Will the Real India Please Stand Up?
Twelve years ago, before kids, my husband and I travelled around Asia and Africa for a year, spending four of those months on the Indian subcontinent. When we had reached the end of our stint in India, we couldn’t wait to leave. It is a huge understatement to say that India is a challenging destination even for seasoned travellers, and our experience there had been a complicated love-hate affair. In a year of traipsing through a dozen difficult countries, a third of them in Africa, no place had been anywhere near as trying, exasperating or wearying as India. This is probably why many people looked at us with one eyebrow raised when we started planning, two years ago, to take the kids there.
The thing is, a strange thing happened after our first visit to India: we started to miss the place. It turned out that most of the stories we found ourselves recalling and recounting about our year away were about the bizarre, amusing, maddening things that had happened to us in India. We had seen only the north of the country during that trip, and as the years went by I knew that some day, we were going to feel compelled to go back and see the south.
And so here we are—and I have to say, so far it’s nothing like what I remember.
We flew from Hanoi, Vietnam to Chennai, India a few days ago, stayed one night at an airport hotel, then caught another flight to Trivandrum the following afternoon. Trivandrum is about a hundred kilometres north of India’s southernmost tip, a half-hour drive from the small beach resort of Kovalam. Exiting the Trivandrum airport, we caught a pre-paid taxi to Kovalam and began our adventure.
We were prepared for all of the things that had made India so difficult the last time: aggressive touts and beggars, overcrowding, unbearable heat, unpleasant smells, choking traffic, crooked rickshaw and taxi drivers, garbage and cow manure and open manholes to dodge as we walked the streets.
So we were pleasantly amazed to find ourselves in a little piece of India that is like nothing we encountered before. “Have you taken us somewhere else without telling me?” my husband keeps asking me with mock suspicion.
Getting here was easy. People are helpful and friendly. The hotel, although cheap, is clean and welcoming. The beach is also clean, with clear water and vigilant lifeguards. There’s fabulous muesli for breakfast. The coffee is the best I’ve had on this entire trip so far. There are bins along the beach for garbage, and people actually seem to use them.
In other words, it seems we’ve inadvertently stumbled upon India For Beginners—the perfect place to get re-acquainted with (and introduce the children to) the subcontinent.
To be honest, it’s likely that when we recalled everything that was difficult about India on our first visit, we were thinking about our introduction to the country. That time, we flew into Delhi, got dropped off at the train station, and were wildly unprepared for the chaotic scene that greeted us. This time, with the benefit of hindsight, we chose deliberately to begin in a small town after four months elsewhere in Asia—with the kids as seasoned as they were ever going to be—and it has made all the difference.
Since our arrival, we’ve established a relaxed routine that involves a leisurely breakfast followed by two hours of school work, then lunch and afternoon at the beach, where we can rent chairs, umbrellas and boogie boards for about $8. Happy hour begins at sunset—it’s quite spectacular, setting over the Arabian sea—when the kids enjoy mango lassis and we share a few cold Kingfisher beers. The kids know just what they like when it comes to Indian food, and it always gives us a moment of combined pride and amusement to hear them ask for palak paneer, veg korma, channa masala and chapattis when the waiter comes by.
As pleasant as Kovalam is, however, there is something artificial about it. It’s a popular destination for package tourists, which may explain why it seems so familiar and easy to manage. We’ll soon have to move on. Today’s task: deciding whether to head to the next town by car or by train, and maybe finding a yoga class.
We’re into the final six weeks of our half-year trip now, but there are still lots of exciting things to see and do as we move north, including an overnight houseboat tour of Kerala’s backwaters, more overnight sleeper trains, a hill station, a wildlife sanctuary, ruins of ancient cities, more beaches and, of course, our final destination: busy, massive Mumbai. So far, we’re loving India.