Back to India – Mumbai & Kochi

(Note:  So far wifi’s too slow so photos will be found on my Instagram feed until I can use my home computer)

It’s seldom we return to somewhere we’ve been before but on January 8th we left our winter chilled island for South India. Dressed for landing in Mumbai I felt the cold and was happy to reach YYJ, the Victoria International Airport. There I was selected for a thorough screening. Was it my Van Dyke beard? The long indigo cotton scarf? Whatever the reason I passed the pat down, swabbing and questioning. A quick flight to SeaTac and a long line for the TSA screening; but we’d sympathy for the unpaid employees, working during the US government shutdown. Then the 14 hour flight to Dubai on Emirates. We ate well, I listened to music and watched Black Klansman (excellent but such a sad epilogue). At Dubai I was taken aside and questioned as to what the metal net was in my bag. Fishing gear? No… A PacSafe, a metal mesh security cover for my electronics bag. Then the short flight to Mumbai, arriving at 2am. Another long line and finally we meandered out to the prepaid taxi counter where we got one of the all-women operated cabs. A half hour later we rang the bell at Travellers Inn, located in the Fort district of Mumbai.

After about 5 hours sleep we emerged and wandered down to reception desk where we greeted the familiar staff, including  owner Mohit, with a bag of chocolates from Canada (little did we realize how this might pay off later). Being lazy and in need of coffee we walked to Starbucks.  But we enjoyed our Frappacions and wifi. Reassured that our cat Harriet hadn’t bitten Chris, our cat-sitter, we went for a morning walk around the Fort. We circled part of the Oval Maidan and sat awhile to watch cricket, a game I’m finally beginning to understand. Heading back to the hotel for an afternoon nap we stopped at Yazdan Bakery and Restaurant. Although we’d passed it before I hadn’t a photo of the funky old building. Stepping closer I spotted their chalkboard sign extolling the virtues of their ginger cookies. We sat with a handsome elderly gentleman, Rachid, one of the family who owns the Yazdan. Entertaining and informative he talked about their breads, how they’re part of the Mumbai Irani community and much more for an hour or so. We drank delicious Irani tea (unspiced black tea unlike the typical Indian masala tea) and sampled not only ginger cookies but some tasty bread which we dunked in our tea.

I had a quick nap but Sue was down for a 15 hour snooze. While she slept I walked down the block to the Universal Café for a light dinner. The Universal, open since 1921, is also an Irani run café. Noticing my waiter had a number 1 on the back of his shirt I asked about it. Basudev explained he’s the senior waiter, having worked there 40 years. Not being too busy we had a chance for a chat and he told me a bit about the Irani community. I mentioned stopping at the Yazdan and showed Basudev a photo I’d taken of Rachid. He recognized Rachid immediately as a close friend of the Universals’s owners.

Day 1 in Mumbai and I felt I’d made some new friends and gained a bit of an understanding of Mumbai’s diverse population.

The next morning we had breakfast at Travellers and then went to the Universal to meet our Mumbai artist friend Arti. Arti seems always ready and willing to show us around. We first sorted my getting an Indian SIM card from Airtel and then caught a cab to the Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum. A former Victoria & Albert museum it now houses an amazing ethno/cultural history of Mumbai. We went there however, to see a fibre arts show – Connected Threads – and an annual, outdoors crafts market. The museum, built in 1872 and renovated in 2008, is gorgeously ornate. The fibre arts show was stunning with pieces distributed throughout the museum; some actually wound around museum fixtures. But the crafts fair proved dangerous. Right away we were making purchases even though Arti warned us to look at all the stalls first and then come back to the ones we wanted to purchase from. We each bought some small paintings, Sue a scarf and I a small book and some herbal sleep salve. Lucky for us Arti volunteered to hold our paintings for us until our return to Mumbai.

Leaving the museum Arti led us down the street to a restaurant where we feasted on delicious dosas. If you haven’t read it here before: one of the reasons we love to travel in India is the food. And some of the best food can be found in little restaurants or on the street. We caught a cab back to our hotel, and although Arti said rush hour had not yet started it was a slow journey. At one point a man hauling a long loaded cart kept pace with us for about 20 minutes. We then walked to Chowpatty Beach as the sun set, stopping for ice cream sandwiches at our favourite little ice cream shop (so many flavours!). In the dusk the crowds walked along the promenade or sat on the concrete waterfront wall; a Mumbai ritual.

On Day 3 in Mumbai we walked south towards Colaba in the morning. First we popped into Fabindia, a shop which specializes in ethically made goods. I purchased a couple of short kurtas, very comfy in the Indian climate. We then crossed the street and visited several exhibitions at the Jehangir Gallery. I enjoyed conversations with two of the artists showing there.  We love and appreciate  meeting a country’s people. Some special connections are forged.

One of the connections we’ve made is with Mohit, the owner of Travellers Inn. He invited us for lunch with he and his family so we hustled back to the hotel. He then led us over to his other hotel, the Windsor which caters to Indian business people. We dined with Mohit, his mother, his wife and brother-in-law. What an amazing meal! Dish after dish, each one inviting a slow savouring. We spoke extensively with Mohit’s mother and learned quite a bit about family life and changing times in Mumbai.

The rest of the day we spent prepping for our departure the next day, Sunday, for Kochi via IndiaRail.
Breakfast on Day 4 was a lively affair as we engaged in a, sometimes heated, discussion with fellow travellers over breakfast in Travellers’ lounge. The topic was immigration and one woman made some very critical comments about Muslims and opined that Christians were all a blameless lot. Fortunately things simmered down and some good points were made by several people about how politicians and other power groups love to blame “the Other” for all the world’s ills. The conversation did provide Sue and I some fodder for our Sunday morning walk around Ballard Estates. With most of the businesses closed the wide streets were fairly quiet except for local lads out playing street cricket.

We caught a cab to the LTT terminus and boarded our car nice and early only to discover our berths were at either end of the car. This was something I had no control over when booking the tickets – the system generates the seating with no options, other than what the passengers can sort out amongst themselves. So we, along with several other passengers, tried to arrange for closer seating. Unfortunately Sue got stuck with her single berth, which the conductors requisitioned during the day for their office. Sue ended up squished in a single berth with two other travellers for much of the second day. However, on the first day we did get to sit together in the afternoon by my berth. There we met and talked with a young IT manager, his wife and a health care professional. We shared stories and chowed down on railway food. Frequently during the day vendors would come by with tea/coffee, water/pop and snacks.The next day I awoke to the sounds of a family group who’d taken several berths around us. As the day progressed I fell into conversation with Sunil, the IT man. Based in Mumbai he and his wife were travelling to a family wedding at the end of the line. She was a bit shy and spent the day with her headphones on but he and I talked a lot about a wide range and subjects.

South India – Week One

It’s seldom we return to somewhere we’ve been before but on January 8th we left our winter chilled island for South India. Dressed for landing in Mumbai at night I felt the cold and was happy to reach YYJ, the Victoria International Airport. There I was selected for a thorough screening. Was it my Van Dyke beard? The long indigo cotton scarf? Whatever the reason I passed the pat down, swabbing and questioning. A quick flight to SeaTac and a long line for the TSA screening; but we had to feel sympathy for the unpaid employees, working during the US government shutdown. Then the 14 hour flight to Dubai; me in window seat and Sue in the middle on a fully booked flight. Although it made it awkward to get up for a stretch or to use the toilet I did get see Black Klansman (excellent but such a sad epilogue) and have an interesting chat with some flight attendants. At Dubai I got hauled aside and questioned as to what the metal net was in my bag. Fishing gear? No… My PacSafe, a metal mesh security bag for my electronics bag. Then the short flight to Mumbai, arriving at 2am. Another long line and finally we shot out to the prepaid taxi counter where we got one of the all-women operated cabs. A half hour later we ran the bell at Travellers Inn, located in the Fort district of Mumbai.

After about 5 hours sleep we emerged and wandered down to reception desk where we greeted the familiar staff, including the wonderful owner Mohit with a bag of chocolates from Canada (little did we realize how this might pay off later). Being lazy and in need of coffee we walked to Starbucks. How ironic to see Pike Market beans on sale as we walked in the door. But we enjoyed our Frappacions and wifi. Reassured that our cat Harriet hadn’t bitten Chris who’s staying with her we went for a morning walk around the Fort. We circled part of the Oval Maidan and sat awhile to watch cricket, a game I’m finally beginning to understand. Heading back to the hotel for an afternoon nap we stopped at Yazdan Bakery and Restaurant. Although we’d passed it before I hadn’t a photo of the funky old building. Stepping closer I spotted their chalkboard sign extolling the virtues of their ginger cookies. Sue approached the bakery counter and we were directed into the restaurant. Seeing a table with a handsome elderly gentleman we sat down and met Rachid, one of the family who owns the Yazdan. Entertaining and informative he talked about their breads, how they’re part of the Mumbai Irani community and more for an hour or so. We drank delicious Irani tea (unsliced black tea unlike the typical masala tea) and sampled not only ginger cookies but some bread which we dunked in our tea.

I had a quick nap but Sue was down for a 15 hour snooze. While she slept I walked down the block to the Universal Café for a light dinner. The Universal, open since 1921, is also an Irani run café and I ate a delicious dish. Noticing my waiter had a number 1 on the back of his shirt I asked about it. Basudev explained he’s the senior waiter, having worked there 40 years. Not being too busy we had a chance for a chat and he told me a bit about the Irani community. I mentioned stopping at the Yazdan and showed Basudev a photo I’d taken of Rachid. He recognized Rachid immediately and told me that one of the former partners at the Universal and Rachid were old old friends.

Day 1 in Mumbai and I felt I’d made some new friends and gained a bit of an understanding of Mumbai’s diverse population.

The next morning we had breakfast at Travellers and then went to the Universal to meet our Mumbai artist friend Arti. Arti is always ready and willing to help us and show us around. We first sorted my getting an Indian SIM card from Airtel and then caught a cab to the Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum. A former Victoria & Albert museum it now houses an amazing ethno/cultural history of Mumbai. We went there however, to see a fibre arts show – Connected Threads – and a once a year, outdoors crafts market. The museum, built in 1872 and renovated in 2008, is gorgeously ornate. The fibre arts show was stunning with pieces distributed throughout the museum; some actually wound around museum fixtures. But the crafts fair proved dangerous. Right away we were making purchases even though Arti warned us to look at all the stalls first and then come back to the ones we wanted to purchase from. We each bought some small paintings, Sue a scarf and I a small book and some herbal sleep salve. Lucky for us Arti volunteered to hold our paintings for us until our return to Mumbai.

Leaving the museum Arti led us down the street to a restaurant where we feasted on delicious dosas. If you haven’t read it here before: one of the reasons we love to travel in India is the food. And the best food can be found in little restaurants or on the street. We caught a cab back to our hotel, and although Arti said rush hour had not yet started it was a slow journey. At one point a man hauling a long cart kept pace with us for about 20 minutes. We then walked to Chowpatty Beach as the sun set, stopping for ice cream sandwiches at our favourite little ice cream shop (so many flavours!). In the dusk the crowds walked along the promenade or sat on the concrete waterfront wall. It’s a Mumbai ritual.

On Day 3 in Mumbai we walked south towards Colaba in the morning. First we popped into Fabindia, a shop which specializes in ethically made goods. I purchased a couple of short kurtas from the huge store. The shirts are very comfy in the Indian climate. We then crossed the street and visited several exhibitions at the J——- Gallery. I enjoyed conversations with two of the artists showing there. Maybe you can tell by now that one of the things we really love and appreciate is meeting the country’s people. Some special connections are forged.

One of the connections we’ve made is with Mohit, the owner of Travellers Inn. He invited us for lunch with he and his family so we hustled back to the hotel. He then led us over to his other hotel, the Windsor which caters to Indian business people. We dined with Mohit, his mother, his wife and brother-in-law. What an amazing meal! Dish after dish, each one inviting a slow savouring. We spoke extensively with Mohit’s mother and learned quite a bit about family life and changing times in Mumbai.

The rest of the day we spent prepping for our departure the next day, Sunday, for Kochi via IndiaRail.

Breakfast on Day 4 was a lively affair as we engaged in a, sometimes heated, discussion with fellow travellers over breakfast in Travellers’ lounge. The topic was immigration and a Hungarian woman, who spoke very clear English, made some very critical comments about Muslims and opined that Christians were all a blameless lot. Fortunately things simmered down and some good points were made by several people about how politicians and other power groups love to blame “the Other” for all the world’s ills. The conversation did provide Sue and I some fodder for our Sunday morning walk around Ballard Estates. With most of the businesses closed the wide streets were fairly quiet except for local lads out playing street cricket.
We returned to Travellers, caught a cab and headed to the LTT terminus. We boarded our car nice and early and discovered that our berths were at either end of the car. This was something I had no control of when booking the tickets – the system generates the seating with no options, other than what the passengers can sort out amongst themselves. So we, along with several other passengers, tried to arrange for closer seating. Unfortunately Sue got stuck with her single berth, which the conductors requisitioned during the day for their office. Sue ended up squished in a single berth with two other travellers for much of the second day. However, on the first day we did get to sit together in the afternoon by my berth. There we met and talked with a young IT manager, his wife and a health care professional. We shared stories and chowed down on railway food. Frequently during the day vendors would come by with tea/coffee, water/pop and snacks. In the evening Sue tried to claim the other upper berth but the conductor told her she could stay there until 3am but would then have to move back to assigned berth.

The next day I awoke to the sounds of a family group who’d taken several berths around us. As the day progressed I fell into conversation with Sunil, the IT man. Based in Mumbai he and his wife were travelling to a family wedding at the far end of the line. She was a bit shy and spent the day with her headphones on but he and I talked a lot about a wide range and subjects.

We arrived at Ernakulam Station around 2, caught a cab to the waterfront and then a ferry over to Kochi. There an auto rickshaw driver took us to our home stay. Luckily I had Google Maps to help us along. With over 300 home stays in Kochi (many down small paths off small lanes off the roads) it can be confusing for the drivers. After a short, winding walk we arrived at the Royal Pergola, where our hostess Somia met us at the door. After the 27 hour train ride we needed a walk so headed off to the town centre, knowing exactly where to find a cold beer (Kerala is a relatively ‘dry’ state). We then went for a stroll along the waterfront followed by a small dinner at a Tibetan restaurant we knew from our previous trip.

On Day 1 – Tuesday – in Kochi we were served a huge and delicious breakfast by Somia. Part Continental and part Indian it sprawled across the table. This was possibly the largest breakfast we’ve seen in an accommodation. Somia told us many travellers, especially the English, prefer the Continental but we ignored the toast and dove into Indian food. OK… I can go on and on about Indian food but breakfast at the Royal Pergola is superlative.

After the early feast we walked to Aspinwall, the main venue of the Kochi Muziris Biennale. We spent the next several hours cruising around the various rooms in the old trading centre, seeing a variety of art. It’s a great location, on the water so refreshing breezes help balance the heat of some of the small rooms, especially those curtained off for videos. We both thought the overall quality of the work was not up to the previous Biennale but some was outstanding. Our favourite was William Kentridge’s More Sweetly Play the Dance, a twelve panel video installation set up in a large, darkened room with the occasional beam of light coming through the roof tiles. Interestingly, just after we’d had a conversation how neither of us found much video art to our liking we saw Shubigi Rao’s The Pelagic Tracts, a poetic film concerning books, migrants, knowledge and colonialism. Colonialism is a theme of this year’s Biennale, a theme which resonates with me as it is the theme of my newest project.

We didn’t complete seeing all the galleries at Aspinwall, we can only take in so much art in a day. We wandered off back to our room for a rest and refreshing showers. Later we strolled out for a sunset walk but were stopped on our way by a local family who invited us into their home where we viewed their daughter’s wedding album. Although Kochi is a popular tourist destination many locals are quite happy to stop and chat. The flip side is the almost constant barrage of touts and auto rickshaw drivers around the town centre, offering deals and exclusives. We’ve learned to say ‘No!’, and not backdown.

One week into our journey and we’re happily ensconced in Kochi, enjoying the art, the food and the people. 

We arrived at Ernakulam Station around 2pm, caught a cab to the waterfront and then a ferry over to Kochi. There an auto rickshaw driver took us to our home stay. Luckily I had Google Maps to help us along. With over 300 home stays in Kochi (many down small paths off small lanes off the roads) it can be confusing for the drivers. After a short, winding walk we arrived at the Royal Pergola, where our hostess Somia met us at the door. After the 27 hour train ride we needed a walk so headed off to the town centre, knowing exactly where to find a cold beer (Kerala is a relatively ‘dry’ state). We then went for a stroll along the waterfront followed by a small dinner at a Tibetan restaurant we knew from our previous trip.

On Day 1 – Tuesday – in Kochi we were served a huge and delicious breakfast by Somia. Part Continental and part Indian it sprawled across the table. This was possibly the largest breakfast we’ve seen in an accommodation. Somia told us many travellers, especially the English, prefer the Continental but we ignored the toast and dove into Indian food. OK… I can go on and on about Indian food but breakfasts at the Royal Pergola are superlative.

After the early feast we walked to Aspinwall, the main venue of the Kochi Muziris Biennale. We spent the next several hours cruising around the various rooms in the old trading centre, seeing a wide variety of art. It’s a great location, on the water so refreshing breezes help relieve the heat of some of the small rooms. Our favourite artwork of the day .was William Kentridge’s More Sweetly Play the Dance, a twelve panel video installation set up in a large, darkened room with the occasional beam of light coming through the roof tiles. Interestingly, just after we’d had a conversation how neither of us found much video art to our liking we saw Shubigi Rao’s The Pelagic Tracts, a poetic film concerning books, migrants, knowledge and colonialism.

We didn’t complete seeing all the galleries at Aspinwall, we can only take in so much art in a day. We wandered off back to our room for a rest and refreshing showers. Later we strolled out for a sunset walk but were stopped on our way by a local family who invited us into their home where we viewed their daughter’s wedding album. Although Kochi is a popular tourist destination many locals are quite happy to stop and chat. The flip side is the almost constant barrage of touts and auto rickshaw drivers around the town centre, offering deals and exclusives. We’ve learned to say ‘No!’, and not backdown.

One week into our journey and we’re happily ensconced in Kochi, enjoying the art, the food and the people. 

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