Lost and found: A year-long rejection in Varkala
Complaining is a skill. Until pushed off a cliff citing annoyance as grounds for the violence, it can be cause for amusement when presented correctly. An unfixable obsession with highlighting trivial issues has penetrated into my observations of the places I travel to and the articles that follow feel incomplete without them. It’s been two years since I wrote this draft of my first visit to Varkala but its jolliness and appreciative tone just didn’t fit well with me. Varkala’s all-praise character – and a year’s worth of procrastination, I must admit – was what has kept this copy in the drafts section all this while.
Varkala was the last destination on my coastline adventure. The town sits about 160 km south of Kochi, and beckons travellers to come explore its unique beach and beef-brimming cityscape. It’s a cross-breed of a backpackers’ pocket and a resort town – and is a crowd-pleaser regardless of your budget. After a wholesome experience in Alleppey, I feared a downer coming my way. Liquor was the likely source for dousing that downer, but the town had enough to offer to keep me from drowning in bottles of happiness.
Every time boredom looms in Kerala, or the faintest sight of loneliness comes into vision, the nearest eatery will welcome you with open arms and grace its presence with rounds of beef and prawn. Or vadai sambar. Or beetroot stir fry; Malayali cuisine is aeons above the petty politics of playing the dietary card. I say eateries, for even Kerala’s dingiest roadside stall is a counter for a one-way ticket to gastronomic heaven. After one such eventful breakfast at the Indian Coffee House, the 2.50 pm Netravati Express picked me up from Alleppey and deported me to Varkala for a meagre INR 50. The three-hour journey took six; my novel kept me from getting off at the right station in one go, so I took the next train back from Trivandrum. To evade the guilt of ignorance, I chose to blame the poor signage on railway stations and the muffled announcements on Indian trains. The capital itself is one mega sale away from replicating a swarmed Zara store. The bus and train stations are on either side of a two-lane road that receives more pedestrians than cars, so the area is perpetually in chaos. There is not much one can gather about a city in five minutes. Thankfully, there isn’t much to gather in Trivandrum.
Varkala seemed a bit deserted as I exited the station, but at quarter to nine, I gave the locals the benefit of doubt for being morning people. Having sat for too long, I walked the 3-km stretch to my hostel. Winding lanes root out from two parallel roads, a significant change from the graph-sheet layout of Alleppey. Coco palms line the roads, and behind it lies foliage enough to save Gurgaon from its desolate state. Quaint keeps finding new meaning every time you change lanes, but the setting remains much the same. Good architecture is recognised by an overwhelming size and vibrant choice of colour. I peeked into the houses whose doors were open for cross-ventilation, and now strongly believe that regardless of their socio-economic situation, the townsmen here seek validation through the size and exteriors of their houses. Either that, or labour and resources here are as disposable as the salt on the Rann. Some of the homes have elegant porticoes and open-gable roofs, while others are just strange establishments built on the edifice of poor taste; the streets are dressed in pale blue and seaweed green and pops of faded yellow. Blessed with so much natural beauty, it seems cruel how people have gone out of their way to add a touch of hideousness to balance this rather stunning setting.
Lost Hostel, my accommodation for the next three days, sat a two-minute walk from the beach, and patrons are required to manoeuvre through sandy allies marked by signboards with variations of ‘are you really lost yet?’ Varkala sees a lot of international travellers, so conversations here usually start with who’s had the most people come up to them for a selfie and how unbearable the heat is. Here’s where the issue lay. I got talking with the 27-year-old owner on one such evening, where he went on to detail his failed businesses, betrayals, childhood and even his deadly exchange with the Bombay mafia. He then asked me if I wanted to put pen to paper and write his autobiography (as a ghostwriter, must I add). Excited and validated, I said I will get back to him but never did. I spent a considerable amount of time questioning my abilities, and then dropped the idea for good. When I returned to Varkala eight months later, he asked again. His persistence was backed by either strong confidence in my skills or a failure to find someone in those eight months. I then took the next 3 months contemplating this opportunity, willing myself on to take this jump into the unknown. When I finally got the courage to take this up, he said he wanted a three-hundred pager and was willing to give free accommodation and breakfast in return. Silly me, I thought. I’d spent a whole year fighting demons that never existed, just for complimentary breakfast and a bunk with free seepage.
On the first night, I stepped out for dinner and headed straight for The Cliff, a sea-facing geological specimen with a beach at its feet on the otherwise flat Malabar coastline. Varkala is famous for many such sedimentary formations that hug the Arabian Sea. The Geological Survey of India declared these cliffs a geological monument and the tourist department has since taken it upon themselves to exploit it to the best of their ability. The Cliff is lined by a selection of restaurants, some of which are backed by elegant resorts, each catering to the deep-pocketed gentry. They’re separated by generic shops selling the same collection of items you’d find in Manali, Morjim and Malka Ganj – shawls, brass ornaments, earthenware, jewellery, funky bracelets, funkier necklaces, and printed T-shirts. The rest of the space is taken up by foreign exchange dealers and please-loot-me grocery stores. The first few diners looked interesting, so I decided to walk right to the end and explore what was on offer. The north cliff itself stretched for about half a kilometre, so by the time I walked back to the second restaurant with live music and mildly drunk patrons, The Cliff was done taking its last orders. I settled for a pack of Oreos and a few packets of Maggi that I would cook back at the hostel. My mum had ordered me to splurge on a lavish dinner on an otherwise inexpensive birthday, but that would have to wait till next year.
A set of carved-rock stairs lead down from The Cliff to Varkala Beach, also called Papanassam Beach. It is fabled that a dip in the waters of this beach washes away the sins of one’s life. I can’t vouch for the authenticity of this claim, for I never carry my sins to the beach. It stretches along the length of The Cliff and is popular for surfing, sailing and savourable sunsets. For starters, I’d say a swim would suffice, and make for enough of an adventure. Mid-April, low tide was a non-existent phenomenon here. The waves rose to eight feet on average and would drop just as quick. Each wave had to be dealt with precision – duck before you get hit or dive straight into it the wave and wait for it to pass. Conversations had to wait for later, and nonchalance wasn’t an option. One wrong call would have swimmers in a washing machine whose stop button suddenly stopped working. These waves reminded me of the jhaps I’d get in school from seniors – getting whacked for no fault of mine.
Varkala Beach’s destructive run didn’t just stop there. While others rubbed batches of sunblock between every Frisbee session, my ignorance got the better of me, seeing as I’d never got sunburnt on a beach. When the white man’s skin starts to turn red, they know the sun’s beating down hard, but my golden brown hide never got those hints. The end result was a heavily sunburnt back and shoulders, and for the rest of my time in Varkala, I walked around with my rucksack slung on the front rather than at the back.
The rest of town is a good change from The Cliff and its tourist-heavy vibe. The streets around the railway station offer a cheaper and more exclusive mealtime experience. For Rs. 30, I got a plate of four mini dosas served on a white paper sprawled on a steel plate at a hawker’s, followed by a shawarma and a cream bun from one of the many bakeries scattered around town. Pockets of Ayurveda clinics and yoga centres round off the revenue stream here. But for a person who’s not bothered knowing he can’t even touch his knees to the floor while sitting cross-legged, the food and waves were an honest settlement.
There’s a lovely lighthouse a half-hour’s drive away, whose views are a sight for sore eyes and auto fare just, a sore. A quaint fort across the road makes up for the exaggerated quote and is a rather popular spot for…photoshoots. Multiple corners were occupied by camera crew and models under a persistent heat that didn’t seem to bother their exposure.
Varkala and its high-flying waves were a satisfying epilogue to my beef-infused vacation in Kerala. I hopped onto the 8 pm Maveli Express back to Kochi, and with every chug of the wheels, the surge of adrenaline those waves had incited slowly dissolved into thoughts about mini dosas doused in steaming sambhar.
Now that you’ve reached the end…
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