Kovalam Beach, Kerala, Southern India
January 2 – 10, 2006
“Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take but by the places and moments that take our breath away.” - Anonymous
Strong opinions are had about India. About the poverty, people, food, cleanliness, or lack there of, and I wanted to form my own. And that I did from the second I got off the plane.
After spending five weeks in the southern region of the country what I surmised is India is incredible. An unoriginal adjective, I realized, when I learned Tourism India already thought to use it for their current public relations and advertising campaign. Maybe it’s already been thought of, but, for me, everything about India was original since I was experiencing it for the very first time. I must say Tourism India hit the nail on the head with the campaign. Incredible is fitting because no matter what you imagine this place to be there is no way to come close to its reality without seeing it with your own two eyes.
India grabbed hold of my senses and had its way with them. You might even say assaulted them. The most extreme conditions and situations live side by side in harmony. An example would be the way garbage is strewn EVERYWHERE but to my surprise and the delight to my sense of smell what I picked up was creamy coconut oil. That boggled my mind. If I’m not making sense it’s because India is a 180-degree about face turn away from our comfortable lives in the western world. Here’s another example. When I landed what I first noticed was endless luscious tropical greenery. A land of coconut trees and banana palms enveloped by the Arabian Sea and women’s silk sarees in pulsating colors of saffron and magenta. Next to that I noticed tremendous amounts of garbage scattered along the streets, stagnant polluted streams and little boys and grown men peeing out in the open.
I’ve heard you either love India or hate it. It’s possible to love it and hate it. I was deeply intrigued by extreme differences in the way people live compared to the way I live. It might be safe to say I’m different from the entire country of over 1 billion people. 35-year old, unmarried, divorced, Jewish woman with no children traveling around the globe, alone. I was as foreign to them as squatting down over a porcelain hole or an open field on the side of a road and calling that a bathroom was to me. I also love the fact that I don't live in India but look forward to going back to explore the North. Northern India, I’m told, is less gentle than the South and for safety and peace of mind reasons I’d like to do this with a travel partner.
People ask me how I’ve planned for an around the world trip like this. Did I do a lot of research? How am I choosing where-to-go, where-to-stay, etc? The only plans I arranged in advance were flights into/out of some countries with flexibility to change dates without incurring a penalty. Any additional flights or trains I book as needed. The only hotel reservations I made were for the first nine nights in India.
The where-to-go part was easy. My goal was to have an endless summer. Or, summer-like weather for as long as possible. In January, it’s actually wintertime in India but mid-80’s and high humidity is summer enough for me. No one would want to be in India past April. It’s over 100 degrees with equally as much humidity and monsoon rains from May - August. I made the reservations for my first week in India online just three weeks before I arrived. Actually, I was in the lobby of the Sheraton in Iguazzu Falls, Argentina, working off of my little Apple Powerbook G4 Laptop wirelessly connected to the internet (it’s such a beautiful thing when I find the technology in place to be able to do that) and did a Google search for “hip hotels southern india”. It may sound strange that I searched for “hip” when India isn’t the place one goes in search of hip. I knew that was the case but I also know myself and five weeks of unhip, unclean and meatless was going to be tough living so I desperately searched for hip, at least for the beginning of the trip.
www.i-escape.com said all the right things about Lagoona Davina:
Lagoona Davina is an intimate guesthouse, nestling on the edge of a fresh water lagoon, with stunning views across to the white sands of the Arabian Sea. Set in a tiny South Keralan village amid coconut palms, it's far removed from the tourist crowds. Owner Davina Taylor Phillips, who left London a few years ago in pursuit of a more tranquil lifestyle, has created a simple but stylish hideaway with a totally laid back and homely atmosphere.
Rest, read, listen to birdsong and the gently lapping water, eat fresh healthy foods, and be pampered with ayurvedic massages, reiki and one-to-one yoga classes from fully qualified teachers, all in an ecologically-sound environment.
If you're seeking five star luxury or action this isn’t the place for you. However, if you're looking to unwind in a dreamy setting at a moderate price, it's an idyllic retreat. Perfect for women travelling alone.
The hotel was every bit as beautiful as the pictures. www.lagoonadavina.com
It was completely relaxing (except the mosquitoes in the evening), peaceful and stylishly decorated. The owner, Davina, was a real estate developer in the UK and interior designer in her past life. She did a wonderful job with the dramatically Rajasthan atmosphere and Indian animal themed rooms. I stayed in two different rooms. Monkey (with sea view) and Leopard (without view). The best rooms are the ones with a sea view. My only reservation about the place is the mosquitoes in the evening. They have scarred me (literally) for life. Every room is stocked with an assortment of repellant paraphernalia, spray, incense, and swatters. I don’t like using bug spray. I don’t like the smell or the feel of it on my skin. Hence, the scratching and scarring.
The property attracted lots of couples lying around all day kissing and staring and smiling into each other’s eyes. Maybe I was just feeling self- conscious since I was alone. Nope, it’s a place where couples come to relax, take in some ayurvedic massage, do yoga and just get away. I was happy to be easing my way into India at Lagoona Davina.
Some of the days I spent my time reading and resting at the hotel on the lounge beds overlooking the lagoon. Other times I watched the fisherman in front of the hotel pulling in their lines. I never saw them actually catch any fish just pulling in yards and yards of fishing line and then coiling it up to get it ready for more of the same the next day. I also took one of the hotel’s gondolas across the lagoon over to the sea side and walked to the neighboring beaches. Lighthouse Beach is the biggest beach in the area. It’s at the very end of the walk about 2 hours south from the hotel. Good for breaking a sweat. Doesn’t take much to sweat since the humidity was high. My skin had never been so soft and the bumps on the back of my upper arms disappeared. There’s a silver lining to every situation.
Don't ask me how I managed to get invited into a tiny tailor shop and have lunch on the floor with the owner but that happened on my first day in India. Naturally, it had something to do with food and a local so I loved every minute of it! How I managed to get there in the first place was by popped my head in the shop to see what kinds of fabric they were using to make clothing. Next thing I knew the shop owner, Sunny, was talking to me about his brother who lives in Chicago and asked me to join him for lunch. He started opening a plastic bag, the kind you get in the supermarket if you choose plastic instead of paper, and told me to sit on the floor opposite him. I was not about to get in the way of this most authentic dining experience so I kicked off my sandals and got into lotus position. Sunny took a ball of newspaper that held his lunch together out of the plastic bag. In the center of the newspaper was a mound of rice. He said there was too much food and pushed some of the rice closer to me and the rest was for him. Small plastic bags filled with curries or masala were also in the newspaper bundle. Sunny opened the little bags, asked me if I liked spicy, and poured a little of each sauce on a different area of rice. Eating on the floor wasn’t so strange. Eating with a stranger didn’t feel that unusual either. Eating a meal with my hand for the first time since I was too young to remember. Now that felt different. I guess I must have given off a vibe that I wasn’t all that comfortable with the non-utensil set-up because he got up to get a spoon. The water he used to wash off the spoon made me hesitate to use it so I stuck with my right hand. Besides, if I was going all the way with this authentic meal spoons weren’t in the picture. I’m glad there was no mirror to view my hand feeding my mouth with grains of rice with vegetable curry. That would have been a definite appetite suppressant.
Who knew my carnivorous palate could be so satisfied on a fish and vegetable diet? I was happy to go vegetarian for the month of January. God knows my arteries needed a rest from a week of Argentinean beef. (I only ate vegetarian for the first week until I felt comfortable knowing when to order chicken or beef.) Fresh seafood is plentiful throughout Kerala since it’s a coastal state. My staple dinner was Grilled King Prawns with Ghee & Garlic and Butter Naan. Kingfisher, the local beer, to wash it all down.