I’d like to be able to say that I came to Varkala because I wanted to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and thus not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. In truth, however, I mostly just wanted to go to the beach.
I didn’t intend to spend so much time here, and to be honest, I’m a bit embarrassed at having stayed for a whole week in such a touristy spot, but some things came up that required a few days of consecutive computer work, and, having found a decent internet cafe, this seemed like as good a place as any to be stuck for a short time. Besides, I told myself, tourism is a big part of the Indian economy; in some ways this place is just as authentic as anywhere else. Unfortunately, the people selling Bob Marley blankets, bongo drums, and plastic auto-rickshaw toys made it hard for me to accept my own argument.
Varkala beach is a beautiful spot a few kilometers away from Varkala town. The beach is crescent-shaped, pitched below a crumbling cliff, along which are arrayed a packed strip of resorts, restaurants, guest houses and souvenir stalls, with a couple of steep stairways leading down to the beach. Although the area has some religious significance (the other name for the beach is Papanasam, which translates into something like “washes away sins”), and there is a fair bit of domestic tourism, Varkala Beach is the only place I’ve been to in India so far where Europeans outnumbered locals.
The beach itself is quite lovely, with a decent surf and very reliable temperatures of 32 during the day and 25 at night. By far the nicest time of day was just before sunrise, between 6 and 7 am, when some of the local residents joined in a daily cricket game, and little groups of people practiced yoga or meditation on the beach. For anyone who’s currently far from an ocean, here’s a reminder of what it sounds like (with the morning cricket game in the background):[audio http://www.dallascard.ca/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/beach.ogg]
Although the credibility of the sentiment is belied by the artificial nature of such a place, beaches always serve for me as a reminder of how little is required to enjoy life. The absence of more pressing concerns allow us to slow down and take our time. Exposure to the sun, sand and wind reminds us how well-isolated we normally are from the elements. And the unceasing waves of the ocean provide an endlessly fascinating phenomenon upon which to dwell. Though any amount of time at a beach will undoubtedly seem either too long or too short to some, a little time spent appreciating it provides vast rewards for the soul.
Beaches aside, Kerala as a state is yet another interesting face of India. Located on the Western side of the Southern tip of India, the hot, tropical climate and lush greenery feels miles away from the mountainous Northern provinces. Famous for having the first democratically elected communist government in the world, it also has the highest literacy rate and life expectancy in India. Unfortunately, labour costs have also risen in tandem. Although economic growth seems steady, the government is also racking up a sizable debt, and unemployment is high. An important pillar of the economy is remittances, with many Keralans working in the Persian Gulf as maids, nurses, labourers, and engineers. Alcohol consumption is also higher here than anywhere else in India, and according to the BBC, a remarkable 40% of the state’s revenues are derived from alcohol (taxes, liquor licenses, and a state-controlled distribution monopoly).
I arrived here via the capital city Trivandrum (formally known as Thiruvananthapuram), where I also spent a couple of nights. I immediately felt like I had come to the right place, as the plane descended from the hills, passing over jungle and tree cover stretching all the way to the water’s edge. The main street of Trivandrum was much like the other mid-size Indian cities I had passed through, but the surrounding alleyways had a very different feel, with eclectic architecture built up in what felt like moderately wealthy suburbs. I happened to be in Trivandrum on my birthday, and I was lucky enough to track down Sanker’s Coffee & Tea, which sells these products in bulk. I picked up a small bag of freshly ground Keralan coffee, mostly just to enjoy the smell of it, but also to make cups of cowboy coffee as necessary.
In Varkala, the options were both more numerous and less diverse. It’s hard to complain when the cost of everything is so low, but relatively speaking the food in Varkala was both over-priced and not very good, as visitors really have nowhere else to go. This place basically represents the antithesis of the philosophy that a business should do one thing, but do it well. Every restaurant here offered essentially the same “multi-cuisine” menu, featuring Indian, Tibetan, Chinese, pasta, pizzas, sandwhiches, and so on. It’s also a classic case of easily-copied innovation. Every night at dinner time, virtually every restaurant puts out a selection of freshly caught fish and seafood, from which customers can select. The supply, however, always seemed to drastically exceed the demand.
Drinks, on the other hand, reflected the state’s problems with alcohol. Not many restaurants here had alcohol on the menu, but most of them served it. I expect this is partly a matter of avoiding license fees, although it may also be that licenses are hard to obtain. In any event, it turns out that it’s way more fun to order a beer when the waiter brings it wrapped in a newspaper, pours half of it for you into a nondescript mug, and then hides the rest of the bottle under your table. On another occasion, the beer I ordered came to the table having been decanted into a teapot!
Happily, there was one exception in the quality department. India has many, many temples, so I’m not surprised it took me so long to find this place, but I finally came upon the one I’d been looking for:
Suffice it to say, I worshiped here every morning – sometime a twice a day!
It was somewhat tough to leave, but having concluded my work, I had no further excuse to linger, and I decided to head farther up the coast to Kochi, a place with more history and culture, but (hopefully) equally good coffee.