We’re having a great time in Fort Kochi! This place is stunning. A few of the lasting hippies have set up cafes and whatnot and the fish here is incredible. So fresh. You should see the Chinese fishing nets on the sparkling Arabian sea. You’d love to draw them. Today I’m going into Ernakalum (the local city) to buy a guitar and see some films at a film festival. Wanting to stay apart from my peers, I got a haircut the other day. Quite a ritual. The barbers here are light-years ahead of our own in the field of dealing with unsightly hair! Straight razors and flames! As ever, I survived.
I’ll probably call before you even get this, but I thought the picture was funny. Remind you of anyone?
Lots of love
The first thing I could see was the ceiling fan. Mock bamboo. Plastic and faux wood. I counted the holes. I get up to 16 before I realised that the fan wasn’t moving. Crawling out of bed I flipped the switch a couple of times. I didn’t try the light switch in case it wasn’t the fuse.
“Hi, baby” I replied in a hushed voice.
“hmmm? S’goin on?”
“Shh, it’s just the fan. It’s out”
“Is it the power?”
“I think so. I didn’t want to check the lights. I didn’t want to wake you up”
“Aw! Yrr too sweet. Come here”
In her half asleep slur she held open the blanket for me and I crawled into her waiting body.
We took a late breakfast in one of the many hippy cafes in a beautiful old back alley in Fort Cochin, up towards Jew street. I drank coffee and ate fruit, she had a smoothie and was delighted once again with the Indian take on porridge. This was a joy that never seemed to tire either of us.
“So what are you thinking for the day?”
“You always ask me that when you have a plan. Just tell me what YOU’RE thinking”
We both smoked Scissors as the food went down. I let her knight take one of the small black plastic pawns.
“Well, I was thinking of taking the ferry into Ernakalum, maybe buying a guitar. There’s one that’s about RS1100. Doesn’t look too bad. Maybe seeing what’s on at the film festival”
“Yeah. Whaddaya say, girly? Fancy joining me?”
“Uh, I don’t know...”
“I don’t know if I’m really in the mood. Plus the last time I was there. Ugh. It’s the open sewers. The smell mixed with roasting cardamoms and I thought I was going to be sick for a week”
I shrug, as if to say ‘your loss’
“You know how rough I was”
“Yeah. You are looking a like drawn. Maybe you should just chill here. So what you going to be doing instead? Ha. Try and get me now”
“Oh, I don’t know. I’ll find something. Check”
But we both knew.
Aaron had been there a few months now. Early thirties, it was his fourth or fifth time in India. He would work the monsoon season back in New Zealand, doing night shifts, factory work, whatever, until he had enough money for a plane ticket back. He told me he had stories about working in the sewers. More than I ever wanted to hear. He knew people all around India. He’d spend a few weeks or months in different places, travelling around as and when he pleased, acting as an intermediary between tourists and dealers. Tourists were often too scared to risk some foreign jail time (really, a bribe). There was money to be made in the soft market of dabblers, made comfortable by his white face and charming accent. Weed, charas, mushrooms, opium. White drugs were harder to get, he said. Luckily, we... I had no interest.
We bought our hash off him. It was a lot better than the bush weed we’d been smoking before. We had a tolla which wasn’t going down at all. Seeds and stalks and bitter smoke.
She was always a bigger smoker than me. That is in the whole time I’d known her. Almost three months now, we’d been together. From the first few days in, we fell into a relationship. Something about it felt fated. I guess it’s easy to be swept up in such notions when surrounded by such mysticism and exoticism. But it was like we had known each other all our lives. I knew she felt the same way too. I was certain.
Most of the time I was never that fussed, I just went along with her. And the more I became fascinated with the place, the less I was bothered. I think she had started to become antsy and wanted more committed ‘Shaivites’ to hang with. I wanted to see the country, not the inside of a hotel room or, god forbid, myself.
The heat was different on the mainland. Unless stood right by the sea, it was like a wall. Something so different about this place. The Dust and the noise and, yes, the open sewers made Fort Kochin seem a million miles away. The same thick Malayalam babble of a million different conversations. Haggles, arguments, discussions, but with the pace and attitude of a city. Still, a lot calmer than the bigger cities we’d been to, but after days of no pace at all, it was a baby satori. I realised how much I’d been craving the heat and the mess of it all.
I bought the guitar, a ‘Givson’ Jazz-style acoustic, a few picks and a couple of packets of Indian strings. Like fucking cheesewire.
I remember what a nice day I had. I saw some Russian film at the festival, had one the best thalis I can still remember and almost put out of my mind what I thought may have been happening back on Kochi.
But it was only for so long. I met a guy called Samuel, wandering around town. He’d been in India a little while but was new to Ernakulum. Here for the festival. We went for a few beers- he tried the local coconut swill for a few rounds until I could see he could no longer face it. Add enough Limca and you can fool yourself into thinking it’s a pleasant drink. I taught him the unparalleled joy of a cold bottle of Haywards 5000. I think after we’d switched to the ‘whiskey’, we caught the adventurers bug and decided to catch the last ferry to Vypeen island. I’d been there on a day out and was far too shitfaced to remember if there was any b and bs there. I was pretty sure it was all temples and spots of natural beauty. But I was also pretty sure there were ferries and I would be able to walk in a straight line. As it stand, Vypeen is very developed and extends far beyond the small corner of it that I saw. Not that that made much difference to the coming night.
We made our way to the jetty. It took us five minutes of attempts to focus to realise the ferries had finished for the day. The rest is just fragments. Fractions of memories, like a half remembered dream. I think we harassed and paid the one poor bastard we could find with a boat to sail us across. Maybe my most shameful act of tourist prickishness and dick swaggering display of relative wealth. We made it to the island in the pitch black. We paid him well. Roy, I think his westernised name was. But that wasn't the point.
Here’s a list of moments and images that I remember. It is the closest thing I have to a continuous narrative of that evening.
The lights in the near pitch black, reflecting off the lapping water.
The moon. The size of the moon.
The light of it all amid the darkness.
The boat leaving and us running off into the night in glee.
Sand and gravel and rocks and the smell of the sea.
Disappearing, the closer in land we got.
Blurred, painted Malayalam road signs.
Sitting on a rock, lying back and drinking the paint stripper that passes for whiskey.
The slow realisation that the island was much, much, much smaller than Vypeen.
Laughing. Howling with laughter as we realised we had no idea where we were, what island we were on.
Walking around, stumbling by torch light.
The fatigue of the day finally setting in.
Words becoming slower.
Arms becoming heavier.
Will becoming fainter.
And falling off the flat edge of the world.
I opened my eyes to darkness. I opened my eyes and tried to open them. Again and again. To darkness, to sweat, the choking dank, stagnant smell and the heavy echos of my own breathing. I groped around my pockets for the packet of Scissors and tore one out, hoping the rough tobacco taste would send me upright.
In the quick sparks and flickering match light, I see the walls all around me. Battered, ancient stone. The sound echoing across dead water.
I lit another match to see the flame reflected in an unmoving, stinking pool. Flecks of sickening green and the brackish smell of eternal decay.
To my left, what looks like stairs.
Through the choking stench of the cheap cigarettes, my own body and this empty mausoleum, I clambered up the stairs and into the blinding light of the day. I looked around for Samuel but, couldn’t find him. No sign of him at all. All I could see was a long gravel path, the ancient Shaivite temple that had been my shelter for the evening, and the lapis lazuli of the unending Arabian sea.
I looked for him, but I couldn’t find him or anyone anywhere. No signs of life.
I was lucky to attract the attention of a small fishing boat. With what scant money I had left, I negotiated a lift. Made it as far as Vypeen and caught the Kochi ferry with my pocket change.
It all seemed like a dream at the time, but the rest I remember clearly.
The fresh smell of the fish. So removed from the stink of a London fish market day, the foul Piscean stench that hung thick in the air, long after the stalls were cleared away.
The slow creak of the Chinese fishing nets.
The gentle babble of the fishermen, and of the sea.
The slowly waking island and the slowly rising heat.
The hotel owner waving.
The lack of key.
The door, open.
Incense and something else.
Not charas, not weed.
The remnants of something that had filled the room.
Filled the room and blacked out the light.
The broken pipe on the floor.
And her shoulder.
And her cold skin.
Almost grey in the half light.
And the ceiling fan, just about on.
Chopping through nothing.
“You’ve done very well today. I know that wasn’t easy”