The ill-lit classrooms had no glass in the windows and no plaster on the walls. Unconnected to any source, electricity wires hung like jungle vines from concrete ceilings. The children, crowded behind simple wooden tables, wore neatly pressed uniforms and expressions warm enough to melt a mountain frost.
“This isn’t as bad as I expected,” I said to Jamie, as we sat on Esper in the slipway, waiting to be hauled out.
He didn’t bother to reply. We were coming to a rolling boil in the midday heat, and any attempt at conversation or movement was painful. Millie lay on the floor in the saloon with ears twitching. She began to pant and stared up at me through the hatch. What hell-hole have you brought me to now? she seemed to be saying.
It’s always hot, and often wet in the tropics. At certain times of the year I really miss England’s seasons. There is no spring in India, the months segue from winter to summer here. Kerala is at its hottest in April and May, when pre-monsoon steamy white heat reduces the tumbling torrent of Cochin’s street-life to a dried up trickle. Tourists are the only fools to go out in the midday sun. Even the mad dogs sleep.
This morning, Nazar brought his whole family to the marina to say goodbye. He has been our constant companion since we arrived in Cochin, taking us on endless shopping trips, keeping us topped up with beer and wine, coming out to the beach at Kuzhipilly with us, and finding parts and services for all our boaty needs. We have eaten in his tiny home on many occasions: fish curry and spicy vegetable dishes cooked by his wife, Sakina, and mother, Beema.
“I am Chella Duri, I come from Tamil Nadu,” translated Saji. “I look after my master’s goats on this land. Now I call them for the night. I sleep here with them.” The goats milled around us, nibbling the wall, the grass, my feet, the path, everything.
Jamie asked what was wrong with his foot.
“I broke it on a stone while climbing.” We could see blood stains on the rag. Jamie wondered why he had not seen a doctor. “I earn 4000 rupees (around £46) a month, and that is all for my family. There is nothing left for doctor.”
Cochin has the highest density of Christians in India, and is dotted with cathedrals and churches. In a parody of our high streets back home, the roads are rammed with fevered shoppers, their faces consumed with the business of Christmas. The crowd scoops me up and funnels me into an alley, where I bash my ankles on rough wooden nativity scenes strewn along the ground.
Over the past year, the clean-up operation in Fort Cochin has been at fever pitch. Walls covered in peeling posters of political candidates, good only for goats to chew on, have been revitalised; mould has been scrubbed away and been replaced by murals, artist graffiti and bold colours.
The result of all this activity? An enormous, blank(ish) canvas across the city for Indian and international artists to exhibit their work and create site-specific installations. It is crazy, unexpected, colourful and electric: don’t miss it.
To the north, a utilitarian concrete bridge flies down from the mainland onto Bolgatty’s eastern shore, races across to the other side, then takes off towards neighbouring Vypeen island. A community of Harijans (aka ‘Untouchables’) has made its home under the bridge on Bolgatty, leaning bits of corrugated metal up against the bridge’s concrete piles and, covering them with plastic sheets and old rags.
A wide and well-tended path stretched upwards to the main group of buildings. We had walked into another country: there were no plastic bottles, crisp wrappers, bright blue tangles of frayed nylon rope, plastic bags, sweet wrappers, turds or stinking puddles anywhere. Just nice green grassy borders either side of the well-trodden path, and a hand-built wooden stairway.