At 6 pm on the 19th of December there was a dish of fragrant curry before me and I was at the crossroads. It looked good. At least six different vegetables I could see, as shiny and brightly colored as a bag of mixed buttons. They slouched inside a crisp raw cabbage leaf, which in turn sat in a metal pot that reminded me of my mum’s original 1970s fondue set.It smelled good. A tiny candle flickered beneath, lifting aromas off the curry and into my face – coconut, mustard seeds, curry leaves, cumin, white pepper and some other spices, maybe cardamom, fenugreek and coriander. The chef refused to tell me what was in it, resting smugly in the kitchen like Colonel Sanders and protecting his 11 secret herbs and spices.

“Leo’s Vegetable Kadai” was all the menu read – the rest was a mystery. But that’s not what was holding me back. I didn’t really need to confirm what was in it, but what had been left out – namely those tiny bacteria that can completely mess up your holiday. It was day three in India, six days until Christmas, and my first meal out of the hotel.

My friends (let’s call them Lucrecia and Julerie) were already indulging, but I’m a bit delicate in the guts and was still talking myself into it. I made myself start with an onion kulcha – flakey stuffed bread that has been cooked at a million degrees, and has big bubbles all over it just like my favorite kind of pizza base. It has to be safe – not much could survive the tan door. It was soft and crunchy, buttery and salty, and the onions inside were dark brown and sweet – toasted to the point of disintegration. Finally I couldn’t handle it any more. The smells were too much, and that little bite of bread opened the floodgates. My appetite was freed and knew no bounds. The Vegetable Kadai tasted even better than it looked – rich creamy and served with steaming coconut rice. I couldn’t get enough of it. We ordered more – a potato and tomato dish and an okra marsala. Soon we were sitting back like three fat Buddhas, unable to do anything but utter sighs and watch the passing traffic and glorious sundown.

* * *
In sunlight the Kovalam Lighthouse Beach strip is full of cloned, brightly painted, terrace style concrete establishments, all with white plastic garden furniture draped in striped towels that look like they have been pilfered by the Kempinski Poolboy. All the restaurants have titles that include the word “palace” or “garden” despite the obvious lack of either, or share the particularly un-Indian name of the proprietor – e.g. “Leo’s”.
How does one choose the “safe” restaurant in this row of identical siblings? By accident of course! We selected this place out of the many  because at that very hot and sticky moment in the middle of the day it happened to be right next to us when I demanded beer.
The proprietor had swaggered up with a grin.
“Are you Leo?” I had asked
“Yes, yes, that’s me!” he replied, “But you can call me Bob”…Of course….“you are eating lunch today?” Lucrecia had eyed me and we uttered simultaneously,
“no, just beer. Maybe tomorrow,” we had by now realised that the easiest way to defend against the sales pitch is to defer the exchange.
“You must come back, this will be your finest establishment in Kovalam for eating dinner!” I love the way many Indians use English in the future tense, it makes me feel like they are all growing into something. “Ooh, yes, I have everything good for the ladies. I will give you the finest quality of the Lobster, the crabs, the mans…” Did he really say that?
“…The mans?” I asked. He raised his eyebrows several times and waggled his head a little but said nothing.
“Oh, no, no, no!” gasped Lucrecia, “We came here to get away from the mans!” Julerie and I sniggered into our beer – we had realized on our road trip with Delboy it is assumed that women over a certain age traveling without men in this area are after a little spicy Kerelan lovin’.
“Ah well….” he was a little downcast,  “You will have my finest Indian wine.” mmm, sounded tempting
As soon as he left the table, the street traders had found their approach unhindered, and we were offered a procession of goods – tablecloths, sarongs, perfume, cigarettes, fruit, oil and baby soap stone elephants with babier baby elephants carved inside the bellies. We realized that it was not necessary to walk the shopping strip – it would come to us. I was quite happy with my 250 rupee silk sarong until I bought an identical one later for 100. Julerie attracted a highly theatrical tablecloth trader who carried his wares folded on his head, and with the slightest encouragement unfolded each and every one with dance moves from Saturday Night Fever.
One caught Lucrecia’s eye, and he offered it to her at the “very good price” of 4000 rupees. She screamed a death rattle and clutched at her throat, and we got to see a true bargainer in action. She finished up with three for 3000. The death gargle became code in our little group for almost anything, and I am sure that it will appear again at dinner parties for as long as we all know each other. But for this week it just made everyone in Kovolam think that we needed to huck up a very big lurgy.

Soon after we had looked over our frosty Kingfishers in coffee cups, and the fishermen hauled in their mammoth nets and crowds gathered to watch and help, mainly watch. Westerners paid for sun loungers and beach umbrellas and shared the shade with flea-bitten dogs that kept on sneaking under the loungers despite “shoo”s, faux hits and newspaper missiles. There’s a little more swell on this beach than our one over at the kempinski, and in the shade of the point kids jumped off rocks to join compatriots on surfboards in the glittering backwater and wait for a wave.

We met an Australian girl who had been staying in the strip and had eaten at Leo’s several times. She was not turning gray in front of us or conducting her half of the conversation from the toilet seat, so we figured Leo’s might be an OK bet. The decision was made.

* * *
Nighttime is even more peaceful, and as the bottle of terrible Indian wine at the table leg was replaced with another, we welcomed the darkness. With it came a different set of street sellers – men with black plastic bags stuffed with dinky LED light toys that can be shot into the air with an elastic band and pirouette down like Christmas fairies.
Adolescents interchanged masks of Arjun and Santa and give 5 rupee pantomimes in front of each restaurant. They got most of the words to “We wish you a Merry Christmas” wrong, but the lead kid had stuffed his belted red t-shirt with a pillow, so he got a tip for effort. The cigarette man went upmarket and brought cigars of many varieties – coffee, grape, chocolate, and two ordinary cubans which we snatched up for Julerie’s hubby, and a packet of Double Happiness cigarettes as a Secret Santa gag present.

Westerners gone native and in some cases utterly ferel, roamed the beachfront, either in stoned bliss or weirdo-step. One man, at least sixty, in just orange yogi pants and a set of monstrous headphones came past singing something at the top of his voice that could have been The Who, but he only seemed to get every third word and then go off on a tangent. Be-dreadlocked Aussies walked behind eight year old boys who carried their surfboards back to the cheap shacks off the main drag for a couple of rupees.

Lights twinkled out at sea, but there’s no town between Kovolam and the coast of Somalia – just fishing boats by the hundreds, full of “the lobster, the crabs and the mans” I would imagine. The lighthouse would occasionally sweep the sea clean with it’s blinding light, only to reveal even more upon it’s passing.

People walked the strip in its bold flourescentness or retreated to the sand for a more gentle interlude, only to be quickly herded back to the boardwalk by the marauding canines that had taken ownership. It was solely the Stoners that were brave enough to stay on the beach – making sand angels, cuddling the dogs and smoking joints in relative private.

After our beers we bid Leo-Bob goodbye, promising to call in on his nephew who is “big bar captain” at a Palm Jumeirah hotel in Dubai. We hired a rickshaw for 50 rupees and a promise to the driver that Lucrecia would not sing. It struggled under the weight of three western housewives with belly-fulls of curry, sounding like a Hoover with a giant furball stuck in the pipe.

We re-entered five star paradise and decided our bravery should be rewarded with a digestif and a couple of rounds of 500. When we got the bill and it was three times the cost of our entire dinner and drinks at Leos, Lucrecia spluttered another death gargle and tried to bargain the bar captain down. He was not amused.

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