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

Indian boys playing into the surf

Indian boys playing into the surf

Year: 2009, Month: November

India > Kerala > Kovalam

As mentioned in the October 2009 page of this 'Photo of the Month' series, I have been staying for a few months in Kovalam, in the state of Kerala, in the very south of my favourite country, India. Its not my first visit to Kovalam - in fact I've been coming here from time to time ever since 1991. Things have changed a lot since those days - mostly to suit the kind of people who come here. Twenty years ago, beer was served in teapots, to hide the fact that an un-licensed restaurant served alcohol. There were no beach-loving package tourists at all in India. The idea of a package tourist coming to India at all was a none-starter. Even Goa hadn't opened up in those days, as the airport was mainly for domestic flights. There was no Konkan Railway - the more recently opened coastal railway line, so the rail journey from Mumbai, the nearest international airport, went inland via Pune, Miraj, and Londa Junction. It was quite a difficult journey, and involved at least one change of train, so for the first time visitor to India, catapulted from the comparative familiarity of his long-haul aeroplane to (a) the hustle and bustle of downtown Mumbai, and then (b) the compressed humanity of Indian Railways, this was rather more of a surprise than they wished for. Back in the 90's a package tourist from the UK was more used to the fish and chips shops of southern Spain or the unlimited red wine of coastal Greece. An overnight berth in Sleeper Class was not the way they expected to begin their 2 weeks in the sun.

Kovalam, then, was for the backpacker, and the facilities on Lighthouse Beach were just what the backpacker wanted. There were a selection of small hotels, generally very basic but clean, with shared squat toilet and a cold water shower. Some of them seemed as if the local family had just moved out and rented their own home to the foreigners. Sometimes your room had its share of other visitors - I remember once staying in a small hut with palm-thatched roof, and lying in bed watching the rats scurry along the roof beams and find their way in and out of the palm leaves. The restaurants that were there in those days were mainly shacks and tents on the beach itself. They had huge menus, but very few facilities in the kitchen, so food, once ordered, could take over an hour to arrive. The menu warned of this, though, and no one was in a hurry, so no one minded. You ordered a beer, chatted with the other travellers, and so the evening passed in a pleasant manner, whilst the guys in the kitchens performed with the most basic of equipment to provide a restaurant full of backpackers with tasty and exotic food. I remember once being with a group of people in a tent on the beach, and after an hour or so, needing to use the toilet. I asked the waiter and was pointed through a flap in the wall that led through the kitchen itself. In there, I passed by the cook, who was struggling to prepare some 15 different meals on 2 pump-up paraffin stoves. The food arrived eventually, was very tasty, and no one got sick.

To pass the time, some of the shacks on the beach showed western movies on pirated video cassettes. It was a great way of keeping your customers there for a couple of hours, eating more banana pancakes and drinking more Kingfisher - I'm not sure why this practise has faded away. Perhaps people prefer to watch movies in the tiled comfort of their own hotel rooms these days? I've noticed that most of today's package tourists don't linger in the beach-front restaurants as they used, but return to their own hotel rooms. Minibars, I guess, and duty free with brands you are familiar with: Indian gin always did take a lot of getting used to! One other huge change is the beach itself. Its a lot narrower than it used to be, as the hotels have been built closer and closer to the sea. They have had to add a paved walkway - this is very useful when the tide is in, but I suspect that it also makes sure that no one can build any closer to the beach. On the beach itself, there are a lot of sun beds and loungers, hired by the day for a reasonable sum. Don't people want to lie on the sand? The sellers of those thin bamboo beach mats don't make the sales that they used to, unless they call them 'Yoga Mats'.

One change apparent these days is due to the authorities, not the visitors: topless sunbathing is no longer allowed. Kovalam used to be well known for its topless sunbathing, and buses full of eager young Indian men used to appear every weekend to appear at the great expanses of Western female flesh. Of course such things are hugely alien to the Indian norms, and then as now were incredibly shocking to the average Indian citizen. When an Indian lady wishes to bath in the sea, she goes in wearing all of her normal clothes, never a bikini, or less. Nowadays the young Indian males don't visit in the numbers that they used to, though there are still quite a few who come to look at the bikinis, or just to enjoy themselves in the ocean. That's what this 'Photo of the Month' shows: a group of young Indian men having fun whilst playing in the surf.

What's become of the Western backpacker? They have mainly gone to other beaches, such as Varkala, Anjuna, or Gokarna. A few do turn up from time to time, but not in the numbers of previous years. They have been replaced by 2 groups: the 2 week package tourist, and the longer-term resident. The package tourist needs air conditioning and all the facilities, so the hotels in Kovalam have sprung up to respond. Paying amounts that the backpacker can only dream about, the hotels are swish and modern, offering massage and meditation and western beer. The better class of restaurants, likewise, are changing to meet the need. Gone are the banana pancakes, in are the steamed vegetables and pepper steaks.

But the older restaurants are still there, a little back from the beach. Some cater for the second group of today's visitors: the long term residents. These are people who come to Kovalam for the whole winter, frequently to the extent of their six-month tourist visas. They are often elderly, or at least retired, and they appreciate the quiet and friendliness that Kovalam exemplifies. You see them in the afternoons, drinking tea at their favourite cafes, with the same small groups of friends, usually in a similar position to themselves. Is Kovalam now like Bournemouth? Are there English OAPs in India? This is a new thing, but not as silly as it sounds. For the average old-aged pensioner in England, the winter is not a time to welcome. High heating bills, slippy pavements, cars that won't start: why put up with all that when, for a fraction of the cost, you can have a lovely time in a warm and friendly place, and still draw your weekly state pension from the cash-machine on the hill?

Is Kovalam still worth bothering with if you are a backpacker? Most definitely yes, as long as you want a quieter style of beach, somewhere to chill out for a while, enjoy the surfing, learn Yoga or meditation, or just enjoy the amazing warmth of the ocean. The cheap accommodation is still there if you look for it, there's plenty of internet cafes, and you can still get a full Thali meal, with top-ups, for a meagre 15Rs. And yes, in some places, they do still serve beer in teapots!

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