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Varkala Beach in Kerala

13 May, 2011 (02:54) | Living in Europe | By: admin

Monday Feb 21st –

On the overnight houseboat Mark and I agree that after 2 days of backwaters we are ready for a beach.

We are reunited with our driver, Rajeev, who complains he is achy from sleeping in his Maruti SUV. We are only beginning to get to know Rajeev. He is not very talkative, probably because his English is poor. He is keen to take us straight to the wildlife sanctuary but we have other ideas. We eventually learn that he has a little map drawn of where he plans to take us and when, which he has memorized by heart. It takes us awhile to make him understand that we really, really need to find a hotel on the beach with good internet so we can take care of our customers, irregardless of his memorized agenda. He finally understands that our plan is non negotiable. We convince him to head back in the direction of Trivandrum, that we need to spend a couple days in a neutral environment and if we combine that with a beach location, we will be very happy. We are ready for a couple of lazy days to leisurely catch up on Partners in Rhyme business without distractions, as well as to simply hang out to assimilate our trip thus far and compare notes.

This is when our adventures with Rajeev truly begin. Like most Indian men, he is stubborn to a fault. He makes several phone calls to his boss, who we later find out is none other than Bijoy (even the car is owned by Bijoy). Rajeev grudgingly agrees to accommodate our wishes, despite his memorized itinerary which has no room for spontaneity. It is imperative at this juncture for Mark and I to take a stand. If he is unwilling to comply we are happy to let him go his own way. We need the illusion of control over our time. We are not willing to compromise just to please our driver.

Rajeev drives us to a beach named Kayamkulam, located half way between Alleppy and Kollum. In our guide book it boasts of beach front on one side, backwaters on the other, but to us Kayamkulam beach looks unappealing and and the environs unfriendly. We don’t like the look or the vibe here, so we continue on to Varkala, where we immediately feel at home. To his credit, Rajeev takes us straight to the perfect hotel. It is an inexpensive (by Western standards) 3 star hotel with WIFI, a swimming pool, a nice restaurant and a view of and path to the beach. We like it here. It would be nice to spend more than a couple days here…

If we want to keep both our business and our love life healthy we need to spend at least two days in Varkala before heading out on another culturally saturated escapade. We have a hard time communicating to Rajeev that we need to spend two nights here, not one. He keeps nodding his head like he understands, but then says:

“Okay, so, I pick you up tomorrow morning 10:00 am?”.
“No, please pick us up in two days” we reply.
He nods his head and repeats,
“So, I pick you up tomorrow morning 10:00 am?”.
“No, not tomorrow, the day *after* tomorrow.”
“Okay, so, I pick you up tomorrow morning 10:00 am?”.
This goes on like a bad sit-com skit, much longer than necessary.

Rajeev is unwilling to understand, makes several phone calls to Bijoy (who until now we thought we were no longer tied to), until finally we come to an understanding that he will go spend a night back home in Trivandrum (only about an hour drive away) but we will pay him for his services for the non-driving day irregardless. We figure that if we had hired a car we’d have to pay for the night it was unused, and the same logic applies to this rented car with driver. So finally, after both the hotel manager and Bijoy tell him to go home and not to return to pick us up for two days, he understands. He is happy to go spend a paid night sleeping in a real bed rather than the SUV once he understands we will pay him for the day irregardless. He leaves, saying

“Ökay, I pick you up not tomorrow but the next day at 10:00, okay?”

This is when we begin to realize our driver has a secret agenda for us, one carefully memorized and in his mind, somewhat inflexible. We’re tempted to simply let him go, but decide to keep him on to drive us to the Parambikulam Wildlife Sanctuary and record the sound of the macaques, langurs, and long-tailed flying squirrels that allegedly live there. We know that our hotel check-out time is noon, but rather than starting a new canon of misunderstandings about the exact time to leave, we are happy to know Rajeev will be available to us the day after tomorrow. He is keen to get us to the wildlife sanctuary, which will be a full day’s drive from Varkala. Understandably he wants to get an early start, but also understandably we are in no hurry to get there. We do not want to be rushed on our vacation. As soon as he leaves we feel a wave of euphoria overcome us.

1) Hotel swimming pool 2) View from our luxurious hotel room balcony


Our hotel room is divine! Its modern and has a big balcony. The WIFI connection is easy. We are happy. It is fun to lounge around in luxury after a full week on the road.

I stay in the room to unpack, set up techno recharge stations and rest while Mark heads out to check out the village. He heads down to the beach, which is a bit of a downhill walk, past beautiful ashrams and yoga centers with thick jungle and gentle streams everywhere. At the end of the trail he pops out at the beach which has a very mellow, laid back vibe. Hindu holy men are giving people blessings and sending them out into the surf to become one with the water. There are packs of cute stray dogs roaming the beach and village. They look well fed despite having no collars. There are a few restaurants, fruit stands, homestays and souvenir stores along the cul de sac leading to the beach, which is sandy with red cliffs. There do not appear to be many tourists, but there are more than a few devotees with shaved heads. We learn later that the beach here, named Papanasam Beach, has long been associated with ancestor worship. We also learn later there is a world known Krishna temple not far from the baths.

I have made a conscious decision to relax rather than obsessively document things, so this Varkala blog post will not have videos or sounds. When I do hike down to the beach later, it is only with my piffero flute, iPhone, and 100 rupees in my pocket. I set out past the main beach, onto the jagged shoreline in search of an anonymous spot to tootle on my flootle. The tide is out far enough for me to wander under the sheer, red cliffs to a shady spot next to an overhanging rock. I climb to my spot, where only the gods can hear me play and I release my soul through a medley of whatever improvised melody comes to mind, including a chorus of “Hare Krishna Hare Rama”, which is not normally in my repertoire.

These iPhone shots don’t really do my magic spot justice, but I share them anyway.

I walk down the beach, past a tiny police hut.

I hike along the coast until I find my spot underneath these jagged cliffs. It is here that I play my soul out. I can feel a divine presence, and learn later that my audience is named Saraswati, goddess of music.

Varkala Part 2

Buying Ganja

Before sunset Mark heads out on his own. After so many days spent together 24/7 its nice to do a bit of independent wandering. After checking out the beach Mark heads up the street back to our hotel using a different route, by passing the jungle path he came down and continuing along the main road instead. He finds a really cool antique store which pulls him in. He is attracted to a large scary mask of the god Mahakala buys it for me as a belated birthday present. The store is filled with things he knows I would like so he decides to make this day my actual birthday and shower me with gifts. He buys a couple of cotton skirts, a hand-painted Ganessa necklace and the giant Mahakala mask for my bedroom. The mask is to be directly sent to Barcelona by mail, as we could never lug it around.

My Mahakala mask

Mark takes his bag full of smaller presents and heads up the road again. He notices a huge outdoor bath area. These outdoor baths are common here but this is the biggest one he’s seen, with steps leading down to the water and statues spewing out streams of water. There are lots of people washing themselves and their clothes, busy using the baths in various ingenious ways. Stray dogs and goats roam, naked babies cry, the place is teeming with life.

He walks around the perimeter of the bath, which covers about an acre and a half, and passes by a guy who smiles and says hi. Mark asks him if he is on the right path back to our hotel and the guy says yes. Then he asks Mark if he needs anything. Mark says no and keeps on walking. The guy asks him again, with a wry expression, “do you need anything?”.
Mark says, “like what?”
He says “marijuana”.

Mark says “yes!” and is thinking, “this is too perfect, the icing for Monalia’s belated birthday party.” They decide on a price and a time to meet and Mark is off back to the hotel to grab some cash. He keeps everything a secret from me. He mysteriously asks me to wait in the room.
“Don’t leave, I’ll be right back,” he says while rushing back out the door.

After waiting for a bit in the designated spot Mark notices his guy is late, so he starts wandering around. Another guy comes and asks him if he needs anything. Right when he was negotiating a deal with the new guy Mark’s original dealer appears so he heads off with him. They go into the nearby jungle and he shows Mark the weed. Mark is not a pot expert, he rarely smokes it himself, but this looks and smells very strange to him so he instantly doesn’t trust the guy. He’s never seen pot that looks like this before, sort of dirty and stringy. It doesn’t smell like any bud he’s been around, so although he is not normally a smoker, Mark realizes the only way he can buy it is if he can test it.

So, they go on a small journey to find a place to test it, and some papers to smoke it with. They walk for a while and the guy finds one of his friends who is apparently a professional smoker of the local herb. They all three head uphill via several staircases to an open field in the jungle on the other side of town. The friend cleans the pot almost entirely with one hand and then rolls it in a dry coconut leaf. Mark is impressed.

As he rolls a big spliif Mark’s friend is telling him about the field and pointing out the enormous mounds of poop decorating it. He tells Mark they are from elephants. The marijuana joint is ready. Mark takes two big hits and immediately feels euphoric. He looks at his new friend and asks, “Where are the elephants?”
He says “right behind you”

Mark turns around to see an elephant towering above the bushes behind him, munching on a branch. Mark is feeling happily buzzed by now. Although he’s completely startled by the enormous mastodon, he just says, “woah, cool”.

He shakes hands with his new friends and heads back to the hotel, excited to have such a great stash of presents to give me and quite a tale to go with it!

Its time to really celebrate, Hollywood style.
Happy Birthday to Me (again…)


… Next Morning…

wake and bake

Early morning I am awakened by a virtuoso songbird so I record it:

Indian Songbird

I follow my ears on an early morning walk around the hotel gardens. I see this pretty bird and snap a shot with my iPhone. I would like to think it is the same bird I heard this morning.

I return to our room as Mark is waking up. How intoxicating it is to have a full day to ourselves! We order room service espresso coffee. We read the quirky English edition Indian newspaper that seems very quaint in its use of language. We are slowly realizing just how old-fashion India is despite its new cyber presence and clout. Its the patriarchy that is so very old fashioned. Dowries and arranged marriages are still predominant in Indian society, and the Indian justice system appears to be harsh.
Women are intelligent and educated, but still need to find their voice.

We smoke my birthday present, make use of the hotel swimming pool, enjoy their international cuisine (nice to take a break from vegetable curry and rice), roll around, get silly, and watch TV.

From television I learn that in India the President of Congress is an Italian woman named Sonia Gandhi, daughter-in-law of the late Prime Minister of India, Mrs. Indira Gandhi and widow of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. She is allegedly the most influential person in the country. Hmmm – my curiosity is piqued; what does she stand for? I’ll have to look that up sometime.

We channel surf from Bollywood video clips, to overly dramatic melodramas often involving big headed females wearing scarves, to the slick Islamic channel that advertises upcoming movies and events, and back to Bolywood, for tomorrow our journey with Rajeev will continue.

Later, while Mark is on the balcony working with our website programmer who lives in Bangladore, I hang out on my comfy bed. Many Indian TV shows are playful and silly. In fact, I had no idea so many Indians love a good laugh. Its infectious. I shoot a couple images from these shows because it will always remind me of this blissful 2 day hiatus in Varkala.