It’s day 13 of our maiden India trip and we’re at the Eighth Bastion Hotel in Fort Kochi. This morning we’re looking forward to a walking tour of the area to find out more about this historic port.
After an enjoyable breakfast we meet our guide for today, Krishna from Gully Tours, and after the usual introductions we set off. Krishna takes time to explain the history of Kochi and it’s vital importance to the spice trade. Apparently the ancient spice routes that had existed for centuries were lost in the middle ages, known only to the Arabs. As a result they became wealthy, given that spices were hugely prized and often fabulously expensive.
However the wars of the crusades meant that relations with the middle East were not too warm, so leading European nations took it upon themselves to re-establish lines directly to the suppliers and cut out the middlemen. This was the era of the great explorers, one of which was the famous Portuguese navigator Vasco de Gama. His discovery of a route to India from Europe, avoiding the contentious and dangerous Mediterranean, was a hugely significant event and has been described as the beginning of globalisation. De Gama returned with an Armada to conquer the region, and Portugal’s subsequent control of the hugely profitable spice trade helped make the country a major world power. Kochi, de Gama’s original landing place, became a Portuguese bastion and a commercial global hub. Krishna shows us the house where the great man reputedly stayed, just a few yards from our hotel.
A century later the Dutch were in the ascendancy as a militarily powerful seafaring nation, as well as a commercial one. The Dutch East India Company was the world’s first joint stock company, with money raised from investors to finance its operations, and a valuation equivalent to the top 20 of today’s largest corporations. If you think Amazon or Microsoft are large, they are small beer compared to this early global behemoth.
The British got in on the act later as their power gathered, and the era of British rule in India began in the mid 1800’s. The result of all of this international interest in India is a historic Keralan capital, Kochi, that retains many signs of the influences of Portuguese, Dutch and British rule in its buildings, cuisine, language and religions.
Fort Kochi refers to the island on which a bastion once stood, now long gone. Legend has it that there were seven bastions in the area, accounting for the unusual name of our hotel. Krishna points out the distinctly British nature of the architecture around the hotel, especially encircling the old parade ground, now an open space used as a football pitch and local recce. The old Cochin Club sits next to the parade ground too, still open to members only and a typically exclusive British Club in its day, frequented by Winston Churchill among others. Apparently there is a story that Churchill fell in love with a local girl, but on asking her father for her hand in marriage he was rejected as father thought the young man’s prospects were not good. Dad probably had a job in HR.
In that period apparently Indians were not allowed into this area, and punishment would be meted out to any locals so caught. Krishna walked us over the small bridge to the neighbouring area of Mattancherry, the canal below forming a border between the two communities. Here the buildings are more Indian in design, denser packed and with a much busier street scene. These would have been warehouses and storage areas at one time serving the port, as well as living quarters for the local inhabitants. Now there is the typical string of small businesses offering goods and services of all descriptions. Men offer groceries, coffee and haddware whilst others sit behind desks and write in ledgers whilst talking on mobile phones underneath signs describing their role as ‘Merchants and Commission Agents’.
“People here,” Krishna tells us, “are not looking to build huge empires. They just want to make a living for themselves and their families.” That comment seems to sum up much of the India we’ve seen.
Krishna is a well educated and very knowledgeable young man. He is studying risk management at the local university so we have an affinity, with my early grounding in insurance. His father is CEO of a South African company, and Krishna’s travels to that country have clearly given him a perspective not often present in the locals we’ve met. We discuss Brexit, religion and world politics as he points out a familiar icon on the wall of a building. It’s Che Guevara, hero of would-be revolutionaries the world over. Yesterday on the drive into town we had passed a communist rally in progress, a woman’s loud-hailered voice booming out to the marchers, hammer and sickle flags flying in the breeze. That same flag was evident on this building too, and Krishna explained that the communists gained a lot of support as a result of the Soviet’s propaganda activities during the cold war, and they still have a minority but established presence.
If you have nothing, I suggest, communism seems an attractive option. “Yes,” Krishna agrees. “It just doesn’t work, though, does it.”
We break for lunch in Kayee’s Cafe, apparently a highly regarded and long established local restaurant. Krishna orders biryani for lunch, and we are pleased when the waiter brings cutlery. We aren’t yet ready to eat rice with our fingers as is the local norm.
It’s a very enjoyable meal, and an experience eating in a typical local cafe. It rounds off our excursion nicely, and Krishna suggests that we take a tuk-tuk back to our hotel. We’re soon back and saying our goodbyes, having enjoyed a really informative morning in the company of an impressive and knowledgeable young man.
In the afternoon we revisit the sea front and the small beach. It’s surprisingly quiet, and most of the stalls are closed. There are still plenty of souvenir buying opportunities though, and we negotiate with some of the sellers. We can’t decide whether we’re being excessively mean or hugely ripped off with the few purchases that we make. Prices here are whatever can be agreed, and we’ve found that typically the quoted figure will soon halve in order to get a sale. We try to find the ‘real’ price, but we also have a sense that a pound or two extra means a lot more to them than it does to us.
Our evening meal at the hotel is really good and the service is impeccable. We’re well set up for tomorrow when we’re due to spend the night on a houseboat. Hopefully it will be yet another new and different experience on our Indian odyssey.