Travel: Naked and oily, as the doctor ordered - Rose Rouse leaves her beach idyll (and an alarming massage table) to seek adventure with her son in Kerala, and meets a cast of surprising characters

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The Independent Travel
I lay stark naked, smothered in sesame-seed oil, on a wooden table in a shabby room at the back of the Raja Hotel at Kovalam beach. I was being rubbed vigorously by the charming Dr Sambu. It was the first of a series of strange encounters in the southern Indian state of Kerala.

Dr Sambu's eyes gleamed with professional intensity as he increased the pressure on my buttocks. Meanwhile, I was picturing the beach scene outside, where gangs of adolescent Indian boys would be ogling embarrassed Western women in their bikinis. It seemed strange that I should choose to be unclothed in the presence of an unknown Indian man.

Dr Sambu took some hot oil, poured it over my body and proceeded to alternate harsh, circular strokes with light, almost ticklish caresses over my pressure points. This was an Ayurvedic massage.

I felt I should mention that I found the massage rather rough. 'That's because you have the right infrastucture for pressure,' Dr Sambu said.

The next day I was sitting in my favourite vegetarian restaurant, looking out over verdant paddy fields, when I heard Dr Sambu's name. Shaven-headed Ann, a midwife who had come to Kovalam to do yoga, was claiming she had had an orgasmic experience with him. I was forced to conclude that he must customise his massages according to requirement.

Kovalam beach is a good place for a rest. It is quieter than Goa, less trendy and youth-orientated. Daytime activities include visiting the tailor for a cheap summer wardrobe, climbing the lighthouse, snorkelling (a few angel fish but nothing spectacular) and lazing on the beach, snacking on fresh pineapples.

Sunbathing is regularly interrupted by Hammed, an eccentric sunglasses salesman who thinks he is Elvis; the peanut boys (four rupees a packet); the beachmat boys; the rug people from Karnataka and many more. One day I had 11 traders approach me in one hour.

Kovalam beach is enjoyable, but after 10 days of bliss, my seven- year-old son Marlon and I decided to move on in search of stranger experiences. Totally rested, we needed adventure. And, as it turned out, the people we met along the way had a lot to offer.

At first, we settled for the lazy luxury of a taxi, which we took up the coast to Quilon. There we joined a boat trip along canals and across palm-fringed lakes, watching buzzcocks soaring overhead and frothy-looking coir (coconut fibre) being harvested on the banks.

Our next destination, Cochin, a port farther north, was recommended through the traveller's grapevine. I found it disappointing, though Marlon was transfixed by the Hindi soap operas on television; but on a boat trip around the old part of town we met Maruti. He was the highlight of the tour, outshining the Jewish synagogue, Portuguese Matancherry Palace and the weird and wonderful cantilevered Chinese fishing nets.

Maruti was a 22-year-old engineering student from Tamil Nadu and had the easy, gentlemanly manners and little black moustache that is almost ubiquitous in India. He and his 40 mates were on a one-month industrial tour of the country and were unable to contain their excitement. He made a beeline for me and Marlon to try out his English. 'What exactly do you have for breakfast in London?' he asked with an endearing penchant for minutiae.

Having discussed the rich-poor divide in India, we got on to arranged marriages. 'Why can't he marry you?' probed Marlon, eager to offer me an opportunity. Maruti laughed uncomfortably.

While on the boat, we were handed a leaflet advertising Kathakali dancing on the rooftop of a Mr Devan's home. So that evening we turned up to watch Kerala's own form of pantomime, which involves men dressing up as women, much make-up, bright costumes and improvised playfulness with the audience. Mr Devan's family had been involved with Kathakali dancing for almost a century. When his father died last year, aged 97, he was still performing.

Meeting Mr Devan turned out to be another notable experience. He had a kind face, an air of absolute conviction and a steady determination to explain the serious history of the flamboyant performance we were about to watch. 'Many Western people are confused by Hinduism because there are so many gods,' he said. 'But Hinduism is about freedom. There is no one idea of God in one form: you can put anything forward and worship it.' At this juncture, Marlon whispered in my ear: 'Can I make my Sega into a god when we get back, mum?'

Next day we visited the Mudumulai Wildlife Sanctuary in Tamil Nadu. A friend in London had urged me to go. 'There's this mad Parsee who runs a hotel there, and you'll have great discussions with him,' she assured me.

After a wonderful, eight-hour drive through tea plantations, we found ourselves in the forested Nilgiri hills. As soon as we arrived at the sanctuary, we were thrilled to see a wild elephant, herds of deer and lots of black-faced monkeys. Spotting tigers was another matter altogether. Apparently, there are only 27 left.

Unfortunately Bamboo Banks, run by the 'mad Parsee', Mr Kovotel, was full, and at first we were consigned to a grim jungle guesthouse. Keen animal spotters that we were, we rose at 6am to join the Wildlife Sanctuary bus in the hope of glimpsing a rare, exotic creature. Having seen the way buses tore down the roads at full speed, engines roaring, this seemed an optimistic hope.

We found ourselves among a motley bunch of shivering tourists in thin clothes and Indian students in balaclavas, peering obsessively out of the tiny bus windows. Suddenly, an Austrian woman shrieked and we clambered over to her side of the bus. Panther or tiger, we wondered. But there was just a single spotted deer. By the end of the trip we had seen a family of wild boar at a waterhole and a herd of elephants, a baby in tow, far in the distance.

At last, there was room for us at Bamboo Banks, hosted by Mr Kovotel and his elegant wife. Bacon and eggs were laid on a table outside while a group of American astrophysicists discussed world affairs. 'Britain used to be the best country in the world until the socialists got hold of it,' announced Mr Kovotel. 'India ran like clockwork under the English.' He was not one to keep his opinions to himself and the Americans were evidently bemused.

The Kovotels dressed for dinner. That evening they appeared in full regalia: he in tweeds and cravat, she in a long, silk dress. Mr Kovotel delighted in verbal provocation. His solution to disobedient servants on his several tea plantations? 'Hanging is the only way,' he concluded, to the apparent annoyance of several of our dining companions.

The next afternoon, while we were out searching for animals in the jungle (on elephant-back), a tigress and her cub had plonked themselves down on a neighbour's lawn. 'It's not a safari park here,' said the irrepressible Mr Kovotel. 'It's real, you have to be lucky.'

Reluctantly, we took our leave of the luxury of Bamboo Banks (it cost pounds 30 a day, including meals, and my Visa card was feeling the pinch) and decided to endure the economies of buses and trains. We survived the bus trip to Mysore intact. In fact, the friendly driver even stopped to let a German boy take photographs of a tree covered in cow dung that was drying, ready to be turned into fuel.

The train to Madras was comfortable. However, the bus station was hell: mud, urine, honking horns and no information. I was transfixed by the sight of a coach backing straight into a very calm Indian gentleman (he survived), while Marlon desperately dragged me out of the way of another. 'I'm never going on another Indian bus,' he vowed. But he did.

Getting there: The best airport for Kerala is Trivandrum. From 16 August, Air Lanka has a return fare of pounds 432 from Heathrow through Travel Bug (061-721 4000); the same fare applies out to Trivandrum and back from Madras. From 8 August, Air India has a flat fare of pounds 462 from Heathrow to all destinations in India, including Trivandrum and Madras.

Information: Government of India Tourist Office is at 7 Cork Street, London W1X 1PB (071-437 3677).

(Photograph omitted)

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