Kochi is a soft place to land in India.
Planes descend over teeming towers of coconut palms. Their deep green fronds, waving as though in welcome, dominate the landscape here in the state of Kerala. In fact, the word Kerala translates as “land of coconuts” in the local language of Malayalam. Kochi, at just over a million people, is the state’s second largest city.
The airport is small, orderly and modern enough to be the country’s first completely solar powered one. Out the front doors and under the shade of the arrivals canopy, locals wait quietly for loved ones. Women in fuchsia, parrot green and turmeric saris and men in neatly pressed cotton shirts hold garlands of jasmine or marigolds. The air smells of burning leaves.
You emerge from remarkably efficient entry paperwork and luggage retrieval to feel the tropical air instantly moisten your brow. Sweat trickles down your back and the muscles of your jet-lagged body begin to loosen. Climbing into the back of the awaiting car, your head bobs as you try to stay awake to take the lushness of this place on the 45-minute drive to Fort Kochi.
From bridge to bridge, island to island, you cross over calmly flowing waters. Commenting on the soft mauve flowers floating like a purple haze in the narrow channels, the driver tells you it’s purple hyacinth and a menacing legacy of the British Raj. The plant is hogging the oxygen in the waters and suffocating the native aquatic species that evolved here since the dawn of time. It’s a harsh consequences of a foreigner’s occupation and predilection to transplant their own gardens and rules on a country so far from their own.
Across yet another bridge, men fish with nets from brightly painted boats and dugout canoes. You feel like a frog leaping lily pads until you reach the outermost strip of islands. Fort Kochi’s peninsula dominates this large harbour nestled along the Arabian Sea.
This bustling port city is the centre of trade on this famed Malabar Coast. The British were preceded by Chinese, Dutch and Portuguese. They all came to feed their need for India’s spices and the Tellicherry pepper of this land is King of Spices still.
The chain of islands between the airport and Fort Kochi is the only barrier between the Arabian Sea and “The Backwaters” – a unique ecology of ocean meeting river estuaries which stretches 2000 kilometres along the South West coast of Kerala. These are the lowlands of the state. The Western Ghats mountain range form the highlands dotted with hill station tea plantations. The Ghats tower over Kerala’s midlands filled with rubber and spice plantations.
Silt, shed with thousands of years of monsoons flowing off the Ghats, gradually formed deltas in the lowlands. The Dravidians, the early people of South India, fortified and dammed the deltas to create tiny islands to support agrarian life. The dykes surrounding each precious dot of land are still all that hold the sea water out and a way of life in.
At last your car arrives in old Fort Kochi. There are no skyscrapers or central downtown. It’s not New York or Mumbai.
Chinese fishing nets line the harbour. People stroll the district’s grid of streets lined with 300 plus year old Colonial architecture. A crop of former spice merchant mansions have been reclaimed as boutique hotels. Hostelling backpackers mix with luxury travellers who land here to recover from overseas flights before heading off to Kerala’s famed Ayurvedic spas and hospitals.
Harbour cruises, Kathakali dance shows, gold shopping and dining on the local catch are fun things to do here. Touring Jew Town, St. Francis church and the Dutch Palace provide amusement for history buffs and food lovers delight to find streets filled with cooking schools where they can learn the area’s signature dishes.
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