Sun daze in Kerala

It's a neat reciprocation: tourism is thriving in Kerala, meanwhile the visitors themselves are tourist sights, as Sue Wheat found out

The young Indian on the train looked at me aghast. Then he smiled, as if he'd realised I was joking. I had just explained that white tourists sunbathe because being brown is considered more attractive. He, an English Literature degree student who had been waxing lyrical about Dickens, could not imagine anything more ludicrous. "Tourists sunbathe because their white skin is more sensitive than ours, and feeling the sun on their bodies is amazing for them," was his explanation.

This was my fifth day in Kerala and I was already accustomed to cultural misinterpretations. It had started in Kovalam, the first stop for most charter tourists to this green, well-kept state. Kovalam is a beach resort 16km outside Kerala's capital, Thiruvanananthapuram (known more simply by its old name, Trivandrum) and was apparently palm-fringed and beautiful.

After eight years of being a charter flight destination, it now has a selection of restaurants and a host of souvenir shops lining the main beach. Some say it is spoilt, and the shopkeepers complain that the tourists have moved on to Varkala, a new and less developed beach farther north. But it is still a beautiful place, with the bustlings of Indian life. Every morning a line of 20 or so fishermen and boys sing a Kovalam shanty to help them work in time as they pull in their catch. It is still the stuff that picture postcards are made of.

We were here for a much-needed break in the middle of winter. Lying on the beach, reading and sleeping were our priorities. Apart from being famous for its Communist politics, high literacy rates, good health care and the high status of women, Kerala is also famed for Ayurvedic massage (using healing herbal oils) and yoga. We were going to have a self-indulgent, chilled-out time. But the beach was in fact a strangely stressful place, fraught with moral dilemmas.

The first was whether to sunbathe at all. Sunbathing is obviously not part of Indian culture, but this was a beach resort where it had become accepted for white tourists to do so. "Go ahead," said the Indian shopkeeper we consulted on the matter. "We understand that you need to do it for your health." In a strange way, that is, of course, true, although it is not the way I had ever interpreted my desire for a suntan. "Don't worry," said some Indian girls on a day trip to the beach. "We don't do it because we are too shy to remove our clothes, but if you want to, it's accepted."

So we did. Yet we couldn't help but cringe as fleshy women in too-small bikinis strolled up to the fishermen and leant over in earnest interest to look at the day's catch. Even in swimsuit and sarong I felt self-conscious.

Part and parcel of indulging our need for vitamin D was being photographed by Indians who visit Kovalam on Western tourist-watching tours. Many come on their way to Kanyakumari (also known as Cape Comorin), a pilgrimage site at the southernmost tip of India. Kovalam is a welcome entertainment on the way. Just as we might visit a traditional village and take photos of locals going about their daily business, so the Indians travel to photograph us - a strange people who lie in their underwear in the blazing sun going a shade of red. It is, of course, perfectly understandable and reasonable for them to come and stare; but for us it was strange. Such is the price of a suntan.

We left Kovalam for a while and travelled around the state, making our way to Kumarakom where we intended to relax on a traditional wooden houseboat along the famous backwaters - Kerala's labyrinth of waterways through tropical greenery and past traditional fishing and coir-producing villages. We ended up being ushered into a speedboat by a proud old man, eager to show us that he had moved into the Nineties.

The speedboat took us to Cochin, (now known as Kochi), the commercial capital of the state, where Kerala's tea and spices are auctioned. Dotted along the beach at Fort Cochin are Chinese-style fishing nets. A traditional, photogenic scene if ever there was one (confirmed by the fact that sellers are poised to sell you reels of Kodak at the beach-side), these huge great nets hang in the air and are dipped into the sea on a cantilever mechanism of rocks and ropes.

Unable to choose from the vast array of "fresh fish" at the stalls on the beach, we asked advice from a knowledgeable British expatriate who was working in the fishing industry. We were lucky, apparently, to be here now and not in a few years' time. "The big foreign companies are fishing the place to death - there'll be nothing left in five years," he confided. He added that his conscience was forcing him to leave his job.

Back in Kovalam a week or so later, we arrived the day after an unusual event. The restaurateurs, shopkeepers and tourists had joined forces in a protest march on the town hall.

What could be so important that tourists would get involved in a political protest on holiday? "They were helping us protest for the right to sell beer," said our waiter. A restaurant owner had been imprisoned that week for selling beer to tourists, and our waiter was insistent about the need for change to the complex licensing laws in Kerala. "It is very important for us to be able to sell beer in Kovalam," he explained. "We know the tourists need to drink it - they need it for their health."

indian spring

Citizens' Charters: a passage by air to India is easier and, in real terms, cheaper, than ever. Sue Wheat paid pounds 259 for a return flight from Gatwick to Trivandrum on Monarch through Manos (0171-216 8000).

On schedule: the main airlines flying direct from the UK to Delhi and Mumbai (formerly Bombay) are Air Canada, Air India, British Airways and United Airlines. Many other airlines will get you to Delhi indirectly, stopping anywhere from Ashkhabad to Zurich. The lowest fares are always available from discount travel agents rather than direct from airlines. One useful agent for non-stop flights is Welcome Travel (0171-439 3627), a leading discounter for Air India; other firms offer good deals on a range of carriers. Sample fares from Bridge the World (0171-911 0911) for travel in March are: Trivandrum pounds 391 on Qatar Airways, Delhi pounds 390 on Gulf Air via the Middle East, and Mumbai pounds 330 on Alitalia.

Battling bureaucracy: British passport holders need a visa to visit India, usually the six-month, pounds 19 tourist variety. Contact the High Commission of India, India House, Aldwych, London WC2B 4NA or the Consulate-General of India, The Spencers, 19 Augustus Street, Jewellery Quarter, Hockley, Birmingham B18 6DS. Call 0891 444544 (a premium-rate number) for details.

Health: the only compulsory vaccination is for yellow fever, for people arriving from areas where it is endemic. But protection is advised against typhoid, polio, tetanus, hepatitis A and malaria. If you plan to stay more than three weeks, immunisation against rabies and hepatitis B could be advisable. Call the Masta advice line, 0891 224100 (premium rate) for details.

Information: Indian Government Tourist Office, 7 Cork Street, London W1X 2LN (0171-437 3677).

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