Varkala; Inappropriate dress at the Fish Market; Festival with elephants

There was only one day that was an exception to the Varkala routine of swimming and sun. We’d found one person from couchsurfing.com in Varkala and written to him before we arrived. Sebastien met up with us on the helipad and brought us to his house for breakfast. He’s not from Varkala or even from Kerala, but from Rajasthan. His family runs a jewellery manufacturing operation and a storefront on the cliff and he lives in Varkala during the tourist season. He’s not too fond of Varkala, I gathered. He told us all kinds of dirt about the place. The local boys know the score and cruise the cliffs and beach looking for older tourist women. The beach is known in town as the “Fish Market”. They know the women can only stay until their six-month visa expires and so they make every effort to bleed them dry while they can. Sebastien says that three-quarters of the restaurants on the cliff were started up with this gigolo-money.

That’s cute enough - everyone knows the score and probably nobody’s got any illusions about it. There’s a much more unpleasant aspect to the Fish Market, though. Sebastien didn’t come right out and say it, but his oblique allusions to gangs of local men drunk on alcohol and flaunted female flesh, and women “having trouble” walking on the dark road between the beach and the town made me believe that there have been more than a few rapes here. This doesn’t surprise me in the least, given the behaviour that even modest, fully-clothed Sheryl has had to endure just walking down the street - and also given the fact that nearly all the women here are horrifyingly inappropriately dressed for India. I would be the last to use the she was asking for it apologia for rape - believe me - but tourist women in Varkala seem to be ignorant of or deliberately flaunting India’s vastly different moral code in regard to female dress and behaviour. I saw one woman topless on the beach, for god’s sake. That would be bad enough, but the majority of them carry that dress and behaviour off the beach, onto the cliff and even into town. Swimsuits, short skirts and camisole tops are more the rule here than the exception, and the friction this causes is glaringly obvious - to me, at least, though clearly not to them. The problem is made much worse by the fact that a high proportion of young Indian men seem to have virtually no contact with women at all and their concept of the gender and their approaches to them have been formed by sweaty adolescent lore and Bollywood movies. Their advances to women are about as sophisticated as a dog humping a leg (and sometimes bear more than a passing physical resemblance, for that matter). So it doesn’t surprise me at all that women have been attacked.

So it was an interesting conversation over breakfast, to say the least. Afterward Sebastien took us to see what he called his family’s jewellery “factory”. I’m accustomed to thinking of a factory as a huge operation, though, and I’d be more inclined to call their setup a workshop than a factory. It’s a two-story converted house halfway between the beach and the town. The downstairs is the showroom and polishing area. There’s a display counter there filled with finished pieces and boxes of polished semi-precious gems. The upstairs is the workshop proper, where the hammering and mounting and such happens. On the outside stairwell is a crucible where the ingots of silver are melted and poured into bar-shaped moulds. I’ve never held a piece of pure silver before - it’s surprisingly heavy. There were four or five people working there, all quite busy. It was a very cool opportunity to see how jewellery is made without having to endure a sales pitch.

I took a siesta in the early afternoon while Sheryl went down to the beach for a swim. I knew it was going to be a tiring evening because we were planning to go into town to see a festival parade with elephants. Sheryl was back late, having no way of knowing the time, and so we quick-marched along the road into town. The last half-kilometre or so was more or less paved with elephant dung and so we were afraid we’d missed the parade. If we had missed it, it couldn’t have been by very long, we reasoned - based on the… freshness… and so we continued at a fast past hoping we’d catch up with them. An interesting side effect of being in India is that, what with all the stray cows, they understand dung on the roads here and the cars are usually very careful to slow down when they drive over it to avoid splattering pedestrians.

Our first clue that we were getting close were the shiny multicoloured streamers roofing the street from building to building for hundreds of meters, and the crowds of people lining the road. Mostly families, the women and children were dressed in their best and the men were dressed like slobs. Every so often by the side of the road were tables set up with flowers and incense in brass dishes and bowls, and urns full of grain - offerings for the temple. Little hand-pulled carts and bicycles worked up and down the road selling toys, ice cream and plastic pinwheels. Indian pinwheels are much better than the lousy four-pointed ones we have at home, by the way - they’re round and have lots of points and they don’t wobble when they spin.

We thought we’d missed the elephants, but we were wrong. Along the road came a procession of 21 elephants all in tall red and gold headdresses and forehead-pieces, ridden by men in white robes and handlers walking alongside. It was amazing - I’ve never seen so many tame elephants in one place. They all had two riders each except one young elephant who had only one rider. Each had chains wrapped around its middle and ankles. A machete hung from each saddle so that the riders could cut palm fronds for the elephants as they walked. We got a place near where each elephant was watered as it passed. Sheryl kept referring to it as the “filling station” and that’s exactly what it looked like. Each elephant stepped up and curled its trunk under at the end, and a man held the hose over the end to gush water into the trunk. The elephant knew when its trunk was full and would squirt the water into its mouth. It was all very efficient.

After all the elephants had passed, we found out that they’d come back the other way in half or three-quarters of an hour. We got tired of waiting for them and followed them the way they’d gone to find out what they were doing. We hadn’t realized that there was going to be a parade! The elephants had gone to take their place at the end. There were lots of floats built on the beds of trucks, all with various gods in action, and each with its own soundtrack courtesy of the huge speakers strapped onto the truck’s roof. There were animated horses, lions, and a giant swan with devilish red eyes. Two or three different sets of drummers and horn-players, and the now-familiar spinning, sparkly headdresses. There were traditional kathakali dancers here too, and they weren’t any prettier made up as women than they’d been the first time we’d seen them in Trivandrum. We found the elephants again, patiently waiting their turn to begin the parade. Half of them were munching or playing with palm fronds. When they started moving some of them dropped them and some carried them along in their trunks or wedged between trunk and tusks. One elephant in particular was collecting all the fronds that the others dropped. He had so many that his face was almost hidden. Every time the parade stopped he’d drop them and have to pick them all up again before he could go on.

We followed the elephants for awhile. Everyone was very friendly and waved to us. We were grinning like maniacs because of the elephants, so probably our enthusiasm was contagious. One group of young boys actually abandoned their inexpertly-made float to come over, say hello and get their pictures taken. One of them was awed by my piercings and recoiled in real fear when I jokingly reached for his ear, pretending I was going to give him an earring. It took awhile to convince him I wasn’t serious. One old man was peering over our shoulders to see our photos. I think he’d happily have stayed there all day and looked at every single one if we hadn’t had to move on.

After the elephants were nearly past again, we decided to beat the crowds and head back to the beach. We got up ahead of the parade and then realized we were lost. Nothing looked familiar. Everything looked the same covered in lights and streamers, and we couldn’t see any landmarks for the crowds. We’d forgotten that we needed to turn off the main street to get back to the beach. We realized that we’d gone way too far in the wrong direction and had to turn back. Of course this ran us straight into the crowds and the parade again. I felt like a salmon swimming upstream. We were absolutely crushed by the crowd. The people were so tightly packed that we had to actually squeeze through their sweaty bodies to make any headway. I felt completely covered in humanity and its various secretions. We fought our way against the flow for half an hour, and then the power went out. A huge cheer went up and the only lights were the headlights of the parade floats. We sat and waited for the elephants to pass one more time (since we went past 21 elephants three times, Sheryl insists that we saw 63 elephants) and then tried to find our turnoff.

The power never did come back on. Our road, when we found it, was pretty dark. Even despite my natural caution and Sebastien’s horror stories earlier in the day, I wasn’t particularly worried about trouble, since the road was full of families headed home from the parade. Still, after ten minutes the families had thinned out and the darkness had thickened. It began to seem like a worse idea to walk the three or four kilometres, but it was almost impossible to find an empty autorickshaw. One man approached us and said he’d call his friend to bring his rickshaw around. To say I was deeply suspicious would be an understatement, and so when an empty rickshaw came a minute later we flagged it down. It actually turned out to be the guy’s friend, and we reluctantly got in. I still watched our route very carefully, ready to jump out the instant we deviated from the way back to the beach, but he was on the level and we got back safely. I don’t like being such a suspicious bastard, but crooked-taxi-driver is such an easy game to play, especially in the dark. I’m less nervous about autorickshaws than proper taxis, because autorickshaws have no doors and it’s possible to jump out if you have to.

By the time we got back to the cliffs we were nearly fainting with hunger. The power was still out, so we had an unintentionally romantic dinner by candlelight, with pseudo-daiquiris to accompany it that looked and tasted like rum punch in Barbados - now the feeling of being in the Caribbean is complete.

Flourish

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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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