Trivandrum to Varkala; Expensive food and cheap bed; Beautiful beach and ugly tourists; Surreptitious alcohol; In which we make a drastic change of plans

We hadn’t heard a lot about Varkala. We knew there were cliffs and a beach, though, and that was good enough for us. South Africa had spoiled us for beaches and we were both missing the sand and the ocean. There’s a beach place called Kovalam that’s very close to Trivandrum, but it sounded like an overdeveloped tourist hell to us and so we opted for Varkala instead.

We were very proud of ourselves for finding the right bus at Trivandrum’s chaotic bus station, even though none of the buses had English signs. We recognized the Hindi letters (or Malayalam, I can’t tell the difference) using a handy cross-reference from a sign that listed town names in both languages. We had to resort to silly mnemonics to do it (the ‘k’ sound is the letter that looks like a telephone receiver) but it worked. It was Sunday - and Kerala’s large Christian population means that it’s one of the few places in India where that matters - so the bus we thought would take just over an hour took close to two, winding its way through tiny bumpy rural backstreets and stopping every thirty seconds or so when a local flagged it down. We didn’t mind, though. We weren’t in a hurry at all, and we got to see a lot of things that way that we wouldn’t normally have. The traditional Keralan houses, for example, are all wood-framed and painted in solid bright colours - lavender, pink, yellow or blue.

Varkala Town and Varkala Beach are not the same place. The bus dropped us in town and it was a 50-rupee ride to the beach. The autorickshaw drivers know they have a captive clientele so there’s no possibility of haggling the price lower. We didn’t have a place to stay yet, but we didn’t feel like paying the driver’s commission from a hotel, so we got him to drop us at the helipad instead. I’d assumed that the helipad was some sort of landmark, but it turned out to be exactly as advertised - a big empty paved space with a big painted H in the middle for helicopters to land. Naturally I felt a bit foolish for inconveniencing myself with the bus when I could have had the helicopter brought round. Ah, hindsight.

Before we could even start looking for a place to stay a nice Spanish couple called out to us and told us they’d bring us to a spot with a few cheap little guesthouses that nobody knew about. That certainly worked for us and so we followed them back across the helipad and down the road back toward town. After a hundred meters we left the road on a narrow path between two concrete walls and through a grove of coconut palms and banana trees to a small dirt lane. The lane twisted around to a cluster or three or four houses, a goat, a few barking dogs and two placidly munching cows. To say we would never have thought to look here for accommodation would be entirely an understatement - we’d never have thought even to look in this direction. So we were very grateful to the Spanish, especially when we found that one of the houses had a spotlessly clean room with an attached Western-style washroom for only 200 rupees a night - that’s about CAD$5 and roughly half what we were expecting to pay at one of the cliff-side hotels. It was quite charming - a little concrete building set among the palm trees. At the end of the lane were a cluster of trees bearing strange-looking, huge green fruit with spikes. I didn’t recognize them, but discovered later that they were jackfruit (and even later that jackfruit and durian aren’t actually the same thing).

Varkala is without a doubt the most beautiful place I’ve seen so far in India. The cliffs are all streaked red, orange, yellow and brown stone, rising from a long golden stretch of sand and hazy grey-blue water. The palm trees sway in the breeze and lean out over the cliff edge like a postcard. The hotels and shops are all strung out along a kilometer-long stretch of paved walkway on the cliff-top. It’s like a tropical dream.

Two things spoil the effect somewhat. The first is the garbage. This being India, there’s a very relaxed attitude toward trash collection. The usual approach here is just to drop it on the ground and think no further about it, so that mounds of stinking, rotting trash accumulate everywhere. Varkala is slightly more enlightened in that they throw the trash over the cliff edge. From the beach it’s possible to see landslides of trash slipping down toward the ground, and from the top of the cliff, when the wind is wrong, the stench can knock you over.

It’s conceivable that something might, someday, be done about the garbage issue, but the second problem is all the tourists and I don’t see what can be done about them. Varkala seems to be a huge package-tour destination and the place is crawling with the worst kind of tourists - rich, old, white and ignorant. 90% of the people here are old and white, and the other 10% are young and white. The only locals around are the ones running the restaurants and shops. The shops are all selling identical mass-produced souvenirs and they never give up trying to sell them to you as you walk past. The locals all have practiced and polished sales pitches, even - especially - if they have nothing to sell. It’s exactly like a Caribbean resort. Are we still in India? We can’t tell, and obviously none of the old holiday-makers could care less where they are.

But we were there for the beach, after all. We went down to the water and I did my best to ignore the acres of pasty white flesh on display. The water was beautiful, warm as sweat. The tourists here are nearly all European and so the beach was covered in cigarette butts, but was otherwise clean. There were hundreds of fully-clothed Indian men standing or walking on the beach in groups, gawking at the women and eating them alive with their eyes. These aren’t locals - the locals have all been entirely desensitized by years of exposure. These are day-trippers, come especially to stare at women in swimsuits and take pictures with their camera-phones. It was incredibly creepy, but very sad and pathetic too - it’s obvious that they must all be entirely desperate for a glimpse of female flesh, if all this colourless, withered elderly skin does something for them. We could only handle a little while on the beach and soon retreated back up the cliff hoping that tomorrow would be better.

Being touristy, the restaurants in Varkala are all a lot more expensive than we’ve become used to - dinner was more expensive than our hotel room, in fact. Getting Indian food is almost difficult - the menus are almost entirely western and continental. Judging from what we saw people eating, the restaurants know their market very well - I don’t think I saw anyone eating Indian food apart from us. The sale of liquor is officially prohibited, but it’s a very badly-kept secret that every restaurant serves it. We indulged in a bottle of beer, rare for us, and it came wrapped in newspaper and had to be hidden and poured under the table. Some places serve cocktails, all strategically misspelled on the menu (”Bloody Merry”, “Strawdriver”, etc.) and containing “v-juice”, “r-juice” or “w-juice” rather than vodka, rum or whiskey. It’s pretty funny. The plausible deniability fools no one, least of all the authorities - it’s not meant to. The authorities know as well as anyone that the primary mission is to extract money from tourists and that alcohol is the best way to do it, so they’re not about to interfere as long as the proprieties are observed.

So we had our beer and watched the sun go down over the water and the buildings along the cliff-top light up into a string of sparkling jewels. At sunrise and sunset the beach here is full of people behaving like idiots. I’ve neglected to mention the third tourist component here in Varkala - the Yoga People. Sheryl is weary of my contempt for the Yoga People, so I’ll indulge myself here. I have no objection to yoga, let it be said. Yoga’s fine, yoga’s wonderful. There’s a lot of mystical nonsense that goes along with the physical part of it, but if someone wants to practice yoga I’m all for it. What really annoys me are trend-following western people who are just soooooo into yoga, you know? Naturally the ones that actually take the step and come to India are the real starry-eyed and empty-headed ones who are convinced they’re having some sort of spiritual experience by standing on their head on the beach. I can’t stand these trendoid attention-whores, I really can’t. I’ve taken to referring to them as Yoghurts, or sometimes Yog-tards.

But the yog-tards and the trash and the creepy gawkers couldn’t really put a dent in my good mood. It was so nice to be able to relax and chill out. You don’t realize how tense you get when you’re travelling and every new thing is a problem to be solved. It’s hard to really relax in that situation, especially when you’re not spending more than one or two days in each place - you’re always having to think about transport or accommodations or food. Varkala, by contrast, is easy. The beach is there, the food is there, and there’s nothing to do except relax. There are people here who came intending to stay for a couple of days and wore out their six-month visa, and I can definitely see the appeal. I might come back someday when I’m an old, ignorant pasty package-tourist myself and stay here for six months, but until then there’s a lot of world to see, so I think I’ll be able to resist Varkala’s gravitational pull.

One of the nice things about Varkala restaurants is the fish. Every day the fishermen go out, and they sell their catch to the restaurants. The restaurants all have ice tables out the front with the fish laid out - snapper, butterfish, crabs and shellfish and even the occasional swordfish. As the evening wore on, the fish lose bigger and bigger cuts as people order from them,, until eventually there’s nothing left except heads, tails and spines, which - you guessed it - go over the cliff. I was desperately craving swordfish and have been for months, but we decided to wait until the next day when we were hungrier and could do it justice. We took a walk along the cliff-edge for awhile instead, and then walked back through the hot, humid night air to our room.

That’s more or less how the days passed in Varkala. We went to the beach and swam and sunbathed for hours in the morning. The beach was a lot nicer on the weekdays, since there were no creepy daytripping gawkers. The water was incredibly warm. And incredibly salty! You could float with zero effort but we always ended up seriously dehydrated. The surf was high, and we’d play in it for ages, jumping into the waves and letting them toss us around or shoot us toward shore where it would roll us through the sand. The little whelks in the sand would get annoyed by this and start biting us in unexpected places and the sand scraped off a lot of skin, but it was lots of fun. I saw my first horseshoe crab and tried to catch him, but he bit me and got away. There were ladies wandering the beach selling pineapples and mangos and tea. Tea on the beach - this might actually be paradise. The waves were very strong and rough sometimes, and the force of the water would shake us and spin us around and sometimes bounce us off the bottom - I coined the term “Varkala Enema” for the effects. We’d always be wiped out by midday, so we’d retire sunburnt and exhausted after lunch for siesta under the ceiling fan. We’d get most of our sleep during siesta, I think, since the nights were incredibly noisy. The first night it was strange animal noises like cows in mortal agony, a couple of other nights it was a hundred howling dogs, and every other night it was music and loudspeaker-shouting from the local temple. It was at least a kilometre away and yet the noise was loud enough to shake the walls. It went on until nearly two every morning and started again before six. I don’t think anyone sleeps at night in India. There are intermittent power outages all night long here - I wonder why it never affects the temple?

All that aside, Varkala was amazing. We’d planned to stay one day, or maybe two, and we ended up staying for five days. This wreaked havoc on my carefully-thought-out itinerary for the next couple of weeks. We had a deadline, see. On March 7th there was an elephant race at a temple town called Guruvayur in central Kerala a few hundred kilometres away. I’d planned the itinerary to get us there in time, because how often do you see an elephant race? But we wanted to stay in Varkala longer, and so that meant we’d have to go north to Guruvayur almost immediately after Varkala and then circle south again to see all the places we’d missed. Planning for this became seriously awkward and so we started looking for alternatives - at the other end of the country. Rajasthan is the place to go for elephants, we were told, and sure enough there was an elephant festival on the 10th in Jaipur, the day before the Holi festival of colours. Holi in the south isn’t such a big deal as in the north, where it’s huge, and so that was an additional reason to head to Rajasthan.

But how to get there? It’s thousands of kilometres. I worked out a train route through Mumbai, but it would have taken three days of travel and would have gotten us there only just before the festival. We decided to fly. We found flights from Trivandrum to Chennai and Chennai to Jaipur totalling about Rs7800 for each of us - that’s about CAD$200 each. I really didn’t want to spend the money, to be honest - it’s a lot. I could live for three weeks in India on $200. And I was sad to go north so soon and miss everything in Kerala and between, including Mumbai. I suppose we can come back south again, but realistically we won’t. I’m not at all happy about this turn of events, but Sheryl has her heart set on Holi and elephants in Jaipur, so there’s nothing for it but to go. It’s probably for the best - we’ll have spent a month in the south by that time and there’s a lot of the country left to see. Sometimes it’s necessary to do something radical and break out of a travel rut. Crawling slowly around India, while best, threatens to make us spend six months, see only half of what we want, and then get caught by the monsoon.


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Chris Liberty - Dispatches from a Gentleman Adventurer
Being the internal dialog of a vagabond who chased his own tail across five continents for 4 years and 2 days from May 2008 to May 2012, in search of something that never really became clear.
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