Kochi, India: Elephants, Train-booking Nightmares, and Stranger Danger

After crossing the entire county, we arrived in Kochi. Residing in the state of Kerala, Kochi was colonized first by Portugal, than the Netherlands, and finally by Britain. Which is why it also goes by the name of Cochin. Every city in India has two names, the original Indian name and the British-name. Sometimes they are very similar, like with Kochi and Cochin, but other times they are very different, like Mumbai and Bombay.
We arrived in Kochi without a hotel reservation so we spent some time at a tourist desk in the airport. We only wanted to know the area code for the region, and the guy talked us into changing our hotel choice to one he could “get us a better deal on.” With our newly made reservation, we headed to the public bus to take the 40 minute ride to Kochi downtown. Two hours later, we were there.
My first impression of Fort Kochi was that it was a smaller calmer city. Which I was definitely pleased with. We wove through the make-shift merchant tables trying to find our hotel, which was located only a street off from the beach. The hotel was very nice, and while our original choice may of been nicer, we were happy with the arrangement we made. After dropping off our stuff, we walked along the water and observed our new surroundings. First thing that catches your eye in Fort Kochi are the Chinese Fishing Nets.
These nets are submerged into the water and then retrieved later with hopefully a full bounty of fish. While we were walking along this section, there were fishmongers selling fish that could be then cooked across the street for some rupees. We didn’t purchase fish from here, though my guidebook says it would of been fine. Some of the sellers didn’t even have their fish on ice though. We also saw some fresh and large fish being auctioned, which was a surprisingly quiet affair. The buyers all gather in a tight circle around the fish and the auctioneer quietly says numbers and points to the current highest bidder. Eventually the winner gathers his fish in a basket and walks off.
Anything too small to be purchased or wanted eventually finds a happy tummy too.
Through the guidebook, we found out about a Elephant Training Camp that was in the region, and arranged through our hotel to give it a visit. The book described watching the trainers giving the elephants baths and for a fee getting a ride. I don’t see how anyone could give that up, so off we went.
We arrived in time to watch a baby elephant get led to the water, and were allowed to pet him before he got in. He was very intent on the trainers treat pocket, and didn’t pay us much mind. He was already a year and a half old and only as tall as my chest. I would of thought that they would grow much faster. We watched him and some adult elephants being bathed for about an hour, during which we noticed the trainers seemed suspiciously anxious. One of the tourist watching with us asked to help bath the elephant (something we’d seen photos of) and the trainer initially said “no.” After their taxi driver spoke to the trainer, the man of the pair was allowed to join the trainers and scrub. He did no more than 3 brushes before they were already telling him to go away but give a tip.
Apparently a week previously one of the male elephants killed 3 people. Our taxi driver told us but I thought he was pulling our leg. But, sure enough, I was able to find the news article later. No wonder the trainers didn’t seem to want us around.

 

 

 

 

 

We were back from the elephant training camp early in the morning, so we spent the rest of the day walking around the city and planning our next move. We decided to go on a backwater boat tour the next day, which again our hotel arranged for us. Then we wanted to take a train up to Mumbai. We had heard a lot about booking trains in India. That they are slow, but a great way to see the countryside. To get from the boat cruise to Mumbai by train, a distance of 1,435 km (891 miles) it was going to take 36 hours. Jeff tried for 2 hours after the elephant camp to book the train. We tried all the websites we could, makemytrip.com, cleartrip.com, irctc.co.in, and none of them worked. And they all broke in different ways. Apparently, without having an indian credit card and an indian address, it is nearly impossible to book a train. If you want to, you have to plan weeks before your trip, and send your information to the company that controls the website to convince them to make you an account that will work. I mean, credit card information, passport photo, proof of address, all sorts of ridiculousness. So, if you are seat-of-your-pants travelers like us, this makes booking a train very difficult. I made Jeff take a break and go outside while we still had daylight.
We wove our way through the town, enjoying a ginger lemonade at an art cafe (yum), and a blueberry cheesecake at a tea-pot themed cafe (omg, yum). Eventually we some how found ourselves inside the Portugese history museum, which ended up being a religious antique history museum more than anything else. While we were there we were cornered by the museum worker named Joseph. We talked for about 40 minutes about religion and belief and human nature. At first I was reluctant to engage with him, my experience thus far had told me that people who approached you wanted something, and he kept going on about how it was his birthday. Throughout the conversation he would tell stories about items museum-visitors had given him over the years when they found out it was his birthday. Despite these awkward interjections, we did have a very good conversation. As we were leaving, satisfied with our contact with the outside world, Jeff suggested we invite him to dinner. While I was again hesitant, I agreed because the only reasons I had to not invite him were based on discomfort that I should strive to overcome anyway. Thus, we had an appointment at 7 to have dinner with Joseph.

 

Dinner time rolls around and Joseph is late. Jeff went downstairs to check to see if he was outside and returns saying that he had to cancel. I don’t think much of it, but about 10 minutes later, Jeff mentions that he felt a little suspicious now. We told him during the conversation where we were staying, he knew when we would be out, and we didn’t know if our hotel would give the key to him. After Jeff said this, I immediately start to worry. We had been so stupid. All the travel guides tell you to be cautious, to avoid giving up this information, and here we are, two idiots who did just that. The meal was rushed and stressful. I had a hard time relaxing even after we called the hotel and rationalized that everything would probably be fine.
Lesson learned though, don’t give personal information to strangers. I’m disappointed this didn’t turn into an event that would restore some faith in humanity, about people from different cultures and beliefs sitting together and having an interesting conversation. Instead it is an example of distrust and xenophobia prevailing other open-mindedness. The whole situation was rather strange, and while the bottom line is that nothing bad happened, it still leaves a spooky memory rather than a good one. Maybe that is ultimately my own fault (and Jeff’s for bringing it up in the first place) by not letting the memory of the good conversation at the museum dominate over the fear I felt during the dinner. But still, it takes a lot to change a mind.
The next day we packed up and readied ourselves to be on a backwater boat trip. Jeff decided to give booking a train ticket one more time. Using the hotel computer, he spent another hour trying to book a “Taktel” ticket, which is a group of tickets made available 24 hours before departure. I don’t know why they do this, but whatever, you can get tickets even though there may be a 1000 person waiting list (I’m not exaggerating) by purchasing online or at a train station. Despite using the hotel’s account (normal accounts are disabled from 8am to 10 am, since it makes things more complicated and therefore better), Jeff was unable to purchase a ticket because the hotel’s internet kept dropping. We got in our car with an arrangement with the driver to stop by a station and buy tickets, which made us finally successful in purchasing our tickets. Mumbai, here we come in 2 days!
Moral of the train story: If you plan to travel by train in India, you have to organize it months in advance and it will be extremely frustrating.
Thats the end of my post, but I learned something interesting recently. This is an Ayyanar. They are usually placed outside cities or homes and they come alive at night and guard the walls of the place. They are also responsible for the vitality of the area (crops, avoid natural disasters, and general villager well-being).  This one was sitting in a courtyard of a hotel, but it is still a neat story.

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