It has been another interesting day at the Most Neurotic Dandelion Hotel for the Mildly Bewildered in Cochin, Kerala, the place they call God’s Own Country.
No-one walks anywhere in Cochin. The only people who walk any distance at all are tourists. Tuk-Tuks, or Taken-Takens as I prefer to call them, those small, two-seater, door-less rickshaws which are propelled by a three-wheel motorcycle and driven at heart-stopping speeds through the busy streets of Cochin, giving way to no one, are the preferred mode of transport.
To walk into town, passing as you do, the now familiar home of Mr Laliza T.Y., the Government Pleader for the High Court of Kerala, Italian Upstairs Restaurant, Cinderella Herbal Beauty Treatment Salon, Fusion Bay Seafood and Willie’s Shoppee, where you can buy everything from a bar of Cadbury Dairy Milk to a new ink cartridge for your printer, you pass two Tuk-Tuk stands. One is the official union stand on KB Jacob Road, the other is on Bastion Road and these are the drivers who always tout for business, each one promising you the very best price for the best tour in all Kerala, each one offering his “Ferrari Tuk-Tuk with natural air conditioning”. They are actually made by Ferrari and as they are open on all sides indeed do have natural air conditioning.
Usually they can be waved away quite easily but yesterday I met one driver who simply wouldn’t take no for an answer. I had just been to Jew Town and was making my way, so I thought, to Mattancherry. As it turned out I was going completely in the opposite direction, but I wasn’t really aware of that at this stage of the narrative. The Tuk-Tuk stopped and I waved it away.
“No thank you,” I said, and kept on walking, confident that I hadn’t far to go.
“Maybe later,” he called.
Now usually at this juncture the driver will drive off in search of some other unsuspecting traveller, but not this guy. He drove past me and I, thinking nothing of it, carried on walking, but then I noticed he had stopped.
As I drew level he once again offered his services.
“No thanks,” I said.
“Maybe later,” he said.
“No thanks,” I replied.
I walked past his Tuk-Tuk and once again he overtook me, stopping about five yards in front of me.
“Very hot. You need Tuk-Tuk” he told me.
“No thanks,” I said, feeling slightly irritated for now it was getting personal.
This kind of thing went on for the best part of about a mile and every time he stopped he had some other words of wisdom on the subject of why I needed a Tu-Tuk and, more importantly, why I specifically needed his. Bear in mind that all this to-ing and fro-ing was all for a fare worth about 50 rupees, 50p, so it hardly seemed worth it, but over here that small amount can buy enough basics for a family meal. It’s one of those little episodes that stops you in your tracks and makes you think.
I had by this time realised that I had come so far off my intended route that I actually did need a Tuk-Tuk, but not his. He had probably decided that the amount of petrol he had used now far outweighed any fare he might get but I am sure he got his own back. I have a feeling that he must have put out word to the Tuk-Tuk mafia because whereas five minutes before, while we were playing Tuk-Tuk cat and mouse, there were Tuk-Tuks a-plenty, now there was nary a one. I stood, in what had been a busy street, casting a weary eye all around me but to no avail. An answer to my call for a Tuk-Tuks came there none, and so I walked and walked and walked in baking heat and with every step I chastised myself for being so bloody minded. The poor guy was only trying to make a living, after all. Undeserved as you probably think it was I did eventually get a Tuk-Tuk which took me to a nice hotel where I ordered a pot of tea and suddenly all was right with the world and Tuk-Tuk drivers everywhere.
I had made one or two purchases from one of the many traders in Fort Kochi; you may remember this one, he of the delicious khwaa tea and promised three monkeys, a promise on which he actually did make good. On a recent visit to his shop he very generously invited me to his home for dinner and to meet his family. There was no way I could refuse a home cooked meal that contained lamb and chicken and so I accepted.
Javid’s house was in a part of Cochin to which I had never been. It was very basic. There was no furniture in the living room just rugs scattered across the floor. In the kitchen I could see another man who was busy cooking over a two ring gas hob which seems to be that kitchen standard. No five plate Aga’s with built in lamb warmer here.
I was invited to sit down and Javid brought me a large bottle of mineral water which he had bought especially for me. A large pot of rice was placed on the rugs followed by three equally large pots of food. Javid explained that this was all Kashmiri food, the food of his home. One pot contained a mutton dish in a thin, milky sauce which had lots of shallots and was incredibly spicy. The other meat dish was a chicken and potato curry in a rich tomato based sauce which, in some ways, looked like the kind of curry you would see in any High Street restaurant in the UK but it was so different. Spicy but not so hot that you couldn’t appreciate the full flavour of the sauce and taste the different herbs and spice. The last dish was a paneer curry. Paneer, if you don’t already know is cheese very similar to haloumi and this was a real treat. Covered in a thick tomato sauce, heavy with shallots, this had my taste buds exploding. I have never tasted anything quite like.
After dinner Javid took me on a walking tour if the back streets of Cochin where even though it was now almost ten o’clock the shops were all still open and you could have bought anything from an ice cream to a made to measure suit and the street food vendors were doing a roaring trade. A fascinating insight in the real India and a million miles away from anything I thought I would experience.
That has been today in Kerala, where the sun always shines, the welcome is always warm and the people always smiling.
Be well, be kind and never give up.