Thursday 25 January 2007

Verkala - the beach break

Last hours in Trivandrum

A couple of annoying failed tasks before leaving.
I have filled my camera cards and have been trying without success for several days to find a shop which can burn a DVD rather than have to carry half a dozen CDs around with me. Then I met this rather bizarre Canadian, who came to Kerala to have 18 tooth implants (!) and is sitting in the YMCA twiddling his thumbs while he awaits the all-clear from the dentist. (He said that he was totally confident; the dentist had shown him papers proving that the implant materials came from Switzerland and the bone graft from California.) He had a brand new laptop and we spent an hour failing to burn a DVD. I wonder if his American PC didnt like my European zone DVD.

Then for the umpteenth time I tried to recharge my Indian phonecard. It turns out that the card I bought in Chennai cannot be topped up in Kerala. So once again I have had to buy a simcard, with a new number.

Travel companions
Then I had to dash to catch my train to Verkala. I had chosen this relatively small place (40,000) for my beach stay, rather than the better known Kovalam, as the guidebooks said the later was becoming very developed, with more and more package tours.

On the train I sat next to a really nice family from Hyderabad: grandparents, their daughter and two adult grandchildren. The grandfather had in public health, the grandson was a mechanical engineering student and the daughter was studying genetics.

As you gather, the family spoke some English and were clearly keen to practise. Once again I probed for views on the role of English, and suggested it had a value as the lingua franca. No need, said the grandson, most people already speak some Hindu. What about the Tamils in Tamil Nadu, I asked. Ah well, he said they are the exception....

I asked if they had been visiting family in Trivandrum. Oh no, he replied, they were simply exploring other parts of India. Indians like to travel, he adde3d, and they particularly liked to travel in family groups. I've noticed that!

Suddenly the train slowed and the grandson said we were arriving in Vwerkala. Panic as I had thought we had ages still and my camera (we had been swapping camera shots), ipod (I had been showing pictures of my family and home), water bottle and guide book were spilled out on the table. The grandchildren rushed to help me pack and all the family except granny, who used a rudimentary sort of zimmer, came to the door to carry my bags and wave goodbye.

I was lucky to find a rickshaw as there is apparently a strike at present. As a result I arrived just before some Italian women and we all found our hotel full as people had not been able to leave. Somehow or other a room was found for me, and the Italians were lodged nearby.

It is actually a pretty nice room, opening onto a communal balcony looking out over the thatched roofs of the huts I had hoped to be in, through the palm trees to the sea. I'm on the clifftop area, but the cliffs are not all that high, so one still hears the sound of the surf. Great.

Verkala clifftop turns out to be a non-stop row of guesthouses, stalls selling clothes, books, internet points, travel agents - all the usual tourist stuff. And pretty well everybody is a European tourist! At first I suffered a bit of culture shock. I'm so used to being almost the only European. And they all looked so sad.

In the afternoon I took a loooong walk, too long, along the clifftop path (well paved, somebody has paid for the infrastructure here) seeing if I could find another hotel in the guidebook which sounded more peaceful. Mine is one of the nicest I've seen, but a bit in the midst of the action.

At the end of the cliffs, as the path descended towards an enticing looking beach, I saw one which looked a bit upmarket, another which was too far from the sea - and then suddenly I had left tourist land and was passing rather scruffy fishermen's villages and a mosque (there seems to be a significant Moslem community here. Eventually I decided it was wise to turn. I had felt vaguely uncomfortable by men staring, though given my age and girth I should feel immune, so at first when three young men called out, I ignored them. Then I realised they were asking for water from my bottle. Well, that was a new line, so I stopped and offered the bottle and was pleased to note that they punctiliously poured the water rather than drinking from the bottle.

One man spoke quite good English and another understood it. The first explained that he was a student of civil engineering and his friend was studying management studies. But his family had money problems, so he had had to return to being a fisherman. He was clearly frustrated by this. Further, instead of having one of the larger boats with motors, which go out in the evening, he only had one of the skiffs with paddles, that fish nearer to shore in the early morning.

Then I fell in with a young Austrian and Belgian, conversing in English. I am noticing that quite a lot of the young are using English to cross the language barriers. But virtually no native English speakers, even here. Maybe they are all still in Spain, or Thailand. Maybe it is because Keralan licensing laws mean that this is a virtually alcohol free area (everyone is drinking lovely fruit juice cocktails) and the bookshops are selling an interesting eclectic collection, including Amartya Sen's 'The argumentative Indian' and various books by Arundhati Roy. I have just bought and started her 'The God of Small Things' and am instantly enthralled. It is an excellent book to read here, since it is about the stifling life in a small Keralan town.

On my walk I stopped by an enticing looking garden (that of the upmarket hotel I had seen earlier) and collapsed with a fruit juice. It is an idyllic place: comfy chairs, lovely drink, and a beautiful view of the sea through the palm trees. I thought I would just ask about the price of rooms here.

To cut a long story short, I have booked into this hotel at the extravagant price of 1200 rupees a night (about 14 pounds) for the following three nights. What's more I am committed to spend at least the same amount per day on a session of massage. This appears to be the most reputable Ayurvedic centre in Verkala and I decided to take advantage of this. After all, my attitude to arthritis is that one must be game to try anything. But it is above all the garden and the view which have enticed me.

You see, I have overcome my initial misgivings about a touristy seaside sojourn and am becoming sufficiently seduced by the place to double the length of my stay and strains on my budget!

Back at my initial guesthouse, Bamboo Hut Village (which really is a very pleasant place, but without the peace, view and proximity to the beach of the new one) I decided it was time to try again to update this blog.

First I checked my email (a regular postponement ritual) and found a tragic message from Claire, whom I had left about to catch the bus for walking in the hills. She had decided to treat herself to an extravagant hotel with hot water, a balcony and beautiful views, but during the first night she had a really bad attack of asthma and hayfever and, realising that the woollen blanket was perhaps to blame, spent part of the night in desperation shivering on the balcony. She was not up to walking and decided to abandon the hills and head for the coast. On the way down she discovered that her bus driver had for some inexplicable reason offloaded her rucksack at the previous stop. So she had to go back and spent the rest of the day wandering around asking rickshaw drivers, the assembled crowds, and the police (singularly unhelpful) if they had seen the rucksack. And all the time still feeling low with her asthma. Every backpacker's nightmare!

She decided she must be positive and DO something rather than sit down and burst into tears. So first she got a statement from the police to try to get something from her insurance (even though this has lapsed because she cant update it from abroad). Nextshe cancelled her bank cards (and again, the bank refused to agree to send the new card to India rather than the UK). And then she kitted herself out with toothpaste, new underwear, a skirt and blouse.

Anyhow, she wrote, she was moving out of the hills, which were not helping her asthma, and down to the coast. Maybe we would see each other in Verkkala, she added.

I started to write a long, sympathetic reply to this dejected message, was just about to hit 'Send', when a voice behind me said 'Hello'. It was Claire! Of all the many internet places in town she should end up in mine. Well, not surprising, actually, as she too had chosen Lonely Planet's recommendation - only to discover that there were no rooms. So once again she is sharing mine for the night.

Actually her story has a happy ending. She was just beginning to get used to the rather nice idea that one could in fact exist on one change of clothes plus toothpaste, squeezed into her daypack (although she did mourn the loss of her chargers for phone, ipod and camera), when she bumped into a couple of Israelis who had been on her bus. They had seen the rucksack lying on the ground and taken it to a friend's room for safety. Only problem was that they had not thought how to get it back to her. If only they had told the rickshaw drivers (who had been extremely helpful and refused payment for driving Claire round town in her search) she would not have had a day's angst.

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