I was recently lucky enough to share a visa hop date with a girlfriend of mine here in Doha – who was ready for an adventure – and who also wanted to explore India. This was the first trip either of us had taken to the subcontinent, and the first trip we’d taken together – so we decided to opt for a 5-day “India light” trip by visiting Kochi/Cochin (spelling depends on who you ask) in the Southwestern state of Kerala.
Kerala is on the Malabar Coast, and is tropical with tons of shoreline on the Arabian Sea. This state is known for palm trees, backwaters, tea and coffee plantations, and lush wildlife. According to Wiki, the official language is Malayalam, the population is 34.8 million, and the average life expectancy is the highest in India at 74.9. Which is super interesting – while there, she and I marveled at just how many old people were wandering around in such great shape.
This area is also really culturally diverse, with Hinduism, Islam and Christianity as the largest religions and a blend of Aryan (South Asian), Dravidian (South Indian), Arab and European cultures. We saw quite a few religions represented during a whirlwind town tour – most notably Jewish, Catholic, Hindu, Jain, Krishna and Islam.
Cochin is a large port city, with a metropolitan population of 2.1 million. Called Queen of the Arabian Sea, this town was an important spice trading center from the 14th century on and has maintained close trade ties with the Arab world. It was the first Portuguese colony in India, and was ruled by the Dutch, British and Kingdom of Cochin. Nowadays, Cochin is the financial, commercial and industrial capital of Kerala, as well as home to the Indian Navy’s Southern Naval Command and state HQ of the Indian Coast Guard. Cochin/Kochi is a top tourist destination, and at least according to Wiki’s sources, by 2025 will be one of the global cities contributing 50% of the world GDP. Wiki How cool is that?!
Ok, enough nerding out and on to the pictures!
Before I even jump into the trip, let me just say that it started out with quite the bang. My girlfriend, Amanda, and I were given an unexpected upgrade to business on our Qatar Airways flight and we were giddy with excitement.
Thanks, Qatar Airways – what a way to start an adventure!
On to Kochi.
Around Fort Cochin
We stayed in a guest house in the Fort Cochin area of Kochi called Greenwoods-Bethlehem run by a really sweet couple – Sheeba and Ashley. We chose this location because of the tours and amenities available (daily yoga, ayurvedic massage and cooking classes specifically), the fact that it had Wifi and air conditioning, and the reviews on Trip Advisor and Booking.com. We were led to believe that the couple really takes care of their guests – and the reviews were not wrong in the slightest. Both were really sweet, and Sheeba knew exactly what a couple of girlfriends wanted out of a vacation – her suggestions were always spot on! Plus: the breakfasts each morning were fantastic, and the tea in the evening was just the thing to help relax after a day of sightseeing. I would definitely recommend and would stay there again.
The neighborhood Greenwoods is located in is also prime, and most things we wanted to do or see were within walking distance (of course, it was hot and tuk-tuks are cheap (around 20 or 30 rupees or under 50 cents) and really persistent – so we ended up hitching a ride to most locations).
Most evenings, we found ourselves at one of the local + tourist hangouts – the area near Fort Cochin beach and Princess Street shopping district. This area was great – you’ve got the ferry terminal nearby, scenic Chinese fishing nets, a bunch of restaurants and cafes, a really cool kids park, and beachfront hawkers selling their wares.
We ate dinner in this area every evening but the last, and most of what we had was fantastic. My first meal in India was Chicken 65, a dish I’d just heard about on Ugly Delicious a food nerd show I was loving on Netflix (if you’re at all into food and culture – give it a watch – the episode examining fried chicken on a global scale was at once frustrating and fascinating and this show’s examination of the concept of authenticity is something that really got my brain going). But I digress (obvs. have we met?).
We did a day drip excursion (set up by our lovely hosts at Greenwoods) to the Kerala Backwaters.
The Backwaters is a popular day trip from Cochin – they’re a chain of lagoons and lakes linked by natural and man-made canals that is fed by 38 rivers and encompasses about half the length of the state of Kerala. According to Wiki, a comparison can be made with the American Bayou – which I can kind of see. The parts we saw at least were less “pointy teeth monster infested swampland” and more “serene to the point of coma because you probably won’t be eaten”, but I can see the resemblance in the lushness of the surroundings and the mixture of salty and fresh waters. We saw part of the Valapattanam river (the Northernmost), a canal, then I believe Vembanad Lake – which is the largest in the area.
Our ride was one of the 2,000 kettuvallams (houseboats), which is a human-powered thatched roof wooden hull boat with a really shallow draft, and was traditionally used as a grain barge.
Tours exist that can take you out on a more extensive ride (overnight), but the trip we took was a day excursion – and, to be honest, was a couple hours too long for either of our tastes. It was definitely a relaxing journey, and with a different mix of fellow travelers (we had a raucous group of post-grads on holiday from other parts of India or abroad who stuck to themselves – only so loudly one couldn’t really talk over them), and a more engaging tour guide – we would have been sad to see the boat go. As it was, we were excited to get back on the road (and our pimp ride!) to start the couple-hour journey back home.
Most of the rest of our visit was taken up by shopping, morning yoga, ayurvedic massages, and tuk-tuk rides around town.
Jew Town and Spice Market
Jew town? Yep, that’s what it’s called – this area still boasts a Synagogue and lots of beautiful lace shops. The Spice Market was also pretty cool – it was Portuguese, then Dutch, then English, then Indian. Super cool, and has been turned into a womens’ collective / popular Tuk Tuk driver stop.
A note on that: In this part of the world (and I’m suspecting all of Southeast Asia), it is common for tuk tuk drivers to make extra stops when ferrying around tourists. You don’t have to buy anything at the markets/museums/shops they bring you to – and as long as you at least go in and have a look, the driver will get something in return (usually something like a kilo of rice, a beer, a snack, etc.). It’s not hurting you any – it takes 5 minutes to as long as you want it to (in Sri Lanka, our driver took us to cool workshops where we spent quite some time chatting with artisans and actually had to be collected by said driver or we’d be there happily all afternoon), and it helps the local economy. Plus: you’re spending next to nothing in your own currency for a ride; in my view, yes dude – make some extra cash. /end rant but really I could go on and on about the gig economy, tourism, and the like but will spare you – suffice it to say, I’m super happy to go along with the flow while on vacation, and if it’s a good driver (and not a pushy jerk), I will help them out as much as time allows. It makes my experience richer, and it’s a barely any effort way to directly impact someone’s family. Our Barbie Girl driver you’ll read about in a bit? He’s 1 month older than me, looked about a decade older, and has 3 kids. /end rant for real.
Tuk Tuk Tour
Our last day, we took a massive tour around the area to see all the highlight touristy sights – we hired a tuk-tuk driver who took us on a 2-hour tour around town for about $2 while loudly and enthusiastically singing “Barbie Girl” and “Who Let The Dogs Out?” and ended up adding an additional trip across the bridge to the Kerala Folklore museum for another $2 or so. I loved the whirlwind tour and was completely happy to see what people commonly visit while in town. Tuk Tuk drives around town were probably my favorite part of the whole trip – watching the world and normal life stream past from a bouncy, loud ride with the breeze in my hair was a great way to experience the area.
Churches and Temples
Some random pics I swiped from my girlfriend
The last thing we had time for on our journey was a Kathakali Dance. Man, I’m glad we made time for this – it was certainly one of the highlights of the trip.
Kathakali (Wiki) is one of the major forms of traditional Indian dance and is indigenous to Kerala. Not unlike Japanese Kabuki theater, this style of storytelling includes beautiful costuming, face painting, no spoken dialogue, and an all-male cast. Dancers spend 6 years(!) learning their craft, and it really shows. What they can do with their eyes and convey with their faces and subtle body language is stunning. This was one of the highlights of the trip for me, and I’d go back for another viewing in a heartbeat. If you want to see more, check out the fourth and final Cochin Vlog on my YouTube channel. Super cool.
And that was our 5-day girlfriend visa hop trip. Simply put, Kerala was fantastic and somewhere I’d visit repeatedly. I can’t wait to see more of this vibrant and diverse land!