Port of Cochin
If you've never been to India, brace yourself. Scary does nothing to describe those first few moments when you leave the port, whether in a tuk-tuk, car or coach, and discover that things on the road are not quite as you're used to at home.
There's an atmospheric entrance to this historic port, with taxis and tuk tuks offering transport to town
Large cruise vessels dock at Ernakulam Wharf, where there are no tourist facilities
It is within good proximity of the historic city sights, as well as the Kerala backwaters
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Horns parp, cars overtake -- never mind the traffic coming in the other direction -- vehicles pull out from nowhere. It's alarming if you're not used to it, but the best thing to do is relax. These drivers might seem crazy, but they know what they are doing. Mostly.
Cochin, or Kochi to use its Indian name, is one of the favourite cruise ports in India. It's in the southwest, on the Malabar coast, sitting in a natural harbour that was created by a flood in 1341. Make sure you are awake for the sail-in to watch the sun rise over the misty water and the colourful local boats make their packed way from one side of the city to another.
Cochin is believed to have had trade links with China and Arabia for 2,000 years; 500 years ago the Europeans arrived. First were the Portuguese, when Vasco da Gama discovered the sea route to India and set up a trading station in 1502. In 1503, Fort Cochin, the first European fort in India, was built.
The British arrived in 1635 but were forced out by the Dutch in 1663. However, they returned in 1791 and stayed until independence in 1947.
The city is divided into two halves -- Mattancherry on the south side and Fort Cochin. (You'll see an area that was within the fort, rather than battlements.) The new town of Ernakulam is to the north. There are museums, shops, restaurants and hotels in Ernakulam, but essentially, it's a most modern city. Visitors usually stick with the south side, as that is the most attractive and historic area of the city.
A few hours of exploring in Fort Cochin is time well-spent, but one of the biggest attractions of the city is that it is the gateway to the Kerala Backwaters, a drop-dead gorgeous network of canals, rivers and lakes that twist and turn for about 1,150 kilometres. It's incredibly peaceful and offers a fascinating glimpse into another part of life in India.
You can visit the backwaters alone or on an excursion -- the best cruise-line tours use houseboats for the cruising part of the trip. These boats are hand-built, thatched-roof vessels with up to four rooms and can be hired for a couple of days if you are staying in the area. One note, however: a trip to the Kerala Backwaters involves a solid (and life-risking) two-hour ride, each way, from the dock. So it's a full-day tour that precludes time to explore Fort Cochin.
It's nearly impossible to see both Fort Cochin and the Kerala Backwaters in just one day. Ultimately, the biggest downside of a visit to Cochin is choosing between the two.
Where You're Docked
Cruise ships dock at the port on Willingdon Island, a peninsula jutting out beside Mattancherry and Fort Cochin. It would be quite a short distance to Mattancherry if you could walk across the water, but alas, the road to get there is lengthy. Don't even think of walking.
Good to Know
Hassle. Sadly, you will get this almost everywhere, especially as you walk out of the port to find a cab or tuk-tuk.
Vehicles seemed to be parked in a special order, which probably has a lot to do with how much the drivers tip the men in charge. The most expensive taxi drivers with the best cars are immediately outside the port gates. Walk on a little, and you'll find the older and cheaper taxis. Farther away, you'll come to the authorised tuk-tuk drivers. Finally, there are what I suspect are the wildcat tuk-tuk drivers, who don't pay any backhanders and, therefore, charge the lowest fares.
Drivers will do almost anything to get a fare. I was followed up the road by one taxi driver who drove past me several times and then turned and parked, facing me. So, inevitably, I kept walking into him, and he'd start hassling me again.
Although Cochin felt very safe, you should follow the usual rules when in a town or city. Make sure money is strapped to you and not easy prey in your pocket, don't wear expensive watches or jewellery, and don't flash large wads of cash in front of local people.
Trying some local food from a street vendor might be tempting but is probably not wise, as the cuisine will likely make you sick. Also, Americans should remember that, in India, people drive on the same side of the road as the British.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The national currency is the Indian Rupee (Rs), which is divided into 100 paise. There are about Rs 48 to the dollar and about Rs 78 to the pound sterling. Visit www.xe.com for up-to-date currency conversions.
You'll probably use cash most of the time when shopping, but credit cards are accepted in the big outlets and also at good restaurants and hotels. There are ATM machines in the main shopping areas, but they are an expensive way to get money and might not be 100 percent reliable. It is probably wiser to bring cash. Just don't carry too much at a time.
The official state language is Malaylam, but English is widely understood.
Cochin is famous for its spices -- a huge range that includes ginger, red chillies, cinnamon, turmeric and black and white pepper. You'll find little shops all along Bazaar Road in Fort Cochin that sell ready-packaged spices, but look out also for big, colourful tubs of the stuff. Just say how much you want, and they'll weigh it out and package it up.
Other top buys are carved wood, products made from coir (the fibre between the shell and outer husk of a coconut), silks and scarves. Newcastle Gallery -- your driver will know it -- has a huge selection of souvenirs on offer. Just remember to haggle. You should aim to pay about one-third of the original asking price.