Kovalam Beach, Vizhnjam Fishing Village, Ayurvedic Treatments and Lighthouse Beach in Kerala, India
From Aurangabad, where we visited the amazing, World Heritage Ajanta and Ellora caves, we flew south to Kovalam Beach, in India's southernmost state of Kerala.
We are almost at the southernmost tip of India, just north of the island of Sri Lanka.
The airport is not actually in Kovalam, but in a town with a very long name, called Thiruvananthapuram.
No matter how many times I've tried to memorize this name, I am still unable to pronounce it correctly.
Kovalam beach is not a large beach.
It is shaped like a crescent, and is dotted with wooden fishing boats, pulled up on the sand for safety.
It has soft sand and a big mosque right on the beach, which is surrounded by hundreds of coconut trees.
Around the mosque there are a handful of small shops selling beachwear, cold drinks, and fresh coconut water.
The beach is very picturesque at sunset, when dozens of fishermen pull in a large fishing net by hand from the shore.
From a distance, it looks like they are playing a game of "tug o' war."
The nets bring to the shore many very large orange colored jelly fish, who swim in a circular motion, twirling their tentacles and making their way back into the sea.
They seemed to sting the legs of some the fishermen, who hopped up and down, then rubbed sand on the affected area and laughed.
The fishermen wear the traditional sarong called a Lungi or Dhoti, and some wear the traditional head covering as well.
The men fold their Lungi over and tuck it in, which creates a kind of shorts, looking a little like a mini skirt.
Almost all the men in this area wear a Lungi, while the women wear Saris or similar sarongs.
Beyond the crescent beach of Kovalam to the south, lay Hawa beach and the crescent shaped Lighthouse beach, which are where most of the beach restaurants and clothing shops are located.
Our hotel, the Leela Resort Kovalam, spreading out over sixty-two acres in Kovalam beach, was built in a modernist style.
The main hotel looks like a partially sunken pyramid where all the rooms have a sea view, overlooking the Arabian Sea.
The garden view rooms are across a road from the sea view rooms, and are much less expensive, since they lack that glorious view of the Arabian.
To get from one part of the hotel to the other, guests are offered golf cart rides.
We booked a Club room, which is located in an entirely separate section of the hotel.
The Club rooms have their own cafe, private pool and Spa and a lobby, separated from the main hotel.
We came to Kovalam looking for some natural beauty and a relaxing beach vacation.
It feels like we have entered another phase of our trip, where suddenly everything is beautiful, coconut trees sway in the wind, and the waves of the Arabian Sea crash on the rocks below us, lulling us to sleep....
Early morning, right below our room and perilously close to the rocky shore, you can see fishermen rowing narrow wooden fishing canoes, diving for oysters and shell fish.
They wear gloves and snorkeling masks and they collect each oyster by hand, without nets.
The waves are strong, but these men know what they are doing.
They've been doing it since childhood.
They throw the shellfish they've collected into baskets in the middle of their narrow boats and dive in again and again, for hour after hour.
We feel delighted to be here.
We start our days with a great breakfast at the club restaurant, choosing to avoid the lavish but busy buffet in the main hotel.
The club restaurant offers a smaller buffet, and a chef that cooks anything you wish.
The cooked dishes mostly include egg dishes and Dosas.
After a leisurely breakfast, which always includes tropical fruit and fresh fruit juices, we go to the pool.
Laying in the shade of a private gazebo, we read our books, swam and made friends with two kids who started talking with us.
Ishu was four and his sister Serena was six.
Ishu wore his swimming goggles halfway down his nose and water accumulated inside, covering half of his eyes.
Ishu loved to talk, but at times he could barely keep his head above water, which made it hard to understand what it was he was trying to say.
He would say a few words of the sentence he had in mind, disappear under the water for a few seconds, then surface and continue talking, as if he hadn't been interrupted at all!
He was so very sweet.
Serena looked like an Indian princes, with her long curly black hair, her bikini, her flowery hat and her sweet British accent.
They told us that they lived in London and that they were visiting India.
"Today people were taking photos of me and Ishu as if we were famous, but we are not famous.
We live in a house, not a flat in London, and we have blackberry bushes which are quite prickly, but the berries are very yummy.
We came to Kovalam today, we took two planes and a taxi and we will stay here for nine days.
Our granny is our mummy's mother, but our other granny died.
We also have a big sister.
He name is Sasha and she is also not famous, but she is a very good tennis player.
Sasha is 17.
OK now, please tell me your names and exactly your birthdates,"
We told her our birth dates and she looked at us as if she were an astrologer, calculating the stars in order to figure out what kind of people we were.
Ishu told us that he is allergic to nuts, especially to cashews and pistachios.
Serena said that she is not allergic to anything but she does not eat beef.
She said that she THINKS she is a vegetarian, but that she does eat chicken and fish and sometimes bacon.
"Stay right here! I will be right back!," she commanded as she went to ask her dad if she had ever been to Greece when she was a baby.
They told us that they had also visited Canada recently.
While Jules and I showered, Ishu and Serena kept our shaded gazebo "tidy" by taking the perfectly nicely folded towels that we had left on our daybeds, and re-folding them the way four and six year young children are capable of folding.
They also told us that they kept everyone out of our gazebo while we were in the showers.
Ishu told me that he liked my orange colored sarong which I had gotten in Varanasi, and that it was his favorite color.
Their parents glanced over their books and mobile phones, wondering if their kids were bothering us, and what we were talking about for so long with their kids.
Walking over to neighboring Lighthouse beach to have lunch and possibly an Ayurveda massage treatment, we stopped to drink fresh coconut juice from fruit vendors along the road.
They also sold slices of green mango, pineapples, juicy papaya and pickles made from tree berries which were tart and not very tasty.
In Lighthouse beach, we had some great fresh seafood at one of the many beachfront restaurants.
We first asked to see the fish and the prawns, to examine their freshness.
After we made our choice and agreed on the price, we asked them to make the seafood the way we wanted it cooked.
You can choose to have your catch of the day grilled, fried, cooked in a Kerala spicy curry, or in an aromatic coconut sauce, or tied inside a banana leaf.
The crab in Coconut sauce and the grilled jumbo prawns, were our favorite dishes.
We also loved the coconut rice at the Coconut Grove Restaurant.
Some of the shops and restaurants have menus that are written entirely in Russian.
We were told that the majority of tourists coming to this area are from Europe, Scandinavia and Russia.
Most of the people we saw walking around were from England and Russia.
The waterfront was lined with shops selling souvenirs, beach clothing, jewelry and scarves.
Vendors walked around, offering handmade sandals, drums, sarongs, or cut fresh fruit.
The street vendors often stopped by our table in a restaurant, as we sat facing the sea, trying to sell us sarongs and wall coverings, drums, candle holders, dresses and sandals.
One street vendor selling sarongs asked me to name my best price for a white sarong that he unfolded in front of me.
I didn't really want the sarong, but I offered a hundred rupees.
The vendor then burst into song at my price, instead of acting insulted by my low offer.
"La, la la la la Shivanam prumthram....." he sang.
"You give me your best price really now."
"Ok, a hundred and twenty," I said.
"La, la la la la Shivanam prumthram La, la, la, la, la, O'Devi....." he sang a lengthy song this time.
"How much you pay in New Zealand for this sarong, you tell me?," he wanted to know.
As you can see, bargaining is an art form in Kovalam.
Another technique to reach a deal that we often heard would start with the seller quoting a really high price.
When we would shake our heads and tell them that their price was way, way too high, they would answer, "Ma'am, you don't understand. First I talk, then you talk. So you talk, tell me a good price, then I will talk, O.K.?"
One day we walked over from Kovalam beach to the fishing harbor in Vizhnjam, past Hawa Beach and Lighthouse Beach.
It was a hot walk, as the sea breeze subsided when we left the coastline and walked along the road.
In the distance, we could see the minarets of many Mosques, along with the crosses of many churches.
Some of those mosques were very large and so close to one another, that I wondered why they saw the need to build so many mosques so close together....
It was the same with the churches.
In a stretch of forty kilometers between Kovalam and Poovar Beach, there are fifteen churches, eight Jama Masjid Mosques and numerous Hindu temples.
We were an oddity walking down the dirt road towards the fishing harbor.
No other tourists were in sight, as most sat on the beaches or in the numerous restaurants and cafes along the beaches, taking Rickshaws or taxis to get around.
At one point, kids who were playing in the back yard of a house, ran after us, demanding school pens and money.
They were not homeless or street kids, but they were pushy and aggressive, and their begging felt more like extortion, rather than a plea.
I do not like to reward extortion, so we continued to walk towards the harbor.
One kid picked up a stone to throw at us.
Luckily I turned around just in time to see what he was intending to do, and when he saw the look in my eyes, he dropped the stone and ran away.
Suddenly the walk to the fishing harbor did not feel like such a good idea...
The night before, as we made our way back to the hotel, a man called to me, offering Hashish, Opium or Heroin.
It made me shiver.
When we arrived at the large fishing village, we saw hundreds of fishing boats.
Fishermen were sleeping by their boats, resting on their nets or fixing their nets. Many groups of men wearing Lungis were sitting on the sand playing cards, chewing betel nut and spitting red saliva to the side.
An older man, who introduced himself as Mohandis, started walking with us.
He spoke English well enough, and I was happy to allow him to became our uninvited "guide."
Now that we had Mohandis to protect us, I felt safe from harassment and was able to enjoy the colorful scenery.
He did not ask for money and seemed to enjoy the prestige of being a guide to foreigners.
We did offer him a tip when we departed, because he was friendly and very helpful to our understanding of what was going on around us.
Hundreds of people were standing on the shore, and we could hear chanting music over the loudspeakers.
We went closer to examine what they were doing.
There were several circles of people, some standing two or three deep, on the sea shore.
There were clusters of freshly caught fish or huge Calamari laying on the sand in the center of each circle.
It was an auction of fresh seafood unloaded minutes before from the fishing boats that were docking at the shore.
The men who surrounded the Calamari on the sand were placing their bids.
The auction concluded when a man with a thick wad of cash paid 7400 rupees ($110) to buy twenty five very large Calamari.
He told me that he is a middleman, and that what he buys gets distributed and sold all over India and exported to other countries.
He also bought the next lot of huge Calamari that was spread out on the sand.
The fishing village of Vizhnjam is populated by people who are mostly Christians.
A huge concrete sculpture of Jesus with massive open arms towered over the village facing the sea.
It was still under construction, but under the tarpaulin covering, it looked similar to the Jesus statue overlooking the sea in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil.
We came upon the Portuguese church, just as a funeral ceremony was occurring.
An ambulance brought the open coffin, and dozens of people in Lungis and Saris crossed themselves as others unloaded the body of an older man dressed in white and cream colored headgear.
The church had no pews, just a large open space in front of the altar, and people removed their shoes at the door and sat on the floor, listening to the sermon and singing.
To the right of the church, the grave had already been dug in a small cemetery.
Some of the graves had black marble headstones, while others had crosses made from found metal pieces.
The chanting we heard was for the funeral, but it was mixed with songs coming from the nearby "Our Lady Of Good Voyage Church."
We walked through the fishing village to see the construction of its new harbor and to visit the "Our Lady Of Good Voyage" Church.
We passed by a woman sitting on the floor, cracking big betel nuts with a small machete knife.
Her teeth stuck almost straight out from her mouth, and were bright red.
The shops in town sold engine oil for the boats, fishing lines and ropes, hooks, tar, baskets and other items related to fishing.
The sunset over the Jama Masjid mosques in the distance, with their dramatic minarets highlighted against the early evening sky, was beautiful as the sun slowly turned into a large red ball.
The church on top of the hill was very large, with no visible support beams.
A large painting of God's hands emerging from the waves of the sea, held the promise of divine protection for the fishermen.
Women dressed in colorful Saris with their heads covered sat on the floor and prayed, while a priest performed the evening mass.
I have noticed that images of Jesus, who is called here "Issa," or His Mother Mary, were painted on the engines of some of the fishing boats.
In the evenings, back at Lighthouse Beach, relaxed Arabian Sea-front places were displaying their fresh seafood outside their restaurants, offering the catch of the day by weight, cooked "As You Like."
On another day, we decided to experience a few of the famous Ayurveda massages and treatments, which we had never tried before.
We chose a place that looked clean and asked about their treatments and prices.
The word Ayurveda is composed of two parts, Ayur - meaning LIFE and Veda - meaning Knowledge.
Thus Ayurveda means the wisdom or knowledge of life in the body.
I asked for their brochure and examined the treatments offered.
I did not want just a body massage, but to try treatments that I've never tried before.
After I had chosen three different treatments that I wanted to experience, the price negotiation process did not go so well.
I asked how much was the charge and was quoted some high prices.
I was ready to move on to check other places, when the proprietor, who was an older Indian woman wearing a lovely Sari, insisted:
"Where you go?
You sit! Sit!
You talk, I talk.
You talk, I talk
What you want?"
I had heard this term before, but it was the first time I understood, from the inside, how it worked.
"You talk, I talk," means "let's negotiate."
I talked, but she did not like my prices, saying that the herbal medicine costs her a lot and that she uses only the very best oils.
To show me that she was telling the truth, she brought over a large Coca Cola bottle filled with brown looking oil that looked like cheap engine oil.
I smelled it and it smelled lovely, like coconut oil mixed with spices.
In Kerala, people make their own Coconut oil, and it is not clear or white, like what we get in the West.
My massage therapist was a lady who looked like a no-nonsense Voodoo Creole woman.
She agreed to turn on the fan above the massage bed, but warned me that after the body massage, when I get the Elakkizhi and Sirodhara treatments, she intended to shut off the fan.
She asked me to strip naked and sit in front of her on a stool.
She splashed handfuls of warm oil on my skull and started pulling my hair so hard, that I instinctively yelped and tears came to my eyes.
She shushed me harshly as if I were a spoiled softy, and signaled to me to toughen up and shut up.
She placed a disposable paper on the massage bed, which looked like a regular massage bed, but had a wooden tray by the head, used for collecting the dripped oil runoff from what is poured on the forehead.
She had me lie down and then she gave me a Meridian rub, using lots of coconut oil mixed with spices.
The massage did not really include kneading of muscles and focusing on certain areas of the body like in a Swedish or sports massage, but it instead focused on long movements along the body's meridians.
Then, in a pot she had in the corner, she boiled some herbs with buttermilk and ghee, into which she dipped a muslin bag filled with herbs.
She proceeded to pounded the hot muslin sack on my body, also rubbing it all over my skin.
Unlike other massage therapists I have had before, she did not avoid the sensitive "private" areas of my body like my butt and breasts, but massaged them with the same vigor she used to do my elbows and knees.
This Elakkizhi treatment, which included the hot pounding of the muslin sack filled with a herbal mix dipped in ghee and buttermilk, made me feel as if I were Cleopatra, bathing in milk.
Then it was time for the Sirodhara hot oil dripping on my third eye and forehead.
She poured warm oil into a wooden device which rotated above my forehead in a soothing motion, dripping a cup after cup of oil into my hair.
Periodically, she squeezed my hair, and oil poured into a bucket below me.
I could not help myself wondering if they collected the oil dripping in buckets from my hair and used it on the next patient....or how many patients were dripped with the same oil I was being treated with now....
I hoped I was wrong, but the place did not look like it was beyond them to recycle old oil from patient to patient.
After both Jules and I were done, we were given pieces of cloth as towels, small green soaps and were shown to the nearby shower which doubled as a toilet.
It was at least clean and had lots of hot water and pressure.
I took a hot shower trying to get the buckets of oil off my body and hair, while the Voodoo lady stood next to me, squeezing tiny packets of shampoo into my hands.
Showering completely naked while she stood next to me, no longer felt strange.
Jules joined me in the shower and she reluctantly left the toilet room.
Our treatments which took an hour and a half, cost about forty dollars for the two of us.
We felt like this was an experience worth having, and a much more quirky and fun experience than a massage in our hotel's spa.
We put on our clothes and proceeded to the boardwalk to eat a very late lunch.
The food was wonderful and we followed it with an Italian lemon ice cream, and coffee in other cafes.
In order not to gain any more weight, we have decided to stop eating dinners, and to have our main meal of the day at lunchtime, while we are still active.
For dinners we shall have only a fruit juice or a piece of fruit.
This way we will only eat breakfasts and lunches.
Beach resorts and beach vacations are very similar in many tropical places.
The food is island food, which means that the catch of the day is often cooked using coconuts.
There is lots of tropical fruit, cheap massages, beachgoers reading books while grilling themselves in the sun to a bright crimson hue, and everywhere there is the vast, 180 degree stretch of the Arabian sea.
The beautiful mix of colorful Hindu temples, Christian churches and the minarets of mosques against the background of the beaches with tall coconut trees, is distinctly Indian and heart warming and beautiful.... perhaps it is a promise of a better tomorrow where all religions of the earth will live together in harmony and peace....
There is lots to do in the area, including visits to old temples, a boat cruise in the mangroves near Poovar, and talking photos of the picturesque old churches and mosques.
It is nice not to be too hot or guarded, but to just have slow easy days, wearing a bathing suit and beach dress or sarong, days where the most important decision is what we shall have for lunch, or how do we want our seafood cooked.
Somehow.... spending the whole day just reading a good book, feels like a superbly good idea.....