|Home sweet Varkala - my bamboo hut|
South India -- in particular Kerala, the state I am now in -- is a world away from the north. It's undoubtedly India, still, but slowed down, mellowed out, relaxed to the rhythm of waves pounding the shore and melting in the heat of a tropical sun. There are still lots of people wanting to sell you things, auto-rickshaws weaving crazily down the narrow streets, and the odd beggar or two, but it's nowhere near as hard-core, full-on, overwhelming as the north. I like it.
Varkala, in particular, is growing on me. It's a beach resort, but nowhere near as glossy and sanitized as a Caribbean Club Med or the European side of the Mediterranean. You can still hear prayers floating across the breeze from the Hindu temple nearby, or the call to prayer from the mosque up the beach; fisherman still ply their ages-old craft in tiny boats that look much too unstable to brave the Arabian Sea; women still adorn the streets like exotic birds of paradise in their vibrant jewel-coloured saris. You can sip a Kingfisher or a lassi as you watch the sun set from the cliff, go to sleep under a mosquito net in a tiny bamboo hut, and shock your taste buds with a spicy dosa or other South Indian specialty.
Oh, you could pretend you weren't in India at all, if you wanted. You could stick to the higher-end, posh resorts and do your Westernized yoga class before your Swedish massage (why bother with ayurvedic, when you can go Western), eat only "continental" food at trendy restaurants full of other sun-burned white people, and spend your days lying comatose on the beach. I suppose there's nothing wrong with that (although it would never be my choice), but really, why come all the way to India, then? Just head to the Riviera or the Caribbean (whichever is closer) and live in your little tourist bubble there.
I'm not living quite that way here. I sleep in a little bamboo hut all to myself (700 rupees a night, or about $15), complete with pink mosquito net, double bed and cold shower but nothing so Western as air-conditioning or television. I get up early, sometimes, to go read on the beach or just stare at the waves before everyone else invades the space; then I go to yoga from 10 to 12 each morning (I'm taking a beginner course for a week). After that, I might head to the Juice Shack for a late breakfast and the obligatory juice (current favourite: Four Flowers, consisting of pineapple, orange, lemon and ginger), before I go read in a hammock for a while. Then I go find somewhere to have dinner and work my way through the south Indian vegetarian dishes on offer (had some bagan birtha last night which was scrumptious; it's kind of a spicy egglant curry with tomato and onion).
I've stayed away from the local seafood, although I keep hearing it's very good; I like going veg when it's so easy. And, quite frankly, the sight of that day's catch laid out on tables in front of each restaurant, their eyes all glazed and staring sightlessly at me, turns me off seafood altogether. (I like my food, when eating non-vegetables, to look nothing like the animal it came from.)
I went for a long walk today after yoga, down to the south cliff of Varkala Beach and beyond, and found myself on some tiny local laneways with ramshackle houses clustered behind the posh resorts. People looked at me a little oddly -- I gather that tourists don't often wander off the well-established clifftop path -- but were invariably friendly, calling out cheerful "Hello's" and "How are you's" as I wandered past, big smiles on their faces. Children were particularly interested; one seemed very fascinated by the colour of my hair and wanted to touch it (then seemed quite startled when it felt like, well, normal hair).
I went to a nearby ashram another day, just to have a look around; there are many tourist-oriented ashrams in India, I gather (lots of Westerners who want to come find enlightenment here), but this definitely isn't one of them. Sivagiri Mutt, perched on a hill just outside Varkala town, is a popular spot for Hindus but not so much for foreigners; I and the two girls I went with (one American, one Swiss) were the only white faces in sight. Lots more interested children there; they would, I think, occasionally dare each other to come talk to us, running up to ask us our names and tell us theirs before running away giggling madly.
For the more "beach resort" experience, there's a lovely stretch of sand down at the bottom of the cliff. At the extreme southern end of the beach, Hindus seeking pujas make offerings of flowers and other items to the sea (later swept up, after inevitably washing ashore, by industrious women in saris) and stride fully clothed into the water. Most of the rest is taken over by scantily-clad Westerners seeking to bronze themselves in the sun. I'm not much of a sun-worshipper (for obvious reasons),so I don't lounge in the sun all day; for one thing, I'm quite worried about running out of sunscreen. You can get some high-SPF sunscreens here, but most of them (according to their labels) also contain "whitening creams"; clearly these are marketed to locals, not to foreigners already so white (like me) that if they got any lighter they'd actually be translucent.
In places, the path along the clifftop takes a sudden jag inland, as parts of the cliff have tumbled into the sea at some point. Many of the tiny huts and worn-looking hotels ranged along the path look as though they're about to plunge into the sea; one good wind or a big enough wave and they just might. There are restaurants and cafes and bars to suit every taste and budget strung out along the path as well, along with the inevitable souvenir shops. A quick stroll along the cliff is enough to confirm the town's hippie vibe; selling any one of Bob Marley or Che Guavera or "Free Tibet" T-shirts is enough to prove your hippie credentials, and this town's got all three.
I like it here. I think I might forget to leave for a while. In theory, I'm going to head back to Kochi next weekend, and spend at least a few days there before heading north to Goa, but we'll see whether or not it actually comes to pass. My original ideas of travelling up the east coast to Puducherry and Chennai, and possibly even swinging north through Varanasi before returning to Delhi for my flight home, have largely gone by the wayside; it's just so relaxed and peaceful away down south that I don't want to spoil my hard-won bliss by subjecting myself to the madness of Indian urban centres again.
But I'll keep you posted. For now, you can find me on the beach; it's a rough life.