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Photo of the Month - exploring the Story behind the Image...

Spiral stairs at the Vizhinjam Lighthouse

Spiral stairs at the Vizhinjam Lighthouse

Year: 2009, Month: October

India > Kerala > Kovalam

I like this photo a lot, as at first glance its quite hard to know if you are standing at the bottom of the lighthouse stairs looking up, or standing at the top of the lighthouse stairs looking down. It reminds me of that famous silhouette: are we looking at two black faces, or one white candlestick?

Last summer, after a lot of hard work and not a little nail biting, I was very pleased to sign a contract to supply images to the online travel image library of world-famous travel company 'Lonely Planet'. After the celebration came the realisation that I now had to sit down somewhere quiet and go through my current photo portfolio of images taken in Central Asia, China, Mongolia, and Russia to select ones suitable for such a prestigious library, and once selected, perform whatever adjustments were needed to turn then into the size and format that they require. This no small job, as any photographer knows. It takes a lot of time, and a lot of concentration. Where would I go to do this?

Being free of house-ownership, with my most immediate possessions packed in three rucksacks stored in a garage roof, the world is essentially my oyster, and the choice of destinations correspondingly wide. Somewhere warm, of course: I'd spent too many damp winters in the west of Ireland, huddled over an electric fire whilst trying to type. Somewhere friendly - that's essential too. Somewhere that has vegetarian food. Somewhere that is reasonably priced, and somewhere where I wouldn't be lonely. The answer to this question, a place that fitted all of these requirements was not hard to decide on: it had to be the south of India. Specifically, the seaside town of Kovalam, in the state of Kerala, not far from Cape Cormorin, or Kanyakumari as it is now called: the very southern tip of India.

I've been there before - a number of times before, in fact, so knew what to expect. India is no surprise to me - its actually my favourite country, and I would be tempted to settle there permanently if the visa regulations allowed such a thing, which they don't. Instead then, its a place to visit from time to time, a place to explore and a place to love, in the certain knowledge that you'll never see it all, and that you'll never really understand everything about it, no matter how hard you try, how many books about the country you read, and how many people you talk to. India has a lot of people, and most of them love to talk to foreign visitors, so this must give you some idea of what a tall task it is to understand India! Like a beautiful woman, its better sometimes not to try too hard, but rather just live with her as she is, accept the surprises little by little, try not to get exasperated at times, always keep smiling, and see just where life will take you both. Most of the time, it will be the most wonderful surprise.

So let me introduce you to Kovalam. Its a pleasant collection of hotels and restaurants that nestle around the horseshoe-shaped 'Lighthouse Beach'. There are coconut trees everywhere: they provide shade and a refreshing sight of green to balance the deep azure blue of the Arabian Sea. Small alleys and footpaths lead back from the beach past taro and rice paddies to the village of Kovalam itself, which perches higher up the hills and has a wonderful view over the ocean. Kovalam has been a destination for travellers for many years, but in that time it has changed greatly. It was first 'discovered' by the hippies in the 1960s, when it was little more than a collection of fisherman's huts on a wide expanse of sand. Later, a few guest houses were built, a few restaurants appeared in huts under the palm trees, and the backpackers started to arrive. Kovalam gained a reputation as a pleasant and peaceful place to chill out, quite different from the rave resorts of Goa further north. Little by little, the years went by, the backpackers grew up, and though with fond memories of their old favourites, wanted a different type of holiday with slightly more comforts than a 2 dollar a night hostel could provide. The local Indian entrepreneurs, every watchful for a new business opportunity, took the hint, and so arose Kovalam as it is today.

There are plenty of hotels available in Kovalam, in a range of prices to suit all budgets, but the business is very seasonal, with prices that rise and fall accordingly. I arrived very early in the season, with no need to book ahead, but with such a choice available, there is no point lugging luggage around whilst you look for the best deal. I had flown into Trivandrum (now known as Thiruvananthapuram) airport, so got a room in the city for a couple of nights, and after my jet lag had settled down a little, caught the local bus the 8 or so kilometres to Kovalam to check things out. There were plenty of rooms on offer, and after looking at a selection, I settled on a lovely double room with airy outlook, on suite bathroom, set amongst coconut palms and just 2 minutes walk from the beach. I negotiated a rate of Rs250 per day for a long stay. I probably should have got it a little cheaper, say Rs225, but I never was a strong bargainer! Anyway, the room, the rate, and the location suited me very well, and I was very happy during my sojourn there. It was an ideal place to stay for a while and work on my photographs. A typical day went like this:

  • 0800: Walk to the Swiss Cafe for breakfast of fresh coffee and fresh fruit muesli
  • 0845: Back to my room to start work on my photos
  • 1030: The daily newspaper arrives - stop to read the International page and the cartoons
  • 1300: Go for lunch of tasty South Indian 'Thali' - finish reading the newspaper
  • 1400: Wander along the beach, go for a swim, or buy some bananas
  • 1830: Go for dinner at one of the many restaurants in the area

The typical budget for my stay there averaged out to about Rs640 per day, or about 8 GBP. That includes the hotel room, 3 meals, newspaper delivered, snacks and soft drinks, plus occasional trips to Thiruvananthapuram to see my dentist, and other shopping. Does Kovalam sound good to you? Try it out - you'll probably enjoy it!!

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