Sometimes in travel you strike lucky – even without real knowledge of a place. I flatter myself on having a good ‘nose’ for digging out places off the beaten track – and so I should have after all those years of remote, pre-internet travel. In the case of Kerala however, a region where I travelled often in the 1990s, I really didn’t expect, 20 years later, to come across a semi-deserted beach, a pleasant homestay (I won’t exaggerate its charms) and above all a charming little community characterised by coconut palms and fishing-nets.
The beach resort I knew well in its early days was Kovalam, now built up and mainly overrun by travellers intent on a cheap seaside holiday with curries and smoothies thrown in – oblivious to the ambient culture. Then came Varkala, less developed and a favourite with cool cucumbers into hip eateries, comfortable resorts with pools and fast-fix Ayurveda treatments. And of course the peaceful backwaters around Aleppey (today called Alapuzzha) are firmly etched on most tour-operators’ itineraries – with houseboat transport and/or attractive, upscale accommodation.
So, was there anything else within spitting distance of Kochi / Cochin, launch-pad of my trip (see my post on the Biennale)? I lusted after a few nights by the sea. Scrolling down a map my cursor ended up hovering over Mararikulam (aka Marari Beach), a small coastal place about 45km to the south. Perfect! It suited my lack of time, energy and budget as apart from a couple of upscale resorts (not my thing) there appeared to be dozens of homestays. Eventually I opted for one with two decent en-suite rooms plus outdoor space that suited my travel companion and myself. Being last minute, a lot of the nicer-looking places were booked. What seemed to be the only hitch was that it was a few kilometres south of the main Marari enclave – in fact it was the little known, little scripted Thumpoly Beach (above). Yes, I like anything obsolete!
The location turned out to be a boon. Two and a half enjoyable hours of tuk tuk from Kochi finally landed us at the gate on a quiet, residential street connecting the main road (useful bus-service ahoy!) with the beach, just a few minutes’ walk away.
Amid the lush vegetation was a handful of little grocery-shops cum tea-shops, perfect for a cup of chai and a chat, plus a Christian shrine (in an area where Hindus, Muslims and Christians live peacefully side by side). Also, oh joy, right on the sand was a simple open-air restaurant (Uncle Tom’s) that at night was festooned with twinkly lights. This turned out to be run by our homestay owners – so as VIPs we were of course served the fattest, freshest red snappers.
A moonlight investigation of a sign pointing down a side track brought us to another option, the more upscale French hotel, La Plage, where waiters welcomed us to their laid-back restaurant right beside the waves.
So with chai and dinners sorted, next came the swim. Oh woe, those waves could be crushing – an ongoing problem of the breezy Arabian Sea from Kovalam to Thumpoly. When the sea whipped up in late morning, I was churned as if in a washing-machine, without being tumble-dried. But I survived, and periods of relative calm invited swimming and floating. And, bliss, only one other foreign couple came to ‘our’ beach, bookended by breakwaters of rocks and where, amazingly, chairs and umbrellas were provided by the new restaurant.
Best of all were the fishermen, constantly coming and going. First thing in the morning, there they were untangling their nets to pick out the (rather small) catch. Later we watched them set off into the choppy waves on their precarious boards for another session – then, towards sunset, they would squat on the sand to watch the sun slowly sink into the horizon. Mindfulness on the beach.
For our last night we decided to move up the coast to the main hub of Mararikulam, fully expecting a far greater choice of food and a buzzier ambiance. Not so! The endless, boringly straight stretch of sand had one long row of sun-beds and umbrellas plus plenty of bodies, but only two unreliable eateries, clearly spoiled by the sheer numbers of tourists. We were told most people dined at their homestays but luckily we did find a wonderful place just back from the beach, Coffee Temple (below) run by a savvy Indian with a wife and home in Budapest – of course! The food was excellent but otherwise it was all change; here we were back in tourist-land, far from our friendly tea-shops and smiling Keralan neighbours.
Yet there were the fishermen again, picking through their nets with their families, this time under the stars. Although serendipity had worked and Thumpoly won out, the soul of Kerala was still there.
Finally, a few statistics for anyone interested. Kerala’s population now tops 33 million, a harmonious mix of roughly 50% Hindu, 25% Muslim and 20% Christian – plus a few others. The Marari area is visibly dominated by Christians (whose Keralan community goes back to the 1st century) whose massive, freshly painted, often kitsch churches at every corner. made useful landmarks cum bus-stops. And a major coup for Kerala’s long-running Communist administration is the 94% literacy rate, the highest in India – compare that to the northern state of Bihar where literacy is 63%.
Then there’s the ease of transport, as with the regular train service from Ernakulam (Cochin), you can rattle south through Marari and Varkala to Trivandrum, the Keralan capital and gateway to Kovalam beach, in 4 hours (beware though the frequent delays). Ticket prices are rock-bottom – it’s about £1.50 / $2 for the entire journey. Not high end but perfectly acceptable – and fresh air all the way! And there’ll always be a tuk tuk – wherever you happen to be…