Avoiding the major cosmopolitan cities of the South (Chennai, Bangalore) Kochi or Cochin is a more relaxed the place to start a South Indian journey. Judging from names as 'The Dutch Cemetery' and 'The Dutch Palace', I'm not the first of my people to think so.
In addition to my ancestors (±1660-1814), Kochi also bears the marks of other fellow European 'traders', the Portuguese (1500-1650) and of course the Britishers (1815-Independence). But Chinese fishing nets, mosques and even a 400 old synagogue show that Kochi actually belonged to everyone who had something that someone else wanted. These days Kochi - the island just off the coast - belongs mainly to tourism, with the mainland Ernakulam region as its more regular Indian cosmopolitan counterpart.
If you're expecting to see cows roaming the streets, creating their holy chaos and even holier dung, Kochi will be a terrible disappointment. There as some goats, a few stray dogs, but other than that Kochi is fairly orderly and relatively clean, though don't expect a garbage free beach. Being an island, traffic is also within limits, making it fairly easy to move around. If a place is not a 'Homestay' it's a restaurant and the place has some decent restaurant, so getting food is not an issue either. All in all, a fine place to start!
It's nothing new, but - at the least on the first day - it still surprises me a bit. How the tuktuk sneaks up on you, startle you with their honk and then go 'taxxxxi siiir?' or worse, the 'heelooow siir, howayou? Where you from?' which basically means the same thing. But they are relatively easy dissuaded, compared to some northern tourist cities. Just one 'no, thank you' with a dismissive wave of the hand does the trick, making simply walking around town a lot easier.
As I arrived on the 30th, my second day was already the last day of the year, which means time for celebrations! And Indians love celebrations. For all three days I've been there, the town was buzzing with Christmas/New Year festivities. Including some pretty remarkable ones...
For a land in which homosexuality is forbidden, it was really quite surprising to see Drag Queens parading openly and full attire in the crowds around the new year festivities. Even more surprising was the love shown to them by some Indian guys, who were all over them, while their fellow countrymen and women just looked either surprised or horrified/disgusted. Maybe it is a 'go crazy, it's the last day of the year thing'? Both the drags and the guys around them seemed to have a good time, so I guess it's cool.
One thing they did like to go crazy during the last day of the year were dolls or more specifically, straw dolls dressed as Santa. While there was a giant cowboy doll burning at the beach, the streets of Kochi were dotted with burning Santa's who were not really Santa's - despite the beard and the red/white clothing - but the year 2015. While I'm not sure what 2015 did to deserve such an ending, I know that people were very much looking forward to the new year.
If you ever find yourself on a cycling tour around Cochin on New Year's Day, you'll know what I'm talking about. Quite regularly people - and especially kids - wave when you as a tourist pass by, especially if you enter the villages outside the main town. Here that incentive to wave was reinforced by a general desire to wish us a 'happy new year'. And so every 500 meters or so there was a exchange of wishes for happiness in and for 2016.
And if you're in need for some spiritual closure for the end of the year/beginning of the new one, then Kochi is a good place to be. Especially if you're Christian. At least on Fort Kochi, Churches vastly outnumber Hindu temples (at least 'visually') and quite a few of them seem brand new, with a modern (glass) look. And most of them seem to give as much importance to the New Year's Eve and day mass as they would do a Christmas one. Of course it's a bit indianized, it's all a bit more kitsch with bright multicolor lights and the mass being in the open in December.
Despite some local adoptions, Christianity seems to practiced in a mostly familiar way. If anything Jezus and Mary seems whiter here, which may also be related to Indian beauty standards, which favour lighter skin. Of course there are some odd cases, such as a statue depicting Jesus on a horse , waving his sword like he's leading a charge. Other than that he's sometimes dressed in local attire, which could even be true as the man - after the whole ordeal with the cross - spent his remaining years in India. That's one option anyway.
- Prepaid taxi from the airport to Fort Kochi are rs1200, which is a decent price for the 50km trip, especially after a 10 hour flight.
- Fort Kochi to Allepey. There's a bright orange KURTC AC Volvo bus leaving from Fort Cochin to Alappuzha around 8.15 am (3hr, rs128), which is probably the best option by road. No booking in advance, just show up on time. Alternatively you can book a (house)boat, I've heard Waltons in Fort Kochi is happy to help you arrange that.