October 18, 2012

Travel 101: Intro to India (Kovalam, Kerala)

I really have no idea how to begin writing this post. There's no way I can relay every last detail of what we've seen and done and how we've felt, nor would doing so successfully convey what India has truly been like to us in this first week. I thought about avoiding the "Intro to India" post altogether and, instead, begin posting about the details - a meal, a person, a place we stayed - and pretend as though our entry to this (very) foreign land was a completely normal and every day thing. But it hasn't been. So you can understand why I don't know where to start. I'll get on with the description later, but I know how important it is to capture the reader's interest early, so I'll start with this picture from our first full day in India. 

That piqued your interest, right?
We chose to start our trip in India because it's the place that intimidates us the most. We knew and expected it to be overwhelming, scary and difficult, and hoped it would be (at least) equal parts exotic, charming, and memorable. We chose to begin our time in India in the south because it's more relaxed, less intense, and sort of a soft entry to the chaos. The good part about this is that we've spent the last week relaxing, reading, eating, and adjusting to the (12.5 hour) time difference, and have had little pressure to be doing, seeing or experiencing, as there really isn't much to do here. The downside of this is that, with each difficulty or tough encounter, I've looked ahead and known that this is as easy as it will get for us here - most of the rest of India will be dirtier, poorer, and more stressful.

Garbage-Eating Goats
After 5.5 weeks on our cross country road trip and 33 hours of travel, we arrived at the Thiruvananthapuram (Trivandrum) airport around 5am on October 12, tired and in need of a hot, cleansing shower (that still hasn't come). We had booked ahead at Vedic Heritage House (an introductory splurge for us, at $27/night), just off the beach in Kovalam, and they had arranged for a taxi pickup from the airport. Predictably, the first thing that struck us on the 30-minute ride from the airport to the guesthouse was the smell. For us, it was the burning garbage everywhere - on the side of the streets, in front yards, in ditches - sometimes people would be tending the fire, sometimes they burned unwatched, and sometimes cows, goats and chickens picked at the garbage on the fringes of the piles. I'm sure there is a different primary odor if you arrive (and stay) in a big city, but burning garbage was ours. The drive through the villages and towns was nice though, and we enjoyed the early morning-ness of it all - people walking to work, kids getting ready for school, the quietness of the roads (though still chaotic by American standards).

The walk from the taxi to Vedic was another reminder of how different this would be from home (something I'm sure we won't even notice soon) - we walked carefully down a steep, rocky and muddy path, next to fences made of tarp, (more) piles of garbage, dilapidated but charming guesthouses, and even a tied up bull, who was stationed under a sheet metal awning and eyeing us nervously. When we arrived at Vedic, we were greeted by Muthu, the manager and concierge of the small (5 room?) guesthouse, who showed us our room and ordered us to bed, promising we'd talk later. Our room was large, with a simple queen-sized bed covered by a fitted mosquito net, a ceiling fan, an armoire, an attached bathroom (our first glimpse of the bathroom "shower" bucket we have already grown accustomed to), and teak doors opening on to a beautiful terrace. We did as we were told. Already overheated and covered in sweat, we stripped down to our skivvies, unpacked our sleep sack, crawled under the unwieldy mosquito net…and slept….until noon.

After a surprisingly delicious cup of coffee with Muthu and Charles, the owner, we walked to the beach to explore and get our bearings. I noticed a tourist family (from elsewhere in India) holding their toddler daughter, who was adorable and smiling at everyone. They approached me and asked if they could take a photo of me holding her. I was thrilled and happily obliged, tickling her toes and kissing her cheek when prompted. So, my first impression of Kovalam's beaches was a good one. Over the next 3 days, that's how we spent our time. Recovering from jet lag was difficult, and we would be up around 3am most mornings - we'd read in bed or on the terrace and then go to the beach to watch the fishermen pull in giant nets, exhausting work that seemed to us to yield very few fish. And then we'd head back to Vedic where the women in the kitchen made delicious, healthy, and filling ayurvedic breakfasts for us and the only other guest, Phoebe, from Australia. Our days were lazy - sitting near the beach or reading on the terrace. We had lunch on the beach once and another time at Vedic (both delicious fish curries). We stayed out of the water, only dipping our ankles in. The waves were rough and the undertow strong and, while other tourists wore their bikinis unabashedly, I couldn't help but feel disrespectful and avoided donning mine. At night, we fought to stay awake until 7 or 8 - fell deeply asleep and was wide awake by 3am. Muthu turned out to be an excellent host - charming, friendly, and funny - and keenly looked after us, urging us to drink water, noticing when we were tired, encouraging both rest and walks, and suggesting places we might spend some time. One day, he sent us off to get ayurvedic massages, which is NOT for the shy (more on that later). By day 2, we weren't even batting an eye when the power cut out - something that has happened everywhere we've been at least twice a day for an hour or so - and I could hardly smell the garbage burning. 
After my Ayurvedic massage
On our first full day in India, we walked all of Lighthouse Beach and Hawa Beach and then up to Kovalam Junction to get cash from the ATM. When the ATM booth was air-conditioned, we stayed longer than necessary and allowed the cool air to dry our sweat. Only half-joking, we considered taking a nap in the enclosure. We pried ourselves from the chilled paradise and walked through town on busy streets with no shoulder or sidewalk. We didn't see another foreigner on our walk, which thrilled us, and I was careful to keep my chest, shoulders and knees covered to avoid stares. After walking for what seemed like a long time, I was convinced we had missed the turn to Vedic and was sure it was Tom's fault. Then, as we turned a corner, Tom turned around and said, "Oh, you are going to LOVE me for this!" I looked ahead and, amidst the honking cars, swerving auto rickshaws (tuk tuks), careless pedestrians and occasional cow or goat, an ELEPHANT walked down the street towards us, its mouth full of palm leaves and led by a few men in sarongs and with one man astride his neck. I almost lost it. I knew that elephants were common in India, but seeing one so soon and when we hadn't sought it out was just too much for me. I snapped photos and, as the giant animal neared us, we stepped off the shoulder of the road to allow some distance between it and us. He passed within a few feet of us and as my camera clicked away, the rider grinned down at us. 

This is why we travel. This unexpected delight (and Muthu) was the highlight of our time in Kovalam. It also saved Tom from an (unwarranted) bitch fest from his overheated, exhausted and overwhelmed wife. So that's a win/win. 

I think we'd both say that our favorite thing about India so far is the people's willingness to smile. I've never been anywhere where people were so quick to smile. As you pass someone on the street, it's not uncommon for them to stare at us a bit, noticing we're different. It could be a bit off-putting, but it's not. Because, as they curiously look, you can't help but smile and then, without hesitation, most people break into a huge, genuine grin. This happens constantly and it can quickly cure any bad mood. This good nature must be rubbing off on me already, because I'm deliriously happy despite the heat, the humidity, the smell, the trash, and the lack of showers.

One night, I woke up around midnight and needed to use the bathroom. I clumsily released myself from the awkward mosquito net and shuffled into the bathroom. As I sat and my eyes adjusted, I saw a huge cockroach on the floor in front of me. It looked at me. I looked at it. And then it scurried away. I thought to myself, "This is my life for awhile." And I have no idea why but, for some reason, the thought made me happy.

Check out all our pics from Kovalam here. And watch a video from the backseat of our first auto rickshaw (tuk tuk) here.


  1. Great post. Well done explaining the experience. I look forward to reading more of your adventure. Enjoy!

    1. Thanks Adam! Just finished "Wild"...a fantastic read - I highly recommend it. Thanks again!

  2. Sammy checked out the blog with me today and the pictures. Sammy says "the pictures are awesome. hope you have even more fun! those goats are crazy, why are they eating the garbage? love sammmy "

    1. Cheryl - tell Sammy that goats will eat ANYTHING! But there's so much garbage here...India needs millions of goats!