Kerala caught me in the palms of its land
EMERGING from Thiruvananthapuram airport, I am surrounded by men eager to take me to my hotel.
The address on my computer printout, however, inspires an animated round of linguistic gymnastics as the drivers discuss my destination in Malayalam, the wonderful rippling and rolling language of southern India. (What other capital city has seven syllables in its name and takes foreigners a week to learn?)
‘‘ Yes, this man will send you to your hotel,’’ an English-speaker asserts finally, guiding me to a white Ambassador, an incarnation of my parents’ 1957 Morris Oxford.
I had tried to book a hotel in Thiruvananthapuram (or Trivandrum for those in a hurry) rather than the beachside tourist hub of Kovalam, 16km to the south. But my every attempt was foiled.
Eventually, when Wild Palms homestay, though full, offered a room at its beachside branch I gave in. Arriving late at night, jetlagged and disoriented, I would need a bed.
The roads are surprisingly quiet. My driver must be taking the back roads to Kovalam. He speaks no English so I settle back in the Ambassador, peering out into the darkness.
A half-hour passes. The driver stops to engage in a round of verbal acrobatics with some locals. Heads waggle and fingers point confidently ahead. We go on. The roads get narrower and quieter and more locals are consulted. If I were a nervous traveller, I would be getting anxious.
Then suddenly we are there, pulling up in front of a three-storey terracotta Keralan-style building. Wild Palms on Sea homestay is not at Kovalam, as I had assumed, but north of Thiruvananthapuram, and it is the only resort on the beach. I have escaped the tourism hub after all.
The staff lead me up a spiral ramp. A celebrated feature of the hotel, carpeted with local coir and decorated with carved balustrades, it occupies a prominent tower on the side of the building.
My room is spacious with walls of simple red brick and terracotta plaster, the furniture solid timber. From the balcony I can see coconut palms swaying in the moonlight and hear waves crashing on an unseen beach.
Next morning I watch the fishermen hauling in their immense nets, a dozen or more men on each one, digging their heels into the sand as they strain to drag it, and whatever marine life has been caught within, to shore. After a breakfast of omelet and curry, served at a solid timber table where I later share a Keralan evening feast with other homestay guests, I chat to the owners, Justin and Hilda Pereira.
After spending 40 years in England, working as accountants, and having successfully run Wild Palms homestay in Thiruvananthapuram since 1996, the pair decided to retire to the land where Justin’s grandfather, a fisherman, was born. They first built a bungalow for themselves and then the much bigger homestay.
I compliment them on the intriguing spiral ramp, which was Hilda’s idea.
‘‘ So many people have luggage with wheels,’’ she remarks, ‘‘ it seemed like a practical thing to do, but we find that everyone loves it.’’
In the afternoon I park myself beside the pool and doze away my jetlag. Then, re-energised, I tackle the boisterous surf of the Lakshadweep Sea. Keen to enjoy the sunset over the ocean with a beer in hand, I am disappointed to find — as is commonly the case in Kerala — a licence to sell alcohol is too expensive.
However, liquid refreshments are eventually forthcoming, supplied in teapot and cups; I toast to an Indian sunset, and a lucky accommodation discovery, in fine style.
Wild Palms on Sea, Beach Road, Puthenthope, St Xavier’s College PO, Thiruvananthapuram 695 086, Kerala, India. Phone: +91 471 275 6781 or +91 471 275 0749; www.wildpalmsonsea.com. Tariff: Doubles are Rs1795 ($47) or Rs2195 with airconditioning. Getting there: A taxi from the airport (16km) takes about a half hour. Checking in: Western tourists who want a quieter alternative to Kovalum; European families seeking a tropical beach holiday in winter. Wheelchair access: Difficult, as steps lead into reception; spiral ramp too steep for wheelchairs. Bedtime reading: The Man Booker Prize-winning TheGodofSmallThings by Arundhati Roy, set in Kerala. Stepping out: The beach is just beyond the wall marking the homestay grounds. Bicycles are available for those wanting to explore the quiet roads of the neighbourhood. Brickbats: The numerous black crows that begin cawing very early in the morning. The beds are hard (but all beds in Kerala seem to be hard). Bouquets: The peaceful setting and very friendly staff.
Port in a storm: Safely delivered by white Ambassador taxi to Wild Palms on Sea