A Week in Kochi, Kerala

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While the character of a place is coloured by our personal past experiences, individual personality and many other things, Kerala, and, perhaps, most other South Indian States, are rather more conservative than other regions of India. I’ve not travelled extensively and my opinion is surely more than a little prejudiced. Nevertheless, the present semi-ban on smoking and booze will, maybe, illustrate my point.

General Needs Cart
Typical Indian Roadside Stall

Though Pune airport has a smoking room, we were, this time, not in that part of the airport for the onward journey. Nicotine starved, we requested our ride from the airport at Kochi for a stop so as we could light up.
This kind of hawker cart is seen all over India. It stocks all manner of things: various snacks, local and not so local, matchboxes and, perhaps, cigarettes/beedis, soaps, dish scrubbers, combs and other knick-knacks. While there to buy a matchbox, as we’ve learned from bitter experience that lighters will be confiscated at the airports, we also had some excellent nannari sherbet.

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Various Onam displays at Lulu Mall

After dumping our luggage at the Amrita Institute of Medical Science (AIMS), we took an autorikshaw to the famous Lullu Mall. For some reason my partner decided we should go there. He likes to think he knows what I want and proffer these “delightful” surprises. Malls, in general, and major ones, in particular, should be a definite no no on weekends. Lulu was jam packed and I have a phobia of being in crowded places. Also, we had to look for a place for our regulation sundowners and, more urgently, access some South Indian filter coffee fast.

We located the Mall’s food court and downed a good caffeine fix. While I went to the washroom, my partner niftily located a nearby “Beer Parlour” (apparently, hard liquor is only to be had in 5 star hotels in Kerala), using his Google Nexus 6. It’s never wise to visit a Mall on a weekend and even more foolish to seek a restroom then. I gave up any hope of taking a fancy leak and we hoofed it through the insane Kerala traffic to Aishwarya.

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It used to be called Chakky’s and there’s a hotel by that name right beside it.

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I couldn’t resist taking a snap of the lobby where the Left Luggage sign caught my eye.

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Coincidentally, we’d asked the manager for directions when we were almost there and he fussed over us discretely but very sweetly when we got there. He could not tempt us with fried eggs nor eggs of any other kind though he lovingly plied us with offers.  Even if the place had other and more palatable titbits, we were stuffed with a double lunch. We’d packed some Vangi Bhaath which we’d had on the plane over from Pune but couldn’t say no when we were driven directly to lunch at the Amrita School of Arts & Sciences. Simple, divine, homely fare: fat Kerala rice, some sambhar, moru, some dry vegetable dishes and, best of all, a yummy Nellika pickle.

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Fish Curry and Tapioca

That night we dined at one of the many little eateries adjacent to and all around the hospital. We were served by a waiter from Assam and had fish curry and tapioca.

Caution: though a lot of places were super cheap to eat at, the food is devilishly chilli hot.

I’ve always had qualms about eating out, being a doctor’s daughter, for one thing, and, for another, I’ve suffered years of tummy agony of one form or the other. I’m glad to say I could weather all the eating out this time without too much damage thanks to my having turned to Ayurveda for the past few years.

As the days were mostly just too hot I’d go to a Mall and hangout2015-08-17 11.59.29

This is a small Jurassic Park type set up in Oberon Mall. The critters are most entertaining with their weird roars and quite life-like or rather quite reel-life-like. Apparently you can get rides on some of them and I did see a little lady “enjoying” one. She was a bit terrified too, the pretty little damsel, all dolled up by her proud mother, but, mostly, she’d get awestruck and engaged in the towering beasts around her, wobbling their long necks and roaring.   Thank God, it’s India, else she might have been labeled “traumatised” and sent to the psychiatrist for counseling. It’s lucky our children can still, most of them, enjoy “childhood”.

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Our visit to Kochi coincided with the start of a major Kerala festival: Onam. Legend has it that King Mahabali was very generous but rather ambitious. He conquered Heaven, Earth and the Underworld but was pushing for more. To curb this inordinate drive, Vishnu assumed the form of a dwarf Brahmin and went up to the king to ask for a boon.  Now, Bali was never known to refuse alms and he right away granted the request for 3 feet of land. The Deity then grew to gigantic proportions and placed one foot on the earth, one on Heaven and the king had to offer his head as the third. He was crushed into the ground but not before he extracted a promise that he be allowed to visit his people once a year, every Onam.

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A Bihari doing the prep for making samosas. They were quite yummy.

As in many other states in India, labour is undertaken almost exclusively by migrants. To cater to them and to the growing number of Indians who are less and less attached to their regional food, you will find food outlets providing dishes from the cuisines of other states.

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One day I caught a bus to Ernakulam which was quite an adventure. There I got on a ferry to Mattancherry, a very touristy place. As the boat was due to return in half an hour I hastily wolfed down a fish curry meal at a reasonably priced outlet. A young Kashmiri boy who was trying to lure me into his shop to make a sale soon understood my circumstances and, with the elegance typical of places like India and Japan and such, he told me where I’d get food at non-touristy prices. I also managed to buy a nice pair of cotton trousers at Rs. 250 (won a bargain for the first time in my life-I must be looking appropriately downtrodden!), having beaten it down from 350.

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It was an incredibly relaxing experience for a mere 14 Rs. in all to sit in a boat and drink in the serene scenery.

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The journey back by bus was again rather challenging as, though I can read a bit of Malayalam, my skill is still nascent and I can’t speak it very fluently unless I stay in Kerala for a month at least. Still it was dirt cheap.

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The highlight of the trip was our discovery of a nearby Toddy shop. While it was quite rustic and totally patronised by the working classes (local and migrant), it was bliss. Far more enjoyable than being among the rich and pompous in a fancy hotel. We became regulars and I experienced the same ease I’ve always had with the poor in India. The toddy was super yum and so were the tiny snacks served though those were very fierce indeed.

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To get there we had to cross a railway track. The side of the tracks nearer our lodgings housed the informal, infamous “designated smoking area”: a little space behind a lottery ticket seller.2015-08-20 10.59.51

I just loved the skies as I puffed away.

Every few yards, there are vegetable sellers. 2015-08-18 14.01.28

And flower sellers too.

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Kerala has a lot of “Gents” beauty parlours and, indeed, young lads sport some remarkable haircuts. I’ve seen them getting facials as this parlour is next to the “smoking room”.

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All local eateries serving meals have a jug each of Indian (specifically, Kerala) “buttermilk” and rasam. You can help yourself to as much as you like.

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On the other side of the railway tracks, we observed these shells. Looks like someone eats snails. When we observed a live one, we asked a local but he said that what we saw were clam shells. doesn’t look like it.

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One thing really wonderful is the number of smiling and empowered women cops-it warms the cockles of my heart no end.

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I feel blessed to have been allowed to stay in the Amrita hospital. All around were lotus ponds, birds chirping and I did not observe the misery normally attendant in a hospital. The ambience is more like that of a pilgrim centre.

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The hospital has a tall building with many floors as lodgings for patients and their families and two main canteens (one vegetarian and one not), besides a few other snack centres one of which had brilliant South Indian coffee and Assam tea.  There is a well stocked general needs shop, a couple of shops selling the natural herbal products produced by the Ashram, and a small book store. There is also a prayer room for each of the 3 major religions of India.

Transport such as autos, taxis and buses are all available within the complex. Everybody I met had nothing but praise for the place.

And so it was with gratitude and bliss that we finally made our way to the airport for our return!

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Kochi airport becomes world’s first to completely operate on solar power!