you'd get in India - pretty good cf Australia too! We had a look around the town centre -the Mananchira square a park gave hints of the city's former grandeur and there was a mixture of Hindu Christian and Muslim temples/churches/mosques.
Of these one really impressive example was the Kuttichira Mosque a 15th century building unlike any other mosque we'd seen. It was almost completely constructed of wood in a pagoda style. Whilst there the owner a of local furniture store - took time out from prayers to take us to meet his workers and have a look around his workshop!
The area was once a big centre for boat building - they built huge 700 tonne vessels in wood without using a single nail. Andrew was really keen to see this and we drove out to Beypore once the big boat building centre but sadly most of this work has now moved to Dubai and there was little doing. We took a look around the port though.
We drove out 16km to Kappad beach which was crowded with people as it was the weekend. This was the site where the first Europeans landed in India - the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama in 1498.
The next day we had arranged to go to Althal's village and meet his family before heading off. We were presented with copies of the 2 papers - in one there was a huge picture - though we couldn't read a word of course! You wouldn't think people would be that interested but all day people waved the paper and shouted at us in the street. On the way to Althal's house we stopped to do some shopping and when we got out the first thing I noticed was that the local trader had put his sign "Raja's quality saris" right next to our car - then we saw the TV camera!!! Once again we had to do an ad hoc interview. We felt a bit like the Beatles in the early days - the crowds sometimes got a bit over whelming and we couldn't move for people shoving their mobile phone cameras in our faces! As I said we couldn't read the other articles but one had obviously said we'd just got married as everyone kept on congratulating us! Neither of us had said or were asked anything like this - but never mind! The TV interview wasn't helped by the fact the interviewee's English was very hard to understand - so there was a lot of "pardon??" also he tried to make me say "I really like Kerala" in Malayalam and I kept stuffing it up! We were both dripping with sweat and Andrew hadn't shaved that morning so we probably both looked a bit motley on the big screen to say the least!!
We do get a lot of interest/attention here and whilst it is always positive and kind it is a bit exhausting and it's nice to hit the tourist areas once more and be a bit more anonymous - at least when we're not with the car- that's really what gets the bulk of the attention not us!!
Anyway we met Althal's sister and children and his wife Zuhra daughter Fatima and son Mohammed. Mohammed is 15 and has spent the last 18 months at Mosque school studying the Koran with 50 odd boys the same age. Althal hopes this will keep him out of trouble!
Althal had no schooling but has taught himself several languages - including Arabic which is really useful in Dubai. He hopes to return there for 2 years or so to save hard for gold prior to his daughter's marriage. In Kerala dowry is paid in gold and it is a huge part of the wedding ceremony. He told me if he works hard he will get Fatima a good match so she will be well taken care of. The village was a nice peaceful place set in paddy fields and we enjoyed a delicious lunch of Biriyani. As a guest in Islamic households you are always fed first and pressed to eat a lot but you have to remember the family share what you leave. However poor people are there is a huge obligation to make sure the guest is well fed - a local saying translates as "our guest is our God." It pays to be aware of this as you're serving yourself!
It was later than ideal when we left and darkness fell as we were negotiating the 9 hairpin bends on the steep climb on the way to our next pit stop Kalpetta. This was a bit scary as despite the dark people continue to overtake on blind hair pin bends! We had been recommended to try the Haritagiri hotel as it had a fair bit of parking room but at first it was no go - they said we could sleep in the car - if we paid 700 rupees for a room which somewhat defeated the object! We really didn't want to drive on in the dark and eventually after various conversations/phone calls they relented and said we could stay for a night. The security guard was very helpful and turned all the car park lights off for us so we had a good sleep! His daughter arrived to help him the next morning.
Whilst in Kochi we had had an email saying that it would take at least a couple of weeks to get our car parts sent over- so we decided to go to Ooty a hill station on the way to Mysore. We had been keen to go but had been umming and erring on the time factor but it seems a bit less urgent now as we have to delay anyway. On the way we passed back into Tamil Nadu which we hadn't thought we'd be doing this trip!
This was a beautiful drive climbing up again passing numerous scenic look outs and teams of tea workers hard at it. Like Munnar there are tea workers' villages and tea producing factories everywhere.
It is a crisp cool climate and they grow a lot of what are called locally "English vegetables" mainly carrots and cabbages. Again there was a touch of Australia - some huge plantations of eucalpts -one of almost 30 acres planted back in 1967. These eucalpts are full of monkeys rather than koalas however!
Finally on Tuesday 2 June - we arrived at the scenic hill station of Udhagamandalam more popularly known (thankfully!) as Ooty.