Monthly Archives: June 2015

I can do five star luxury too… It’s easy!

View from my balcony...

View from my balcony…

As the school where I teach has links with a 5* hotel in Kovalam, once a month I get the privilege of spending my weekend there – at least since my return….  So, after just about three weeks back, OMG, am I in need of some pampering….

Since its invasion by 5* hotels, Kovalam is no longer the backpackers’ paradise, but it still attracts huge numbers of tourists, mainly of the more affluent type. This in turn has inflated prices in restaurants and coffee shops; and food prices on the beach front have almost reached Western levels, so an expensive place to visit for the locals or those on an Indian salary.  But this weekend, I was one of ‘them’, the ones with the deep pockets and I could indulge!  Especially as the ‘room with breakfast’ was complimentary and all the additional luxuries on offer came with a special discount of 20% for me…

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But I was  most excited by the promise of spending a full night in an air-conditioned room WITH hot water, coffee and a mini-bar…  To be cocooned in a layer of cosseting sheets and blankets with only cool air as company and no buzzing insects or cavorting lizards on the ceiling.  Bliss!  And three swimming pools to choose from and a gym without restrictions on the treadmill.  Not to mention the Ayurvedic Clinic (massages) and the Thai inspired Ocean Spa (more massages), and the hair salon, the dentist.  And the prospect of a spot of yoga on Sunday morning as a token gesture to International Yoga Day.  How could I possibly get bored???

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So I had worked out a plan, aiming for a subtle balance between action, relaxation and exposure of the parts of my body that have not seen the sun for absolutely ages…. My memory does not stretch back to the time I last wore a bikini, but to avoid a repeat of the unfortunate baring of white skin when wearing a sari, I have no option but to allow the sun to brown my midriff!  Although I have no immediate plans to dress up in the traditional Kerala fashion, I have to be prepared in the event I cannot escape it.

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Saturday worked a treat.  After being picked up by an air-conditioned taxi from the hotel and surveying my room, I went for a walk along the promenade as the wild Kovalam sea, whipped up by the Westerly monsoon winds, made the beaches too treacherous or actually non-existent.  The first layer of tan established and having lunch on the go, I could not resist the temptation of spending a few hours in the cool of the room and having an afternoon siesta – the only sensible thing to do on a hot afternoon.  My first foray into the swimming pool did not quite go as planned as I had not anticipated being the only white person in bikini in a pool under the watchful eye of testosterone fuelled Indian young men.  But I braved it,  ignored the stares and remained in the water as much as possible… I checked out the gym and managed a whole three kilometres until a blister – air-conditioning did not work – cut short my work-out.  But Saturday certainly took care of the action part and this left Sunday as a day devoted to relaxation.

I had the most amazing night sleep, the best one since arriving back in India.  I gave in to tiredness at the unimaginable hour of 9.30 pm – I never even explored the hotel bar – and did not open my eyes until 7.10 am Sunday morning.  Oops, too late to join in with the early morning yoga on the lawn, but still in time to take photographs of the two women and ten men who made the effort.  That took care of my contribution to International Yoga Day…

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And indeed the buffet breakfast beckoned, an altogether more important affair with waiters on hand to take my order for dosa and massala dosa and bring it to my table to save me the trouble.  Five Star luxury requires ‘no effort’ on the behalf of the guests, just sit down and let others do the running – I so could get used to that !!

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The rest of the day was devoted to relaxation in the pool and the Ocean Spa.  How could I not indulge in a massage, if only to compare it with my lesser budget Varkala massage experience after lying on a sandy beach.  So, I decided to not just have a massage, but go for the ‘Eternal Bliss’ experience which started with a one hour long slumber-inducing French Aroma Ritual (massage in layman’s terms), which is probably how I missed the oodles of oil being rubbed in my hair…   Wow, that was relaxation at its best!  On the other hand, I was rather underwhelmed by the 30 minutes of ‘body polish’ which was reminiscent of being attacked with a scrubbing brush, but boy did it leave my skin baby soft !  And it all culminated in the Floral Milk Bath – it was awesome: instead of playing with bath ducks, I played with rose petals covering and uncovering various parts to ensure the photographs taken by the masseuse (God knows what she must have thought of me….)   were suitable for publication…  And yes, many had to be discarded as I had not ducked deep enough into the bath and I realised only halfway through the photo shoot… Oooops!!

5* massage parlour....

5* massage parlour….

Excuse the hairstyle...  Loads of oil remaining even after washing WITH shampoo...

Excuse the hairstyle… Loads of oil remaining even after washing WITH shampoo…

Monsoon???? What Monsoon???????

dark clouds

The beginning of June heralds the onset of the Indian monsoon.  And indeed, all appeared to be on track as P., one of the local teachers, had already alerted me in mid May of early heavy rain showers and even floods in the areas surrounding Neyyattinkara.

So I came prepared with  brown plastic Crocks to replace my leather footwear that probably would not fare well in the watery weather and added a waterproof jacket to the essentials in my luggage.  And my umbrella?  That was discarded when repacking my suitcases at the eleventh hour as I would certainly not have any difficulties finding another one in India.  Although being used to the British weather means that rain, or even heavy rain for that matter, is no stranger to me, I was looking forward to experiencing ‘the monsoon’, a kind of rain that surpasses every other rain:  endless streams and sheets of water veiling towns and cities, mountains and mangroves; torrents of raging water cascading from the hills being funnelled through the narrow muddy streets; people wading through ankle or knee-deep flood waters, but smiling maybe at the relief from the crushing pre-monsoon heat.

On my arrival on 26th May, I immediately enquired about the advent of the monsoon and was persuaded it was coming: maybe on Thursday or Friday, but definitely by Saturday (31st May).  So the weekend came and went and the sun was shining full of mischief, with not a rain cloud in sight.  I sourced a map on the internet charting the northward movement of the South West Monsoon which indicated it should arrive on 1st June.  Another blistering day; no need for the plastic shoes just yet…  And so it went on the next day and the next and the next.  I faithfully checked out the weather forecasts on BBC World News to keep abreast of the monsoon’s progress until suddenly on Friday 5th June a mere uneventful shower finally gave way to the long-awaited announcement that monsoon had officially been declared.  That was it??? The monsoon???  Not quite the powerful downpour I had imagined; I have seen much more mighty deluges in England!  And whereas I was expecting the beginning of the monsoon to be followed by unending rain day after rainy day, so far we have been drenched in unending sunshine…  I am not complaining really, because was ‘the’ monsoon really to materialise, I probably will have had enough of it after a day or two.

And I can assure you it is not just the rain that makes life uncomfortable.  Although power cuts are a curse of Indian daily life, they just happen with even more frequency in the rainy season and tend to occur at the most inconvenient times.  My first experience with total darkness came about one evening right at the beginning of my previous  visit:  an early cooking experiment in full flow, a power failure extinguished all but the light from the gas flame and following my gut instinct to keep everything safe, I immediately turned off  the cooker… with the result I had lost the only light source in the house not knowing where to find a torch, the matches or a candle.  And Saturday mornings at around 9 am are particularly notorious for lack of electricity, when I imagine every woman in the neighbourhood switches on the washing machine at the same time.  In school, on rainy days, blackboards, singing voices and textbooks  are a godsend as they do not rely on electrical current, so I am a little apprehensive now that my lessons are supported by the one and only Interactive Whiteboard in the whole school.  Better keep the vocal cords well oiled, a supply of whiteboard pens (or chalk) handy and maybe still take in my laptop fully charged…

Although the monsoon seems to have bypassed Kerala so far, Indian optimism has remained and ‘it may still be coming soon, sometime over the next two months’.  I am waiting with bated breath!   So, the monsoon may not yet be living up to expectations, but the menacing rain clouds and thundery downpours have certainly created excellent photo opportunities.  And just in case El Niño indeed brings about a rather dry monsoon,   I shall be reading ‘Chasing the Monsoon’ by Alexander Frater  as this may be the closest I will get to the real thing this year…..

I hope you can see the double rainbow...  An amazing sight over the Arabian Sea, especially as it was a full arc, but I could not  capture it completely in the photograph.

I hope you can see the double rainbow… An amazing sight over the Arabian Sea, especially as it was a full arc, but I could not capture it completely in the photograph.

In Memory of My Beloved Sister

Tomorrow is my sister’s funeral.  After five months bravely fighting one of the most devastating cancers, she died peacefully in her sleep in the early hours of Monday.  A life lived to the full, but cut short at a time when it should still be bursting with promise for a fulfilling future.

But I cherish the days we spent in each other’s company, and the many happy memories she has left behind.  And I was lucky to still see her a few times in those very last weeks, on some of the days when the pain had subsided and things looked a little more positive.

But we both realised that we would not see each other again for a while, so we whispered to each other that we loved each other and that we would meet again, one day, ‘on the other side’.

Orchids, my sister's favourite flowers.

Orchids, my sister’s favourite flowers.

Slipping into Indian mode…

I can assure you that if I had written my first post in the immediate aftermath of my arrival, it would not have started on a positive note.  Did anything get done in my absence???? Did I heed caution and take words such as ‘Don’t worry, we’ll take care of it’ with a pinch of salt?  Did I not watch my Indian friends in the Heathrow vicinity burst out in laughter at the thought of the Indians having made a start on my long catalogue of urgent jobs to be completed by end May?  But those who have followed my blog may find it hard to believe that I am prepared to eat my words, and just maybe in the light of a more Indian attitude on my behalf, might have begun to develop a soft spot for them.

Of course, it was never going to be perfect and the snag list left for the attention of the management in the expectation that all would be resolved on my return, had gathered three months worth of dust.  But giving credit where credit is due, all stops were pulled out on my arrival and within 24 hours the internet was reconnected and activated; plumbers and electricians tended to my requests; hot water in the shower was restored after some helpful soul had turned off the switch and no amount of balancing on the toilet and aiming with a wooden spoon at the switch was going to allow me to turn it back on.  Talking about being child and tamper proof!  However, the gas cylinder in the kitchen is still running on empty, but as I can still produce a flickering flame, there is no hurry to bring me the replacement ordered way back in January.   And the television has not yet come back to life as the remote control has lost all ability to respond, even after changing the batteries twice, but what’s the urgency?  As my main entertainment from that device amounts to watching many repeats of BBC World News – I can assure you not much happens in a day, or a week for that matter – I can catch up on stories from around the world on my iPad.  So any irritation that bubbled to the surface in the first few hours, vanished with a little patience on my behalf.  Bless the Indians, they are well-meaning and when the pressure is on, they can indeed work VERY SMALL miracles.

fruit stall 2 (1) fruit stall 2 (2)

Walking around town, I am greeted by smiley faces as people suddenly realise I am back.  The owner of one of the fruit stalls insists I try her mangoes – I used to buy her grapes before.  I stock up  on vegetables in the shop next door: tomatoes, onions and okra or lady fingers as they prefer to call them.  I have had my first chicken killed without a second thought, having found that being vegetarian does not agree with me.  I get a big grin from the autorickshaw driver who lost in the battle trying to overcharge me.  Sunukmar,  my trusted and regular driver, asks, ‘What happened?? Going to Kovalam?’  I shrug my shoulders, ‘Maybe next weekend… I’ll call you ’.   But when disgraced Anandu tries to strike up a conversation and attract my attention, I do not give him a second chance!  His boat has well and truly sunk.

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And on the roads I spot the unmistakable white lines of several new zebra crossings!  Not that anyone takes the blindest bit of notice, but it is progress!   At school I see fashion sense is moving into the village as a few ladies dare to use the dupattas draped over just one shoulder (in Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel style) rather than covering their bosoms.  In Trivandrum, mannequins show off women’s shorts, although I cannot imagine any ‘good’ woman being allowed to wear them.


On the  home front, I now have an oven brought all the way back from the UK and I roasted my first chicken in a cake tin as bringing suitable cooking dishes completely eluded me.  It is good to be back!  Not even I could have imagined that I would have slipped into Indian mode with such ease.

A different unintentional use of my cake tin...

A different unintentional use of my cake tin…

But then again, school has not yet started and I have already had the first flavour of what to expect…  The swimming pool, with its palm tree lined surroundings,  that was supposed to be ready in April is still waiting for a filtering system that will take at least another month (read ‘several’ here…) to come. Maybe my swimwear purchase in New Bond Street was rather too optimistic, so Kovalam beach it still is.

Don't be deceived by the reflection... It is a large puddle!

Don’t be deceived by the reflection… It is a large puddle!

And as far as the new school gym is concerned, I have reinstated my membership at my normal gym to be on the safe side of getting some exercise.  But the promise of my own classroom has come up trumps….  I was even offered a choice between a classroom so small it would be like fitting 40 children on a postage stamp, or a large auditorium the size of a small football pitch a few floors above ground level. A choice, indeed.  And as I am a staunch advocate of exercise, I will be going up and down stairs about 20 times a day, rather than sweltering in a claustrophobic room surrounded by chattering children.  And I have an interactive whiteboard!!!  Having listed the requirements for my English classroom before I left, I was intrigued to find the most expensive – and most PRESTIGIOUS – equipment was provided, but the humble, essential dictionary which gives learners independence was nowhere to be seen…  Plus, as my only piece of equipment in the room is heavily dependent on the availability of electricity, the frequent power cuts may make things a little dicey to say the least.  So, to put you fully in the  picture, I took my camera to school this morning to show you my new classroom: I will have plenty of ventilation; and maybe the fans might be able to give a whirr; it is even possible that there will be some light bulbs in case the rain clouds darken the room too much; and when the painter and electrician have finished their work, there might even be some chairs and benches.  School opens this Wednesday….   I think I shall take precautions and bring in my own laptop and loudspeakers and plan my lessons around not yet being in the new classroom.  But I am sure I will be there, someday, soon….

An impressive building...

An impressive building…

Ready by Wednesday??? Probably not!

Ready by Wednesday??? Probably not!