Date: 24 April
Location: front deck, bamboo houseboat, Keralan backwaters
Notable sightings: lots of other houseboats
There's quite a lot of magic in Kochi. Sprawling across several islands just off shore, with its old town heart in the Portuguese Fort, it's a town sheltered by giant, ancient flame trees and dotted with coconut palms, decorated with colonial churches left by the Portguese, Dutch and English in turn; warm and dark like a sauna. At night, this summer, the sky flashes purple with lightning displays; rain threatens but never seems to come to wash away the humid fish-and-cardamom scented evening air. Every restaurant is lit with fairy lights and it's patrons spill out onto the street. It's like palm-fringed Fiji and bayou-shady Tennessee and quaint, small-streeted Granada – and all India.
You could lose a lot of time here drinking ginger-lemonade at the cafés, doing yoga in the renovated naval warehouses, perfecting the coconutty Keralan cuisine and watching the fishermen work the Chinese articulated fishing nets.
Of course, don't imagine that there aren't unpleasant smells galore, an ugly New-town, one-eyed rogue cats, abrasive hawkers, saturating humidity (I'm on litre number 5 of water for the day) and kamikaze tuktuk drivers. It is still India. But the edge is off here.
I took a coking class yesterday. Intrepid India's former general manager owns a guest house here in Kochi and it's nestled in a little mango-grove, home to a dachshund named Honey and offers cooking classes.
It's not an original observation that India is more a continent than a county and yesterday's cooking class provided further evidence in support of this observation:
- Kerala is coconut-rich and it's cuisine reflects it. Each Keralan curry is built up from coconut oil and spices, each 'salad' is primarily grated coconut and coconut milk is added to most things. In contrast, the north of the country is too dry for coconuts and meals there are based on ghee (clarified butter) and vegetables.
- Kerala is a veritable melting pot of religions. The Portguese, Dutch and English colonies situated here mean that Christianity is prevalent, and there is a healthy Jewish population too. Because of this, the Keralans have been exposed to non-Hindu meals forever and lunchbox swapping means that they, unlike their northern neighbours, have acquired the taste for beef, chicken and seafood. While the predominantly vegetarian northerners must eat dhal and curd at each and every meal for their protein, the Keralans will happily chow down on fish and chicken curries regularly.
The literacy rate in affluent Kerala has soared above that of the rest of the country to almost 90% and you can feel it: there are less hilariously poorly worded English signs for a start. In stark constrast, almost 20% of the Indian federal government are illiterate. Can you imagine illiterate politicians in a Western country? Because a large proportion of the country cannot read, political campaigning for the ongoing Indian election is largely visual. Even the ballot forms bear symbols for each party. While everywhere in the state of Tamil Nadu you could see the green leaf symbol of the prevailing party, here in communist Kerala it's the hammer & sickle – which feels very out of place to ths naive Westerner.