Five cups of tea and a proper monsoon

 

The sun had just made it up over the rather ominous wall of clouds offshore as I emerged from my hotels in Fort Kochi. I glanced down at my map and set off towards my first destination, Santa Cruz Basilica. Around me Cochin was waking up, even auto rickshaw drivers were unusually silent, too engrossed in their morning chai for my presence to even solicit the hopeful nod and honk. I located the basilica easily enough, its twin spires catching the morning light above the buildings around it, and entered through the side gate.

The Dutch constructed the original church in 1505, however all that survived the British occupation was a single pillar. The structure rebuilt in 1905 is still very impressive, a mixture of gothic and Indo-European architecture and internal woodwork. Raised to the status of a basilica in 1984 by Pope John Paul II, it is one of just eight basilicas in India. As I explored the inside of the church, looking for the one enduring pillar I realized I had company. School children were entering the basilica quietly in ones and two and bowing their heads for a moment of silence before turning and heading back towards their school. My visit complete, I followed them out into the bright sun. My next destination was the Dutch cemetery.

As I exited the church yard I was caught up in a stream of laughing school children. The group grew as minibuses arrived, filled to overflowing with blue-skirted girls and absorbed those exiting Santa Cruz. I was borne along by the excitable crowed until they disappeared into St Mary’s school for girls, leaving me to venture on to the cemetery alone. My map took me through a small square where a lively pickup soccer game was happening and past Vasco de Gama church but left me at a discouragingly locked gate. A passerby, correctly interpreting the situation, informed me that the Dutch cemetery was kept locked due to “an incident” and only unlocked on request. Unable to find anyone suitable of whom to make such a request, I satisfied myself with peering through the gate. I gave up my window into centuries of Dutch Cochin history, however, distracted by a handwritten sign on a chai stall next to me reading simply “best chai.” It seemed a fair trade as I sat on a stool sipping my steaming tin cup and contemplating the clouds that were now blocking the sun.

My next stop was the Maritime Museum. To get there I wandered along the coast past benches of locals nonchalantly watching the wind and the surf pick up off shore. The museum told the story of the Indian navy from the Kunjali Marakars of Kerala to the present day. Given Kochi’s role throughout history as a contact point between foreign civilizations and India, its location as the death place of Vasco De Gama, and the Indian Navy’s current prevalence, the museum offers an interesting and relevant perspective. By the time I left, it had begun to drizzle.

Dismissing the rain, I ventured out of the gates. I was forced to give in and hail an auto-rickshaw, however, as drizzle quickly became rain. Safely under cover, I met Arjun, rickshaw driver by profession, salesman by nature. He convinced me to visit Dhobi Khana, which had not been part of my list previously. Like others stations across India (famously including Dhobi Ghat), Dhobi Khana is the wash station where the town’s laundry had historically been done. My visit offered a glimpse into traditional washing in India, from stalls of people pounding on laundry, to rows of hanging towels (that easily could have included my own from the night before), to the man expertly passing an old iron, fueled with burning coconut shells, over sheets.

I ate lunch at Pepper House Café. The Pepper House establishment includes spacious art display spaces for artists hosted in association with the famous Kochi Biennale, a beautiful library and a modern Design Shop which I explored as I waited for my food. When it arrived, I was similarly impressed by my chicken and cashew pesto sandwich with ginger iced tea as I had been with the complex. I had hoped to wait out the rain and continue my tour on foot in the afternoon. Looking out into the courtyard, however, it was clear the rain had not taken my plans into consideration. When my waiter came back I asked how long he thought it would be before the rain stopped.

“Oh no,” he amusedly dismissed my previous understanding of precipitation, “this is the proper monsoon. Now it rains.” He finished in a strangely absolute way. At this, I decided that my afternoon tour would be by rickshaw. Luckily I found one right outside the café, driven by Sadhim who was happy to take me wherever I wanted. I began the second leg of my tour at the Mattancherry Palace, or the Dutch Palace as it is commonly known. The palace was built by the Portuguese in 1557 and presented to Raja Veera Kerala of Kochi. The palace now houses a museum where visitors can read about the history of the kingdom of Cochin and view displays of medieval artifacts. A definite highlight were the murals which covered more than 300 square feet of the walls and intricately depicted scenes from the Ramayana, a sight easily worth the 5-rupee entrance fee.

Following the Dutch palace visit, Sadhim took me past two large temples, one Hindu and one Jain, however it was only possible to look from the outside at both as I was not Hindu and it was after 11:30. Between stops Sadhim explained to me the system of commissions by which large stores would pay rickshaw drivers for every tourist they brought to their store. As I was visiting Fort Kochi during the offseason (something to do with this “proper monsoon”), business was slow and commissions were high. For the sake of Sadhim’s cut and the stubborn downpour, I happily took a look around three different stores. The selection was impressive. The stores I visited consisted of a collection of families that made handicrafts and included everything from jewelry to fabric to high end carpets. Though I had not planned on it, along the way, I acquired a small bronze Ganesh to live on the dashboard of our Subaru back home.

I finished my sightseeing on a high note at the Ginger Factory. In the central patio of the old building, sheets had been spread out to protect the ginger that was lying out to dry from the rain. In the dim, cavernous storerooms women sorted batches of the pungent root by tossing them in a huge strainer. After I had looked around, I was shown up a rickety wooden staircase to showroom overflowing with colors and smells. As I browsed packets of spices of every conceivable color and form, the two women in charge appeared with endless samples: candied mango, fresh ginger tea, honeyed sesame, and several things I could not identify. By the time I made it back out to Sadhim I had purchased more spices than I had used in the past two years.

As predicted, the rain had still not let up. The open market on Bazar road that I had planned to go to had closed up in the rain, leaving only goats finding shelter under awnings. The considerable silver lining of the weather was that it gave an excuse to explore some of the other cafes around Fort Kochi. Sadhim dropped me off as Kashi Art Café, and charged nothing for the afternoon of driving, calling the commission he had gotten from my store visits enough.

Kashi Art Café was a very pleasant place to appreciate the monsoon. Over a Chai Masala and a brownie, I watched rain pour off the roof into flowerbeds, surrounded by statues in the atmospheric café. True to its name, the teashop even had an art display room which at that time held pieces from a women’s art collective. As darkness fell, I couldn’t help but set off for one final teahouse up the road, Teapot. I was served my final tea of the day, black with vanilla, in a pot, fitting, given the name of the establishment and the dozens of other teapots that decorated the restaurant.

To make up for the unexpected expenditures of the day, I ate at a cheap, hole-in-the wall restaurant for dinner. My simple but delicious prawn curry and parotta was the perfect way to wrap my day in Fort Kochi, a town that blended history and sleek cafes, quaintness and authenticity as effortlessly as it did spices and hot water.

Extremely tired but equally fulfilled and satisfied with my day, I returned to Ayana Fort Kochi where I was supposed to spend my night in the comforts. I had checked a lot of hotels in Kochi before I booked Ayana on Booking.com and was very proud of my selection as this was undoubtedly one of the best Luxury hotels in Kerala.