Fear and Hypochondria in Fort Kochin

18th January

A day of contrasts. A day of paranoia and happiness, squalor and luxury, pain and contentment. In hindsight, the first day of really venturing out beyond our idyllic island homestay and as such characterised by the negative mindset brought on by adjusting to unfamiliarity. And, perhaps, sudden re-introduction to caffeine.

Despite a dreadful night’s sleep, savaged by mosquitoes and a pounding headache, I rose in high spirits for breakfast of stew and appam in time for our scheduled 10am ride to the local bus stop. Kallanchery is a beautiful little island, home to many friendly people, lush palm trees and characterful crows, but we’d yet to work out how to leave it.

Anu, an auto-rickshaw driver who lives next door, beams as he meets us outside the homestay. I realise mid-way through the journey that I’ve forgotten to check my cash supplies and that all I have on me besides an almost unspendable 2,000 rupee note is a few crumpled tens and an assortment of coins. Pulling up behind a waiting bus that would whisk us into Fort Kochin, Anu announces the fare is 100 Rs.

My eyes scream “Oh, bollocks” as my hands pat up and down my body in a panicked homage to the macarena. Anu seems genuinely sorry not to be able to break the two grand, and when I’ve added each meagre scrap of currency I can find to the notes in my pocket it comes to about 70 Rs, which he graciously accepts. Rebecca and I turn to board the bus, and as one all three of us realise that the same fiasco is about to repeat itself. Anu thrusts the handful of notes back to us as we mutter embarrassed apologies and promise to pay him back via Rockey.

So on arrival at Fort Kochin our first thought is of cash. There’s an ATM a short walk from a trendy-sounding café we want to check out and we wile away an unproductive hour shuttling between the two, returning to the Kashi Art Café’s sphere of WiFinfluence to investigate the latest reason why the machine’s declined our Monzo cards.

The case finally cracked we sit in the cool shade of the café’s secluded garden for coffee, masala chai and a scroll through the social media universes we’d almost escaped. I take an instant liking to the place for all the wrong reasons. In a nutshell, it reminds me of home; tropical sunshine aside we could have been in Shoreditch. The soundtrack is mellow house, the décor is agreeably edgy, the waiters’ English flawless and the tapwater drinkable. Or so I assume, but watching me glug back half a glass Rebecca raises an eyebrow and asks if I’m sure it’s safe. Thus is incepted, à la di Caprio, the deep-seated notion that I’m about to get seriously ill.

Feeling adventurous, we decide to walk to Matancherry after lunch in the David Hall art gallery’s garden. About a third of the way there I feel a stabbing pain in my heel. It turns out to be a loose staple in my Primark trainers but, the inevitable dysentery from the morning’s tap water yet to set in, my hypochondria decides I’ve stepped on a rusty nail and will imminently succumb to tetanus (last month’s jab notwithstanding).

The afternoon sun has by now reduced Rebecca to a pool of molten sludge by the side of the road so we swallow our pride and hail an auto, whose driver happily navigates the remaining few hundred yards of our trek and pops us down outside the imposing Matancherry Palace.

We stroll through Jew Town, famous for its jewellery and antiques. We have a vague intention of buying but nothing grabs our attention enough to be worth lugging around for four months. In this frame of mind, Matancherry is seriously bum-out. One big tourist trap (the Palace is allegedly worth a look but closed on Fridays), there’s nowhere to escape from the relentless attention of street hawkers, many of whom have the gall to gesture to the words “Hassle Free” printed above their shop fronts having successfully harangued you for a split-second’s worth of attention.

Bored of this, we stop at Crafters Café for more chai and espresso, where I air my latest thoughts. I still haven’t shat myself at all, and by now I’ve identified the true source of the pain in my foot, so it crosses my mind that peppered as I am with mosquito bites I’m about to come down with malaria.

Rebecca assures me this is ridiculous and we set off to walk (actually walk this time, the cooler late afternoon sun settling in) back to Fort Kochin, via what looks on the map like the scenic coastal route.

In fact this is a Danté-esque scurry through the only squalid streets I’m yet to see in Kerala, replete with mangy rats, dead animals being picked apart by crows on the roadside and enough car fumes to make me dry-retch. We pass a sign covered in inscrutable Malayalam beneath the English words “HEALTH WARNING” and a massive image of a mosquito. Neither of us have taken antimalarials since we don’t plan on visiting any areas deemed risky by the NHS malaria map, but having read about malaria being a problem in the Mumbai slums I’ve convinced myself the map is meaningless. I point this out to Rebecca, incepting her too, her defences weakened by the buckets of strong coffee I’ve foolishly allowed her to quaff.

Both of us now self-diagnosing malaria, dengue fever and Japanese Encepalitis, we reroute to a more direct, cleaner course to Fort Kochin, stopping at a pharmacy to inquire about mosquito coils. On cleaner paths, my head starts to clear. There had been similar signs at the airport warning about zika which is irrelevant to us as we’ve no plans to start a family. Arriving back to Kashi’s warming WiFi-ridden glow I placate myself with reference to various sites confirming that Kerala has effectively zero malaria.

We get cheese sandwiches to go from Kashi and bus back to Kumbalangi village, then hop on an auto for the rest of the way to Kallanchery. On the bus, the tension that has gripped me all day starts to recede; the process of acclimatisation, of “letting go” to India as so many people have advised me to do, steadily beginning. Kerala I’m sure is an ocean of tranquility compared to the rest of the country, but today gave me a mild breaking-in, and I feel great for it. On a crowded bus bumping through teeming semi-jungle, I relax.

We eat the sandwiches when we get back. They taste weird. Three days in India and the strangest-tasting thing I’ve eaten is a cheese sandwich.

I’ll probably feel dreadful tomorrow.

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