#9 Cochin-2, India

Saj, our homestay owner, made arrangements for us to get a traditional Indian oil rub early this morning. A tuk tuk driver met us at 7:25A and we left the touristy area for a local place. We had two woman working on us. The table was a beautiful hard wood, and was convex, lengthwise, so that your body opened laterally. It wasn’t a full panchakarma treatment—I was spoiled by Mary Alice, but it was pretty wonderful. 90 minutes later we stumbled back into the tuk tuk and joined Pinchas for breakfast.

An hour later, on our own, we were in segregated lines to buy 6 cent tickets for the ferry to Ernakarlum, the main part of Cochin. There we met a lovely young Israeli couple and spent the ride over chatting and sharing our amazement at the friendliness and generosity of the people we encountered. We might meet them in Munnar next Shabbat. Leaving the ferry, a Muslim woman in colorful but covered dress walked up beside me to ask if I liked Cochin and India. Sometimes the women look so unapproachable, and they are so open and friendly.

We parted ways with Pinchas and went shopping on Broadway, a narrow street, despite its name, filled with everything imaginable. We found Indian spice holders, resolved to buy them on our way back, then of course never made it back that way. Maybe somewhere else…

Then we found ourselves in the covered food market. Since day one, Ronni and I are dressed in kurtas, somehow thinking we would blend in. What a joke. We so stand out. Every few minutes, someone has a comment, compliment or a question for us. We walked quite a way in the heat, to find the famous Indian department store, Seemaati. We thought we might find some ready to wear clothes on the first floor, but the quality was pretty poor. We walked up to the third floor—there was an elevator, but the power in the building kept cutting out and getting stuck in a crowded elevator in India did not sound like a pleasant experience, even if it would have made a good story. A very nice gentleman asked if he could help us. Turned out that there was no ready to wear upstairs, then proceeded to give us a tour of the store. We saw beautiful Indian women choosing gorgeous silks for saris. We made it out of the store without buying anything, and found a restaurant for lunch. Again, food was very good, Moslem place, no foreigners but us.

We shopped a bit more, Ronni bought a beautiful outfit, found a tuk tuk back to the ferry and went home to Saj’s. Ronni gave me 15 minutes, then we were off again. Pinchas had not eaten lunch, so we found the coffee house from the first day and got him going again. He had done some shopping earlier with more success, so we followed him to his favorite shop, where we could finally spend some money. I got some clothes for the rest of the trip, nothing made to order, but fun and Indian. We went to a famous North Indian restaurant and had great food. This place was filled with tourists. It is constantly written up for a good reason. On our way back, we walked on the promenade next to the sea. It was filled with people, mostly Indian, here for the New Years Celebration tomorrow night. Too bad we are missing it, we’ll be in a quiet place on a river. Ronni and I struck up a conversation with a guy selling different sugars off a cart. He gave us a full education on what sugar was what—coconut, palm, cane with ginger and pepper, and the medicinal properties of each. Then he gave us samples of each, breaking off pieces for us. It was all very generous. He knew we were not buying, just wanted to share his Indian product with us and talk. It was very sweet—literally! A few steps on, we found an amphitheater with Indian karaoke in full swing. Everyone was there, families with little kids, couples, tourists… The music was loud, lots of fun and pretty much like karaoke anywhere. People brought music sheets but it looked like there was also a monitor. It was a memorable way to end our last evening in Cochin.

#8 Cochin, India

Just to note, we are in the city of Cochin, state of Kerala. Specifically, we are staying in Fort Cochin, the ancient port town. It is tropical, no high rises, easy to walk, lots of Palm trees, lots to see. We’ve switched to Indian breakfasts now. Pineapple lassies, rotti and dal, aka pineapple yogurt drink, rice pancake and lentils. Saj’s older daughter brings out breakfast and makes sure we are happy and full. Saj is around to make sure we are happy and set for the day.

Some chai masala tea and we’re ready to go. Today was a walking tour of the town. Our guide, Rajesh, is from Kerala and we liked him immediately. We started out at a church turned museum. We stopped on the grounds first and Rajesh shared his love and knowledge of the local trees and plants—tamarind, coconut, mango, guava, papaya trees and varieties of bananas, among others.

The museum displayed religious relics from centuries of churches, first Portuguese in 1503, then Dutch, 150 years later, eventually British in 1795 nail independence in 1947. There was also a secular section mapping the old city and how it developed. My favorite was a brass door fastener that included symbols representing Christians, Hindus, Jews, Muslims and Chinese, the idea being all are welcome. As we walked through the town, we got a history lesson and gained an understanding of the demographics—45% Hindu, about 20% Christian, the largest in India, about 20% Moslem, then everyone else. There is 97% literacy rate, highest in India.

A day or so ago, I mentioned the photo with foreigners trend, well, it peaked today in the St Francis Church. The Indian tradition of removing shoes when entering a Hindi temple extends to all religious places. So we took off our shoes and went in. We sat down and Rajesh told us about Vasco da Gama. When he finished an Indian woman asked if she could take a picture of me with her relative. That started a trend, about 10 photos later, we begged off and fled. Ronni has a few of the pics. We just had to document it. Somewhere in India, people are looking at Picts of themselves with the white lady in Indian clothes.  Back to Vasco da Gama, he was buried there after dying of malaria. Seems the Indians were not unhappy about that, he was especially brutal to them. His body was later moved to Lisbon, I would have seen where it had been, but I was busy posing!

As I said, the buildings are low rise. Most were built during colonization, so very European. It’s a tourist haven for everyone, Indian and European mostly. For those of you who know your hotel chains (mom and Karen) my two favorites are represented here, Small Luxury Hotels of The World, and Relaix et Chateau.

Later, we walked along the promenade next to the Arabian Sea. There are fish stands where you pick out your fish, take it over to an outdoor grill and have it cooked for you. We are hoping to do that one night. After a chai, we headed back for a break.

We ended our day with a private cooking class at Fort Paradise Garden Cafe. Ronni and I made our way over to an old Dutch house in Fort Cochin, about 4 blocks from our place. We made our way upstairs and found ourselves in Maria’s kitchen. We sat down with her, planned our menu and she taught us the template for Kerala cooking. So we learned the basic principles for any veg or meet dish, what spices and herbs to use, the properties of each and the respective cooking methods.

Maria did all the prep (chopping) ahead of time, so that we could focus on the information. Eventually, Pinchas joined us and we sat down to a great dinner of veg. curry, beets, cabbage, and coconut chutney. Before leaving, Maria, seeing Pinchas wearing a kippah, asked if we were Jewish. She is Roman Catholic, but told us that her great great-grandmother on her father’s side was a black Jew (Indian Jews from Ernakulam).

#7 Cochin, India

A word about shoes. For those of you who insisted I take comfortable closed-toed, washable shoes, I thank you. I have only put them on for a few hours (the Dhavari walk), but it was worth every minute. The rest of the time, just watch where you step! South India is a sandal place, in the market places, streets, even the fish market. OK, maybe most people would choose not to wear open toed shoes in the fish market…

It is probably different from 5,10 years ago. In Mumbai, there is a Starbucks and McDonalds. I avoid them in LA, there is every reason to avoid them here.  The food is wonderful, amazing, different and better than any Indian restaurant in LA. You know how there is always someone in your life eager to tell you that whatever sex they just had was the best they ever had? Then after you hear the same line a dozen times, from the same person, you get kind of suspect? So that’s how is is with the food here, just keeps getting better and better. The food at the dives, the food at the nicer restaurants, all really, really good.

Driving here has been an experience. Our driver in Mumbai is a lovely, quiet man, then he starts the car and his horn becomes his voice. Red lights mean something different here. They are basically a suggestion to stop. If no one is around….. And sometimes if people are around—seems to depend on the mood of the driver.

We left the Residency Fort hotel reluctantly. A few of the front desk guys and a few of the wait staff were so helpful. Our concierge walked us to the restaurant the first evening. Our waiter at breakfast came over to check out our pictures—he approved.

Which brings me to our exchanges with most everyone we encounter. Indians are generally quick to smile—on the street, from a car or bus window. Ok, one guy I smiled at stuck his finger up his nose, but I’m trying to forget that.

Anyway, we spent a few hours at the airport before flying to Cochin. Deepa’s company, Magic Tours of India, has been pretty terrific. We arrived at the airport and we were met by a rep. as we got out of the car. He escorted us through the entrance and stood in line for us at the ticket counter. No one has ever done that for me before. He took us all the way to the security entrance, and sure we knew where we were going, said his goodbyes. Then we had 2 hours to kill. We sat for a while and I started chatting with a young woman who had just married and was honeymooning in Cochin. She and her husband were traveling with another couple and they decided to keep an eye on me. It started with a piece of candy, then on the plane, a big chunk of Cadbury—I had obviously found a fellow chocolate lover. When we deplaned, they insisted on taking pics together. (More on that later.)

On the plane, there was more of that seemingly arbitrary administrative stuff.  Every once and a while, the flight attendant would randomly ask to check boarding passes. Ronni and I continue to find that most amusing. The plane was in the air, what could have been the purpose?

We arrived in Cochin and was met by Xavier, another guide. His job was just to get us to our driver for the 90 minute drive to the city. We were feeling very spoiled by now, and loving every minute. We were also starving and asked our driver to stop so we could eat something. He found a local spot, we sat at the only available table and ordered. We were the only tourists there, the only white people and the only people given forks. Ronni and I decided to blend in (as if) and eat with our fingers. No problem if you are right handed… I did manage and we had a good meal and a bit of conversation with the group of 20ish young men at the next table. An then began an odd phenomenon that was the beginning of a trend—families in Kerala wanting to have their pictures taken with me. This time it was an adorable little girl, who at the urging of her mom sidled up to me as the dad pulled out his smart phone and snapped away.

We eventually got to our place, signed the ledger book and had a cup of chai tea. We are staying at Saj Homestay, a lovely 6 room inn owned and run by Saj and his family. His 10 year old daughter, Natasha, pulled out a map and explained the layout of the town, where to eat and what to see.

We had tickets for Kathakali and the elaborate make up session before the performance. Kathakali is one of world’s oldest forms of theater, and began on Kerala (the state we are in). Dancers use movement and mime to recreate stories from Ramayama and the Mahabharata. Our evening performance included a detailed explanation of eye and movement and mudras (hand gestures) so that when the performance began we had a clue as to what was going on. We also had a copy of the story in the program notes. Pinchas was amused for about 15 minutes, Ronni and I both thoroughly enjoyed it.

We had another great dinner—local fish, salty lassi, maybe the best cauliflower we’ve ever had. And new we are seeing the mark of Israeli presence – Israeli salad on the menu. Lots of Israelis go to the beach resort of Goa, not too far from Cochin, after the army. Cochin and surrounding areas in Kerala are ancient Jewish sites. But that is another day.