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APRIL10, 2000 VOL. 155 NO. 14

Afoot and Afloat, Kerala Is Worth the Journey

Illustration for TIME by Randall Enos


I never had one myself, but people say you get covered in oil and that the masseur or masseuse (you can choose the gender) does a barefoot foxtrot down your back and a tap-dance on your bottom before turning you over to launch a full-blown rhumba on your stomach. And if you want to go the full hog they'll even irrigate your colon--but that's another story, which I don't want to get into.

Wherever you go in Kerala, in every hotel, doss house or beach hut, you are invited to an ayurvedic massage. You get a hint of what's in store from the oil stains in your hotel bathroom, and the sign saying: "Please use the colored towel if you have been massaged and leave the white one for ordinary use." Even after being thoroughly laundered, the colored towels feel slightly sticky.

Massage and all the herbal extras that are part of ayurvedic medicine are big tourist businesses in this part of India. Add yoga and a bit of sea-side meditation in front of a spectacular sunset, and you have a package that foreigners seem to find irresistible. At my small hotel, I met a Russian migrant from Italy offering his neuroses across the banana leaf on which our thali (set lunch) was served. He wasn't sure whether the head massage that morning had relieved his immediate pain, or whether it was the assault on his back the day before that had done it. He had suffered from back pain for a year, and friends had told him his affliction would disappear in Kerala. We were eating on an open platform shaded by coconut palms overlooking the sea at the Coconut Bay Beach Resort, a delightful family hotel in a cove shared with a dozen local fishermen, south of Kovalam Beach.


Afoot and Afloat, Kerala Is Worth the Journey
Wherever you go in Kerala, in every hotel, doss house or beach hut, you are invited to an ayurvedic massage.t

Established in 1572 and enlarged for its 200th anniversary, Oksan Sowon was lucky to survive campaigns against Confucian schools throughout history

Web Crawling
Descriptions of Kerala's hotels and restaurants guide you to the hot spots and offer insight into the local experience

Despite its growing popularity, Kerala has all the charm of a backwater--the name actually given to its network of canals, lakes and small rivers. You will find none of the slick resort hotels that congregate around the beaches of Southeast Asia. And none of the hassle and aggression that tourists frequently suffer in North India. South India is different, as if an invisible line had been drawn across the country below Goa and its hordes of tourists and ravers.

Kerala is leisurely, unusual and fun. Start at the top at Kochi--or Cochin, as it used to be known--a sleepy Macau-like port where the Portuguese set up trading depots in the 16th century until they were pushed out by the Dutch in 17th century. (They, in turn, were shoved aside by the British in the 18th century.) For the best views of the city, take a ride on a wooden launch. If you miss the boat you can always hire someone to row. Head for Fort Cochin, a maze of narrow streets and old buildings, where most visitors stay. Within this labyrinth is Jewtown, Asia's oldest Jewish enclave, though most of its residents moved on to Hong Kong and Shanghai more than a century ago. Its 400-year-old synagogue is decorated with blue-and-white willow pattern tiles from China. Jewtown is the main source for antiques, especially colonial furniture, in South India.

Afterward, head south to Alappuzha, formerly known as Alleppey, spend a night on a converted rice boat in the "backwaters" and, after a day or two, make your way to the sea. The backwaters are similar to south Vietnam's Mekong Delta, featuring canals, lakes, banana trees and paddy fields, only much less populated. If you like company and backpackers, try grubby Kovalam Beach. I prefer to walk the coast and visit temples. And if you want to be truly far from the madding crowd, there are many small and medium-sized hotels tucked into the cliffside north and south of Kovalam, where you can enjoy an endless ayurvedic R&R. One session every other day, aficionados say, should be enough to remove the kinks from your body and your soul.

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