Kovalam revisited after 20 years

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Perhaps my memories are skewed with nostalgia, but I am sure that the first time I visited Kovalam Beach in India’s southern state of Kerala 20 years ago, it was a very different place to the one I see before me now.

The candy-striped lighthouse is still at its southern tip and the water still undulates with warm waves. But it is no longer the same azure blue that I remember and the sand no longer the same soft gold rising and falling in soft powdery dunes. Now it’s packed flat with a greyish tinge.

The once-sparse sprinkle of tourists has multiplied so that vacant space on the sand is tough to find. Any gaps are used as transit routes for the beach vendors selling their beach beds to aimless sunseekers from all over the world. We take them up on their offer and sprawl in the noon sun, watching the line of surfers on the waters surface paddle into the current then bob expectantly on the horizon although we only spot one or two catch any of the choppy waves.

After a refreshing swim, we wander up to grab a cold mango lassi and contemplate the range of snacks on offer.

The line of basic but comfortable guest houses that once fringed the beach has become row upon row of apartments and hotels. Where they once opened out directly onto the sand, now they are separated from it by a raised concrete walkway lined with shops filled with tourist tat.

The German Bakery where we once ate breakfast on the sand is now part of a shopping complex, and the beach restaurant where we chewed through dinner as giant cockroaches dropped into our plates from the immense tree overhead, eliciting screams and the odd tear, has simply disappeared.

Any place, especially one as beautiful as this, is bound to change dramatically in 20 years – after all, why shouldn’t the local people benefit from the wave of tourists arriving on their doorsteps?

I suck the cool, creamy mango-tinged sweetness from a tall glass sitting at the window of a modest cafe and take in the cluster of wooden fishing boats at the dividing line of the two stretches of beach, the holidaymakers splashing in the clear and cooling waves, the peaceful stretch of sand further down the beach. A few metres along the paved walkway, a Gandhi statue smiles benevolently at the scene.

It may have changed, but it still has its charms.

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