Kovalam has something of an image problem, at least among backpackers, who think it's far too touristy and is probably best left to people who like egg and chips for dinner and their culture packaged up and delivered along with a rep. This is rather unfair, because although Kovalam does have a slight air of package holiday about it, it's still a charming little place with much to recommend, particularly if you're looking for a restful and stress-free spot for a few days before moving on elsewhere.
It was good timing for us, too, because Peta announced as we left Munnar that the Coffee Inn would be the last budget place we were going to stay in, and that was that. Apparently she took exception to the carpet being sticky enough for her to lift it up off the floor along with her foot, and the large spider we discovered in the bed on arrival didn't earn me too many brownie points either, so I hung up my travelling boots and decided we should take a look round a number of places in Kovalam before picking the one that Peta was happiest with. After wandering along the sea front and checking out four hotels with swimming pools, we plumped for the Hotel Sea Face at the southern end of Hawah Beach. It was easily the most expensive hotel we looked at, but the extra money was worth it, as the decidedly non-sticky air-conditioned room had a balcony that looked directly over the hotel pool, which itself looked directly over the beach and into the sunset. Boxes ticked, we settled in for some relaxation before our flight a couple of days later.
Kovalam consists of two beaches, the aforementioned Hawah Beach at the northern end, and Lighthouse Beach to the south. The two beaches join up seamlessly – although there's a rocky promontory between the two, the seafront promenade doesn't even stop to check its footing as you walk from one beach to the other – but there's a distinct difference between the southern end of Lighthouse Beach and the developments where the two beaches join. If I had to guess, I'd say that development in Kovalam started at the southern end of Lighthouse Beach, because this is where things look most faded. As you move north, things get bigger, cleaner and rather classier.
Don't get the impression that Kovalam is a huge beach development, though, because it isn't. There aren't any high-rise hotels and the two beaches are pretty small, and although things are obviously developing, it isn't the rampant builders' yard you might be expecting if you read the guidebooks. Instead, it's a bit like Varkala, but with more comfortable accommodation and without a cliff separating you from the beach. The biggest difference, though, is in the clientele, because where Varkala is full of twenty-somethings and hippies, Kovalam appeals to the kind of traveller for whom Speedos weren't a good idea when they first wore them in the 1970s, and most definitely still aren't. It's a resort for empty-nesters, and perhaps the most noticeable thing is that a large proportion of the tourists are fat. Varkala, in contrast, was full of bright young things, sporting the latest size zero hippy fashions, but Kovalam doesn't win any prizes for good looks; beer bellies are de rigeur, debatable sartorial taste is par for the course, and proof that gravity always wins is all around... but on the upside, you also don't get to overhear conversations between gap-year travellers who think they know everything there is to know about the world without having actually experienced it.
This more mature atmosphere also means the toilets are cleaner, the food is slightly more expensive, and the touts are just that little bit more insistent. Oh, and when we'd checked into our hotel, we discovered that it was home to Thomas Cook's very own Kovalam rep, a cheery girl called Lorraine who popped round every morning to check that her guests were having a good time, and to ask whether they wanted to go on the elephant ride this Tuesday, or to pop down to the southern tip of India this Friday. Perhaps that's why the toilets are so clean; if so, then thank you Thomas Cook, because you've helped make Kovalam a great place to get away from the reality of India, and after a couple of weeks in the heat of Kerala, that's something I really appreciate. And no, I'm not being sarcastic.
One of the unexpected benefits of staying at the Hotel Sea Face was that the pool overlooked the beach, which meant we were treated each morning to the sight of the fishermen dragging in their catch. As entertainment goes, it was even good enough to clear the grumpy cobwebs from my morning mind, which is really saying something.
The fishermen practise beach fishing, a method that is used the world over; they even do it in parts of northeast Scotland still, though in the West it's long since been replaced by more efficient mechanised fishing. The concept is the same wherever you are, though. The first stage is to load up a boat with a large, mouth-shaped fishing net, with two long ropes attached to the sides of the mouth. Once the net is coiled up neatly, it's time to launch the boat from the beach by pushing it into the sea as the waves break on the shore. The boats at Kovalam are paddle-powered, the oars ending in circles rather than the long, tapered faces of a canoeing oar, and presumably this gives them quite a bit of leverage, as once the boats catch the tide, they're off with a cry and a yelp and an impressive kick of speed.
Once afloat, the fishermen throw the ends of the two ropes to those waiting on shore, and the boat heads straight out to sea, laying one rope to port and one to starboard, and dropping the net in once the rope has run out. As the ropes have white polystyrene floats attached every 10m or so, this creates a large arc of rope into the sea, with the two ends held in the safe hands of the fishermen on the beach, and a mouth-shaped net at the furthest tip of the arc, all reaching a good couple of hundred metres out into the bay.
This is where the long haul starts, with 15 men on each rope, standing some 20m apart. They slowly haul the rope up the beach by walking backwards, one step with every beat of the chant they sing. The man at the end of the rope lays down his part of the rope in a neat coil and walks down the beach to the head of the line, picking up the rope and starting all over again. It's like a very slow millipede, gently clawing the two ropes towards the beach to the sound of a fishing song whose words may be in Malayalam, but whose meaning is universal. It's the sound of men working together, and it doesn't take long before the arc shrinks and the net starts to take hold.
When the arc is close to the beach, four men leap into the water in a line across the mouth of the net, jumping around and slapping the waves with their forearms, driving the fish deep into the net. Slowly the tempo of the fishing song rises, until you can see the light brown of the net itself rising from the waves like a cloud from the deep. The last few hauls are careful – the whole process takes a good hour, so it's important not to let the fish get away – and eventually the net reaches the sand, where the men wash the sand away with the lapping waves and crowd around to examine the catch.
Actually, it's a disappointment. The net is so fine that it catches everything in its path, from miniscule minnows the length of a little finger to larger fish the length of a forearm, but given the amount of time and effort, it seems a paltry catch, and one that surely can't do the marine environment that much good – I may not be a marine biologist, but even I know it's not a good idea to kill off shoals of baby fish in order to catch ten or 20 larger ones.
But this doesn't seem to bother the fishermen, who untie the ropes, shake out the nets and lay them out to dry on the beach, while another boat, net coiled, sets off into the surf to drag the sea a little further along the bay. Later, the fishermen will coil up their nets and ropes and stow them in their fishing boats, pulled up on the beach, and in time-honoured tradition they'll lie down in the shade under the bow to see out the hottest part of the day, dreaming of the ones that got away.
As spectacles in India go, this has to be one of the more relaxing ones on offer, particularly when sampled over tropical breakfast. Long may it continue...
On the Beach
Kovalam, however, isn't notorious for its fishermen, but for the gangs of young men who stroll along the beach, desperate to catch a glimpse of pale, western flesh. My first exposure to this was in Kochi, when I popped out early one morning to take a picture of the beach, or, to be more accurate, a picture of the amazing amount of rubbish strewn along the sand.
'Hello, morning,' said a voice from behind me as I snapped away. 'Where you from?'
'England,' I said, turning around to find a couple of young men doing star jumps, fully clothed. 'Where are you from?'
'Kochi,' said the shorter of the two. 'What do you do?'
'I'm a journalist,' I said, realising too late that perhaps I shouldn't have said that, seeing as I was taking pictures of how shitty their local beach was. 'I'm not working now, though, this is a holiday. I'm just taking pictures of your lovely beach.'
'It is fantastic,' he said, with absolutely no hint of irony. 'Where have you been in India?'
'Let's see, we started in Varkala,' I started, 'and...'
'Varkala,' he interrupted. 'It is good, Varkala?'
'Yes,' I said. 'It's very nice.'
'Lots of western women there?' he said, a glint in his eye.
'Um, yes, it's pretty crowded,' I said.
'Many women to see?' he said, making the universal sign of the bosom with a sly grin. His companion stood there silently, grinning like a schoolboy.
'Well, yes, I suppose there are lots of women there,' I said, sighing at the direction the conversation was going.
'And they fuck, yes?' he said.
'I don't think so, no,' I said, trying to look as disapproving as I could. 'You're not one of these people who goes round staring at western women on the beach, are you?'
'Oh yes,' he said.
'Well, you do know that staring at western women is no way to pull, don't you?' I said. 'You have to be nice to women, kind and polite, or you've got no chance.'
'Oh, I am kind and polite,' he said, 'but my friend here is an angry man. Last time, in Kovalam, he went up to one woman and said, "Do you want sex?" just like that. He is crazy.'
Judging by his friend's grin, he had a point. 'That's not very nice,' I said.
'So we are going to Varkala this weekend,' he said, repeating his impression of a busty siren. 'To find lovely women.'
'Well, be nice to them,' I said, 'or they'll just think you're idiots.'
'I will be,' he said. 'I am not sure about my friend, though. He is an angry man!'
And with that I bid them goodbye and went back to photographing their 'fantastic' beach, while they did star jumps on the promenade and grinned at each other at the thought of their impending trip to stare at the girls of Varkala. Visiting Kovalam, it's easy to see how men like this get their kicks from the beach, because like all good beach destinations, the bikini is queen. Or it is for western women, who soak up the rays in the skimpiest attire, sometimes without first consulting the Bumper Book of Taste.
Kovalam is also a popular spot for proper Indian tourists, especially on a Sunday when both beaches are heaving with locals, but when Indian women go swimming, they do so in full attire, making sure they don't show off any more parts of their body than they do in the high street. It's bizarre: on one hand you have bikinis that seem to disappear at certain angles, and on the other you have sarees in the surf. If the latter is what Indian men are used to, it's no wonder they come to Kovalam with their tongues hanging out.
But it can get annoying, as can the touts, who waltz along the beach front, trying to persuade you that, yes, your life really isn't complete without a map of India and a packet of counterfeit cigarettes. In most places a quick shake of the head is enough to put the touts off – Varkala was particularly laid-back, I thought – but in Kovalam they are much more insistent, though they still have a long, long way to go before they can appear on the same bill as the touts of Morocco. More irritating are the stares you get when you wander round in a bikini, a problem that I can't confirm first hand, but which was fairly apparent by the way gangs of ten or 15 young Indians would walk in front of a bikini bather on a sun lounger, their heads turning left in a precision movement that would have a Sergeant Major wiping a proud tear from his eye. Let's be honest, every single person on the beach enjoys looking at the beautiful people – both male and female – who grace the sand, but there's a difference between peeking from behind one's sunglasses, and standing there as a group, gawping like 14-year-olds. There used to be a sign on the beach at Goa that said, 'Easing oneself in public is strictly forbidden,' and one wonders whether such a sign will one day be necessary in Kovalam, as the number of lechers increases.
Even escaping to your hotel pool is no guarantee of privacy. On our second day in Kovalam we decided to relax by the pool, with me typing up a few notes in the shade of a cocktail umbrella while Peta lay on a sun lounger, catching the rays. While I was lost in my own little world, hammering away on my fold-out keyboard, Peta was getting increasingly frustrated with an Indian guest at the hotel, whom we'd seen for the last couple of days sitting on his own, ploughing through bottles of Royal Challenge beer and smoking cigarette after cigarette. In order to walk from the bar to the toilet, he had to walk past the pool, and each time he did so, he would stare at Peta's chest like a pubescent schoolboy sneaking a peek at the top shelf in the newsagents. After a few such toilet breaks, Peta decided to confront him.
'Excuse me,' she said, putting on her politest voice. 'Would you please stop staring at my chest every time you walk past? I consider it to be extremely rude.'
'Ah, um,' said the man, looking like a rabbit caught in the headlights. 'I wasn't staring at you, I was staring at your book. It looks really interesting.'
'Yeah, right,' said Peta, switching to a voice with steel barbs. 'Well, just stop it.'
He still kept sneaking glances, until Peta came over to me, and I started staring back at him. And then, incredibly, out came a woman with a young child, who turned out to be his wife, and we wondered how she felt, knowing that her husband had come to Kovalam to drink beer on his own and ogle at the women in the hotel. I wondered idly whether he was the kind of man who would ease himself on the beach, but figured he was just a common-or-garden wanker.
That said, if you develop a reasonably thick skin and practise the art of saying 'No' to the touts, Kovalam is a pleasant spot to soak up the sun, and it's a good place to relax. After all, even the touts in India have a smiley side, something you really can't say about every country.