After a night bus from Madurai we arrived in Cochin early on December 31. Cochin is on India’s west coast, the Arabian Sea, in the state of Kerala. Cochin was an excellent city to spend New Years in. The city is known for its arts scene and they host a huge carnival each year. We rang in the new year with fireworks, music, and burning Santa Claus.
Yes, they burn effigies of Santa at midnight. No one we asked could explain where the tradition came from. We joined thousands of people for a beach party where the main attraction was the massive, firework stuffed Santa Claus. As the countdown began the crowded hushed and readied their cameras and firecrackers exploded from Santa before he became a pillar of flame. Then the fireworks show started, including a impromptu barrage fired 20 feet from us. It was cool to be right under the exploding sky but probably dangerous. We saw a similar display fall over and fire into a crowd the next night, luckily in the opposite direction from where we see standing.
New Year’s Day featured the most chaotic parade I’ve seen. Lead by a giant elephant, the parade had to push its way through the crowd that refused to stay at the side of the road. Everyone kept pushing in as close as they could, hoping for a better view and thereby bringing the parade to a standstill. After 30 minutes, as costumed transvestites literally pushed their way through the crows, we gave up and went back to our home stay. 2 hours later, as we went out for dinner, it was still inching along now with floats of people dancing to techno music.
In addition to the carnival, there was also a large modern arts exhibit with galleries spread around town (Kochi Biennale). The art was surprisingly good, with a mix of local and international artists featured. We probably spent a day in total touring around the different venues.
Continuing the arts theme, we watched a Kathakali and martial arts performance. They open the doors an hour before the show starts so you can watch the actors put their make up on, which was interesting for about 30 seconds. The Kathakali was entertaining, but one performance is enough for me. The show we watched was more of a primer for a longer performance (traditionally they go all night), with explanations of what the hand motions and actors movements meant. Unfortunately, the main thing I learned is to avoid more kathakali.
We got our first Ayurvedic massages. It was definitely a unique experience. You wear a tiny loincloth while a masseur rubs oil all over your body. The pressure was less than a sports massage, but they still got into the knots in my shoulders from wearing a backpack. I found it mostly a pleasant experience. The stomach massage was weird and my neck and knees hurt after laying on my stomach for a while (the table is not as comfortable as back home) but I’m keen to try it again.
Cochin is a city that combines new and old, spread over many islands. We stayed in the historic and touristy Fort Kochi area, which had a pleasant mix of old buildings, winding alleys, and the best restaurants we’ve eaten at since Chennai (my reviews on TripAdvisor and Zomato). The main tourist attractions are the Chinese fishing nets and the nearby Jew Town. There is also a big, sandy beach but it’s sadly covered in plastic garbage, despite efforts at culture change. The Chinese fishing nets are great for photos and fascinating to watch as the men lower and raise them. The synagogue in Jew Town was closed when we visited, but there was a nice car-free street with spice shops and antique stores to wander. The nearby Dutch Palace offered a quick history lesson with some interesting wall murals.
Addendum: On the way back from Monroe Island, we spent an extra day in the bustling part of town – Ernakulam. There’s not as many tourists or attractions here, but we found a pleasant seaside promenade to stroll down and watch the sunset. Car-free areas in India are precious gems and I savour each one we find. We ate dinner at a local establishment – Pai Dosas – which had an overwhelming selection of dosas on its menu.