The world is getting smaller. Faster planes, cheap charter flights and boredom with the traditional holiday destinations are drawing increasing numbers to long haul destinations. Kerala, on India's southernmost tip is the latest spot to open up to mass tourism and judging by the number of repeat bookings for next year, its future as a winter sun holiday hot spot is assured.
Kerala, while retaining the unique charm of India, differs from the rest of the sub-continent in a number of ways. Its population of 26 million has the highest literacy rate in India, the landscape is lush and fertile, supporting coconut, mango, papaya and all manner of exotic fruit. Its history is different too having been colonized by Chinese traders, Portuguese settlers and finally the British, resulting in a cultural amalgam unique in India.
This is primarily a winter sun destination. The season runs from October to April when conditions are very hot and dry, with daytime temperatures peaking around 32 degrees followed by balmy nights when it rarely drops below 20 degrees. The sea is equally warm and away from the large cities is free of pollution. On a recent trip to Kerala, two main reasons to visit were offered. Firstly to enjoy a relaxing beach holiday and more interestingly to savor the experience of South India. The state capital, Trivandrum, is the arrival point for most visitors to the region who, tired and jet-lagged are duly whisked away to Kovalam Beach, a medium sized fishing village and developing tourist resort. Twenty years ago, the only white skin to be seen in Kovalam belonged to European hippies, attracted by both the relaxed way of life and the lush terrain, which coincidentally provided ideal conditions for the cultivation of cannabis arabica, the marijuana plant. Chilling out in an hazy atmosphere of sun, sea and spirituality proved irresistible for these sixties travellers, but today the hippies have moved on, to be replaced by more mainstream visitors. Some remnants remain, like the young American man sitting on a wall who managed to whisper his name - Dermot - before his eyes slowly slid away to a higher plane.
Kovalam Beach is relatively small, yet quite charming. It is at its best at dawn when the last rays from one of India's largest lighthouses illuminate individual tourists limbering up with early morning yoga sessions, while local fishermen sing as they haul in last night's catch. This is a place for doing your own thing - a hassle free stroll, practicing tai chi - a martial art with the appearance of slow motion karate - or sipping spicy marsala tea, a hot drink which has the surprising effect of cooling you down. The soft, sandy beach does have some litter, though not enough to call it a problem - yet. Local fishermen supplement their income by offering boat trips to tourists on canoes constructed before your eyes from four poles lashed together with string at either end. What they lack in technology they make up for in expertise, as the two oarsmen dodge surfers riding huge breakers and perilous rocks to reward their passenger with some excellent snorkeling. Masks and flippers are provided to view the multicolored tropical fish darting amongst the rocks and the whole experience costs less than three pounds. Despite having recently elected a communist government, attitudes in Kerala remain traditionally conservative. Topless sunbathing causes deep offense although a few European women continue to seek that all over tan. In many cases this results in unwarranted attention from local men who stand and stare at the offending woman. Public nudity is also against the law and offenders risk police attention. Ruth Touhy from New Orleans has strong feelings on the subject. "When you think about it, it really is not something that the Indian women do, so why come and insult the local people. They are happy if you are in a one piece swimsuit or in a bikini, so there is no need to be topless"
But most people who go to Kerala make an effort to avoid causing offense and instead to capture something of the culture, scenery, nature and variety of the region. The sights and smells flash before you like photographs: an elephant crossing a busy road, motorized rickshaw drivers weaving around thirty year old Ambassador taxis, the aroma of fresh ginger at a spice market, children trading smiles for a school pen, machete wielding sari clad women chopping ripe coconuts, the roar of breaking waves over a blood red sunset and people, people everywhere. These are the everyday images of Kerala. But in my view, its greatest attraction are the houseboats which ply their way along the lakes and rivers, known as the Backwaters. Each boat accommodates two couples and a four man crew, including an expert chef. The idea was pioneered by Tour India, a visionary local tour operator who was seeking to develop a form of tourism that would offer employment to the local economy. Craftsmen are hired to convert existing cargo boats into houseboats, the crews earn a good living, while each boat makes daily stops at villages to buy fresh food and supplies. The end result is a supremely relaxing break in considerable comfort, safe in the knowledge that both visitor and local alike are benefiting from the excursion. Tour India's next venture is to construct tree houses in coconut groves overlooking the lakes. Visitors are drawn into the treetops by a pulley system to share time with exotic birds, monkeys, wild boar and the occasional big cat. Expect to pay around $120 per night for full board in a treehouse with bedroom, living area and full bathroom facilities.
Another way to immerse yourself into the culture of India is to take a train journey. I travelled from Trivandrum north to Cochin, a six hour journey, which meandered through Kerala at a snail's pace. Most of the locomotives are diesel, though steam buffs will be satisfied at the number of steam locomotives still in service. Inside, a three class system operates. Six pounds buys a first class seat in a pleasantly cool air conditioned carriage; second class at one pound is stiflingly hot but great fun. Third class is unspeakable. The journey is broken by stewards who sell curried fried fruit, breads and fish, all served on fresh banana leaves. The journey takes us gently through coconut groves with sacred cows grazing in clearings and small groups of fanatic cricketers doing battle in the humidity with alarming competence. A legacy of the British colonial rulers, India's rail network is vast, though timetables are for guidance only. Wherever your destination, you will get there - eventually. The experience of Pamela Mulcair from Ireland, a seasoned traveller holidaying with her daughter is that India is a country where Western standards simply do not apply. "I think you have to adapt to Indian ways when you are in their country and if you are not prepared to do that then you are not going to be very happy here. You either decide to go with the Indian flow or you do not enjoy it at all."
While Kerala is one of India's richest and most educated states, by our standards, its people remain very poor. It is impossible to ignore the poverty and many visitors make a point of emptying their suitcases at the end of the holiday to give away certain items. As it is illegal to bring rupees out of India, spare change is always appreciated. Medicines from first aid kits are gathered up as are unwanted clothes. Any tour rep or hotelier will happily distribute these items. Children are most in need of pens, jotters and calculators without which many cannot develop their secondary education. To use a couple of well worn phrases, it is no skin off our noses and a little goes a long way.
(c) Copyright 1999 - All rights reserved David Malone