When you get off of the plane in Cochin, you will be greeted by what appears to be a giant hotel conference room. On one side there are tables lined up to fill out immigration forms, which is strange, because you are supposed to get an electronic visa before you even arrive. Then you will see desks for visa officers to sit at on the other end of the room, but nobody works at them. Instead, you have to walk along the right wall of this giant, utterly useless room, down a relatively tiny hallway, and into an extremely air-conditioned E-Visa office. You will have to wait for two French tourists to be processed by the single officer, and then you will sit down on a tiny chair in front of his desk. Since you are on a six-month trip, and it was just yesterday that you were furiously scrubbing your flat in London to prepare it for the tenants who move in on Monday, your fingerprints have worn off, so the biometric fingerprint reader won’t detect a single ridge or swirl even after ten minutes of rubbing it with alcohol wipes, rubbing your fingers with alcohol wipes, rubbing your fingers with moisturising cream, restarting the fingerprint scanner, restarting the computer, restarting the computer again, and watching beads of sweat forming on the officer’s brow as his supervisor looks over his shoulder, asking why it doesn’t work. Finally, they will both wave you through, and you hope you didn’t just cause the Indian administrative state to sign a new contract for updated technology. Walk down the escalator, collect your bags, and then walk out of the airport into the bright Kerala morning.
Cross the pedestrian waiting area, go around the convenience store selling scarves and carved wood, and get money at one of the ATMs located near the passenger pick-up area. Then, stroll over to the right and catch the A/C bus that drives within one block of your AirBNB and only runs once an hour. Feel it start up seconds after you sit down, and hear the driver start honking the horn, signalling to everyone that the bus will soon be moving into traffic.
Ninety minutes later, step off the bus and onto Fort Kochin. Walk down a back road and check in to your AirBNB. As you look out the window, think that India is nothing if not colourful – flowers, fruit, laundry, paint, saris, the street itself – everything is an explosion of hues.
After you hydrate and nap, walk to the corner shop to get a SIM card. You remember your passport, but the owner will also require two passport photos for the necessary form. You won’t have these photos, so he will direct you to a photo shop conveniently located just across the intersection. You wait your turn, have your picture taken, and then receive eight photos for $.50, all with a nice flowery-blue border. Return to the phone shop, hand over your photos, fill out the form, and get your SIM card, then learn it will be activated 24 hours later.
Next, walk down maze-like side streets to the ferry dock. In other places stray dogs are a nuisance; here, goats rummage through rubbish, chase cats, poop on the street, and run out into traffic. At the terminal, there are separate lines for men and women, and you will be shouted at if you stand in the wrong line. They will ask you for what sounds like five cents per ticket. It is not a mistake. When you get your ticket, for which you will not need to fill out a form, you walk three meters to the ticket collector, hand him your ticket, and then wait for the boat to arrive.
Arrive. Walk out of the building into Ernakulam. Walk into the streets, wishing your SIM card worked, checking Google Maps for the times that it accurately tells you where you are. Finally, give up, and get a tuk-tuk driver to take you to the train station. He will stop on the side of the road for ten minutes, meter running, to take a phone call, and it will cost you a few cents.
At the station, walk into the main building and marvel at the system in place. Look at the wall of schedules, then the television screens with schedules, and the interactive computer terminal set up in the center of the entrance to the platforms to display schedules. Figure out exactly which train you need two days hence, and get in line. Wait fifteen minutes. Get to the front of the line, where the woman speaks perfectly good English and tells you that the ticket counters in the main building do not issue tickets for travel two days in the future; for those kinds of tickets, you must go to an entirely different building, where they are equipped to sell tickets for future travel.
Walk out, cross the lines of traffic, bear right, and enter the building. Go to the line all the way to the right. A group of men will be standing around one window in a scrum, pushing each other to get forms, which then have to be filled out in order to buy tickets. Men repeatedly enter the crowd, emerging minutes later with forms, which they then fill out at seats; after a brief rest, they push back in towards the window, emerging minutes later with an entirely new form because they filled the first one out incorrectly. Think of Kafka as you push your own way in, noticing that the men don’t seem to touch you as much as they touch each other, perhaps because at this point you’ve been sweating for six hours in the Kerala heat, perhaps because you smell like an overnight intercontinental airplane. Get the form, fill it out, and re-enter the scrum. The ticket man will take pity on you and help you correct the form, rather than tell you to fill out a new one, because it’s clear you don’t know what you’re doing, and for this kindness you will pay six dollars for an eight-hour train ride in an air-conditioned sleeper car rather than the standard rate of five dollars.
Leave. Walk down the street. Realize that you are hungry. Enter the first family restaurant you see on Mohatma Gandhi Road. The waiter will try to talk you out of ordering a Biryani rice dish, plus curry, plus vegetables, but his English is insufficient to the task, and your Hindi is nonexistent, so he finally meets your confused smile with a smile of his own and brings you the food you ordered. You realize, then, that when he held up four fingers, he meant that a single order of Biryani rice is enough to fill the stomachs of four people, and this is later confirmed by a younger waiter who comes by with your bill and takes the leftovers.
Now walk back out and wander up to the garment district. Find a spice store and barter for 200g of coffee beans, paying $2. This is still overpaying, probably, but the West has fucked over India for so long that you consider it an Asshole Tax. Then, walk up to the stationary and book store two blocks away. Suddenly find yourself enthralled by the idea of writing with pencils on your trip, and buy a box of eight Faber Castell matte-black three-sided graphite pencils for eighty cents. Walk past the Catholic Churches and the Catholic Palaces and rejoice that you just got pencils as a souvenir.
Now, walk back to the ferry terminal. Find yourself in line in front of two South Africans, one a recent graduate and one a filmmaker. Explain to them about the different-gender lines. The recent graduate – with a tie-dye shirt, twenty wood-bead necklaces, and John Lennon sunglasses – won’t be able to deal with it and will sit down, and you’ll learn, from the filmmaker, about surfing, films, and Sri Lanka. When you get off the ferry on the other side, you’ll watch as they pass a group of school children. Normally, the children get excited with foreigners, shouting “hello!” to them excitedly. The graduate will leap toward them and shout a greeting of his own, and try to high-five several of them, and they will shrink back in a cartoonish mass, and murmur a muted response.
Walk to the shore to witness a golden sunset. The air off the coast is fairly polluted, it seems, but that just means it is more colour splashed upon India by Heaven. Wonder why there are so many people out, and then remember it is Sunday. Walk to one of the hotels and have dinner – the fish is excellent, and so are the chips. Then, return to your room, take melatonin and go to sleep.
Have breakfast in your AirBNB with two English tourists – a photographer and a marketer. Learn about photography, and marketing, and accept the Bienniale passes they give you even though you have no intention of going to the exhibits.
Walk down to the Chinese Nets. These are cantilevered nets used to scoop fish up, and are still used every day to feed Cochin. Lonely Planet recommends them highly. They take about three seconds to appreciate fully.
Take a Tuk-Tuk to Jew Town. See the synagogue, which is beautiful. Get out of the synagogue just as 400 school children rush in. Avoid everything else in the area, unless you really want to overpay for spices, saris and incense.
Get the ferry back to Ernakulam, and wander more. Spend a half hour negotiating $3 off of a phone charger, and congratulate yourself as you descend the escalator, sweating profusely in the afternoon heat. Find a vegetarian restaurant and spend another hour eating some of the best curry you’ve ever had in your life. Check your phone and get frustrated that it doesn’t work yet oh wait yes it does. Even though you had wifi at your AirBNB, and at the restaurant last night, start acting like a monkey pushing buttons to get peanuts, and think to yourself, “Fuck, these peanuts are just empty calories, but they are SO GOOD THANK YOU MARK ZUCKERBERG FOR DISTRACTING ME FROM MY HOLIDAY.
Ignore time. Watch children flock around sweets sellers outside school, and then run over to a man selling mobile phone credits, and wonder which one is in a better business. Wander up to the market. Take out your camera, and, when a vegetable seller calls out to you, walk over to talk to him, hoping to get a good photo. His name is Thomas. He is one of the three owners of the stall, has a wife and a baby and one on the way, and his father is his business partner. He likes selling vegetables, but his real passion is acting; he shows, you clips of TV shows he has been on, and the other guys at the stand all roll their eyes and rib him for loving acting so much, but he doesn’t care. He repeatedly interrupts your conversation to sell onions.
At this point, you’re going to hit a wall. It’s completely natural, and you have two options: tea and coffee, or nap for eighteen hours. If you’re like me, you try to take the former, but the coffee is back in your room, and so is your bed. Make it through the ferry ride, and the walk along the water’s edge, and through the door, and start the electric kettle, and lie down, but only until the water has boiled,
Catch your train. You’ll be back.