Hawa* beach hacks
One of the funniest stories my dad told me from his younger days was about Sosamma who ran a roadside eatery. One day Sosamma made 10 puttu, hoping to sell each for one rupee. For whatever reason, she was particularly hungry that day and began polishing off the puttu one by one. By evening there was only one puttu left and in order to meet her sales target she priced it at 10 rupees. The fate of that sole remaining puttu is anybody’s guess. (Those were the days puttu was one rupee. And this whole episode was LOL-material.) For the sheer desperation that surrounded me in Kovalam I thought of Sosamma: she was everywhere. She was the hotel waiter who said I could drink only bottled water (the bottle water company gave a 50 per cent margin, I found out later), she was the lady who sold that thong-slice of a mango for ‘only 50 rupees,’ the knick-knack shopkeeper who refused to replace the bracelet that tore the same evening, the cabbie who announced ‘taxi’ as if startled by a bad dream when you pass by.
Having the benefit of local language doesn’t accomplish much when desperation has walled up all sense of fairness and justifiable prices; revelation of my Kerala roots invariably led to a near-brutal dismissal in a ‘then this is not for you’ way. More than exchange of pleasantries or gratitude, many of my transactions along the promenade concluded with an exchange of choice profanities in the vernacular. Those who didn’t gun for the obvious fast buck vied surreptitiously for the slow buck. Right from the hustle on the pavement to clicking on of fans and grins, offer of tea and best prices, all topped with the unconcealable frown – it was a vaudeville act that spiralled out of control. The whole sea front was lined with shopkeepers who sized you up with unbridled lust for lucre. As far as vibes went I felt like an ATM refill van during early days of demonetisation.
I have been coming to Kovalam for several semesters – including the ones I was suspended – during my master days at Kerala university in Trivandrum outskirts. But then being preoccupied with impressing my date I’d just go with it – the price named was paid. Now, 15 years later, wise and wizened, date-less and thereby focussed, I spent a full two weeks in Kovalam. Over the course of the fortnight, I befriended at least 30 locals including cops and substance sellers, catty renters and prudent backpackers, omniscient tour guides and future-less fishermen. I changed rooms thrice; each time it got cheaper and bigger. But the final change was the best – there was a pool (what if the water was brackish!) and trimmed lawn. And Russians wearing fishing net-inspired dresses. So I can rightfully say I have figured my way around the Sosammas of Kovalam.
Finding cheap rooms
There is always that bigger, cheaper room, yes. But in every likelihood, you will know of it only after you have checked into a smaller, pricier one. Murphy at work. Take heart. They normally ask for a couple of days’ advance, blame demonetisation and pay for just one. Whoever you meet, wherever you eat, you will be asked the question ‘where are you staying?’ You can be truthful and state the actual rate or chisel it by a hundred or few. Chances are that there is a room you can have for a lesser cost. Undercutting is standard practice here as tourism is hugely disorganised. The guy across the road where I stayed told me he’d give me a room for half of whatever I was paying. Well, here I was aided by a history of family feuds as well.
Finding good food
In ‘Following Fish’ Samanth Subramanian gives a thumb rule for good, cheap food: auto rickshaw drivers and wealthy businessmen set aside their differences and sit at the same table. No such luck in Kovalam. Here rickshaw drivers cart around their own home-cooked lunches and the rich stick to food room-delivered in their climate-controlled, sea-fronting abodes. Even if you ask for recommendations, do not ask auto rickshaw drivers – they invariably have a cut from wherever they plant you – which comes out of your bill. In Fort Kochi, an auto rickshaw guy asked me and a friend to ‘just walk in, look around and come out’ of a swanky shop which earned him a tee shirt. In Kovalam you don’t have many options for cheap food but almost all of them whip up passable fare. One joint even put together a fajita – with all the right accoutrements including blue cheese shavings. I don’t know if blue cheese should be there at all but I liked the touch. By the end of my stay I had given a cumulative average of three out of five for the beach hotels and was trying out hotels from nearby areas.
A general tourist complaint though is the pricey fare that seems to be the suicidal flavour of the season. “The tourist season has been trimmed from seven to three months while our overheads have gone up,” explained one hotelier. But if you look a little beyond the beach, there is good food – at budget prices. “We too go on family tours – and our budgets are not very high,” said Shobhana Prasannan who runs Sivas No. 1 Punjabi Dhaba across the road from Kovalam Mall, almost a kilometre from the sea. “Since that’s how most families travel, we consciously keep our menu prices low.” This, says Shobhana, has resulted in them barely breaking even every month. “Both me and my son chip in with kitchen work and table waiting.” There are more such little shacks near the bus stand as well.
Finding your stories
This one is easy: Just get hold of that guy watching sullenly with obvious envy from the sidelines as his more gregarious and charming English-speaking colleague dazzles the guests with local lore. But many a story loses its verve and punch when rendered in English – this showman version is usually loaded with dollops of innuendo and imagination for effect and desired results. The real challenge for me was to coax them into delivering it in Malayalam – an ability which buckled further when you ply your respondents with alcohol. It is like a one-night stand: you try hard to pick up the rhythm and if you fail you cover it with a lot of unintelligible gab.
Finding other stuff
The entry to the underbelly is seldom dark and dingy these days. It is well-lit, suave and warm and smiles a lot. But the cool clique is still elusive and breaking in takes not money but a lot of the correct aura. You may flaunt all your tattoos and it need not work. You can check into any place with loud music and lots of Bob Marley posters and still tough luck. Yes, some opportunities do come to you but the transaction is not before a long, winding walk along dark alleyways – can be unsettling for those with a history of mugging. Those with matted hair and XL-size crosses are christened ‘junkies’ and are under constant watch by the law enforcers – so it doesn’t help to hang around with them either. Confidence winning measures include: long stays, sizeable tips, penchant for unreasonable joy, preference for hugs over handshake and a proclivity veering toward the outlandish when it comes to sartorial choices.
Now, if fail-proof they wouldn’t be called ‘hacks,’ yes?
*Kovalam has three beaches – a demarcation which doesn’t make any difference to tourists. Anyway, these are – Lighthouse beach, Hawa (or Eve’s) beach and the Samudra beach. While Hawa is the prettiest, I have used it in the title just to rhyme with ‘hack’ – which holds good for the whole of Kovalam.