Saturday, February 13, 2010

Varkala, India

Varkala has the raw beauty of Kerala’s coast and an international culture artificially isolated from the rest of India.

We're sitting at an outdoor café on the edge of a cliff.  I’m enjoying a slice of toasted homemade bread spread with Nutella and a pot of strong milky cardamom tea in which spoonfuls of sugar disappear without sweetening. The café has an Italian name (Trattoria’s), and the sign advertises “Oriental Food Court and German Bakery.”  There’s a glass case displaying French pastries- croissants and baguettes.  There are silk Chinese lanterns strung under the overhanging porch.

We're eaves- dropping on the couple sitting next to us.  He’s a Punjabi from Delhi and she is Israeli with an enviable mane of curly hair.  His English is much better than hers, but they are flirting shamelessly.   A barefoot man wanders by in a white turban and a green lunghi playing a small instrument that sounds like a cross between a flute and bag pipes.  I feel comfortable here in shorts and a T-shirt and girls on the beach are wearing bikinis.  In Pondicherry, I’d felt exposed in my knee-length sun dress with bare legs.

We’d arrived here after a long 20 hours of auto rickshaw, bus, train, and taxi travel.  Since we purchased last-minute, our tickets for the overnight train from Villupuram (outside of Pondicherry) were for a  “3AC” sleeper car, which means we were fortunate enough to have air conditioning, but our bunks were in tiers of 3 along the sides of a large public train car (no separate compartment or locking door).  Our neighbors for the 15 hour journey included a constantly crying baby.  I’ve thought more than once that the best thing I packed is ear plugs!!  .

We disembarked at Trivandrum, the capital of Kerala state, around noon.  We needed to take another short (one hour) train ride to get to Varkala.  While we waited, I parked myself on an aluminum chair on the train platform with our luggage while Mohit went off in search of lunch.  Two cute little girls, maybe three and five, sat with their mother in the chairs in front of me.  Both wore pastel dresses and silver anklets with bells.  I was doing nothing, just sitting still and sweating.  But the girls were transfixed- they stared at me for at least half an hour.  I smiled at them but they didn’t smile back.  They didn’t even blink.  They were studying me.

After a messy, spicy, delicious take-out lunch (Hyderabad Masala and chapattis) we crowded onto our next train.   The only spot available was on a top bunk- Mohit threw our luggage up and I folded myself in.  Disembarking onto a dusty platform in Varkala, we hailed a taxi. (Actually, he hailed us.  We were too exhausted to argue).  The taxis here are all old-fashioned looking white Ambassador cars.

When we finally dragged our bags down a lane sandwiched between concrete buildings, we emerged into the sunlight and beheld a blinding stretch of turquoise ocean.   Stunning! Varkala is a small enclave of two-story bamboo-built cafes and thatched beach huts perched on the edge of a cliff of crumbling brick-red dirt and black rocks with a wide stretch of beach and pounding surf below.  Tall coconut palms shade the narrow footpath that is the main boulevard.  We found a room with a fan and cold water at a complex of cottages nestled in lush green landscaping.

We rented an umbrella at the beach and spread my Indonesian shawls on the sand.  A woman in a peach-colored sari walked by swinging a steel carafe calling “Chai, chai, cha-eeeeee!” She served the tea by pouring it into a white paper cup, spooning in a heap of sugar, and then pouring the liquid back and forth between the cup and a small metal bowl until it was cooled and the sugar dissolved.  We both went swimming- the water was warm but refreshing.  We came back to the beach gasping for air because the waves were huge and the undertow ferocious.

An impossibly lean muscular couple grabbed the slice of sand next to us and proceeded through a sequence of coordinated yoga poses.  Two Indian couples ran toward the water holding hands, then plunged into the waves fully clothed.  The men were wearing slacks and button-down shirts.  One woman wore a cotton kurta outfit and the other wore jeans.  They bounced along in the waves whooping and laughing.

On the advice of an Australian girl we’d met on the crowded train and then bumped into again in town, we walked to the northern edge of town where the tourist shops end.  The paved path turns into a narrow footpath of packed red earth that meanders under palm trees leaning into the ocean.

We passed a deserted yellow and pink mosque, then crossed a creek and hopped onto the sand of a sheltered cove where a few fishing boats were beached.  The boats were made out of planks of wood stitched together with string that had been waterproofed with what looked like white sap.  Each boat was sheltered with a thatched palm roof.

There was laundry hanging out to dry on the edge of some of the boats; I assumed the fishermen were inside napping the afternoon away before their nighttime work.  Each night at dinner we’ve watched a city of blinking lights bob up and down on the water.  The restaurants here all feature broad planks spread nightly with piles of local squid, calamari, prawns, and even a huge swordfish with a tomato skewered on his sword.

Our walk out of town also brought us past a few simple stone huts scattered under the palms.  A man was sprawled in the shade next to one of the huts, sleeping on a pillow of bunched-up fishing nets, with the sparkling blue water just beyond.  He’s got a sublime piece of real estate that would fetch millions at home.  The Kerala tourist literature advertises this region as “God’s Own Country.”  I can see why- it’s absolutely beautiful here.

1 comment:

  1. Hey where did you stay in Varkala and how much did it cost/night? I am planning on heading there in Dec and would love a good recommendation! I love reading your blog, thanks for the awesome posts!