What do you expect from a holiday destination. Nice hotel, good weather, fun things to see or do with a beach to lay by perhaps. India is a totally different experience and may not tick your typical summer holiday boxes, instead is more likely to tick ones you didn’t even know were on the agenda. For me it is still one of the most magical places, where pretty much anything goes. The head wobble that can mean several things – yes, maybe, I don’t understand what you are asking me but will pretend I do and make up the rest- families of five easily speeding around on a motorbike, Bollywood film songs, the smells (good and not so good), the controlled chaos. Exploring the South for the first time however, threw most of what I knew of the out the window.
Exhausted from an awkwardly timed flight landing in Kerela’s Kochi, I thought I would sleep on my £10 taxi ride to the hotel. Quite the contrary I was wide eyed and curious trying to see all I could from both windows in the back seat. It wasn’t a problem to switch from one side to the other as I had no seatbelt on, there were no sockets for the belt. Can’t say I felt the safest but the sights were a great distraction.
Everywhere I looked was green lusciousness in the form of palm trees, green fields and hills that are all so synonymous with this part of the country. Seeing the picture perfect views for myself added to the excitement. Having only seen the north of India on previous trips, I found myself myself making comparisons. One of many pleasant surprises of the south was how much cleaner the air was. The polluted cloud that just seems to hang as a constant in Bombay or Delhi, just wasn’t there. The evening air is perfumed with lemon and jasmine that you could never tire of. With almost 100% literacy rate (likely the only state in India with this achievement) everyone speaks English beautifully. For a couple of miles from the airport I could see large concrete blocks with the word ‘Metro’ painted in red letters, lined up on either side of the street. My mostly mute taxi driver told me they were working at building a train system to get people from the larger cities to and from the airport and other main links. As I worked my way to Kochi, the signs of development continued.
Hub to one of the oldest ports, Kochi is the heart of Kerela with the a buzzing shore line. By 5pm it is filled with families who picnic by the beach, young boys fly kites, and street vendors sell anything from toys to roasted peanuts. Not forgetting the eponymous Chinese fishing nets, I was started to get an idea of life here.
Rising from a much needed nap, I meet my friend Joe who after being in London for a few years has come back to his roots, brimming with modern ideas to showcase Kochi to the international limelight. So much of what is happening here in the form of arts, culture, music, food is so scarcely known compared to other great cities in the world, he tells me. All fired up about his plans he offers to show me around.
Driving through the streets, Kochi is a typical Indian town. Tuk tuks beeping about on the streets, men sat drinking tea in the shade discussing politics. My next surprise is our first stop at Kashi art cafe. At the entrance is a gallery space with black and white photographs taken by locals of local life. A second wall is lined with graphic illustrations of words in Malayalum. Immediately I feel as if I’ve stepped into another part of the world, leaving behind the Indian town and entering a calm cool minimalist space. Rarely are those words associated with anything Indian! Indian art to me has always been paintings of the royal Mughal era, carvings and pictures of the many gods or watercolours of mythical legends. Joe tells me this concept of gallery meets coffee shop is popping up around the place.
Kashi Art Cafe- http://www.kashiartgallery.com/cafe
After a bite to eat (chicken biriyani with pineapple yum!) we move onto The Pepper House, combining cafe, library and an art studio with smaller workshops on the ground floor giving artists the space and time to hone in on their skills. After a refreshing salted lemon soda, we wonder around the cafe garden peeking through wooden doorways to see wood carvers here, clay potters there. Upstairs we meet a class of painters and incredibly talented teachers, who are so humble about their work. One is an expert carver whose intricate work is so stunning, it’s no surprise when he tells us he gets interest from all over the world. In another room we meet a painter who casually shows us a booklet of his work and I turn to a page that lists the many awards he has won for his work over the years. It wasn’t hard to imagine his creations displayed at exhibitions around the world, sold at five times their price.
I was amazed to find so much deceptively behind half ajar doors. I know nothing about the art scene here and the fact that Kochi was the first and only Indian town to participate in art biennale, a festival originating in Venice celebrating local contemporary art. Paying a little more attention, I could see creative expression at every other corner. Street art, exhibitions in the hallways of a local hotel, hand painted posters.
It won’t be long before the guide books and travel magazines tell the wold about this multi talented place, I’m just surprised it hasn’t happened already.
To me, what makes a city or town great is attitude. Yes there still stands one of the oldest Jewish synagogues and Dutch churches from the days of Vasco de Gama, but there is so much more bubbling colourfully under the surface. It feels kind of special to be discovering this unknown world and as much as people like Joe are working hard at giving fellow Kerelites the break they may be looking for, another part of me wants it to remain secret. But even I’m guilty of that.
All this, on just day one.