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A Fish Market on the Beaches of India

A snapshot of local life awaits on the beaches of Kerala

The cab driver was lost. He called the hotel manager again, they tossed around the words beach and pool. He drove on, still lost and yet not really lost. He stopped and asked locals leaning against motorcycles. They pointed. Finally he drove onto the sand alongside the beachfront resort, my home for the next two nights. It was my first time on the coast of Kerala, south India.

Beside the Marari Villas were several palm trees, a hammock and lounge chairs. With fruit drinks in hand, I followed Olga, my host, on a tour of the property. The space was dreamy and almost make-believe: an outdoor shower, flower petals strewn across the bed, a giant wall of glass that opened up to a view of the Arabian Sea. 

The adventure of being in India made it impossible to sleep. Luckily, Olga had suggested that if we were early risers, we should be sure to visit the fish market just 500 yards up the shore. At dawn, I donned a dress, grabbed my phone, and walked up the beach. Out at sea were dozens of rafts, which were made of slabs of polystyrene covered in blue tarps, only big enough for one man and one oar. The few actual boats that were at sea were wooden canoes with curled ends, like a pair of fancy Indian slippers.

Awaiting the morning's catch
The coast of Kerala is not easy to get to, nor is it hidden. It may not be the beach-scape of Goa, but it’s just as good, if not better. I spied trees, trash and, further back, hints of homes; but there were no hotels, no half-finished buildings, no evidence of change.  The beach is undeveloped. Of course there’s a downside to the lack of change—notably the piles of waste on the beach and the stray dogs roaming the slopes, waiting for scraps. 

As I walked closer, the sounds of the market began to swirl about. I’d been to the tuna auction at Tokyo’s Tsukiji fish market, and instantly recognized the sing-songy voices of auctioneers. Men wearing button-down dress shirts and mundus—shiny fabric tucked to look like a skirt—stood in giant circles around drop cloths scattered with fish. The crowd of men listened intently as an officiate called out in Malayalam.

Fishy headgear
Young men swam out to meet the boats, bouncing in the waves as baskets of fish were tossed down to their outstretched hands. I asked an English-speaking local about some of the different roles I observed. He explained that men along the beach wearing hats and carrying fish are fishermen. They carry their catch in straw baskets balanced atop those wide-brimmed hats. There are also women who rest their fish atop headgear—a towel wrapped like a bun. These women buy fish either for resale in local markets or to bring home for dinner.

All that commerce made me hungry. I sniffed out two rickety carts holding deep vats of boiling oil in which vendors were frying up savory treats made of chickpea flour and flecked with green peppers. For six rupees I bought two. A smiling woman wrapped them up in a sheet of newspaper. Another vendor poured masala chai tea back and forth between a pitcher and a tiny glass. I wanted that too, but decided that water wasn’t something to be adventurous about—I would save that for the fishermen.

As integral to the fish market as the fish themselves

Where to find it
The market is easily reached by walking if you stay at the Marari Villas, where a private chef serves fish from the market. You can also hire a cab from the nearby town of Alapphuza.

Who can go
There are local fish markets all along the west coast of Kerala. It’s open (of course, there are no doors) to the regular public and to small-scale local merchants who buy the fish for resale at stands further inland.

 When to go
Wake up early and hit the beach by 7 a.m. The market operates seven days a week, and while the timings vary according to the fish catch, it's always best to get there early.

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