The rainy month of July began on a sunny note for me as I flew down to Cochin to kick off my shoes and relax in Kerala. Even though this month sees terrible monsoons, my time by the Arabian Sea coincided with clear weather in the region. I should have guessed this South Indian state gets plenty of sunshine when I landed at the world’s first fully solar-powered airport. Cochin International Airport is power neutral, thanks to the acres of solar panels installed next to the aerodrome. A 90-minute drive brought me to Backpacker Panda’s Santa Maria hostel in Fort Kochi – conveniently located close to the harbour.
A Walk Down Kerala’s Past
The first European township in India, Fort Kochi’s culture is also influenced by the Chinese, the Arabs and the Jews. The marina is only a stone’s throw from the hostel – a nice place to watch the ferries transport people, animals and even cars and auto-rickshaws from the nearby islands. Sunrises and sunsets are best spent walking along the coast. There, you can admire the bright purple and blue Chinese fishing nets introduced to the local fishermen by Chinese traders. The neighbourhood of Mattancherry brims with Portuguese, Dutch and Jewish auras. The Mattancherry Palace and its surrounding complex are a result of the Portuguese and later, Dutch occupation. Almost adjoining is the oldest active Jewish temple in all of the Commonwealth nations – Paradesi Synagogue.
What’s So Special About Santa Maria?
My choice of stay was an integral part of my Kerala experience. I had planned this trip in a hurry, hoping to make the most of the rare fair-weather window in the off-season. Nonetheless, Backpacker Panda was quite efficient in confirming my booking and assisting with the directions to their hostel. Santa Maria is perhaps the cheapest place you can find in a destination so loved by tourists. For as little as INR 250, you can have a bed in an air-conditioned dorm with en-suite bathroom! Their private rooms are not too costly either. The friendly owners of the hostel are generally around to help you plan your days in Fort Kochi.
Jew Town – Where Chaos & Calm Coexist
Kerala has a small Jewish population. Several years ago, displaced Israelites left their home-country due to religious persecution and sought shelter in various parts of the world. Some of the Jews settled in Mattancherry and brought their culture with them. Apart from the synagogue, the area has a shopping street – a long, narrow lane lined with shops that sell clothing, souvenirs, spices and handicrafts. You can very quickly escape the bustle of the marketplace as you enter their house of worship or stride into a cafe.
Inside A Backpacker Panda Dorm
After a full day spent walking about, you long for a comfortable place of rest. Santa Maria’s rooms are basic but pleasant. During my stay at the hostel, I had a chance to sleep on both a double bed (in one of their private rooms) and a bunk bed (in the girls’ dormitory). All of the Backpacker Panda properties have mixed dorms also. The dorms have lockers under the beds but you’ll have to bring along a padlock. The bathrooms are neat and stocked with toilet paper. However, you’ll have to carry your own soap and towel (unless you stay in a private room).
Tour The Backwaters On A Houseboat
If any object can be a symbol of Kerala, it is the traditional houseboat. These elegant floating vessels are wooden boats that are covered with bamboo and cane, ropes of jute and coconut husk tying them together. Depending on how much you love nature, you can cruise over the backwaters for three hours to a couple of days. Kerala’s backwaters are shallow and the person steering the houseboat uses a long bamboo pole to push against the foliage and earth. The ride really is delightful as it lets you hear the lovely sounds of birds, gaze at paddling ducks and pristine lotuses and occasionally, watch villagers go about their lives.
Where Art Has A Chance To Flourish
Fort Kochi has a vibrant community of artists, many from other countries. The Kochi Biennale held from December to March showcases art exhibitions across multiple venues. Apart from art galleries, these exhibitions are held at an art cafe. The art wave has birthed a lot of art cafes in Fort Cochin – Kashi & Mocha art cafes are worth a visit. Sharing the artsy spirit of the place, Santa Maria Hostel frequently hosts students and proponents of art. Most of the walls in the hostel show off the works of the artists who’ve stayed here.
Keralite Cuisine – More Than Rice & Spice
Culinary exploration is an essential element of all the trips I undertake. Kerala did not disappoint. Right from the roadside bondas to the elaborate meals served on banana leaves, Keralite cuisine promises variety. Rice is the predominant staple and curries are generally spicy. My personal favourite is the fluffy kalappam with a thick, mildly sweet centre which tapers out to a paper-thin consistency and crispiness. Coconut, whether shredded, whole or its milk, imparts a unique flavour and texture to the dishes.
The ‘Common’ Factor Between Two Strangers
I like hostels that have common areas to facilitate interaction among the guests. Santa Maria’s common spaces are full of art. There are also books, board games and musical instruments for those who enjoy other kinds of art. Most of the furniture is of wood or cane, lending a sophisticated character to the otherwise carefree place. Tea and coffee are available round the clock and you can access the kitchen to make your own dish. Drinking water is free, but you need to get your own bottle which can be refilled at the water station.
Care For Some Kathakali?
When you are in a state that loves its art and culture, you cannot miss the dances. I spent an evening at Greenix Village – a performing arts centre in Fort Kochi. Apart from concert halls, the venue has a Kathakali museum that showcases all the musical instruments and dance costumes used in this traditional dance form. Before the show begins, you can watch the makeup artist paint that famous fierce green face on the male actor. The program commenced with a graceful Mohiniyattam piece – another classical dance of Kerala. The highlight of the evening was, of course, a Kathakali skit. That was followed by a demonstration of Kalaripayattu – a martial art style in which poles, swords and shields are employed. The final presentation was Tholpavakoothu – shadow puppetry with the use of leather dolls.
Be A Backpacker!
All of the backpacking trips that I’ve made around India and the world have taught me this – it is always a good idea to travel light. It is also a myth that there is no privacy in hostels. You often get lucky and find your room empty when the others have left. And those times are best spent relaxing with a book (for me at least).
Know other places in Fort Kochi that will interest me?
Ever stayed at an art hostel?
Let me know through your comments below. 🙂
You too can experience backpacking in different parts of India through Backpacker Panda. I’ve got an exclusive 15% discount for you! 😉 Use OINDRILA15 as the coupon code when you book your stay with them (valid till 31-September-2018).