You Say Kochi, I Say Cochin - A trip to Southern India (Part 1 of 2)

November 08, 2012

Divakar, Ashkay and I drove to Cochin on Monday. It was a long drive from Kannur, but Akshay kept it interesting with his constant dodging and weaving past buses, trucks, auto-rickshaws, stray dogs, goats and cows.

I kept wondering why they even bothered painting centerlines on the Indian roads. The centerline gets about as much respect as a warning tag on a mattress. While there appears to be just two lanes on their roads, in reality, there are three. There are two that run in opposite directions, and the one in the middle, the insane lane that both sides use to pass slower traffic.

The middle lane is where all the fun takes place. About every 30 seconds for the 7-hour drive, Akshay took turns with the other drivers on the road hitting their horns, putting the pedal to the floor and passing the vehicles in front of them via the imaginary center lane. If an oncoming car using the center lane suddenly appears, one of the drivers will flash their lights hoping the other will slow down and cede the way.

If that fails, one of two things happens. One of the drivers will suddenly pull way over onto the shoulder avoiding a head-on collision or the other driver will slam on his brakes and try to slip back into the spot from which he came. The passing activity isn’t just reserved for cars, either. Large buses and semis frequently pass cars in front of them.

Needless to say, I was a bit carsick and more than a bit thankful when we reached Cochin. I got a good night’s rest (actually I was up until 3 am writing the blog) and woke up excited the next day (I was a little grumpy that morning) to explore the city.

Cochin, also called Kochi, is much bigger than Kannur and sits right on the Arabian Sea. It has played a key role in the spice trade throughout history. At one time, Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, Sikhs, Jews and Jains all lived together in India. The profitable spice trade was the main attraction and India welcomed all religions with open arms. Pepper was as valuable as gold and everyone wanted a piece of the action.

I was amazed to learn that a large Jewish population lived in Cochin for several hundred years before immigrating to Israel in 1948. Remnants of Jewish life were still present in a part of the old city called Jew Town (couldn’t they have come up with a better name?).

We walked through a synagogue built in 1563. A gruff, unfriendly Jewish woman, one of only 30 Jews left in Cochin, instructed us to remove our shoes and forbid photography. I guess if your extended family moved to Israel and left you in a city called Jew Town, you’d be unfriendly too.

We moved on to check out spices, but didn’t find anything as exceptional as the organic peppercorn in Wayanad. While India offers a multitude of spices, it’s best known for its pepper. And since I won’t be selling anything that isn’t extraordinary, we decided to continue exploring the city. 

As we strolled through the streets of Cochin, we saw lots of interesting characters. But there was something going on in one of the buildings that really caught my eye. Several people in a dimly lit room were unloading burlap sacks. Divakar told me the workers were repacking ginger. Naturally, I had to go inside to check things out. (Continued in Part 2.)

See more photos from my trips to India and Iceland in the Photo Galleries. 

Check out Reluctant Trading Peppercorns and Icelandic Sea Salt in the Shop.