Kerala is a state in South India on the Malabar coast (west). It has the highest literacy rate (93.9%) and the highest life expectancy (77 years) in India. The region has been a prominent spice exporter since 3000 BCE. With the abundance of natural spices, tropical coconut, and fresh fish, you can imagine how amazing the food is! A tropical paradise of sandy beaches and dense jungle that inspires a laid-back way of life.
We started our Kerala experience in Cochin (aka Kochi), which is said to be the oldest European settlement in India. With its enchanting Jewish quarter, picturesque Chinese fishing nets, Portuguese churches, Hindu temples and bustling spice and antiques bazaars, Cochin has a seamless blend of diverse architectural and religious influences. This ancient port is split into two main parts: the old town of Fort Cochin on the peninsula, with its winding alleyways lined with merchant houses and spice markets, and the brash, modern industrious city of Ernakulam on the mainland.
After our heightened airport experience and multiple hours on a plane, we were relieved to arrive in Cochin. It was about an hour drive to Fort Cochin, which is where we stayed for the next two nights. The absolutely lovely Hotel Eighth Bastion felt like a lap of luxury… We had our own spacious balcony overlooking the beautiful pool, a huge shower that was partially outside, and extra fluffy beds.
Due to our late arrival, we had a short break to relax before dinner so we quickly changed and walked around the corner to a nearby beach to catch the sunset – the best decision we made all day.. The colors were so vibrant, it seemed surreal. It was the most warming welcome we could have asked for. The beach was sprinkled with local vendors selling toys and Indian vacationers, some gladly buying the toys for their excited children. It was a very pleasant scene.
As a travel industry employee, part of the trade-off for receiving a comped trip is to visit hotels and restaurants that travelers visit, in order to service clients better. Or in the eyes of these hotels and restaurants, to better sell their products. No problem! This trade-off brought us to the historic Brunton Boatyard for their rich and diverse local cuisine. A real treat… And one that I’ll definitely recommend!
We wined and dined, devouring the lush flavors and fresh bread. This was our first real meal in India, and the theme of a host trying to flood your table with too much food continued throughout the entire trip. The server kept suggesting dish after dish, which I’m sure were all very tasty, but our stomachs only have so much room. We realized we either have to be firm with our requests, or okay with gaining at least 15 pounds while in India.
The next morning we met our guide, a charming young man, born and raised in Cochin, who had recently married to an arranged bride. We had many questions about arranged marriages, which is still the primary method for young couples in India. He spoke highly of the tradition, advising us that most “love marriages” fail, so arranged marriages are widely preferred. Sometimes new couples get to meet a few times before marriage, sometimes only once for the initially meeting between families. Both parities are allowed to reject, but there is always strong family pressures, as it’s seen as one family basically marrying another family. It’s not just about the couple. The concept is so far from the typical dating rituals in America, we were quite intrigued.
Our guide took us to the Vasco da Gama Church, also known as St. Francis Church, originally built in 1503, said to be the oldest European church in India. Erected by the Portuguese, taken over by the Dutch, then later by the British, the church had features and obvious stories from each era. Now, still an active Catholic church with services held every Sunday (which our guide’s mother attends, religiously).
We then strolled by the famous Chinese fishing nets, that few fisherman still use. Now thought to be an inefficient method of fishing, as each is operated by up to six men at a time, they still were a fascinating sight to see towering over the shoreline. Much more commonly used in China and Indochina, they are only found in Kerala within India.
The beach with the fishing nets was parallel to a beautiful tree covered road lined with vendors selling fresh fish, crafts, toys, and odd items like a pasta shaping device and plants that grow in bottles. It was nice to walk among the locals, browsing the goods for sale, attempting small talk. Everyone we came across was extremely nice and acted excited to meet us, even offering to pose for photos.
We also visited the Dhobi Khana Washing Collective, a public laundry service run by multi-generational families. Clothes are hand washed, hang dried, and pressed with large irons filled with burning coals. The tradition is slowly fading, as modern washing machines become more common. It’s still a tourist highlight where donations are requested. It was a pleasure seeing old ways still at work.. Very hard work.
Later that night we attended a traditional Kathakali performance, a form of classical India dance developed in Kerala around the 17th century (but its roots are traceable to at least the 1st millennium CE). We arrived an hour early to watch the actors apply their elaborate makeup, which literally takes at least an hour to complete. The main character receives help by laying on his back while someone attaches paper cut-outs to his face with paste. They don’t mess around.. and this occurs nightly! The performance is a purposeful sequence of combined dancing, acting, and music with story-telling singing (at times it was more like chanting). Each facial expression has a meaning to help tell the story, involving severe eye rolls in each direction and dramatic mouth movements. The first 20 minutes of the performance was a translation of facial expressions and hand gestures so the audience could follow along. The whole show, from beginning to end, was done with such dedication and passion. We were enthralled with all the graceful stomping around the stage and the bright colors detailing each costume. Traditionally, all actors are men, but our guide advised some women are starting to take up the craft.
Photos from our time in Cochin are below – enjoy!