Kovalam and Kunakumari

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Lighthouse beach in Kovalam seems to have two sides: a local beach and a tourist beach. The two are not distinctly defined, and you can find a mix of everyone at both spots, but the tourist beach is patrolled by tourist lifeguards… And they make for some incredible people watching!
I doubt any one of the tourist lifeguards could actually save a life. They are dressed in full clothes, sometimes even jeans, and most look as though they are beached whales themselves. If you find yourself drowning at Lighthouse Beach then you better hope one of the many talented (or untalented) surfers pick you up on their next wave in, because these lifeguards are probably useless in that department. These lifeguards are paid to whistle. They blow their whistle to push along any creepy locals who stray too close to a scantily clad female tourist. They blow the whistle if a pack of young local men stare too long at the bathing beauties sunning themselves in the sand. And they blow these whistles ALL. THE. TIME.
Myles and my favorite pass time was sitting in one of the many restaurants of Kovalam with a pot of coffee and our morning breakfast and watching the debacle of whistle-touting lifeguards all afternoon. We watched as a group of boys snuck towards a couple unsuspecting women to try to chat with them. Then the whistle! We made bets on how close a guy could get before getting caught. Then the whistle! And we laughed every time a wave crashed into a guy, accidentally pushing him towards a tourist. Then the whistle! Even innocent mistakes were cause for whistle blowing. The sounds began long before we woke up, and continued until the sun set behind the smog and the beach lay deserted. It was hilarious.
Kovalam beach was an amazing escape from the dusty, overcrowded streets of landlocked India. The beach was stunning, the vibe more relaxed, and the people more friendly. We had heard that Kerala was a different world and the rumors didn’t disappoint!
Myles and I moved into a slow routine right away. Long breakfasts with lots of coffee then an afternoon beach activity. A stroll into the local parts of town for the cheapest lunch we could find, then a late dinner with luke warm beers and games of rummy well into the night. We had no word from Kelsi about when she could return.
“All I want to see is the backwaters!” She said to me in an email a day earlier. “Other than that, you guys see whatever you’d like!”
The backwaters were just a couple hours North of Kovalam, so we waited and relaxed and for the first time in 3 months, took it slow.
One day we decided to go on an adventure to Kunakumari, the Southernmost tip of India, where you can see three seas converge! We had no guidebook, 5 dollars in our pockets, and could only occasionally remember the name “Kunakumari”. (Very well prepared, yes I know).
The two cities are not that far apart. Probably no more than 60km or so. An hour and a half each way and we’d be back for dinner! Or so we thought…
Unfortunately, even though there is a direct bus from Kovalam to Kunakumari, there is not a direct ROUTE. Our bus ended up backtracking to Trivandrum and then stopping in every tiny village between there and the southern tip. The trip took 4.5 hours. Each way. Kill me now.
What was supposed to be a three hour round trip turned out to be 9 straight hours of bussing! Luckily, we DID get to see the three oceans converge. And do you know what three oceans all converging at one focal point looks like?
Well I’ll tell you.
It looks like ONE ocean! It looks like any other ocean or sea or large body of water that I’ve ever seen. Yes, okay, it’s neat to be able to say that I saw the meeting point of the Indian seas, but it may not have been worth 9 hours of public transport.
What was worth it, was our local lunch stop that afternoon. We stopped in at a hole-in-the-wall Thali joint that was packed with locals. The owner must have thought we were lost when we sat down.
“Only thali!” He announced to us.
“We will have two please” we said back, much to his astonishment.
Thali’s are a delicious way to eat in India. They are served at most restaurants, from the grubbiest dive to the classiest joint, thali’s can differ in a million ways. But essentially they are all the same. It’s an all you can eat meal, with a base of rice, that comes with sauces. Sometimes there are curries or naan bread, desserts, aloo gobi, paneer masala, butter chicken and all sorts of wonderful cuisine. Other times there is a huge helping of rice with three sauces that could be anything. At this place it was red, yellow and green. The green dish had an okra base, and the okra was so tough you couldn’t chew through it. The rest we just guessed on; but any guess was as good as ours! The place had no napkins and no utensils. Perfect! (And I don’t mean that sarcastically for once).
We had been looking for a place to eat with our hands for a while. This was the first place that didn’t have some sort of food that could also be used as a scoop. It was just rice and sauce. A truly authentic hand eating experience!
Turns out, eating rice with your hands is more difficult than I had anticipated. It really takes skill! We tried a number of techniques: holding the rice if your hand like a bowl and hoovering it out. Taking the rice in your fingers and using a shoveling effect. Or pinching the rice and dropping it into your upturned head like a crane. I preferred the crane: Myles the shovel. We still both looked like idiots. C’est la vie!
When Kunakumari was all said and done we decided against day trips out of the city. When 60 kilometers turns into nearly 5 hours, it’s difficult to find places to visit nearby. So instead we learned to surf!
Let me just start by saying this. What were we thinking?! Or maybe more appropriately, what was I thinking?! We started out in the morning trying to find boards. We wanted ones as long as possible, for better balance. This was a problem right at the start. Nearly all the boards were short. Great.
When we’d finally found some longer ones at a decent price, it was mid afternoon. This meant big waves. Who the Hell learns to surf in 6-8 foot waves?! Myles and I do! That’s who.
We got out to beyond the breakers fairly fast. (Retrospectively I’m amazed by this). I could hardly even sit on my board without falling off, but a young local guy and his girlfriend gave us some pointers. Our first wave in was a fail. Obviously. As were the next couple. Although Myles was getting much closer. After that, it was 20 minutes of being beaten and thrown around by waves much bigger than us. We got spun around and knocked in the head by our boards. We came up spewing salty brine from our noses and mouths and trying to wipe the stinging from our already reddened eyes.
At one point, closer to shore I looked back to see Myles finally catch a wave! The thing was massive. I don’t even think he realized its size. He was paddling hard towards the shore as the wave lifted him. The wave loomed large and dark and blue behind him. He had a massive grin on his face as he started to push himself up.
“Oh my god,” I thought “he’s going to do it!”
Then, right as I thought, that the wave came crashing down on top of him. His expression turned to a muddled shock and fear as his face disappeared into the wave. Then I saw feet. Then head. Then feet. Then board. Then wave. Then nothing. Then feet again. And finally Myles came up spurting water again.
I couldn’t stop laughing. We decided to take a break. I thought we’d been out on the water for hours. It had been twenty minutes. We contemplated going out for a round two, but the waves just kept getting bigger. So we went for a beer. We’re much better at drinking beer. Maybe next time we should stick to what we’re good at.
Surfing: 1
Myles and Hilary: 0
You win this round Kovalam!

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3 Packs, 3 Buses, and 1 Hell of a Day

I looked like a crazy person as I walked out of the hotel. I could hardly see over top of Kelsi’s bag that I had strapped to my front. My own bag was balancing me out on my back: my little legs looked like they were about to snap under all the weight. I hobbled sideways down the three stairs to the street level. I hadn’t fallen thus far, which meant I was doing much better than I had visualized while I was strapping myself in!
A Tuk Tuk drove by just as I stumbled into the street.
“Hello Tuk Tuk?”
“Yes, to the bus station please”
He didn’t even rip me off that much. He probably looked at me and thought I was in enough trouble.
“You have a lot of bags!” He yelled back to me while we were en route.
“I needed one for my shoes.” I yelled back.
He looked confused. To this day he probably thinks I’m one of those crazy backpackers that carries 19 pairs of heels and a hair straightener with me.
No big deal. If I have it my way I’ll never be back to Madurai again.
I looked even crazier at the bus station as I put all my packs back on. Not only did I have to walk partially sideways so that I could see, I was also giggling to myself at how ridiculous I must look to everyone.
“I need a bus to Nagarcovil” I said as I reached the bus official’s stand
“Where are you going?” He asked
“To Trivandrum.”
“You can catch this bus to Tirunivelli and catch a transferring bus to Trivandrum” said the bus attendant from a neighboring bus.
“I’d rather not. Buses for Trivandrum from Tirunivelli only leave every three hours, I’d never catch the connecting bus. Plus it’s not a By Pass Rider, so it’ll take twice as long.”
The attendant turned to the officer behind the desk, shocked that I had any opinion on the matter.
“She’s right. Nagarcovil is the best”
I am SO glad I had the full spiel from Muthu the waiter the night before.
“This is the best route. Only use a by-pass rider, they take half the time and cost the same amount. They leave every 20 minutes” he had explained.
I might look like an idiot but I sounded like a pro.
“Go ahead and sit down, a by-pass rider to Nagarcovil will be here in five minutes.
And just like that I caught my first bus!
I majorly lucked out and got the only, single seat at the front of the bus. I attached one pack to the side of the seat next to me and the other in front. I threw my feet up on the bag in front and was set to go! Finding space for our luggage on buses has been the most trying task for us in India. It grieves Kelsi and I each time we drag ourselves on to a crowded state bus. Finding this seat was my equivalent of winning the lottery (well, a small lottery).
The first bus was 5 hours. 5-hour bus rides don’t phase me in the slightest. After traveling South America, where we leaped for joy at any journey less than 14 hours, 5 hours was like taking a nap. I can zone out and stare into nothingness for at least 7 hours before getting restless.
To my surprise, the estimated 5 hour time was spot on. I was dropped of in Nagarcovil almost exactly five hours after leaving Madurai.
It took me a while to stumble off the bus, but when I did I smelled something only a Vancouverite knows well: rain. It was that scent that means you have a five or ten minute window before the skies open up and you and your 150 liters worth of luggage get soaked to the bone.
I ran off to find my next bus. And let’s be honest, by ran, I mean I hobbled my way crookedly to the next bus stand.
Turns out the bus was leaving that exact second. What are the chances?! I hopped on just in time to feel the first few drops of rain hit my face. Good thing I’m under the cover of the bus!
But I should have known better; in India, things are never that easy.
It took a total of 30 seconds of torrential downpour to realize the bus wasn’t waterproof. Water leaked in through every crack, every opening, and every seam on the bus. The floor started to flood, and the bags were soaking up the rain water. The poor man in front of me tried desperately to save my things. I hauled my bag onto my lap, and he pulled Kelsi’s towards him. Water was dripping in on our heads and down his back. Everyone desperately shut their windows in an attempt to stay dry; problem was, this made the windshield fog up.
Indian buses are clearly not cut out for rain. The windshield wiper only covers about 1/10th of the windshield. I’m not joking. Just the upper right hand corner where the bus driver looks out gets wiped. Not that it mattered on this bus really, since the single wiper blade had so many holes and bends that it didn’t work at all.
Even as the window fogged, our driver swerved madly through traffic, honking all the while. He was one of those horn-happy Tamil Nadu drivers… My favorite. He incessantly used the horn at the sight of anything! You know a society has a horn problem when they can actually lock in their horn so that it will go off continuously until you unhook it. Our driver would lock in the horn for a solid ten seconds while he used both hands to weave through cars at speeds way too fast for a bus in rain.
When the window fogged the driver turned to me.
“Getting foggy” he smiled at me.
Oh god. How in the world can you see anything at all?!
From the looks of the bus, there was absolutely no chance of a defroster. The dashboard had wires hanging out of it in all directions, all leading somewhere down by the driver’s feet. The driver leaned back and grabbed his 2-litre water bottle. He unscrewed the cap and tossed it out the window. He then took the two litres of water and began spraying it in front of him wildly. The water splashed against the windshield, dissipating enough fog for the driver to see. The rest of the water soaked down onto the dashboard and onto the wires.
What about this situation is safe?! This is crazy!
All I could do was laugh.
All of a sudden something on the roof opened up and a huge bucket of water came splashing down onto the man in front of me. It soaked both him and the bag that he was carrying… Kelsi’s bag. Goddammit that girl has the worst luck in the world! Even when she’s not here her bag gets a bucket of water poured right down into it.
I sighed. What can I do!
About 20 minutes of driving through the rain later, we finally came out of the cloud. Abruptly, the water all stopped. The streets were dry, the people on the streets unphased: it was like the water had just come out of nowhere!
Another couple hours and a bus change later I made it to Kovalam. I strapped on my 100 lbs of bags and inched my way down the windy road towards lighthouse beach. About a kilometer later, I’d made it to the edge of town.
“Excuse me, do you know where Ganesh Tattoo is? My hotel is next door to it.” I asked a guy on the side of the road.
“Ganesh tattoo?! Looking for a tattoo? Yeah! I know it, follow me!”
By this point I was dying. The sun was scorching, sweat was dripping down my face and my legs were jelly. I was so excited to just sit down. The guy that was helping me wouldn’t stop talking.
“What country are you from? Where are you coming from? You sure do have a lot of bags! Do you need a hotel for the night? Are you going surfing later?”
I could hardly answer I was so out of breath. You think he’d offer to help me with at least a small bag! Everyone could see I was struggling to stay upright. Finally we came around the corner and into a shop.
“Here you go! My friend does the best tattoos!”
“Is this Ganesh tattoo?” I asked.
“No!” He said “This is a way better tattoo parlor. My friend does the best in Kovalam. Here, look through his stuff”
“I don’t want a tattoo!” I exclaimed “I said my HOTEL is next to Ganesh tattoo!” I was exasperated. The entire time I talked about how I already HAD a hotel, and it was next to Ganesh tattoo… He hadn’t listened to a word I said. Who in their right mind gets off an 8 hour bus ride with two huge packs and before even checking into a room decides “hey, I should get a tattoo RIGHT NOW!”
“I’m sorry,” I explained “I am looking for Ganesh tattoo”
Totally unimpressed, the man sighed.
“That way” he said, as he flicked his hand in the general direction of the parlor.
Thanks. You’re so kind.
It was about a five minute walk further before I stumbled across it. I FOUND IT! A young girl outside knew where the tall Canadian guy was staying and pointed me in the right direction.
As I struggled up the stairs I called Myles’ name. I wasn’t half way up the flight of stairs before he poked his head out the door.
“Oh my god!” He exclaimed, looking at the state of me. He grabbed both the bags and helped me inside.
“Guess what? I’ve got beers!” Said Myles excitedly.
I nearly cried. It was the best news I’d heard all day!
The trip was over, the bags were in one place, I wasn’t stranded alone in Madurai, the sun was shining on the beach, and Myles and I had a cool beer on our patio. India round two is looking up!