Just half an hour by bus from Thiruvananthapuram, Kovalam has that appeal of an isolated holiday destination and yet it is so accessible. I am told that it once used to be a low key beach destination. Today it is well-known among foreign tourist circuits. Prices are inflated. There is not a single place for lunch for budget travellers of my type. Loads of shops stand around to entice tourists with Kashmiri shawls, Keralan woodcrafts and flashy postcards. I am bored.
The famous beach is surprisingly small, I must say tiny. I wonder why it has been so popular with tourists. There is hardly anything to do here other than tan under a hot sun or watch the waves come and go. I guess that’s what tourists like to do. My style of relaxation is quite different. Having come here, I sit on a rock and watch the waves for many minutes. Some local boys are skipping school on this Monday morning. They are sitting under the shade of coconut palms talking away the idle hours. The waves keep busy as ever. For them, not a moment is to be lost. Every rock has to be pounded and caressed. Every grain of sand has to whittled away to finer specks. With each wave, the Arabian Sea is trying to absorb everything into its essential element. It is trying to find the last common thing that exists in everything.
There is a luxury resort at the near end of the beach. Noiseless electric buggies ferry tourists from the resort to beaches nearby. It is a fine day. Foreign tourists are making the best of the sun and the warm waters. But like I said, the beach is just too narrow for anything else.
For many minutes I stand watching fishermen busy untangling their nets. It looks like a messy business but these fellows are experienced. They know the knots inside out. They know which ones are genuine and which ones are in the way. It takes them nearly an hour to sort out all the nets and neatly lay them into a single boat. Once that is done, they join shoulders to swivel the boat slowly from bow to stern till the waves are reached. One last push and the boat is on the waters. A few of them quickly board it. It takes them many minutes of hard rowing against the incoming waves to head out into sea. They are going to try their luck this afternoon. It is not clear how many hours they will be at sea. What is clear is that Kovalam Beach, a holiday destination for many, is the daily office for these Keralan fishermen.
I leave this beach to head to the next beach beyond the rocky promontory on which the resort sits. This is Hawah Beach with wider sands. There are many Indian tourists on this beach which sees more action at this time of the afternoon. For me, it is quite unpleasant walking under the hot sun but for some reason people seem to enjoy it.
Beyond Hawah Beach is Lighthouse Beach. Just as the name suggests, there stands a lighthouse at the far end. Lots of shops, restaurants and hotels line the beachfront. This beach is clearly more commercialized that the other two. A take a nap for a few minutes.
‘Need to cut coconut,’ a man wakes me up. I get up and walk to a safer spot. I watch two Keralan men with their bare sunburnt bodies make a contraption with just coconut leaves. They use this to clamber up the trees. One of them clears dried up fronds. Another brings down a couple of tender coconuts. A foreigner looks on with great interest. The coconut gatherers offer him a fresh coconut for free. He relishes the experience and thanks them for the gesture with crisp Indian rupees.
Women are selling pineapples along the beachfront. They offer to make fresh pineapple juice. They carry with them bottles of mineral water for those too cautious to try local tap water. A foreigner sits down with a couple of them to try out some slices of pineapple. I think this is a nice scene to snap and pull out my camera.
‘What are you doing?’ shouts the vendor, gesturing at me with her sharp knife. She has things on her mind other than chopping local pineapples.
I am surrounded by couple of local men. They demand to know why I have taken these pictures. Apparently, taking pictures at beaches is a taboo. More specifically, Indian men taking pictures of foreign women raises suspicions. There are certain things you learn only by direct experience. What’s travel without such experiences? I love it.