Sunday, January 10, 2010

Arrival in Cochin, India

January 6, 2010

I have landed in my new place of study, which is Cochin, India, where the great Vasco da Gama built his spice empire out of in the early 1500s.

Flying into the Indian state of Kerala, I could tell that Cochin wasn’t going to be anything like Chennai. The airport was clean and well kempt. There were black, wrought iron light posts giving off a very charming European style and they were fastened to concrete pillars with clean, sparkling bolts. It was like a dim light at the end of the tunnel for Indian infrastructure.

The airport is about an hour from the booming center of Ernakulam and the quaint seaside port of Fort Cochin—both are enveloped under the city of Cochin (Kochi). On my way into the city I caught a glimpse of some incredible tropical sights. The landscape was scattered with mango trees, coconut palms and banana trees, and wild bison and buffalo roam the plains. In fact I saw a bison with a huge rack of antlers (horns?) fording a river. As I made my way into the outskirts of the city, I saw stands with green coconuts and men with scythes to chop their tops off. The people here call them tender coconuts and it’s a customary greeting gift. Usually, you drink the refreshing liquid in the center of the coconut with a straw, and then the cart keeper chops the coconut in half, produces a spoon--chopped off the side of the coconut--and then scrapes the tender portion of the coconut meat onto the spoon for you to eat. Does it sound tropical yet?

There were many large billboards touting jewelry, diamonds, clothing and Indian “treasures,” no doubt for the groups of tourists motoring along. Also common were large hotels, no doubt to house the motoring tourists.

The city actually progresses in steps. The first district you arrive in is Ernakulam, the bustling city center. The second is Willingdon Island, which lies just off the coast, and the third is Fort Cochin, an island of its own and the historical center. While crossing the bridges to each island, I could see the many fishing boats making there way on the water, some modern and many very old looking. I could actually see people throwing their nets off of their wooden boats, which I thought was amazingly anachronistic. I also saw a large wooden boat in the distance that had 10 men sitting in it. Five large oars jutted out on each side and moved up and down, propelling the banana-shaped wooden vessel through the water. My jaw dropped.

I met up with my contact, Suravendra (if you remember correctly, the last contact’s name was Raghavendra…I sense a pattern), in Fort Cochin. He runs one of the two diesel and petrol stations directly on the harbor and owns a large palatial-colonial style house right on the island. He took me to my Malabar Court Hotel and helped me book a room for the night (about $14/night). After I had delivered my stuff to the room, we took off on his motorcycle through the small post-colonial town on the way to the beach and harbor. I couldn’t believe my nose…the smell of garbage was almost non-existent and was instead replaced by the smell of coconuts from the coconut oil used in the restaurants. My mind hearkened back to a line from the hit-musical Annie that goes, “I think I’m gonna like it here.” (that was cheesy)

On the way, we stopped off at a little roadside hole-in-the-wall restaurant. It was very narrow and only had two rows of rickety, planked wooden tables along each wall. The only places to sit were on the long built-in concrete benches along each side. We ordered a typical South-Indian fare of vadai, onion utthappam, and some deep-fried breaded item filled with bhaji (a blend of potatoes, mustard seeds, curry leaves, turmeric, green chilies and onions). The vadai, which are small, deep-fried, ring-shaped, lentil-based items with cumin seeds, onions and green chilies were served with some coconut chutney, mango pickles and sambar (a South-Indian soup consisting of vegetables, tamarind, mustard seeds, cumin seeds, peppercorns, green chilies, onions, curry leaves and a powder made of red chilies, lentils, and coriander seeds…everyone’s recipe is different). The spice of the vadai nicely complemented the milder, sweeter flavor of the white coconut chutney to which they added a side spoon of grated coconut, just in case it was too spicy. The onion uthappam was served last, with the same chutneys and soups. It is a fermented lentil and rice flour based food that is cooked in pancake-like fashion on a griddle with some ghee or oil. It is especially tasty with the onions and has a little bit of a sour taste from the fermentation. Utthappam and the thinner dosas are two of my favorite breakfast or snack items with some nice gravies or chutneys. We ended the meal with a typical creamy and sweet South-Indian coffee before heading off again to the beach and harbor.

The first thing that I noticed at the beach was the line of carts selling all sorts of fish and seafood. There were heaps of sea lobsters, deep-sea lobsters, big fish, little fish, red fish, blue fish, tiger prawns, squid, king crabs, soft shell crabs, and blue scampi (a cool looking shrimp with very long and narrow royal-blue claws). I marveled at the selection. Just down the way was a fish auction with long benches. This is where the fishermen offer up the days catch to the waiting merchants. There was a tarp right behind the benches that had hundreds and hundreds of pounds of fresh (large!) squid.

Suravendra and I took a walk down the rocky beach and watched the sunset, apparently a common thing to do judging by the number of French, German and British tourists occupying the beachside. The sun was a dim red-orange sphere on the horizon that popped out in a 3-d fashion. I realized that it was my first sunset on the Arabian Sea.

Afterwards, Suravendra and I headed off to the stalls again to buy some large, juicy tiger prawns, which we did. It cost us a little less than $10 for 2.2 pounds (1 kg.) of those suckers…steal! And that was even a high price! We took them to one of the seafood stand restaurants across the way and had them grilled with chili powder, ginger, lemon and salt…mmm were they delicious. I ate about 90% of them though, because Suravendra is not a big fan of fishy tastes. That was perfectly fine with me…the vegetarian cuisine of Tamil Nadu and Chennai was a bit stifling for my carnivorous appetite. I actually hadn’t eaten that much meat since the Zwiebelrostbraten in Vienna! Oh, and I would love to say that Suravendra and I were the only ones at the dinner table; however, we had a host of man-eating mosquitoes to accompany us. I actually noticed some of the fishermen lighting huge bonfires to ward them off by the sea.
Before returning to the hotel, Suravendra and I stopped off at his house so that I could meet his wife and 15-year-old daughter. We were greeted with his two dogs, one a German shepherd and the other some scruffy white thing. His house had all marble floors and big open spaces. There were columns all over the place too that looked to be hard wood, but were actually concrete with the wood pattern painted on. I looked closely and couldn’t even tell…impeccably done. The house was also accompanied by wooden, handcrafted ornamentation. All in all, a lovely abode.

As I slid off the edge of the motorcycle at my hotel, I wished Survendra a good night, and then headed up to my room to drift into a tropical induced slumber.