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Will the real India please stand up?

sunny 30 °C
View Get Out The Map on The Rymans's travel map.

Arriving in Trivandrum and finding our way to the Kovalam guesthouse we'd booked was a piece of cake. No touts were standing in the road "to divert us" after all, as we'd been warned; there was just the one requisite wannabe-tout/guide who insisted on walking in front of us all the way through the labyrinth of paths that led from the main road to our guest house. Ostensibly, he was helping us find our way here. Of course, this was not a free service. He was a little bit drunk, and we cheerfully gave him about 30 rupees (75 cents) when we reached our destination. He made sure we knew that his services had been worth far more than that. We agreed to disagree.

We've been here a week now. Our original plan was to stay four nights, but it stretched into five, then six, and so on. We seem to be stuck here. It's hard to get motivated to move on when we're enjoying the place so much. But the thought keeps nagging at me: This is not difficult enough. This is not the India I remember!

You can't throw a stone here without hitting a pleasant yoga centre or ayurvedic clinic. The hawkers are gentle and give up easily, so that their sales pitches seem more helpful than irritating. There are boxes for garbage along the seafront, and people are actually using them. The water is clear and clean. There are no roads, only slim paths through coconut groves, so there is no motorized traffic whatsoever and no air or noise pollution. There are Indian men actually swimming and playing on the beach in bathing suits instead of arriving the way I remember them best from Diu twelve years ago -- then, they were fully clad in business attire, right down to their black socks and leather loafers, wandering the beaches in groups with the sole and obvious purpose of unabashedly ogling bikini-clad foreigners. Today, three young Keralan guys joined Chloe, Mark and Ciaran in an informal soccer match on the sand, then handed out fruit and cookies to share.

Every so often, Mark raises an eyebrow at me and asks, in mock suspicion, whether I've actually brought him to India or have instead orchestrated a massive hoax and taken us all somewhere else instead. In a sense, I suppose I have brought us all somewhere else. Not only are we in the south instead of the north, but in 12 years, a lot has changed. Coincidentally, I've had to do some reading about India's economic development for a banking client this week, and have discovered that while there were just 3 shopping malls in India as recently as 2001, today there are more than 350. The Indian middle class is reportedly 330 million strong. (In a country with a population of 1.2 billion, that still leaves an enormous number of poor people, but still.) These are just a couple of the many interesting figures I came across, and maybe they explain some of our experiences here so far. Or, more likely, maybe it's just that Kovalam, which is accustomed to receiving charter flights from the UK, has adapted itself to suit western tastes. Maybe, as a resort area, Kovalam is a slightly artificial enclave.

In any case, the food here is excellent. Although we eat mainly Indian food for lunches and dinners, we've become loyal devotees of a nearby place called the German Bakery for breakfasts. The baked goods are actually nothing to write home about, but this place has the best coffee I've ever tasted anywhere in my entire life. It also has an amusing menu. There are half a dozen "set menu" breakfasts, such as the American (mostly eggs and bacon--yes, bacon, what's with that??) or the British (throw in some beans). Well, I noticed this morning that the French breakfast was something a little different. The French breakfast consists of a croissant, cafe au lait, and a cigarette. I have to wonder how that cigarette is served. On a plate?

Of course, some things really don't change, and I wasn't surprised to pick up the morning paper (another thing I love about India: a free press and daily newspapers, many of them in English) and read that the state of Kerala is rolling out plans to reduce the number of traffic accidents and fatalities. Currently, there are some 3,500 fatalities and 15,000 "grievous accidents" every year on the main state highways. That's 10 deaths every day, just in this one small state. That's why we plan to travel by train as much as possible.

Our next destination is Varkala, another beach town about an hour north of here that sounds even more relaxed than this place. I'm still skeptical. I'm not sure how that's possible. I guess we'll see.

By the way, for anyone sending us email and wondering about a reply: it would seem that the days of free in-room wifi have ground to a halt with our arrival in India. There are internet cafes around, and we'll use them, but I think our days of checking email almost daily are over for a while.

Posted by The Rymans 08:37 Archived in India Tagged family_travel

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