…Whereas, Pepper has nothing in it to that can plead as a recommendation… its only desirable quality being a certain pungency; and yet it is for this that we import it all the way from India!
- Pliny The Elder, 77 CE
I am always searching for pungency, and Cochin Fort seemed like the perfect place to explore. Tucked in a corner of the state of Kerala, Cochin was once the center of the Indian spice trade. Its port was settled by traders from around the world, so I knew I’d find some incredible history to step into. I have to admit, I did not enter by sea which was my wont. Instead, I flew most of the way from New York, but to get into the mood, from the airport I piled onto a ferry which was jammed to the point of tipping over with cars, motorbikes and rickshaws as I journeyed to Cochin.
I try to make connections when I travel through friends of friends (or cousins of relatives once-removed from some locals) to latch on to for a better understanding of the local sites and cultures. Fortunately I knew Pip Rau, a famous textile dealer from London, whose very old friend, Joerg Drechsel, owns a number of properties in Cochin which is how I landed in the center of the old quarter on one of Drechsel’s doorsteps, the Malabar House.
The hotel is a lovely old Colonial that Joerg and his Spanish wife, Txuku, renovated, and as I walked under wooden columns into their magical courtyard, South Indian musicians floated past candlelit tables playing traditional melodies. I was transported to the India I wanted to see, not the modern country rushing headlong in every direction. So even if this was a choreographed fantasy enclosed in an old house, I was happy to be part of the adventure.The next day, I took an early yoga class on my teak wood balcony, with Sanja, my instructor, who is also a trainer in Kalarippayat, the oldest martial arts form in Asia. Sanjay calmly guided me into breathing exercises and helped me escape all I had come from. We sat under an awning protected from the glowing, golden sun, and time slowed. Motorbikes stopped passing. Birds talked. My mind cleared.
With a new outlook, I was ready to explore and take in the sites. When traveling My first rule of thumb is to get lost, which I have no problem doing since I have a horrible sense of direction. I wandered my way down the sea to catch a glimpse of the famous Chinese fishing nets. They hang off long bamboo arms, and are slowly lowered into the indigo water like giant spiders spanning 20 meters. These incredible relics of Chinese fishing are mesmerizing to watch as they collapse, then come up gracefully from the water like ballet dancers rising to make a pirouette—but full of fish!Very near the nets I found a boisterous local market. There, fishmongers were making beautiful stacks of silver, blue and corral fish in baskets, and I noted those colors for spring. Nearby a man sold spirographs and I bought his tester pieces with their dozens of different designs in blue and red ball point pen, delicate universes that seemed related to the Chinese fishing nets.
Right by the market is St. Francis Church. Built in 1503, it’s the oldest European church in India. The church is painted in a crisp white accented by aquas and reds, and its windows were open letting sunlight stream in. There, I saw a statue of a saint on which someone had placed an umbrella in a regal shade of iris to block the sun. I like tropical religion; it seems much more relaxed.
Cochin is motion. You just have to jump in and swim for your life. On one of my first trips to India I learned never to hesitate when crossing the street, even if a bus is careening towards you-He expects you to keep moving. If you pause he will hit you. The Colors seem to vibrate and mix in the scorching sun. Design ideas come to me on the fly, as I walk, as I get lost, as I wander the town. The color of the tide dragging in, the spirals in a fisherman’s net, a fleeting mandala painted on a sidewalk never meant to last. That’s the fun part about my job: I get to blend, mix and combine all of the world into designs that can marinate like fish sauce and end up as pungent as pepper at an old sea port.
Malabar House: Great food and wine bar upstairs. Amazing live music every night.
Trinity Resort: On the back waters an hour from Fort Cochin a must.
Malabar House: For dinner and live performance.
Kashi Gallery on Burgher Street : Great cafe for lunch and to see the groovy kids hanging out working on their novels.
Cafe Jew Town: Clean and easy right near the synagogue where you might need a fresh lime soda after.
Kalarippayat: The oldest martial arts forms of Asia to achieve fitness and prevent injuries. Go for the mark up part if you like seeing men put on makeup with intensity.
Bishops House: Lovely old house with a quirky museum.
St. Francies Church: Built in 1503, I love old Colonial churches with the windows all open painted in fiesta colors with birds swooping over the pews.
Chinese Fishing Nets: In Vasco da Gama Square still working and built in the 14th century.
Crafters: One of the big antique shops on Jew Towns main drag. Also, see his spices shop at the end of the road.
Heritage Arts: Jew Town road has 7 massive warehouses don't miss one. Cochin is a port town so its easy to ship to the USA, but argue hard it might be more relaxed than the North but the dealers are not.
Idiom Booksellers: Amazing collection of books on India.