Surfing isn't the most popular sport in India by any means (nothing comes close to cricket there--not even soccer), even though the country has some of the most beautiful coastlines in the world. It's out of the question in Mumbai, where the ocean is simply too polluted to enter. So after some time in the 'city of dreams,' we decided to take a quick plane ride to the Kerala region, which is down at the southern tip of India.
For a beginner like myself, the conditions in Kerala were pretty much perfect: small fun waves with lots of foam, a soft sandy bottom without reefs to cut you up, and nobody else to bump into out in the water. That emptiness is what I'll return for, for sure--there's nothing on earth like having an entire beach to surf yourself (there were only about 5 of us!). This is a pretty big deal coming from the constantly-crowded waters of California and Hawaii.
On land we weren't completely alone, as this part of Kerala has tons of local fisherman and their families who literally live in huts on the beach. They are all super friendly and curious to meet new visitors since surfing is a pretty brand new activity out there (some claimed that we were one of the first 100 to ever surf there!). Our hosts know the locals well and convinced one of them to try surfing on his board--by the second day, this local fisherman was really finding his balance:
Since we were there right before the monsoons, the waves were pretty calm. Better surf can be found at the end of summer after the rains have washed away most of the sand deposits, exposing more of the reef. By the way, Kerala's waves are all lefts, so heads up to those who are goofy (not me).
Below is Kerala's famous North Cliff, which is a lovely stretch of restaurants and shops along a rocky beachside cliff. Many of the locals do not swim, but they do play in the water and sand quite a bit (especially on May Day, as we found out!).
The next week we drove about an hour and a half north to our next destination, Kovalam. This area was much more developed than Kerala, even hosting the Spice Coast Open, India's "first" official surf contest approved by the Surfing Federation of India (and yes, that's a Red Bull tent back there). This contestant below just emerged from the moderate waves with a broken board:
These photos were taken on the last day of the competition. Below are some individual huts scattered around the beach where fisherman rest during the day.
It certainly wasn't Surf City, but it was easy to see how surfing has found a place in Kerala's own local culture. While many older locals cannot swim, there is a growing number of youth who are comfortable swimming, sailing and surfing.
One of the most interesting things about the Kerala region is that it has India's highest literacy rate at 94.6% (we saw many rural laborers intently reading the newspaper during their breaks) and the nation's lowest school drop out rate at 0.53%. People tend to be more tolerant of religious and cultural differences in Kerala than other parts of the country as well. The young locals are also increasingly Western in their choice of clothing, pop culture, and hobbies but continue to maintain many of the traditions of their families. These rather progressive regional characteristics are likely some of the factors that helped pave the way for such distant activities like surfing to be adopted by a public that has historically been afraid of the ocean.
Coincidentally, shortly after we returned to Los Angeles, this Wall Street Journal blog published a fun piece on the Kovalam Surf Club, a surf school that encourages children towards academics--and away from drugs and alcohol--through the incentive of surfing.