Our rediscovery of Varkala
Way back in August, we arrived at TRINS at a time when no one else was here, so for something to do, we arranged for a short trip up to Varkala Beach, about a half an hour from here. Our guide from the school brought us right to the sandy beach on an overcast, windy day when the surf was extremely rough - no swimming was allowed - and rain threatened continuously. We had heard great things about Varkala Beach yet when we arrived, the experience was a bit underwelming. There was sand, surf, and a few trinket shops, but nothing scenically noteworthy. While we were there, we watched as a number of people brought the ashes of their deceased for short ceremonies before tossing the remains into the surf, a moving ritual to observe. Otherwise, a sudden downpour chased us back to our car and we returned to school hoping that other recommended destinations lived up to their hype a little better.
The pilgrimage beach, site of our earlier visit. Many people bring the ashes of their deceased here to be released into the sea.
Our rediscovery of Varkala almost didn’t happen. We were seeking a weekend getaway near a beach for a change and Jenn found a few small guest houses on the beach about 12 km from here, quite close to where Patrick, a French teacher here at TRINS, lives. Jenn located a place with great reviews from TripAdvisor and we booked in, a move that should have occurred after getting Patrick’s first-hand account, not before. He wasn’t high on the place so Jenn snagged a TRINS driver for an hour and went to check it out. Verdict – it was very “eh’. In a follow-up conversation with Patrick, he mentioned that he takes his kids up to a nice resort in Varkala that they all really enjoy. There it was again, another song of praise for Varkala and this time from someone who's opinion we trusted. Before the conversation ended, we were all headed north for the weekend – Jenn and the girls by taxi, Patrick and his kids by motorcycle, and me by train (I went into town the night before to play golf on Friday morning with Sreeja's uncle but we got rained off the course).
This time things were different. We discovered that we had previously visited the pilgrimage beach at Varaka while the resort area was just up the coast high on the top of a long cliff, not very visible from where we had been before. Varkala beach has a long history as a fishing village and as a pilgrimage destination. More recently, it’s been discovered by travelers, first the hippie crowd in the 60’s and 70’s but now by anyone with the money to make the trip. It is truly a spectacular location. Two narrow sandy beaches about ½ mile apart are separated by a steadily rising cliff face of reddish brown laterite. Erosion eats into the hillside in some places more than others creating a serpentine edge across the top. Along this cliff top runs a narrow road that separates the sudden edge of the cliff from a long line of restaurants, gift shops, and resorts of all shapes and sizes. Every restaurant has a view past the cliff edge to the sea beyond – in the evening, the music and atmospheric lighting and the generally mellow vibe to the whole place makes the Varkala Cliffs a very cool and fun place to be.
You are never very far from the cliff. At night, walking the path is particularly exciting
A panoramic sweep of the cliffs:
Cutting through one of the numerous large resorts springing up here - for good or for bad, Varkala has been "discovered"
One could spend a week in Varkala simply trying out restaurants and as one might expect, fresh seafood is abundant and inexpensive. Jenn had a huge piece of barracuda with sides and all for just 250 rupees or about $5.00.
Take your pick!
Fish love carrots
The junior table
Our friend Patrick, Jenn, and Steve
Adding to the atmosphere on this particular evening were the lights and sparklers set out to celebrate Diwali, the Indian festival of lights. Diwali is a very big deal in the north of India - many schools go on break for a week or more. In Kerala, it's not as big a deal though in Trivandrum last night, the locals were having a riotous time with incredibly loud firecrackers. Here at Varkala Cliffs, small tea lights, floral mats, and some sparklers are enough.
Lighting the Diwali candles
Toddlers love fireworks, so it's good to get them real close...
Constructing floral offerings
The beach to the north of the cliffs, Black Beach, presents a thin belt of dry sand but the water remains no more than thigh deep for a hundred feet or so offshore. The warm water and crashing waves made our first full fledged ocean swim in India a lot of fun. With a multitude of shops offering everything an early adolescent could possibly want, the girls were in heaven.
North beach - narrow, but great swimming
Adding to the fun for the kids was the company of siblings sister Amrita and brother Angith, Patrick’s adopted Malayali children. Amrita’s English is coming along well but Angith is taking longer. They are such sweet, sweet kids and so very fortunate that a person as compassionate and caring as Patrick has come into their lives. Patrick met them near his house and was taken by their friendliness and curious about their circumstances. Neither child could speak English at first and Patrick’s Malayalam is just a little better than mine. Still, he found a way to communicate with them and learned of their difficult home life – very poor and living with their grandmother because of a mentally ill mother. Patrick and the children were quite taken with one another and at this point, he is a father and guardian to them. He sees the kids a couple of times during the week and spends much of his weekends with them. Patrick, who is a bachelor in his 50s, would like to legally adopt the children if not for the Indian bureaucratic odyssey he’d have to undertake leading to an uncertain outcome. So while the kids don’t live with Patrick, it’s clear that they love him dearly and he treats them as though they were his very own children which, which outside of the court system, they really are.
Teaching Angith numbers in English by playing Go Fish
People come to Kerala from around the world for all-natural ayurvedic treatments of every kind. Our hotel offered a variety of ayurvedic massage treatments that all involved getting completely covered in oil from head to toe. Jenn went first and had the basic oil rubdown; I went for a relaxation treatment during which for about 45 minutes a stream of warm oil was continuously poured back and forth across my forehead. Yes, it was relaxing and a unique experience on a number of levels.
Very nice pool at our resort, except when the neighbors were burning brush next door...
Our little bungalow
On Sunday morning, Jenn and I walked down to the beach to watch the fishermen haul in the night's catch in fishing nets set hundreds of feet offshore. Two sets of men pull from shore on long ropes attached to the nets while some in boats and a few in the surf managed the deceptively challenging task of hauling in the massive nets without losing the catch or damaging the equipment. Passionate arguments and harsh negotiations ensued with the sale of the fish – many highly animated discussions seemed ready to resort to blows but we were not surprised when they didn’t. This whole daily ritual has been happening for hundreds of years – as chaotic as it seems to the uninitiated observer, there is an order here. It’s a recurring theme in this country.
The nets are set hundreds of meters offshore and take a long time to haul in
Teams on two sides of the net work in synch
The buyers await
A shimmering silver mound
A smaller operation
So, how nice was Varkala Beach? So nice that Jenn has decided to stay for the week. Since arriving in India, Jenn had envisioned her time here as an opportunity to take some classes in local design or yoga or cooking or something engaging along these lines. However, because of our somewhat isolated location at the school and the lack of these opportunities in Trivandrum, she’s really not been able to pursue these interests. Until now. Varkala is a perfect place to hang out for a week and relax, read, take a week long yoga course, maybe a cooking class or two, have some Ayurvedic treatments, meet interesting people, and just have some time for yourself. So while we’ll miss her here on the home front, I couldn’t be happier that she’s finally going to pursue some of her long delayed interests here in India. And the rest of us will be back soon as well - maybe next weekend!