Friday, May 11, 2007

The Cochin Coconut Shimmy (and other stories)

My first time in India! Another country covered, yesssss! We left the ship at 11am, and after being accosted by various rickshaw drivers and official-looking men with pieces of paper (randomly, at the port you have to fill out how many people are travelling out with you. One of our friends, Mark, joined us to tag along until we got into town, and at the entrance to the port, they checked the piece of paper and saw that a rickshaw that should be transporting 2 people, was transporting 3. NO! After a few minutes, the official-looking men decided it was NOT ok for Mark to drive through the gate with us, but it WAS ok for him to walk 5 steps around the gate, through a turnstile and then rejoin us and drive on! Madness) we got a rickshaw, which is exactly like a tuk tuk, from where we were docked on Ernakulum, to the island Willingdon, and on to the old town called Fort Cochin. I was amused to see the that these peninsulas or islands are linked by bridges labelled either "old bridge" or "new bridge". Seemingly the rickshaws, being lasser methods of transport had to use the old bridge, leaving the new bridge which was much nicer, free for cars and more salubrious vehichles!

Eric was hungry, so we went to check out somewhere to eat, having been tipped-off by a man at a tourist information place about a place called Malabar. Our rickshaw driver was most put-out, obviously he'd been hoping to have us for the whole day. we had to tell him firmly to leave us alone. People are extremely persistent here, sometimes driving by three or four times and then following you, yelling where you really must let them drive you, or what you really MUST buy from them. I LOVE this little street-side food place. ("We coock" "you bin happy" is priceless.)

Malabar was actually a hotel that had a gorgeous small outside-seating restaurant. It didn't open until 12, so we went to visit the oldest European church on Indian soil, St. Francis church. Structurally there's nothing particularly amazing about the place, but it is the church where the Portugese navigator Vasco da Gama was buried in 1524. Well, actually, he was moved 14 years after he was buried there, back to Lisbon, but the tombstone is still there exactly on the spot where he, um, used to be buried!

Behind the church was an information centre (English spelling) which was also once the dwelling of our friend Vasco da Gama (in death, he didn't have to navigate very far from where he lived to where he was buried!) where we booked up for one of the highlights of Cochin, a backwater tour.

Back at the restaurant, we had about 45 minutes to eat, and eat we did. I had a mild and gorgeous fish curry in a tomato sauce, and Eric had this great dish, in lots of little pots, called a seafood Thalia, which was really good fun. It even had a pot of red-bean sticky pudding for dessert! We wolfed it down and shared a local beer (one each would have been too much, bottles of beer are huge here!) before our 1pm pick-up from Vasco's house.

All the registered taxis here are Morris Minors! I have no idea why, but they're all beautiful, all white, and as it is obviously a car that is no longer being made, you feel like you have the pleasure of a ride in an antique.

Our drive took about 40 minutes, and although Eric slept a little, it was a noisy ride, with lots of sounding of the horn at every turn. Drivers here are ruthless, overtaking larger vehicles on single-lane roads with nerves of steel. I have no idea where we ended up! We waited for our guide here.This is a small village, and when I eventually asked if I could use a restroom, I was told "it is a village, so it will be natural" and led to a place where a tarpaulin had been stretched around four wooden posts to form a little square piece of land, and that was it. NOT EVEN A HOLE! As I, er, used the facilities, red ants swarmed around me. I left pretty sharpish. While we waited, our guide showed us how the people make strong rope out of the dried husks of coconut shells here. They dry the outside fibres from the husks under tarpaulin or shelter for 4 to 6 months. With a huge bushell of the fibre tied around her waist in her sari somehow, this woman hooks up two ends of the fibres to a machine that turns the two pistons around. As she walks slowly backwards feeding it from the fibres in her sari-sack, the rope is spun. Once she gets to the end of the alley, the rope is considered long enough and sold.

Our boat-driver arrived, and we set out along these small natural canals, past houses, and adults and children alike washing and bathing themselves and their clothes. We spotted several kingfishers at really close range, but I was too scared of frightening them to take pictures. Other wildlife we saw included a tortoise and a possible live sighting (and one definitely dead sighting) of a sea snake. We got out of the boat a couple of times.

The first time, we were shown naturally growing pepper, nutmeg, pineapples, cinammon (you can eat the end of this leaf. It's really sweet with a faint taste of cinammon) on someone's land. They were planning on selling this produce, pepper and nutmeg, at a market.

We were also shown this small root, that people use to colour their faces and hands.

The second time we stopped, our guide asked if we would like to try a coconut juice. We said yes, thinking perhaps there was a vendor ahead. Instead, our driver picked up some dry palm leaves and fashioned a small round thing, that he put his feet into to keep them close together, and shimmied up the nearest palm tree with a large knife between his teeth. In seconds, he cut two orange coconuts down, sliced off the top for us to drink, then halved them and carved out the insides so we could eat the pulp. Amazing.

Eric had a go at the shimmying thing, you can just see the round palm-leaf thing they put their feet into, and this was as far as he got, although I have every faith that with a little practice he could've made it, ooh, a good few inches higher (sorry Eric!)

I of course would've had a go, but, my skirt, my feet, you know...

On our way back to the boat, two small children approached and in perfect English said "Hello. Do you have one pen (question mark)". I was confused, but our guide confirmed that they really did want a pen, or biro, it was what all young people wanted from visitors. I gladly gave up my kitschy Hello Kitty pen (what a great, educational tool of communication and somehow good thing to give away! Eric said as she left "Go! And write a novel!") bought in China, to the young girl and was delighted at how pleased she was, eagerly running to her mum and showing off how well it matched with what she was wearing. Eric gave away his manly fountain pen to a young boy too, if only we'd known we would have bought a whole pack of pens to give away.

These, although similar in appearance to durian, have less prominent spikes and are actually the biggest fruit in the world, called the Jack fruit. Slightly scary then, that they were growing overhead, and occasionally falling! Our driver kept one eye on the sky, lest one should knock us out.

We sailed slowly back to the village, where our Morris Minor was waiting to take us back. We tipped everyone 100 rupees each (about $3) for a wonderful day, and even I managed a couple of minutes shut-eye on the way back.

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