Fourteen hours after boarding the sleeper train we pulled into Ernakulam Junction in Kerala. I know what you're thinking - fourteen fecking hours, that's longer than it takes to fly from the UK to India - but seriously, travelling by train is one of the great Indian experiences and, until you've tried it, I honestly don't think that you can say that you've truly seen India. Of course, we could have flown but that would have cost us around £300 as opposed to the £20 we paid.
We hailed a tuk tuk and 15 minutes later (approx. £3.50) we arrived at our accommodation, Kapitan, a heritage home stay in the historical quarter of Fort Cochin. December had been a bit of a disastrous month for tourism following Indian Prime Minister Modi's decision to withdraw the 500 and 1000 rupee notes from circulation virtually overnight and so we were able to negotiate the room rate down to £10 a night.
We've been to Kerala twice but the last time we visited Fort Cochin was almost a decade ago (27th December, 2007 - the day Benazir Bhutto was assassinated) and, as we were on a tight schedule, we only spent a piddling 24 hours there. We decided we needed to do it proper justice.
Our first port of call was the old district of Mattencherry, a cluster of red-tiled riverfront wharfs and pastel coloured godowns (warehouses), once the colonial capital's main market area and the epicentre of the Malabar spice trade.
With most of their original owners moving abroad, many of these buildings have lapsed into an advanced state of disrepair.
Spices have been traded from Kerala's ports for more than two thousand years, before St Thomas the Apostle introduced Christianity here in 52 AD. In an anonymous Alexandrian text written in the first century AD it was recorded that the Romans sailed here with holds full of flowered robes, eye-liner....mica and wine (which sounds a bit like my suitcase) and returned laden with spices, monkeys, tigers and elephants but pepper or "Malabar Gold" was always the prime commodity. Pliny the Elder (23 - 73 AD) complained that trade was draining the imperial coffers of Ancient Rome.
After the decline of the Roman Empire, Arab merchants used their considerable navigation skills to monopolise the spice trade which they then continued to do so for centuries that is until the arrival of Vasco da Gama in 1498 who, after spotting the potential, helped the Portuguese obtain the permission of the Raja of Cochin to open a trading post here in 1503.
After surviving many bloody encounters with the Arabs, the Portuguese eventually lost out to the superior naval strength of the Dutch who took control of Cochin in 1613 who in turn, following the Battle of Colachen in 1741, were ousted by the Raja of Travancore with control being taken by the British. The port was upgraded in the 1920s and become the richest harbour in South India but, after Independence, her fortunes declined sharply leading to the dilapidation you'll find today.
Modern Cochin still prides itself on being a major centre for gold trading, shipbuilding and spices. In the ten years since we last visited there's a real sense of change in the air and, as you'll discover in my next post, the Cochin district council have come up with an ingenious way of utilising these wonderful old buildings.
Despite Cochin being a major tourist destination Western tourists in Mattancherry are few and far between, seemingly to prefer to spend their time in the cafes and restaurants of Fort Cochin fiddling with their phones.
Each godown specialises in just one commodity, pepper, red onions, bananas, cardamon, cinnamon, ginger, tea, coffee, vanilla and as you pass, the smell is intense.
Goods are still transported in the old fashioned way, by manpower. This chap made the whole process look effortless, no mean feat when it's touching 37°. Although Goa isn't much cooler, Kerala is a lot more humid and the sweat runs down your back in rivulets. Definitely not conditions conducive to taking attractive photos of ourselves. Still, with so much going on in the street who needs gormless selfies?
If you turn the central heating on full, whack on a few layers of thermals and stick your nose in a tub of pepper you can scroll through these photos and experience the street of Mattancherry for real.
It seems like a lifetime ago since I was warm. It's been snowing on and off here since we got back and the breeze is positively Baltic. Hopefully tonight's curry should warm us up - providing we don't contract hypothermia on the bus there.
We're trading with Judy's in Bethnal Green on Sunday (details HERE). It would be ace to see you and we promise not to bang on about our trip too much.
See you soon!
PS See the full set of Mattancherry photos HERE