The Good Life In Kerala, South India
“Jose and I are at the beach in Kovalam, Kerala, in south India,” writes Roving Correspondent Paul Terhorst, still on the trail of The Other India.
“We’re just 90 kilometers above India’s southern tip, where the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal meet to form the Indian Ocean. Our 30-hour train trip down here from Mumbai was delightful, except that we found out we had seats only once we got to the train station, an hour before departure.
“I found this way of scheduling somewhat nerve-wracking, especially since I’d bought the tickets online, two months earlier. In the end, though, we wound up with a fine compartment all to ourselves. Through the windows, we saw jungle and water, rice paddies and villages. The friendly tea wallah came by every so often.
“For dinner and lunch the next day, we had fried chicken and rice with lentils. For breakfast, there were omelet sandwiches and some Indian stuff I don’t know the name of.
“This was overland travel at its best, on a colonial-era train but retrofitted with air con, berths with pillows, sheets, and blankets, even a reading light and plug-in for my laptop.
“Our first stop in south India was Trivandrum, Kerala’s capital, a city of a million people. We went to temples, museums, a palace, even the zoo to see Indian animals, the kind that figure so prominently in Indian religion and culture. At a Trivandrum temple, I saw what has to be my favorite temple ceremony: throwing coconuts at a wall. Think Sandy Koufax but with grim determination, almost anger. In every case, the coconut crashed hard, chips flying. Apparently–I’m guessing here–if you fail to crack the coconut, your wish for a baby, or perhaps not to have any more babies, turns out bad.
“Two bare-chested men in diapers (the men here wear diapers instead of the skirts they wear up north) gathered up the coconut pieces in enormous gunny sacks, presumably to sell later. I especially enjoyed watching the young girls wind up and furiously hurl their coconuts against the wall, all with exquisite concentration.
“In my last e-mail, I explained that I came to India not as a tourist but to look around for a place to live. Trivandrum might work. Although the population is listed at around a million people, the heart of town is up and down a main street only 4 kilometers long, very compact. Rickshaws and buses schlep you from one end to the other, so it’s easy to get around without a car.
“On the main street, there are restaurants, shops, pharmacies, markets, temples, and food stalls. There’s a European-style coffee house, a British library, internet access, and malls. There’s an IT center nearby with some 65 companies and 25,000 workers.
“I could imagine Vicki and me living here, with good food, tropical climate, and beaches nearby. Still, I dreaded walking in Trivandrum, with traffic dangers, noise, heat, and tens of thousands of locals clogging the sidewalks, people with nothing to do, no place to go.
“So, instead of staying in the big city, we went to the beach, and here we are. In a word: spectacular. Jose and I have a US$9-a-night room with a balcony overlooking the water–a sensational view. No roads come down to this three-block-long beach; that means no noise from motorcycles or cars. Between our hotel and the water, we see only a boardwalk and sand. There are sea breezes, red sunsets, eagles gliding over the bay, waves crashing practically at our door. There are fishing boats and, yesterday, a huge container ship out beyond the surf.
“Indian men and women, boys and girls run into the water with all their clothes on, jumping in the surf and squealing with delight. The sand in the water stays flat and hard, without coral, seaweed, rocks, or shells.
“For meals there’s red snapper cooked in coconut milk, cold Kingfisher beer, and Keralan spicy food. Our first morning here, I needed a morning coffee. Nothing was open at 7 a.m. or so, and I was running out of hope, when I found a vendor on the beach. I went back a couple of hours later, and had a second cup.
“Her sign says ‘teashop,’ but, when I asked for coffee, she served it up with all the pomp and efficiency you’d expect just from looking at her.
“Later in the day, she took down her ‘teashop’ sign and sold coconut water. Jose asked for one, so she whacked open a small coconut, stuck in a straw, and handed it to him.
“Live without a car, right on the water. The best seafood at Third World prices. The big city, Trivandrum, only 13 kilometers away. The good life.
“One drawback: Hotel prices go up during peak season, December through January. I figure Vicki and I would stay here only part of the year, heading out to Sri Lanka or Oman during the two-month high season.”