Judi Stewart and Guy Cowley

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The Chinese fishing nets in the harbour entrance at Fort Cochin
Houses on one of the islands
The essential auto with Guy on board
Guy outside the best hotel
Kochi (Cochin)

We arrived at 3 a.m. but still found a very sleepy auto rickshaw driver to take us to our hotel.  We had confirmed the hotel had a 24 hour reception so checking in was not a problem. We had had some sleep on the bus but the comfort of a real bed had us setting our alarms for 9.00.

Cochin is a coastal town with the business centre (Ernakulam) on the mainland and several smaller islands and peninsulas a short ferry ride away.  The popular destination is Fort Cochin.  An old colonial town that still has many of its original buildings, most of which are now hotels and restaurants. Cochin is also a big port with the port spreading over several of the islands. Bridges link most of the islands but a good ferry service is the most pleasant and popular way to travel. The fare is equivalent to about 10p!

The Dutch, Portuguese and English have all played a significant part in the local history and the various cultures and architecture make this place quite unique. Added to which the Jewish community dates back to at least the 1500s.

Out first thoughts were practical, so we headed to the tourist office to find the free shopping guides with the ads that might lead us to some apartments (or the ever elusive house) we were looking to rent. There were no literature displays and we had to ask for any free guides/maps.  A couple of out-of-date guides were dug out from behind the counter but as soon as the more senior person in the office  heard we were looking to rent, we were quickly ushered into an office and given the full treatment.  This consisted of a lot of waiting on our part and a lot of phoning and hushed conversations by the office staff.  They would organise the best accommodation in town for us!!!  An appointment was duly set up to go and see an apartment slightly on the outskirts of town; the area that marks the beginning of the backwaters. It was a big block of flats with not a bad view but isolated from shops or activities of interest to us.  

The guide books describe Ernakulam, where we were staying, as a ‘radical contrast - with neon lights and up-market western chain stores’ compared with the more tranquil islands.  So after the tourist office trip we headed straight to Fort Cochin, in case we were missing out on the real experience.  Lovely as it is, with its quiet leafy streets, old world charm and few vehicles it is also full of tourists and tourist attractions in the main areas.  Once you wander down towards Mattancherry, at the other end of the island, it is rural India with houses clustered around a few shops or dwelling places that fulfil the role of house and shops but such territory is not really open to the outsider.   

We enjoyed this trip as we not only had the usual Cowley walking tour, that led us straight to points of interest such as the Chinese fishing nets (nets suspended by long poles out into the neck of the harbour; introduced by traders from the court of Kublai Khan), but tea in a splendid teashop and some great book browsing.  One of the bonuses of this trip is time to read.

Having decided that visiting Fort Cochin was something we’d like to do more often, and contrary to the guide book we liked Ernakulum, we started to look in earnest for a place to rent. Ernakulam offered the feeling of a town compared with a large city like Bangalore, we could see we were going to enjoy the island hopping and it is also a great jump off point to visit plantations and the backwaters, not to mention the presence of nearby beaches.

Our luck was with us as one agent, who seems to dabble in all sorts of things to do with tourists, offered to see us to find out what we wanted.  This was much better than the usual ‘we have got exactly what you want’ before you have even described what you want!! She read us really well and within a few hours we were looking at two flats owned by the same gentleman. One was in the centre of town very close to Mahatma Gandhi Road (almost every place we visited had MG Road as its main road) and the other down one end of Marine Parade with a view of the harbour.  We immediately fell in love with the water view. Three bedrooms and a lounge, all with balconies, looked directly onto Bogatty Island which has a nice marina and some classy boats (even if there are only about 6 yachts!). We could see there was quite a lot wrong with the place but some of this was standard, such as no hot water in the kitchen, and some of it was just India.  This flat was privately owned and had not been set up, or for that matter priced, for the overseas market. If it had been the standard would have been higher but so would have the price! We agreed to move in the following week.

This gave us a few days to sort out paper work as well as take a trip to Thiruvananthapuram (Trivandrum).  By sheer chance we had seen a flier in a bookshop to the inaugural Hay Festival in Kerala, which was to be held that weekend in Trivandrum.  It was about a 5 hour train journey and entry was free!!