Installment #14 - December 13, 2000

Kovalam and Kanyakumari

Kovalam could be any tropical beach resort anywhere in the world. It is in Kerala in south India, but most of the visual and olfactory clues are subdued. You get what Lonely Planet describes as "... a sanitised Indian ‘experience’". The majority of the visitors are non-Indian; I saw more non-Indians there in three days than I had previously seen since arriving in India. Our visit was a vacation within a vacation; a relaxing change of pace.

We left Quilon for Trivandrum (the official name is now Thiruvananthapuram, but let's just call it Trivandrum [for short?]) on Tuesday morning by train. We are able to simply get aboard the train of our choice without a reservation, show our Indrail passes, and go; a great convenience. Of course, with no reservation, we take a chance that the air conditioned coaches may be full, and we may end up on a wooden seat in a non-AC car, but that has not happened yet.

Anyway, we were met at the Trivandrum train station by Vijaya, a long-time friend of Rita’s originally from Trivandrum, but now living in California. Hers was the second familiar face for me since arriving in India (the first was Big Uncle). We visited and lunched at the home of Vijaya’s sister and brother-in-law, and then left by taxi for Kovalam and established ourselves above Lighthouse Beach in the Seaweed Hotel, where we spent the next three nights.

Kovalam Beach consists primarily of two adjacent beach coves: Hawah Beach and Lighthouse Beach. Hawah is to the north of Lighthouse and is quieter. Most restaurants, shops, and hotels have frontage on, or are just inland from, Lighthouse Beach. The fishing boats are clustered near the rocky headland between the two beaches.

We had fun walking along the beach with the waves washing over our feet, watching the fishermen and the other tourists. Rita found a tailor to make her shorts and a top that she used as a bathing suit. We rented a beach umbrella and two chairs and spent one afternoon sitting on the beach reading. The vendors soon learned that Rita could speak Malayalam, the language of Kerala, and she spent some time listening to stories of life on the beach from the perspective of a fruit lady. She was told that this was a slow time for tourists, and vendors were having a hard time making enough sales (every vendor on the beach must have stopped by our umbrella at least five times in the course of the afternoon). Word seemed to travel fast, and during the rest of our time in Kovalam, workers we had not previously met would address Rita in Malayalam (and all other tourists, including me, in English). Even under the umbrella, my arms, legs, and feet turned red in the sun, and I had to spend the hot part of the days moving from shade to shade, or reading in our room at the Seaweed.

Each morning, I got up early and walked along the roads, paths, and beaches watching the morning activity. One morning after breakfast, I watched a group of 35 or so fishermen haul a net across Lighthouse Cove and onto the beach. They divided into two teams, one team pulling on each side of the net. As the net approached the beach, a third team formed in the water to herd the fish into the fine mesh in the center of the net. Once on the beach, the catch was rounded up and sold, the net cleaned and folded, and the fishing gear put back in the boat for the next attempt.

Each night, the horizon beyond the beach was lit with the lights of the many fishing boats working offshore, and by the rotating beacon of the lighthouse. We walked along the beach comparing the displays of fish located in front of many of the restaurants, and deciding where to have supper.

On Friday morning, we took a taxi back to Trivandrum, where Rita did some shopping while I ate ice cream. Then we caught the train for Kanyakumari, the southernmost point of the Indian subcontinent.

After finding a Kanyakumari hotel, we took the ferry to the Vivekananda Memorial on an island that includes the southernmost piece of land in India. From this spot and a few on the mainland, it is possible to see both the sunrise and the sunset, but the ferry one must take to get to the island does not start running until after sunrise, and stops before sunset. We settled for an afternoon trip to the island, and then a visit to the Kumari Amman Temple, where pilgrims bathed from the ghat behind the temple.

We watched the sunset from a point near the shore, and then checked out several small stores and happened across an elephant whose handler was employing him in begging along the street. We stopped at a roadside restaurant for supper and ate off of coconut leaves, the traditional south Indian way. Our total bill for the meal was 60 rupees, a real bargain.

We discovered that the only suitable daily train to get us back to Quilon left at 6:40AM and, not wanting to spend a second day, we found ourselves back at the train station before sunrise Saturday morning. We watched the sunrise from the train station, and then boarded the train for Quilon. I spent the first two hours of the trip standing in the open door of the train car, watching the scenery, the towns, and the people as we passed. By 11AM we were back in Quilon.

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Rita poses with her friend Vijaya
at Vijaya’s childhood home.
Lighthouse Beach at Kovalam.
The raft/boat in the foreground is used
by shellfishermen, usually without the
motor; this is the only motor I saw.
We stayed at Hotel Seaweed
and escaped the madness.
Most of the tourists we saw at Kovalam
were non-Indians. Many were English
on packaged tours.
The restaurant where we had breakfast,
like many of the beachside restaurants,
had rooftop seating with a view of the water.
These two pictures show a fishing boat
being moved from the beach to the water
by lifting one end and swinging it in a
...The boat is made of pieces of wood
sewn together with string, and is loaded
with a giant fish net.
After the net has been set by a boat like
the one above, lines are led back to the
beach and the net is pulled in by hand.
These guys are trying to keep the fish
near the center portion of the net
(which is made of a fine mesh)
by splashing and shouting.
This view shows both teamsthe net
pullers and the fish herders
as the
net approaches the shore.
This woman (and a flock of crows) are
collecting the tiny fish that have passed
through the fine mesh of the net after
it was brought on shore.
Here, the catch is being collected into
a pot and sold. For the length of time
and number of fishermen involved,
the catch seemed pretty meager.
I’m told that this is a boxfish. It was
thrown out of the net along with the
jellyfish beside it, so I assume that it
is inedible. The boxfish in this picture
is about eight inches long.
Sunset at Lighthouse Beach as seen from
our balcony at the Seaweed Hotel.
Most of the beachside restaurants feature
a display of fish out front, and a guy or two
to explain them and urge you to have supper
there. You get to pick your fish, and specify
how it is to be prepared; tandori, tikka,
or lemon grilled (for me).
A scene somewhere between
Kovalam and Kanyakumari.
These islands off the southern tip of
Kanyakumari are the southern-most
part of India.
Here we are on the grounds of the
Vivekananda Memorial, at the southern-most
point of our India trip. You can’t get much
further south than we are in this picture,
and still be in India.
Sunset in Kanyakumari. Everyone
turned out to watch it.
This elephant was begging along the street.
It was only the second elephant I have seen
since we arrived in India (the first was in
Udaipur, but we did not have the
opportunity to take a picture).
Rita expected that finding non-spicy food
would be a chore in Kanyakumari, so we
stopped at this food stand where I had puri
and an omelet served on a banana leaf.
The metal cups contains local water which
we did not drink; we used it to weigh down our
banana leaves against the strong sea breeze.

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