Kovalam vs. Varkala

January 12, 2016

Let the battle of the beaches begin!  I’m sorry if all these photos of us sweating it up on a lovely South Indian beach bring envy to those of you slugging through a Northern Hemisphere winter.  We recognize how fortunate we are to be chasing an endless summer.  Our first stop for some restorative Arabian sea breezes brought us to Kovalam, south of Trivandrum.  Our bodies were still adjusting to the humidity after a month of dry desert weather in Rajasthan, and getting used to frequent applications of both sunscreen and mosquito repellant.  Unfortunately for Dan, what he may have assumed to be a mere physical reaction to the extreme heat, ended up being far worse.

Our first day found us settling into our charming guesthouse, set off behind a row of sea-facing accommodations, in a quieter, but also buggier part of Kovalam.  We made a quick trip to the beach to study its’ position, a curved shore flanked by lighthouses, backed by restaurants, shops and hotels, and filled with coconut and sari vendors, fisherman and their weather-beaten wooden boats stuffed with billowing nets,  and a variety of both Indian and Western tourists in all shapes, sizes, and ages.  It seemed relatively clean, which was a concern of mine, except for a run-off river that streamed into the ocean on one side of the beach.  This same small river, ran by our guesthouse in an open channel.  It was murky, with a slight stink, which all made sense when I watched a local shopkeeper dump his rubbish bin directly into it.  Oh, India.

We made quick plans to meet up with an American family (Alex, Leslie, Vivian and Gloria) that we had originally met back in Jodhpur.  This was their last stop on about a 3 week trip to India.  For their final point of relaxation before returning to work and school, they were treating themselves to a lovely stay in the local luxurious Taj Resort.  They invited us to join them at their hotel the following morning, for swimming and lunch.  What a treat!  It was great to feel the peace of an upscale resort, that not even the shrieks of our giggling children could shatter.  We enjoyed a fancy lunch closer to the beach, laughing over our first beer tower – a mammoth vessel with spout that puts a pitcher to shame.  Before saying goodbye, we made plans for them to visit us the following day at our more plebeian beach and digs.  However, by that evening, Dan’s health had turned for the worse, with a high fever and diarrhea.  No amount of paracetamol would bring his 104 temperature down, as he drifted in and out of sleep.  By the morning we had determined that a doctor’s visit was necessary.  Thankfully, our new friends stepped in and offered to take care of Stella and Gabriel, while we headed to the hospital.  Here, we were first directed to an office specifically for foreign visitors, where we were scheduled for an immediate doctor’s visit, then sent to a different part of the hospital to meet with said doctor.  She only touched Dan to take his blood pressure, but never took his temperature, then prescribed a series of medications after listening to his ailments.  Final stop was the pharmacy to load up on prescriptions.  The doctor’s appointment cost $2, and the antibiotics tallied to about $10! Back to bed Dan headed, while I returned to the Taj Resort to join the kids, and soak up the sun and luxury comforts, so generously shared by Alex and Leslie.

*This brings up another story about our iPhone dilemma – We had almost given up on ever getting our drowned iPhone replaced until we were back in the States, because a new one costs almost $900 in India, and our Applecare insurance would only replace the phone in the US.  We could not post the phone home from India without a receipt of purchase, and then we would have fears about a replacement being safely returned to us and all the subsequent tariffs that we would have to pay.  We realized that with Leslie and Alex returning to California within days, that we had an opportunity to send our phone back with them.  Thankfully, they trusted that we were not using them as mules for some nefarious activity, and brought it back to the US, where they Fedexed it to Dan’s parents in Florida, who graciously handled getting a replacement from Apple for us.  The tricky part was then how to get the phone back to us in India. Our friend Gavin was going to be flying from Somalia, Africa to join us in India for the winter holidays.  He had a coworker who was going to be in New York just before his trip, so we arranged for Dan’s parents, Tom and Gayle, to whisk off a delivery of our precious cargo to a New York hotel.  There, Mark, a stranger to us, collected our phone and brought it back to Nairobi.  Gavin had less than a day in the Kenyan offices to pick up our phone, and brought one of our best Christmas gifts to Shillong, India! Yay!!!!! We send sincere thanks to all the bodies involved in our phones around the world trip (India – Hong Kong – San Francisco – Florida – New York – Kenya – Shillong).

Back to the beaches – So, we had to extend our time in Kovalam due to Dan’s sickness, in order to give him more time to rest before heading to another city.  However, this did entail finding a new accommodation, as the place that we had been staying at was no longer available.  The kids and I went tramping up and down the beach promenade, in quest of a new room for our family.  Over a dozen, very grotty establishments were visited before we found a “slightly” clean room, its’ only saving grace was an awesome, full frontal, view of the ocean from a glass wall and balcony.  You would think that I would enjoy being at a scenic beach, but Kovalam rubbed me the wrong way.  I was sick of the substandard tourist fare in the majority of the local restaurants, never felt that the beach or businesses were clean enough, and didn’t like the strange western vs. indian beach dynamic.  Basically, there was an odd mix of foreign travelers, including elderly Russian women frolicking with young Indian playboys, white people in risqué bathing suits vs. Indians swimming in jeans and full outfits (making me question our own appropriateness).  The header photo is an example of something we frequently saw – newlyweds wading out into the shallow sea in sweet embraces, with the man in his underwear, but his modest new wife fully dressed, wearing customary, multiple red and shiny bangles up her arms.  There was also an unequal treatment from the local establishments toward their customers.  Westerners were catered to, and implored to eat in each restaurant that they passed, while there was no urgency or race to attract an Indian clientele.  One evening, while Dan was recuperating in bed, and I was eating dinner with Stella and Gabriel, we watched an argument between some wait staff and two male Indian guests.  The men had been seated toward the back of our restaurant despite the fact that there were a few front sea-view tables available.  They were told that they were reserved, but kept watching white foreigners being sat at these tables, including two women, who had requested to be moved to one of these tables from their own back table.  The men asked again why they could also not be moved, as there was still space.  Although I did not understand what they were saying, it was obvious that they were arguing about the unfairness.  It seemed that the restaurant wanted to only have westerners in the front, to perhaps attract more customers?  None of it made sense to me, as I watched the Indian men rightfully storm off.

In comparison, our next beach stop, Varkala was far more relaxed and enjoyable.  Dan recovered within 24 hours, and we were able to head a little further north up the coast of Kerala. We happily extended our stay in Varkala by a couple of days, as we enjoyed both our secluded guesthouse, perched on a red-rock cliff above a white beach with only a small handful of fishermen and tourists, and our walking proximity to a more populated beach and restaurant area. Here, we indulged in western cuisine and discovered one of our favorite cafes, Coffee Temple, which had vegetarian burritos and enchiladas! This was more of a backpacker zone, teeming with young Europeans, Israelis and Australians, which made the bikini-clad feel safer in numbers from ogling eyes.  We were learning that there was an unspoken segregation on the beaches between Indians and foreigners.  People would advise you to cover up when passing the “Indian” Beach, which seemed dominated with honeymooners, groups of traveling young men, and the occasional family.  Here, there was a lifeguard presence with constant whistle warnings to not go into the water too deep, as we guessed the swimming skills were less(?).  The foreign beach had no such shepherding. On the one hand, I felt comfortable being surrounded by like travelers, but on another, I was uncomfortable with being separated from Indians in their own country.  I’m still not sure what to make of these beaches, but can say that we thoroughly enjoyed playing in the ocean, and getting our bare-feet in the sand.

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  • Reply Uncle David January 14, 2016 at 10:02 am

    It’s almost as if I’m next to you after viewing all of your photos. Thank you so much for sharing your journey with me. Love and miss you all.

  • Reply Portia January 17, 2016 at 9:44 am

    oh pooor Dan!!!! I loooove this part of India through your pictures…..the beach and the greenery is alluring….Love you guys!!

  • Reply Lisa January 18, 2016 at 11:16 am

    The other day I told Timmy, wait, these photos look different … did they get somehow get a new iPhone in India? Haha! I knew it! I loved that iPhone story. These beaches are gorgeous and you look serene and beautiful, friend. xoxo

  • Reply Mom and Dad February 24, 2016 at 7:36 pm

    Stella and Gabriel,
    Were you able to stow any of those lovely shells in your backpack?
    I’m glad that sick bit is behind you!
    You look so relaxed. It is an “endless summer”!

  • Reply Julie j March 8, 2016 at 6:41 am

    Yikes! You just can’t leave India without getting sick Glad dan is better & you got your new iPhone – what advanced logistical planning!

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