Monthly Archives: April 2024

Long haul made easy

As the days ticked by I kept looking for an affordable flight back to Dublin to rejoin our campervan and get ready to cross the English channel to Europe. Flying from Kochi doesn’t offer the best options and I explored other airline hub cities for better departure times and layovers. I wasn’t having any luck until late one night out of the blue I found an unheard of price for Kochi – Dublin on Etihad Business Class for only a little more than the best economy fares I was finding. Not only was the price suspiciously low, but the connecting city was Abu Dhabi instead of Dubai, and with a long layover. I quickly checked to see if we could leave the airport during the layover. Yes, we could. Sold.

We were sad to leave India. We came not knowing what to expect traveling on our own through a country often portrayed as chaotic and depressing, and fell in love with the people, the culture, the history, the energy, and yes, the chaos. We already have a list of other regions we want to visit. But that’ll be next time.

Our first flight was a comfortable four hours to Abu Dhabi. You can’t always leave the airport on a layover without a visa, but the UAE, or at least Abu Dhabi, allows a transit visa for up to 48 hours. I booked a private city tour that would pick us up and drop us off at the airport.

Immigration in Abu Dhabi was easy. We just showed our Dublin boarding passes and we were stamped and through the gate in no time.

By a funny coincidence, our driver and tour guide was from Kochi, exactly where we’d just come from. That made it the perfect transition for us as we gushed about how much we loved India and Kochi at the same time we were learning about and touring the island capital of the UAE.

We began in the jewel of Abu Dhabi, the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. You enter via an underground plaza that looks suspiciously like a mall, then enter a concourse where a ten minute walk brings you right to the outer perimeter of the mosque. You experience the complex first in closeup rather than at a distance.

The building is exquisite, like the Taj Mahal but newer, bigger, more elaborate. No expense was spared, with only the best materials sourced from all over the world.

There are 82 domes, 4 minarets, and 1192 pillars. The courtyard is the largest marble mosaic in the world, and the carpet in the main prayer room is also the largest in the world. The wool for the carpet is from New Zealand; the marble is from Macedonia, Italy, and India; the chandeliers are German, made with Swarovski crystals. The whole effect is breathtaking and it was hard to stop taking photos and just appreciate the beauty.

I look stupid like this because I didn’t have a head covering with me and rather than rent one our guide suggested I just wear my hoodie while in the mosque. It was hot.

We spent an hour and a half in and around the mosque and it wasn’t nearly enough, but then our guide drove us to this spectacular viewpoint.

I’ve grown to love Islamic architecture, the domes, the minarets, the symmetry. This one is stunning.

We stopped at the date market, a commercial road lined on both sides by purveyors of dates and other dried fruits. I love dates, and in fact all dried fruit, and this shopkeeper gave me lots of different types of dates to taste. Jack and the driver eventually had to tear me away as it was getting dark.

I was trying to decide how many kilos of dates I could fit in our luggage.

For the next few hours we visited more of the beautiful modern architecture of Abu Dhabi. Everything is so new that at one point Jack asked, “Where are your antiquities?”

There aren’t any, apparently. Before oil was discovered in the 1950s the people here were either nomadic, in the interior, or fishermen, on the coast. There’s a Heritage Center that’s usually part of the city tour but our layover was late in the day and it was closed. That’ll be next time.

These three buildings are a Roman Catholic church, a synagogue, and a mosque, all in the same complex.

Our last stop was the Emirates Palace, a luxury hotel, where we walked through the domed lobby and around the wide terraces.

And then it was back to the airport where we still had a few hours before our flight to Dublin.

Because we were flying business class we could spend the rest of our layover in the top rated Etihad lounge. It’s three stories of restaurants, buffets, cocktails, snack bars, showers, private nap rooms, and all manner of comfy and quiet places to wait for your flight. We took full advantage of the food and lounge areas, but forgot to take photos.

And then we were on our way. We said goodbye to six warm countries in six months, and after a couple more great Etihad meals and a long nap in a lie-flat bed, we said hello to cold and rainy Dublin.

I know there are travelers who only take carryon luggage but we always check one bag between us and usually by the time we get out of immigration our bag is on the carousel. Not so in Dublin. The baggage claim area is small and crowded, and far from the concourses, so the baggage took forever to arrive.

And please tell me why people stand right at the carousel waiting for their bags. Stand back, people, and step up when yours comes, ok? Jack had to fight his way to our duffle and the people blocking the carousel were actually angry that he had to reach past them to get it.

Our routine when we arrive in a new country is to find a cafe and orient ourselves with a cuppa. This cafe was right beside the international arrivals door and we enjoyed watching the excited homecomings.

While one of us stays parked at the cafe with the luggage, the other hits the ATM for local currency and gets local SIMs for our phones. Only then do we arrange ground transportation to wherever we’re going, in this case the one-hour bus ride to Newry, where our friend, van caretaker, and concierge Alan will pick us up for the final leg of this long journey.

It’s cold. It’s raining. We question our sanity in returning so soon, before Spring has sprung.

But it’s so good to be home. Alan took great care of Escape Velocity while we were gone, and she’s clean and dry and warm inside. It took all of three days to unpack, reorganize, dig out our warm clothing and stow our travel gear for next time we fly away.

Now what?


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The backwaters of Kochi

Unbeknownst to Yours Truly I’d been enrolled in still another sunrise adventure. As you Escapees well know by now, Rule #4 unequivocally states “No More Sunrise Adventures.” So why am I sitting in an Uber in the dark being pummeled by Kochi’s back roads? I think we can all agree it’s to maintain domestic tranquility.

Marce seems to be cheerful enough when the driver stops in a dirt alley and gives us that look that says, “Ride’s over.” No signs, no buildings, and no guide. False dawn reveals water and a small punt at the dead end of this unpaved alley but we’re still 20 minutes early.

Here in India you don’t expect clear signage but once again, as the sun rises above the tree tops, no one is here. After half a dozen texts and phone calls Marce reaches a very sleepy proprietor who says his guide must have gone for tea. That’s India.

Finally a harried but apologetic guide showed up with a small container of outboard fuel and after frenetically rearranging the plastic chairs onboard, he gestured toward the seats he wanted us to take.

With the sun well risen we putted away from the sea wall.

Well this is quite pleasant, if not an actual sunrise cruise. Before long we entered the backwater channels.

Marce here: This is one of the main tourist draws here in Kochi, and particularly further south in Alleppey. You can take short cruises like us, a longer overnight journey in a private houseboat, or group cruises, all in traditional wooden boats ranging from rustic to luxurious. I wanted to experience the quiet shallow waters of Kerala on our last day to bookend our month in India. We began in high octane Delhi and we’re ending on these peaceful waters.

Because our boatman was late we’ve missed the dawn and it’ll get hot too soon but the water is unrippled and we’re seeing a different slice of Indian life. It reminded me of the bayous of Louisiana.

We saw lots of birds, including a few gorgeous kingfishers, their iridescent blue feathers flashing in the morning light as they flew away before I could raise the camera. The herons, egrets, and cormorants were much more obliging.

It’s a whole different world here, with dwellings of all kinds. I’m sure the people are accustomed to the tour boats gliding past but everyone I waved to waved back.

This woman is sifting through the bottom mud with her feet for oysters and her dugout is filled to the gunnels.

We saw the evidence of fish farms in lots of places but we failed to understand our guide’s explanation so we don’t know if they’re still in operation or not.

As we glided toward more open water we saw ahead a flock of birds circling and diving near a couple of boats pulling up their nets. Of course this is a common sight, seagulls following the catch, but as we inched closer and our boatman cut the engine we realized they weren’t gulls but sea eagles, dozens of them, young, old, whistling and swarming, trying their best to share in the catch. We were transfixed. We’d never seen more than one or two at a time and we sat for many minutes taking it all in. Even our boatman watched in wonder.

For the rest of our allotted time we motored in and out of the mangroves, sometimes running aground in the shallows. We wondered what the nautical charts would look like in such a place.

We were returned to the dock at the scheduled time, with no allowance made for the fact that we’d left very late but it was getting hotter and we have packing to do and a long journey ahead of us. We couldn’t have picked a better way to end our trip.

Back early, It must be tea time.

Later that day, you know it’s time to wrap it up when Jack starts looking for local news.


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Exploring the lanes

We learned there’s a historic synagogue in Kochi and on our first day exploring the chaotic market Jack spotted it tucked away down a long alley. We were surprised to see a tropical fish shop inside, and the doors to the sanctuary locked.

This is the Kadavumbhagham Ernakulam Synagogue, by some accounts the oldest of the synagogues of the Malabar Jews, establish about 1200. It holds only occasional services and to visit you have to make an appointment with the caretaker. We hadn’t.

When we moved over to Fort Kochi we were interested in visiting the other oldest synagogue, and we hired a tuktuk to drive us to the area called Jew Town rather than hoof it in the Kerala steam heat.

We’re at the end of the tourist season, good because there are no crowds, bad because many businesses have already shuttered for the season. Luckily the synagogue is still open for visitors.

This is the Paradesi Synagogue and as you can see, it claims “oldest in the Commonwealth” status.

Before you enter the synagogue there’s a small gallery of drawings, paintings, and maps illustrating the history of the Jews on the Malabar coast. The congregation of this synagogue are descendants of the Sephardis who were expelled from Iberia in 1492. The Malabar Jews and the Sephardic Jews maintained their separate cultural identities. After India gained its independence most of the Malabar Jews emigrated to Israel, and most of Paradesi Jews emigrated to other commonwealth countries, leaving only a small congregation here.

The synagogue is small but lovely, filled with artifacts and antiquities from its long history. The elaborate crystal chandeliers are Belgian; the hand painted blue willow porcelain floor tiles are Chinese. The provenance and significance of nearly every feature is detailed in small plaques.

Kochi is part of the old Indian Ocean trade route that includes Singapore, Malacca, Penang, and Zanzibar. We’ve loved visiting these crossroads for the lasting imprint in architecture and culture left by the Dutch, Portuguese, Spanish, English, Arab, and West African traders. Kochi was, and still is, known for spices and textiles.

Back at the beach we explored the back streets, graveyards, and old and new art as our remaining time in India grew short.

Every time we walked to dinner we passed an intriguing sign: Jail of Freedom Struggle. There was an iron gate and a uniformed guard. We decided to see what it’s about.

The guard let us in and walked us around the compound. It’s not clear when the jail was built or who it housed but it’s believed to have been a transit jail where freedom fighters were held before being moved to other facilities. There are eight small cells with concrete slabs for beds. Pretty gruesome.

Back when we were in Delhi our food tour guide told me all the spices except saffron are grown here in Kerala. I figured I should buy some fresh local spices to take back, but knowing the strict customs regulations on bringing plants and plant products across the border I looked for packaged spice mixes that have a better chance of being allowed. I consulted our guesthouse host and he invited his own spice supplier to bring us some samples. She grows and dries the spices and creates her own blends. Everything smelled so good and I bought more than will fit in our tiny campervan, and some for friends and family too.

We bought even more spices from this lady down the street who had our favorite peppercorn mix and an intriguing ginger coffee that I couldn’t pass up.

With only one more day left we watched our last Arabian Sea sunset before dinner, and peered through the fence at a wedding party on our way home. I’ve barely stopped smiling since we got to India and I can’t believe it’s almost time to go.

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Theatre night

While we were checking into our new guesthouse the host offered to book seats to a traditional performance that evening. VIP, he said, and he wasn’t kidding. We were ushered to the front row in the theatre of the cultural centre right across the street.

This was a Kathakali music and dance performance, a style of theatre native to this area of southern India and practiced by the Malayali people.

The performance was in three parts. As the audience arrived the two actors were already seated onstage preparing their makeup, a ritual part of Kathakali. There are distinct designs representing individual characters, and each of the colors is symbolic. The actors spent many minutes grinding natural pigments into a paste then applying base and designs with what looked like sticks. There was an unhurried, meditative quality to the process and it went on for an entire hour. The process presents the transformation of an ordinary human into a mythical character right before your eyes.

Makeup done, the actors left the stage and a musician arrived with a large drum and curved drumsticks. As he set up a narrator described the traditions of the art. He explained that to become a Kathakali performer a boy apprentices at a young age for many years to learn the flexibility and muscle control required to portray the ritual emotions.

This lead to part two of the performance, a demonstration of the actor’s craft. As the narrator described each move or emotion, and the musician drummed trance-like rhythms, the actor demonstrated through his eyes, face, hands, and body the coded moves that tell the story.

At one point as he held his face perfectly still his black eyes circled round and round and round and round, fast and faster, accompanied by insistent drumming. It was at once creepy, hypnotic, dazzling. I was so transfixed by the minute control he had of his eyes and the individual muscles in his face that I didn’t even lift my camera. The man was middle aged and pudgy but moved with the strength, balance, and posture of a ballerina. I’m pretty sure I was staring agape at some of the things he could do. This was by far our favorite part of the show.

During the demonstrations the performer interacted with those of us in the front rows, then invited a young boy onstage with him, where he taught a few moves. The kid was a good sport and we gave him a hearty round of applause.

Finally, after a short break the actors appeared in full costume and performed an abbreviated version of one of the classical Kathakali plays. The musician sang a haunting tune and enhanced the story with his drumming.

At the climax of the play the woman, portrayed by the chubby actor, turned away from the audience for a moment, then spun around and shrieked and was revealed to be a demon. It was quite dramatic, even though we’d read the text of the story in the program and knew it was coming.

This was definitely one of the best experiences we’ve had in India and we’ve chided ourselves for not seeking out this kind of cultural show more often in our travels. It’s always exciting to see traditional art forms, particularly music, dance, and theatre.

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Something quite unique

Ah, this feels better. Still bloody hot but just listen to the quiet! Oh, you’ll hear the occasional car horn, but you can walk around Fort Kochi’s town square without dodging cows or their byproduct, while enjoying the huge stately Raintrees without being deafened. So that’s just what we decided to do. Think of it as orientation.

Once again we are drawn to the waterfront which features a small ferry, the usual Indian vendors and their insistent barkers.

One vendor had a large stack of red and blue boxed cap guns in front of his booth but his dispirited barker had to reload and fire a cap gun every 30 seconds or so. We were less than entertained. However, tuktuk drivers are the same wherever you are.

This chap handcrafts these clever harmoniums right in Kochi.

These boilers are evidence of past shipwrecks. It can get a little rough out on the Arabian Sea.

A walk in India will usually feature a visit to a fort and this walk is no exception. Fort Manuel of Cochin faces Kochi City across an estuary of the Arabian Sea, although no less than seven rivers empty into these waters making it quite brackish. The fort was built by the Portuguese in 1503 and it’s considered the first European fort in India. It’s hard to believe they beat the Dutch to it; they do so love a fort.

Many examples of Dutch, Portuguese, and English architecture still exist and are usually repurposed into hotels, restaurants, or art galleries.

Our main goal however is to see something described as Chinese nets which we found lining the waterfront along the shore of Fort Kochi.

They kind of remind me of the giant wooden squid-catching machines we saw in Indonesia, except those were mounted on large ungainly barges.

The crews of the Chinese nets would invite us to wobble out onto one of these things where we noticed that none of them were catching anything but flotsam.

This last guy dipped his net into the water with the same result, turned to us and demanded rupees. He seemed less than pleased with the amount.

We beat a wobbly retreat to shore. That’s the thing about India. Are they just being friendly? Or are they working an angle to cop a few rupees? In our experience usually they’re just being friendly.

Friendly or not we all gather for a spot of sun worshipping.

With the sun sinking into the Arabian Sea the temperature follows it down into the low 90°F/32°C.

It’s time to seek something interesting for dinner, which is not difficult in Kochi. I gotta go.

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A different India

By the time we left Mumbai we were questioning our decision to go south this time of year. Five minutes on the street, even moving in slow motion, left us dripping and dull-witted. Nevertheless, we flew even further south, to Kochi in the southernmost state of Kerala along the Malabar Coast of the Arabian Sea. We’d read that it’s unique and a change of pace from where we’ve been so far. Truth be told, each of our stops has its own character, culture, food, and general vibe. India is a big country and we wanted to get a taste of different regions for this first trip.

I initially parked us in the business district of Ernakulam, just to get our bearings and clear our lungs of the residue of Mumbai air. We soon realized we really want to be in Fort Kochi, close as the crow flies but a world away, and right on the sea.

First, of course, we ticked off the required Marce Tour of the city market. It was a long and sweaty walk but even in these conditions I love to poke my head into the various stalls to see what’s on offer.

Kerala is where most of the spices are grown. Seeing these tubs of fresh whole spices and breathing in the exotic aromas made me long for a kitchen and a pantry big enough to stock with bags full of everything.

I don’t know what these little clay cups are for, but there didn’t seem to be much English spoken in this market.

I’ve never seen so many varieties of dried fish.

When we left the market we were stopped by a colorful gridlock right where we wanted to cross the street. Locals walked right through, weaving their way around trucks, cars and motorbikes. We stood aside like the tourists we are, laughing and waiting for a little more room to move. It was like one of those sliding block puzzles where only one piece can move one space at a time, allowing the next to move one space. Even the drivers and passengers were shaking their heads, some in amusement, some in frustration. Eventually we got where we were going, which was back to our hotel to pack up and cross the backwaters to Fort Kochi and a little peace and quiet.

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