Kerala welcomed us quite differently than Goa – with a demonstration. Just like Goa had revealed one of its typical characteristics right at the start, the demonstration was typical for Kerala’s profile as India’s most political state. Having been under communistic ruling for more than 30 years up until a few years ago, Kerala’s communistic heritage is strong, which not only shows in the high level of public education, but also in the high power of labour unions and the number of protests and strikes, which often paralyse the economy and put of investors. Except for agriculture and tourism, Kerala does not have a noteworthy industry. Thus, there are many graduates, but few jobs. As a result, many well-educated Keralites leave their country to work in the Gulf States and send money back to their families. Their number is currently estimated at 3 million people, which is 9% of the total population. This could explain why Kerala, despite its deficient local economy, has India’s highest Human Development Index.
I had discovered Kannur and its beaches about two years ago together with my boyfriend. Staying at famous Kannur Beach House with a view onto the beach and a backwater river running in front, we found it to be an almost magical place with undeveloped, unpopulated beaches and fantastic “Mopplah” food.
Kannur is somewhat off the beaten track, which normally leads tourists to South Kerala, including Cochin, Alleppey and Kovalam. However, Kannur’s beaches not only keep up with more popular Keralan destinations, but also have two things that other beaches typically do not have: a link to the backwaters, and a big city nearby. This combination makes Kannur a raw diamond, which I am sure will be polished in future.
So I took my family to Kannur, expecting to experience and share the magic we had found there two years ago.
Thottada and the neighbouring beaches had not changed – because of the peak season there were about 10 people per beach instead of 0, which obviously did not make a big difference. But a lot of other things were different this time.
With Kannur Beach House being booked out, we now stayed at neighbouring KK Heritage homestay. KK Heritage has a very beautiful view onto the backwater river that drains from the inland into the beach, it has good food, attentive hosts, spacious rooms – but it just does not have Kannur Beach House’s charm. The idyllic location, the outstanding food, its teak wood rooms, and the intellectual conversations with our hosts at Kannur Beach House were not matched. Much of the magic of my first stay was lost because of this difference in locations.
Obviously, how satisfying a vacation is also depends on your travel companions and their individual expectations. For Rama and me, it had been enough to just walk the beaches, hang out, talk and enjoy the beauty of the surroundings.
The needs of my family were different: The tranquil atmosphere of the location was somewhat lost on them, who, having just arrived from relaxing Goa, were rather seeking a touristic programme than pure relaxation. Also, two of us spoke little English, so not all of us could appreciate the value of conversations with other homestay guests.
Thottada Beach and the neighbouring beaches of Kizhunna and Ezhara do in fact not have any Cafés or Shops, and the nearby tourist attractions are more or less limited to an old fort and early morning “Theyyam” dances, a traditional art form of the region that is still practiced. Except for the latter, activities had to be self-generated, the area self-explored. What a change from Goa! What to do and see when faced with normal Indian life – residential houses and a few tiny shops at most? We walked, a lot.
My mom and me began by exploring the hill North of Thottada Beach and were most interested in the abandoned or half-constructed houses we found, some of them in scenic locations on top of a rock, overlooking a small private beach. When we later asked our host why this was so, he told us that some of the houses had not obtained construction permits from the government, and others were owned by people who never got around selling their properties. We weren’t very satisfied with that answer, and my mom began fantasizing about buying one of the abandoned properties.
Together with my brother and his girlfriend, we then walked back southwards along Thottada Beach and crossed the rocky hill at its end in order to reach Kizhunna Beach. That turned out to be a challenge, as I should have remembered from two years ago, as there was no direct street connecting the two beaches. So we trekked along tiny paths and through private property in zig-zag lines, before an old man who found us trespassing in his garden finally showed us the right direction. When we finally reached the second beach, we were a bit exhausted and thirsty, and the afternoon sun began bothering us.
But I was not ready to go back to doing nothing at our homestay yet. I peered around, thinking what else to do, and suddenly remembered a shop that Rama and I had discovered on our last trip, somewhere on one of the hillocks bordering the beaches. It had sold delicious mango ice cream and cold drinks, something I really wanted in that moment. So I made myself believe that I would find it again and we would simply take an auto riksha to drive us back to KK Heritage. This way we would also avoid getting lost again on our way back.
(Back then, Rama and me had been walking for hours before we found the shop, and were both totally exhausted, burned and de-hydrated when we reached, but I chose to suppress that part of my memory.)
Totally convinced of the greatness of my plan, I suggested it to my companions. Needless to say, my plan was rather optimistic, as I had no clue where the shop was and we had not seen any auto riksha around for a while. Realizing the weakness of my plan, my brother’s girlfriend made some dismissive remarks on how we would never find any shop, leave alone an auto, and together with my brother went back home. That made me want to pursue my plan even more. My mother, more driven by her faith in her first-born than plain logic, and also an adventurous free spirit, followed my visionary path.
So we ventured out along Kizhunna Beach and up the next hill separating it from Ezhara. The village would most probably be towards the inland, we reckoned, so we preferred roads leading away from the beach. We also gave preference to bigger streets, assuming they would lead to some relevant place. But no shops or public property of any kind was in sight, only more roads twisting into different directions and occasional residents greeting us with a surprised look on their face that worried us a bit. We asked one of them for a shop, but he just shook his head and mumbled something in the local language.
We then decided to consult Google Maps with the last drops of my battery and go towards a school, which was the only mapped institution in the area. Maybe, we thought, it would be close to other establishments of public interest. But all we found were residential houses, one of which could be heard from a distance, with a couple of children shouting and giggling. My mom took the house for the school and commanded me “to ask the teacher”, who was in fact the father of the children. (She nevertheless went on calling him so, maybe in fond memory of her own profession). He gave us some general directions, pointing towards a street we had just come from and making a forwardly waving gesture with his hand indicating we had to walk quite a bit on that street. We did as he said, and did end up on a big, hopeful looking street, with frequent cars and pedestrians, but it took about five more directions from three different people to finally get us to a basic shop.
At that point I had long given up on my mango ice cream dream and would have just been happy with a cold drink. However, I realized in shock that all they offered was warm drinks, and so I desperately kept asking for “C O L D drinks”, clearly forming the words with my lips. “Cold, cold…not warm, you know?” But no success. Who would want to drink a warm sweet soda, that too in this climate, I wondered.
A young man standing nearby finally helped me with the translation and we got what we wanted, after making the wife of the shop keeper search the fridge of their private home next door. We bought several bottles of different cold sodas and water, which I greedily opened one after another.
Drinking my cold 7-Up, it almost seemed like my vision had come true when I noticed an auto riksha parked nearby. No driver was in sight though. “Do you know where the driver is?” I asked the young English-speaking guy. He asked the shopkeeper. The shopkeeper asked his wife. Then the wife gave the shopkeeper an answer and the shopkeeper replied to the guy. “We don’t know” he finally told me, and after he saw my disappointment he added “I think he is attending the celebration over there” and pointed to an open field on the other side of the road where about 50 people were sitting under a tented roof listening to someone speaking.
“How long will it take?”
“Maybe 10 minutes, maybe 30 minutes, you never know”.
“What kind of celebration is it?”
“The communist party is celebrating”
“Ah. Celebrating what?”
“I don’t know”
“After he is done, will that guy be able to take us to our homestay? It is right next to Kannur Beach House, you know?”
“Yes, I know.” He made a thoughtful face as though contemplating on a mathematical equation, and then continued: “It is very far…I think it’s better if you take a bus from here to Kannur and then catch an auto from there to your homestay….but how did you get here in the first place?”
“We walked here.”
“You walked here? That is quite a distance! How did you manage?!”
I knew that many Indians are not great walkers, but I found his reaction to the great distance we had apparently covered quite exaggerated. But then I convinced myself that my mother and me had in fact spend a lot of time walking, no actually trekking, narrow, steep paths on new Indian territory in the afternoon sun, so I replied, not without pride and raising my eyebrows knowingly: “Yeah, it was a bit to walk, but we enjoy exploring new countries like this you know”. Impressed, he pulled down the corners of his mouth. But I still hadn’t found out how to get home, so I asked further: “So you are sure that the best way to go is to Kannur from here and then change? I mean, Thottada Beach is far but not that far….”
“Ohhh…..” he said, tilting back his head in understanding, smiling slightly. “Thottada Beach…”. He had realized that our homestay was not in Kannur, as “Kannur Beach House” had implied, but in Thottada, a suburb of Kannur. “That is simple! I will stop the next auto that comes by, Thottada Beach is just a few minutes away.”
Disappointed by the sudden collapse of the story of our heroic hike, I decided to change the topic until he would hopefully find us an auto in which we would stuff our tired bodies together with the five liters of liquids we had just purchased.
The small talk interlude turned into an interesting insight into a young professional’s life in Kerala. The man, who later introduced himself as “Jack”, was in his mid thirties, and all he was dreaming of was leaving Kerala. Not only because of his low salary, but also because of society: “Everything is about politics here. People choose their friends by the party they vote for. And then the constant strikes and struggles. Everything is always complicated. They are not doing anyone any good.” His face lightened up when he spoke about his time in the UAE, where he had been working for seven years. “You have a good life there. But here, there is nothing” pointing around at the beautiful green countryside.
I was a bit surprised by the harshness of his judgment and talked about tourist’s perception of Kerala’s beautiful nature and kind people. “Yes, it is beautiful…but you get used to it. In the end other things are more important.”
Thinking of our difficulty in finding a cold drink for two hours and the increasing irrelevance of the nice beaches and forest along the way, I nodded.
This perspective had not been new to me, being a skeptic of Kerala’s communistically driven economy myself. In fact, Rama and me had made first hand experience with Kerala’s employment regulations, when we were told that we could only hire people through an “employment board”. But hearing it from a local was nonetheless interesting and reaffirming.
Being in your touristic bubble, Kerala’s economic troubles, its high percentage of alcoholics and having the highest rate of suicides in India, normally evade your perception.
After about 15 minutes, a riksha finally passed by, and we returned to our homestay triumphantly like Romans on a horse cart, and eagerly shared a somewhat exaggerated version of our story with my brother and his girlfriend.
After so much adventure, it was only understandable that my mother and me did not venture to any other activities for the remaining one day of our stay. Overwhelmed by so much authenticity, we decided to drop the theyyam and fort visit and instead sought solace in being buffeted by the waves of Thottada beach.
Kannur had what Goa had been missing: authenticity. But had that made it more attractive or somehow more “real” in a philosophical sense? Each of us had a different answer. Lacking manufactured touristic offerings, Kannur’s nothingness of authenticity would have required us to create our own experiences, which clearly overstrained us. Thus, leaving Kannur behind, we looked forward to more guided activity in Alleppey, the entrance into the Keralan backwaters.
Freshly retired and suddenly benefiting from the otherwise rare combination of time and money, my mom had given me the task to organize a family holiday in India, a country that I had visited often enough to act as a tour guide. My favourite state Kerala was set, and I added Bombay for a city experience and Goa as a classic tourist destination on the way. Starting in Bombay, we would work our way South to Goa, Kannur, Alleppey and Cochin.