The mosquitoes arrived four days ago in Kochi. Every cafe, every alleyway and every bedroom is filled with the little black drones that darken the air like winged soot. And they are so persistent, biting every exposed inch of flesh and even that which is not exposed, through shirts and underwear. Tourists develop a strange slapping dance – a cross between Alpine and Morris dancing – to outpace the bites, but still the insects win. Interior walls are decorated with smeared bodies mixed with human blood of hand-slaps that successfully caught a mossie drowsy with blood. Citronella, Ayuverdic neem – forget it. Even DEET won’t work unless it is a high enough percentage to burn the skin and sting. Even then, the insects find a way.
They weren’t always here in such numbers. Kochi, lovely as it is, shouldn’t exist and indeed didn’t a thousand years ago. It is a sand bar that formed off the edge of the Malabar coast and gradually grew, turning the water behind into the Keralan backwaters. The backwaters with their rivulets and pools of water that still-up during the dry season are the ideal breeding ground for mosquitoes. But the tides and storms would flush seawater through, keeping the numbers down. In the past decade, though, house building and infrastructure have sealed up the channels so the two waters hardly meet. The result is a higher incidence of dengue fever and chikungunya, and a hundred itchy bites swelling all over my poor skin.
So we’ve left, climbing high into the hills of the Western Ghats on a bus loudly proclaiming the joys of Bollywood musicals and liberal use of the horn. The wildlife sanctuaries in Waynard district are both closed owing to two devastating fires in the past month that have destroyed many of the lower trees and shrubs. This is the vegetation that the healthy population of wild elephants depends on, so there are fears that the younger elephants may suffer before the forest’s regrowth. There has been very little rain this season and in the hot temperatures bamboo stems rubbing against each other cause friction fires.
North to Calicut, then west into the hills at Kalpetta, where it’s cool enough for me to need blankets at night. Here, enormous root vegetables grow, stacked for selling like drying cowpats on the side of the road. And the stalls also have a root vegetable that looks like ginger but is many times larger. Both need cooking and have long Malayalam names that nobody can translate to English – perhaps there are no words in English for these regional plants. More than 20 types of rice are for sale in the neighbouring stall, side by side in open-topped steel canisters – a patchwork of colours from red to black.
Crossing west from Kerala to Karnataka the landscape changes as abruptly. The lush, laid-back, anything-grows agriculture of Kerala is replaced with rectangular fields of hard brown dust fringed with cactus. It is a little like Gujarat. Water is here, but it’s hidden inside high-up aqueducts that criss-cross the skies, carrying water from faraway dams to the state’s food nurseries. The general election is in just a few days and water share-out and distribution, within and between states, is the dominant issue. It is bigger than job rights, infrastructure, health, education. The papers carry several stories daily about water sharing tiffs and political hopefuls’ promises for clean supplies.