Everybody loves some beach time, right? Actually, wrong. I’m fairly certain that Maya, given the choice of hanging out on a beach or eating a plate of spicy Indian food, would opt for the latter (and that really is saying something.) She can’t stand the sand or the salty water. And let’s not even get started on the sun which, let’s face it, is fairly unavoidable in India. The heat has upped a notch so we’re out of the sun for the hottest hours anyway, but Maya has taken this a step further and and if she DOES decide to go in the sea, she only allows herself to do this before 8am and after 5pm. So beaches can be a challenge for our family and we often don’t see much of Maya. Our English Rose - how she will LOVE being back in the cool climes of England.
She does well though, she doesn’t complain. She just reads a rather absurd amount (she recently discovered Agatha Christie - that should keep her busy for a while) and if Maya does swim in the early morning or evening, we have to make sure she can get straight into a shower afterwards, otherwise the grittiness of the sand against her skin will soon send her into meltdown mode.
For our Keralan beach experience, we spent a week in Varkala, joined by the children’s grandfather from England, Thatha. I was here twenty years ago, and apart from the beautiful cliffs that glow red in the evening light, the place was hugely different with gaudy shop after cafe after yoga space strung along the cliff top, catering to backpackers with the obligatory suntan and tattoos. We stayed in two different places, the first of which was south of Varkala and the second which was north at Odayam Beach, so far enough way from the look in my shop, good price! and the reggae music to be properly relaxing (yikes, I think I’m really starting to sound my age!?).
It is hard to explain how happy the children were to see things on the menus in Varkala that they actually recognised - Pizza! Spaghetti Bolognese! Toast and Jam! (For Andy and I: Proper Coffee!) All food in Varkala seemed to take an inordinately looooooong time to arrive on our table, but boy was it worth the wait. So they were happy kids, and we noticed that they were definitely arguing less, doubtless because of the wide skies and beaches and non-Indian food in their bellies 😉.
But you know, despite loving being on the coast and the joy of the food and freedom, there were things that really challenged us all, perhaps more than anywhere else yet on this trip. The second day we were there, a rickshaw driver told us about a festival going on in a nearby village. He mentioned drumming, costumes and elephants. As soon as ‘elephants’ was mentioned, Lily announced she wasn’t going as didn’t want to see how the elephants were treated. But I hoped for the best, and Maya, Benji, Granny Amma and I headed over there. And how was it? Well, the drumming and the costumes were great. But Benji took one look at one of the festooned, decorated elephants and his face fell a mile. ‘Mama, that elephant’s crying,’ he said. Was it crying? i don’t know, I don’t think so. But the point is that Lily did well to stay away. Having spent five years going on safari in Kenya and seeing elephants in the wild, this was a depressing experience. Elephants are wild, herd animals. And yes, you could argue that elephants have been part of temple life for hundreds of years in India. Perhaps, but I don’t think that makes it ok. When we saw how the elephants were being paraded and treated by their minders, we just wanted to get out of there. For Benji in particular, an essentially Kenyan boy who has only spent two of his seven years of life in England and whose best friend took him to the Masai Mara to experience life at its wildest, this was a particularly bitter pill to swallow.
Early one morning, the children also saw a couple of difficult things: an enormous, dead sea turtle washed up on the shore and trawling fishing methods by the local fishermen which involved needless waste of thousands of tiny flapping fish, not yet grown to maturity, that slowly drowned in the open air before being discarded. This actually made Maya cry. People have to make a living and it’s the big fish that sell, not the small ones. It’s tricky, trying to explain why this kind of thing happens. (Nairobi friends: in case you come across the current edition of Swara Conservation magazine, I have an article on Kuruwitu, a model, sustainable marine reserve on Kenya’s coast…if only this could make its way over the Indian Ocean).
As for the giant turtle, we’ll never know if it died because of plastic contamination or old age or something else entirely. But there is a huge, huge problem with plastic along this coastline, which of course is symptomatic of the world’s beaches and oceans in general. Early one morning, the five of us took out a big bin liner and walked along the beach collecting flip-flops, plastic bottles, toothbrushes, biscuit wrappers and so much more. I got chatting to a fisherman who thought we were truly crazy. Why are you dong this? he asked. We used to do this, but two days later, the sea just washes up more plastic. There’s no point. I do understand that this is endless and disheartening. But I thought about this children’s story I love called The Little Hummingbird by Native Indian author Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas, in which one tiny drop after another, a hummingbird tries to help put out a raging forest fire. That’s all this is, a small family of five just doing something very small, just doing what we can.
I hope this doesn’t all sound negative - the truth is we had a fantastic, joyful time at the beach. It’s just that it was peppered with some experiences that made us pause, and think, and wonder how things could be different. And I don’t think that’s a bad thing.
But I have banged on too much already, so I’ll let the photos of our time at the backwaters speak for themselves. This was Air B n B at its wonderful best - discovering a beautiful village called Pulinkunnu, far from the well beaten track where we explored the surroundings, ate the most divine food prepared by our hosts, went out on an early morning canoe trip and whiled away the hot hours of the day on the verandah of our old, traditional Keralan home and watched the world slip sleepily by.