Saturday 25 April – Sunday 3 May 2009 Kovalam Beach & surrounds
Whilst Kerala - a state bordering the SW Coast along one edge - is renowned for being one of the most touristy parts of India initially we saw very little sign of this. We drove down roads lined with coconut palms past little villages. The word for Kerala supposedly derived from the word for coconut and they seem to be the dominant crop around here- as mentioned before nothing is wasted - the dried husks go to make rope & door mats. The smells of frangipani and coconut oil and the crashing waves give a relaxed tropical feel to the place. It is a very festive state with there always seeming to be something to celebrate going on and decorations are frequently seen in the streets.
The cries of the mosque calling to prayer compete with catholic church bells, and the signs proclaiming "Jesus is King" jostle next to Hindu temples. We saw no evidence of conflict but apparently 15 or so years ago one of the small fishing villages here - Vizhinjam -was the scene of very real conflict between the muslim and the christian fishermen which lead to a lot of violence. There is now a constant police presence and they have separate sections of the harbour (one dominated by a mosque one by a catholic church) with a "no go" zone in the middle so order is restored! We felt no conflict so hopefully it is now a thing of the past.
Kerala has long been a communist ruled state - more like socialist really- and boasts the highest literacy of any state in India. It has a really nice relaxed vibe. People tend to smile and wave rather than just stare which is a welcome change. Maybe they're more used to foreigners.
The major tourist town of Kovalam Beach is very much on the package tour network and all the tourist facilities exist. It is now low season though and whilst the weather is still good many shops and restaurants have shut for a couple of months. We had heard that the bizarre sad species of day trippers - Indian men who come in coaches just to gawk at western women on the beach - were a problem here but thankfully we didn't see any at all. Maybe time has moved on, or maybe as it's low season they're also shutting up shop for a few months!!
We drove out a little way and stumbled upon Coconut Bay a little piece of paradise Coconut Bay is a fairly exclusive little development - specializing in high end tourists mostly wanting Ayurveda treatments. The practice of Ayurveda is an ancient specialism of Kerala and involves a treatment of purging, diet and massages to restore the body's balance and promote health. Or you can just have the massage and skip the hard bit!! It's all very involved so if you're keen to learn more have a look at the site www.ayur.com
Anyway whilst is it pretty high end we lucked out when we met Hari who owns & runs "The Sunset Bar" a little restaurant nestled between a couple of big resorts. He agreed we could camp at his restaurant. Travelling in India is pretty intense so we settled down for a few days r & r here - one of the hotels also had a half way decent Wi-Fi connection - bliss after what I'd been used to - so I've been hard at work loading pictures. We have been well received by the really lovely Coconut Bay Beach Resort - definitely a good choice for a luxury stay - with or without purgings!! www.coconutbay.com
Whilst in high season all 3 resorts in the area are full to bursting point we had the whole place more or less to ourselves. For once we've timed it right and hit the low season prior to the real monsoons kicking in in a month or so.
Whilst here we have been very much a focus of attention with security guards mounting a 24/7 vigilance around our vehicle - I think they were just bored before!! They charge us 50 rp (around $2 Aus) for this service which seems pretty good! Hari was also pleased to have some guests to cook for and we have our own private chef to cook delicious seafood every night - garlic prawns, masala mussels (a local specialty) and fish. At approx $12 Aus for 2 a meal it's a bargain! Trained at one of the top restaurant the boy can certainly cook!!! We heard through the grapevine that his mother is currently looking for a match for him - so any single ladies out there you could do a lot worse!! You'd have to be Hindu though!
Mussels are the big industry around here. Every morning at 6.30am the activity starts. The simple wooden boats are first reassembled. These are made of 4 planks that are lashed together and separated to dry every evening. The men dive for mussels which grow here at a depth of 6- 8 metres, using large rocks to pull them down to the bottom. They then cut them from the bottom and dive again until they have a boat full. They then bring them in in baskets, carry up the beach to where trucks are waiting for the ones going to market and the rest are divvied out and sold to local customers.
Any remaining shells are dried and then sold to be used as a component of cement. After 9.30am all activity for the day - save card games (illegal here so all cards are put away at a signal that the police are coming!) and games of beach cricket- seems to stop. Staring at any move made by the weird foreigners in their weird car is also now a very popular activity!!
Land prices have risen hugely here and there is an increase in foreign investment and a lot of people have done pretty well. A lot of the fishermen we met have relatives that are working as fishermen in Dubai. The work is hard and the conditions not great but you can earn 50,000 rp (approx $1500 Aus $) a month which is huge money here. One older man we met on our travels around the coast has 2 sons currently doing this. The idea is that after a few years they have enough saved to return and buy land.
We took a few days here and did very little - save drift between Kovalam beach and Hari's place. The sea is quite rough and Kovalam does have life guards - very smartly unformed too - and quite a few vendors selling sunglasses, jewelry & cloth - but as it is the low season it is all pretty relaxed compared to say December when allegedly it is frantic.
Andrew was interested that the boats on Kovalam beach were made with ply wood sewed together with wire - this is an old technique rarely seen now in Australia. We had a few meals out enjoying a few western treats and some good coffee. One place - the German bakery - even had proper bread (Indian bread is always sweetened!) as well as a helpful poster giving instructions on how to use an Indian toilet!! Think we've mastered that by now!!!
One sight we did go and see was the Padmanabhapuram Palace -back in Tamil Nadu. We actually went past this on the way down but have since found out it is really worth seeing being the finest surviving example of Keralan architecture so we decided to back track. It was the seat of the Princes' of Travancore a state which once took in parts of both Tamil Nadu and Kerala.
The architecture was amazing - gorgeous rosewood carving in the ceiling, and exquisite craftsmanship everywhere.
The flooring is made of a special compound of shells, coconut, egg white and plant juices- and it has stood the test of time being both really attractive still and hard wearing despite being over 450 years old.
It is white on the pillars and black on the floors where coconut ash was added. The palace has been added on to and dates from between the 15th & 19th centuries; it was still used as a summer residence by the descendants of the royal family into the 1930s. The Princes traded a great deal with China (mainly tea for spices) and various Chinese artifacts (large pickle jars, carved chairs, ornate screens) remain.
The palace was surrounded by a beautifully paved garden and had a museum next-door with a large collection of painting, statues and weapons (including the steel suit used as an implement of torture!) which once belonged to the Princes. It was very interesting and well worth the back track.
With only a couple of days left here we finally made it to the Tourist Information office where the very helpful gentleman asked if we'd like to meet his friend. Before we realized where we were we were being filmed and interviewed for a TV segment which went out that evening! With no time to prepare I cringed when -with cameras running -they opened the back of the car to reveal where my undies - which I had hand washed- were spread about to dry!! So I may well be the only Aussie (or Brit) to have shown my knickers on Indian TV!! We were local stars for a day as people kept on running up and showing us the paper - which was written in Malayalam the local language so we don't know what it said! Apparently we were dubbed on TV which would have been hysterical to see but sadly we missed it. Our 15 minutes of fame continues!!
As at Sunday 3 May we are enjoying a final last day of relaxing on the beach before setting off to travel further up the coast to Thiruvananthapuram - aka Trivandrum - the capital city of Kerala. We'll miss this place (& Hari's cooking!) but as ever we have to keep moving!!