Last October when I hit my 65th birthday, I decided it was time to re-prioritize the old bucket list. Looking back on the Medicare milestone, I realize now that many of the limitations I began feeling at the time were due to the constant barrage of AARP emails and well meaning newsletters preparing me for impending decrepitude. Around this time, I began to manifest aches and pains and imaginative scenarios that led me to think my physicality as I knew it was about to be over. So I had best “git to gittin’” as they say in the south.
I decided rather than my usual prioritization based on desire or geographical proximity, I would instead prioritize according to difficulty. Not just physical difficulty, but those destinations requiring a certain level of travel-savvy as well. I decided to tackle some of the trips on my list that would not only tax me physically, but also test my travel mettle in destinations with little to no travel infrastructure. So last October, I put down a deposit on two escorted tours; the Dragoman overland trek through Sudan to Ethiopia in January, and a two week tour through Pakistan in April (now cancelled, obviously.) That left me two months to fill, with India being the obvious choice in between.
When I wrote about my time in India back in 2002, I titled the chapter “A Fine Line Between Love and Hate.” India is nothing if not intense. I described it back then as an “assault on the senses.” During my year-long trip on the heels of 9/11, I managed to survive a month there. But could I double that love-hate relationship to two months, now being eighteen years later and leading into my “golden years?”
India is like being in a tiny kitchen in back of a curry restaurant that shudders at the mere mention of a health inspector. It’s hot. It’s steamy. It’s crowded and it’s noisy. Everything tastes and smells of the overpowering aroma of the fragrant spice blend, masala, a sinus-awakening mixture of ground cardamom, cinnamon, bay leaves, nutmeg, cloves, chilies and peppercorns. There is no sleepwalking through one’s shift in the Curry Cafe. It’s on-duty 24/7. From men who can’t conceive of the concept of “personal space” invading your waking hours, to malaria infested mosquitoes threatening any hope of a peaceful sleep, there is no escaping it. So why on earth would I want to spend two weeks there, let alone two months?
But the very reasons to hate India are the same reasons to love it. It’s INTENSE! I have always had a distaste for mediocrity, and nothing about India is mediocre. Due to its immense size, India is not only a country, but also classified as a “subcontinent.” From north to south, it varies as much as NY-style Cheesecake to South Carolina Cheese Grits. While my 2002 trip was spent primarily in northern India, I had yet to set foot south of Mumbai. So I began my southern tour with the city known as the “Queen of the Arabian Sea,” Cochin, later changed to Kochi. (Almost every city in India has two names, one based on the original spelling, and a revised version adapted during the times of British occupation. Many of the cities have now returned to their original spelling, such as Bombay to Mumbai, Calcutta to Kolkata, Mysore to Mysuru, etc.)
As the largest city in the state of Kerala, Kochi is a thriving port with bumper to bumper smog-belching traffic, crowded sidewalks with people spilling out into the streets, and towering skyscrapers lining the shoreline. But just across the bridge is the small hamlet of Fort Kochi, which feels like a village that has been locked in time. It’s isolated from the polluted, overcrowded “progress” of the main city by a stretch of waterway that can be crossed by a 15 minute tuk-tuk (aka “auto rickshaw”) or ferry ride.
As a hub of trade dating back to the Spice Routes, the Maritime Silk Roads linking east to west brought European influence to Fort Kochi. It was the first of the European colonies in colonial India, beginning with the occupation by the Portuguese in 1503. In fact, Portuguese Explorer Vasco De Gama was the first European known to reach India. Vasco de Gama made three voyages to India, his first being in 1498. He died in Fort Kochi of malaria, and was first buried at St. Francis Church. His remains were later returned to Portugal in 1539. He is now entombed in Jerónimos Monastery in Belem, Portugal where I visited last summer.
Following Portuguese rule, Kochi was captured by the Dutch in 1683 who ruled until 1795 when the British took control, maintaining it until 1947 when India declared independence. But long prior to colonial rule, Kochi was influenced by China as immigrants established a fishing and trade routes as far back as the 14th Century. Even the town’s name, “Cochin” means “like China.” The Chinese fishermen brought with them the unique mechanical fishing nets now considered to be the most famous landmark of Fort Kochi.
Fort Kochi is known for having an abundance of home stays and guesthouses, so I booked a week at the Green Wood Bethlehem Guesthouse. It was in a great location within walking distance of many attractions, but more so because the rave reviews on booking.com about the helpful owners. The Green Wood Bethlehem Guesthouse lived up to its reputation, as the two owners, Sheeba and her husband Ashley sat me down in their living-room in front of a large map, and spent an hour offering their tried and true recommendations, from walking tours to the best places to try south Indian cuisine.
I have talked before about why I find it preferable to stay in cheaper, backpacker-style accommodations as opposed to a little more upscale properties. While the rooms are not as accommodating, these cheaper style guesthouses typically come with some sort of community room where fellow travelers congregate. And when one is doing long term travel, the information to be gleaned from fellow travelers is invaluable.
But even more helpful were the conversations I had on the rooftop of the guesthouse where complimentary breakfast was served. I took to bringing a notepad and pen to breakfast each morning, as sitting at the communal tables with fellow travelers proved to be even more bountiful than the breakfast buffet. Throughout informative conversations, I washed down “idli” (rice cakes) with numerous cups of weak tea while making my list and plotting my course to explore the southern coastal state of Kerala.