Whilst we’ve been mainly travelling in Italy & Spain recently, our extremely intrepid friend, Pam, has been back to her spiritual home in Kerala and has shared her most recent travels with us. This is the first in a series of guest blog posts from Pam – enjoy!
If you love heat, fabulous views, friendly people, exotic food and surroundings which provide constant interest, there is no better place to holiday than Kerala, in southern India. When the tourist board describes it as ‘God’s own country’ they’re absolutely right, even though it can be a bit ragged round the edges. Kovalam, a town just south of Trivandrum airport provides a range of hotels, homestays and apartments from the utterly luxurious to the cheap but perfectly adequate and we rented a villa somewhere in between.
From our balcony we could idly watch the birds visiting the beach and palm grove. Kingfishers, wading birds, woodpeckers and ever-present crows; the latter always on the lookout for the main chance, often our breakfast. Occasionally, a Brahminy Kite, a common bird of prey, would home in on a coconut palm, grab one of the little stripey squirrels which raced up and down all day and carry it, plaintively squeaking, into the distance. One morning we even woke to find a monkey sitting on the balcony rail.
The beaches, surrounded by endless coconut palms, are shared by fishermen and sun-worshipping tourists by day but, in late afternoon and at holidays and weekends, groups of Indians flock to paddle in the warm water of the Arabian Sea. Schoolchildren in uniform push and splash each other. Women in brilliant saris unsuccessfully try to dodge the waves. Young men somersault in the deeper water and show off their athletic moves to giggling girls. Families usher along their children, the little girls dressed as if for a 1950s birthday party. All the while, a blue-uniformed lifeguard waves his arms and blows his whistle in an abortive attempt to keep people to the safe areas, between the red flags that he carefully positions each morning.
Lighthouse Beach, named after its red and white lighthouse, is lined with a higgledy piggledy row of shops and restaurants where, at night, the day’s catch of fish, prawns and lobsters stare up from trays of crushed ice. Keralan food is spicy but subtle and, apart from the luscious seafood, a vegetarian’s delight. Delhi belly? In six visits I’ve never been ill so that must say something for the hygiene.
If you want beer in any of the many unlicensed restaurants it’ll be served in coffee mugs from a bottle which comes wrapped in newspaper and is swiftly hidden under the table. The practice is so widespread that you wonder if the flurry of concern amongst waiters as the policemen patrol along the beachfront is just a ritual to amuse the tourists. Behind the beachfront, a maze of alleys house tailors who will run you up an outfit of your choice in hours, spice vendors, yoga classes and ayuverdic healers plus the usual run of clothing and jewellery stalls.
A small collection of ATMs, a supermarket, chemist and the ‘Foreigners Liquor Store’ at Kovalam Junction are a 30p rickshaw ride away from the seafront. The ‘tuk tuk’ is a wondrous mode of transport. Those of us whose spirit of adventure has been worn down by years of Health and Safety get a real thrill from weaving in and out of the traffic behind a driver whose supreme confidence seems to override all obvious danger. The main road is a minor maelstrom of overloaded motorbikes and hooting cars and buses, interspersed with meandering dogs who expertly navigate through the traffic, occasionally creating a small roundabout by slumping down for a sleep.
Beyond Kovalam, Kerala offers stunningly beautiful backwaters, wildlife sanctuaries, tea plantations, ayuvedic treatment centres, the fascinating and historic spice city of Kochi and empty white beaches in the north. Found by a 2005 survey to be the least corrupt state in the country, it has an elected communist government. Women’s rights are historically accepted and, wherever you go, morning and afternoon, children can be seen streaming along the roadsides looking neat scrubbed in their immaculate school uniforms and contributing to the state’s 96% literacy record. Reading the daily paper, ‘The Hindu’, I discovered that the government is constantly battling to protect the environment and encourage recycling and rubbish control. You can, therefore, enjoy a remarkably cheap holiday without feeling it is to the detriment of the local population. Go there and see for yourself.