With Christmas and a tiger sighting under our belt, next up was heading to a place to bring in the New Year. Sarah found out that there was a pretty big new year’s eve celebration every year in Fort Kochi, a small island that is part of the southern Indian state of Kerala. To get there in time for the celebration we had to cover a lot of ground. The journey from Jabalpur to Ernakulum (railway station closest to Fort Kochi) included a three hour train ride from Jabalpur to Itarsi (a layover station), an eleven hour layover in Itarsi, a thirty hour train ride to Ernakulum, and finally a thirty minute ferry ride to Fort Kochi.
Both legs of the train ride were taken in Sleeper class. This is the class we try to take most of the time because we do a lot of overnight journeys and it’s also the most affordable, behind general seating. When there aren’t tickets available we sometimes take the class above called 3 A/C, which is the same layout as Sleeper but with air conditioning, privacy curtains, and a blanket and pillow included. Sleeper class is definitely the most interesting of the two classes because the less private accommodations affords more opportunities to interact with fellow passengers. The thirty hour leg of the train journey provided us with a few memorable moments.
To start, this was the first time we’d boarded a train late enough in the evening that everyone on the train was already asleep. Up until this point we had never had to contend with someone sitting or sleeping in our reserved seat. Not having any experience with the proper and most polite way to ask a sleeping passenger to get out of your seat, I asked a fellow Indian passenger who had boarded the late night train with us to offer some advice. Instead of offering advice he took our tickets and proceeded to firmly ask the guy in my berth to hand over the seat, claiming it was his seat. Nice. After a little resistance and requests by each party to view the other’s ticket, the seat was handed over. Our new friend did the same for Sarah’s sleeping berth but this time without any dispute at all. The woman that was in her berth quickly jumped up, grabbed her bags, and jumped into her friends berth across the aisle, which they shared for the remainder of the night. Success.
Being such a long ride we had plenty of time the next day to spend with the folks that had borrowed our sleeping berths the night before. I was a little worried that they might be some hard feelings, especially since we had enlisted the help of someone else to give them the boot, but no one acknowledged the event. It turned out that the fellow that was in my seat was from Nigeria and was traveling with a couple of his friends. We spent the remainder of the very long train ride chatting and convincing one of them to play cards with us. Along with him, a couple of Indian guys also joined in and we played a card game called Crazy Eights for what must have been 2 or 3 hours, most of time surrounded by onlookers. The train rides, especially during the day, are a hive of activity. People are constantly moving about and switching seats. The sleeping berths that were once beds become bench seats for at least three people and sometimes more.
The place we found in Fort Kochi was labeled as a homestay but it was really just a normal hotel with what turned out to be a very interesting staff. Shaw (or maybe Shawn?) worked the front desk most of the time and was a fun, talkative guy. In fact, one evening we came back to find him and a few of his friends trying on women’s wigs and clothing. All of us exchanged smiles and then Sarah and I proceeded to our room laughing at what we had just seen. The next day we found out from Shaw that they were preparing for a Carnival type parade taking place the day after new year’s day. Later, Shaw asked to borrow Sarah’s tweezers to give his eyebrows a proper plucking. With all of this we decided we had to attend the parade.
First, we took part in the New Year’s Eve celebration. For the celebration we joined up with a fellow traveler (David) we’d met at our hotel. The three of us walked from the hotel to the beach where the celebration was to take place. Sarah and I had done minimal research and didn’t know what to expect. During the walk David shared with us that as part of the celebration a giant Santa Claus is set on fire. We had noticed people in Santa Claus costumes driving around town but didn’t think much of it because it was so close to Christmas. Without hearing any sort of countdown, and before we knew what was going on, Santa Claus was ablaze and the massive crowd of people (mostly Indian men) erupted with yelling and arms in the air. The celebration ended as soon as the blazing Santa went out.
The remainder of our time in Fort Kochi involved watching the Carnival parade, taking a back waters boat tour of the surrounding lakes and canals, and finally doing a proper walking tour of the city. The characters in the parade included a lot of men dressed as women, an elephant, and some of the figures from the Hindu religion.
During our walk of the city we saw a bit more of the beach area and the giant Chinese fishing nets that Fort Kochi is known for. The nets are large contraptions, probably around 30 ft. tall when fully removed from the water. The net itself is around 25 ft. square. For sale on the boardwalk nearby were some of the catches of the day.
Fort Kochi was a fine place to bring in the new year. As usual, we met great people and saw some fascinating things. India continues to be full of surprises.