Viva la Varkala





As I write this, I ask myself why I am not still in Varkala, spending my days relaxing by the beach, eating, meeting new people and shaking maracas around a fire in a bin, whilst a very old German man plays “hallelujah” on guitar.

The introduction to Varkala was perfect. A stroll down the end of the guesthouse garden and our position
atop a staggeringly high cliff was revealed by a sudden steep drop, and then nothing but the blue sea, stretching out in front like a vast infinity pool. The cliff was so high, that even the eagles soared lower, and the only way to see the beach below was to curl your toes over the cliff edge and lean over as far as you dare.

It was a spotlessly clean guesthouse, in which you couldn’t move a chair without permission and the cleaning lady told me off for wearing the same tee shirt everyday. I’d worn it every day for the past month and I wasn’t going to stop for her. Things couldn’t go on like this, so we moved to the livelier end of the cliff; where things much less permissible than wearing the same smelly tee shirt day-in day-out went on.

The North cliff action took place along a path that meandered along the cliff edge. This was lined with pretty good food and the usual pretty crap shops – with some painfully steep steps down to the beach and slightly portly, but endlessly cheery fruit sellers, singing “Hello! Pineapple! Watermelon! Eating eating, nom nom nom nom!”

Asides from the normal beach routine, Varkala was the perfect environment for rest and introspection; rather than racing around India trying to tick as many boxes as possible. The only box that mattered here was the one between your ears, and everyone here was exploring different ways to be kind to themselves – and this might have meant having oil dripped on your forehead, meditating in public places or else seeking the help of a guru. The focus on inner goals meant that no one cared what apparent fools people were making of themselves outwardly – at first, I was aghast at the sight of people bursting into spontaneous yoga positions on the beach. Coming from such a self concious society, where people constantly worry about how they look, or whether they are being looked at enough, I found the approach of people here quite liberating. The less time I spent snickering at others, the more I was able to pursue what pleased me. However, fortunately for me, this didn’t warrant public displays of spirituality. It did involve attending a jam session, where you are handed a musical instrument at the doorstep and permitted to wreak havoc with it, alongside your own tuneless vocal chords, to the sound of an amateur guitarist and amidst scenes of people quite literally letting their hair down and wafting it and their limbs about all over the place.

We were quickly welcomed into the fold of longer term residents, and I was amazed at the wide range of interesting characters – most of them slightly lost in life, but all of them incredibly open. The orchestrator of many a meet cute was our hostess Vanessa; who tore around introducing everyone and creating the kind of environment which I now closely associate with Varkala – one that evaporates inhibitions and engenders relaxation for the over active mind.

I felt like a huge weight, probably imposed by the demands of living and working in London, lift from my shoulders and learnt the important life lesson, that the less you worry about what other people are doing, the more free you are to be happy yourself. Most importantly you should never let fear of how you might look, deter you from doing something you want to do, because someone probably thinks you look stupid no matter what you do (and you could be missing out on hours of maraca-shaking). Even without the aid of a guru, finding fulfilment in Varkala was incredibly easy and I hope I get to return one day.



Sam and Steph’s Halfway Top 5

Now we are halfway through our 5/6 months in India (or at least the blog is, as I am a month behind) Sam and I have ruthlessly selected our 5 favourite places. We’ll check back at the end to see how/if things have changed.

Sam’s Top 5 (by Sam)

5. Rishikesh
Probably the best place to enjoy the Ganges. Although Rishikesh was a sort of spiritual circus and my poor health didn’t afford me the opportunity to partake; the care free atmosphere, natural beauty of its foot-hilled surrounds and saddhu-lined streets bade me forget the horrors of Delhi.

4. Kolkata
Unlike Mumbai it’s a city that hasn’t lost its old-world feel and social integrity (I’m thinking slums) at the expense of economic progress. Lots of students, book shops and weird Indian coffee houses. Kolkata exudes a very dignified and honest charisma.

3. Orchha
This place should be more popular. It’s got it all: an easy going small-town Indian atmosphere, staggeringly beautiful palaces and temples, and a tranquil riverside setting, where you can join most of Orchha’s inhabitants for a laze about in the afternoon heat.

2. Darjeeling
The mystic smiles of the Tibetan people and the simple way of mountain life reminded me that it can all be rather easy.

1. Varanasi
Still coming to terms with the fact that a place like this can exist. But paradoxically, I left Varanasi with a new lease of life; vowing to return to have another shot at comprehending this incomrephensible city.



Steph’s Top 5

5. Kochi
The place has a lovely, welcoming feel, with lots of places to top up on home comforts and immerse yourself in the arty/modern side of India – heightened by the slightly crumbly and colonial mansion lined streets.

4. Mumbai
So much to see and do; such as being an extra in a Bollywood movie. More diverse than most countries; this modern city is fascinating and also pretty fun.

3. Orchha
I had so much fun clambering round the ruins like I was in a fun house. People watching by the river, with ancient towers beside me was the first day I actually started to enjoy travelling India.

2. Darjeeling
The jolliness of the Tibetan and Nepali inhabitants mixes well with the beauty of the mountains. Every day is like Christmas, but instead of Turkey you get momos.

1. Varkala
A lovely sense of community and a beautiful beach with a fully functioning (holy) Indian town attached. Secretly Sam’s favourite too and the next place on the blog.


A Very Unusual New Year




The lead up to New Year was spent in Kochi – which my parents thought was slightly dirty and full of tourists, and Sam and I thought was a relatively clean and calm paradise. However, you could scarcely find any local Indians, and the feel was very European; with Colonial Dutch and Portugese mansions and churches scattered everywhere. But of course the prohibition was still in full sway – with only the most upmarket hotels serving alcohol. This was a different side to India for me and Sam, and not a typical taste of India for my parents.

To remedy this we attended traditional Indian events at the popular Kathakali Centre, were we saw live sitar and tabla, and then traditional Keralan ritual theatre (Kathakali). The packed out theatre left utterly baffled with ears ringing, after men with faces painted like demons and wearing huge dresses conveyed story lines through use of facial expressions, stamping feet and strange arm gestures – all to the beat of a drum, the clashing of cymbals and a topless man warbling as though in severe physical or mental pain. It was a cacophony of colours and sounds, which I couldn’t decode even with the script – although I gather good vanquished evil at some point during the mystical warbling and banging. A man with a green painted face and hugely ornate earrings, raising his eyebrows suggestively and using a rocking motion to depict “wife” and then thrashing around for five minutes to convey “elephant” – was a personal highlight.

After soaking up all of the colonial ambience Kochi had to offer, we headed to Munnar on a two day excursion to sample a Keralan Hill station. We got lost in the mazes of vividly green tea bushes that covered almost every inch of the hills for miles and miles and then listened to a sermon on green tea.

And then of course, we went in search of an elusive gin and tonic – which our (useless) guidebook had promised on the lawns of “the High Range Club.” The place had a colourful history – not least for being highly selective on dress code and who they would admit. This was said to have been all but forgotten in the present day, and is now just a place to soak up the faded colonial era ambience and the mounted heads on walls… They saw us coming a mile off, and all but escorted us off the premises – no doubt they didn’t like the look of my parents, and it had nothing to do with mine and Sam’s scruffy and woebegone state.

New Year’s Eve day was spent sight seeing and elephant riding, before heading back down to celebrate the New Year and the old man’s birthday. We arranged to meet for a ‘special tea’ in one of the previously mentioned upmarket hotels. Here me and Sam suffered the embarrassment of being turned away from yet another posh establishment, and had to bargain our way in after smartening up to be able to meet my parents, who had already been let inside…

Tired from our journey and with one hour until midnight, we went for a peaceful walk along the beach, not expecting much to be going on. Slowly more and more people materialised, and we headed casually towards the sound of distant music. We found an area ahead cordoned off, with a guard only letting a select few through. Determined to wash the bitter taste of rejection from our mouths, we sidled up to the guard to try our luck, and to our surprise, were ushered in as others were pointed away. We knew something strange must be afoot.

We headed towards the small crowd ahead, as the music grew louder and louder – to suddenly find ourselves backstage, or more accurately on stage, at a huge drumming concert. Seeing thousands of chanting and dancing spectators below the stage we were stood on, was one of the strangest and least expected experiences of my life.

At a quick glance, we could see only western faces joining us in this VIP area. Some were thoroughly enjoying the privilege and dancing away, or else sharing slightly uneasy looks with one another – why were the Indian tourists separated from the westerners? We had the stage to ourselves, apart from the drumming troop, the MC and a 40 ft straw burning man with a grey beard and hat… The plot thickens.

Instead of the paranoid predictions of human sacrifice, it transpired that the separation was for our own safety, as we westerners were too fragile to handle the large and raucous crowd. However, safety considerations seemed to stop there, as after only a couple of casual requests to move back, the fire cracker filled burning man was set alight for the countdown, and soon after went up in an explosion of flames. The crowd stayed as close as it dared, as spectacular fireworks filled the sky – some soaring dangerously close to the crowd, spraying debris and delighted “oohs” everywhere.

Kochi threw a fantastic New Year party, and despite denying us the usual hangover, the adrenaline of being on stage in front of a thousand people and then having to quickly run away from a blazing burning man, that two minutes before I was leaning on, made for the most exciting start to a New Year I had ever experienced. May the rest of the year be as filled with as many firecrackers, drummers and exploding burning men.


Christmas on Cherai Beach, Boxing Day on the Backwaters







Just three days before the big day, I received a Christmas present from the UK in the shape of my parents. The base for our time together was Fort Kochi, and so we chose a nearby beach for the first few days; as what Christmas would be complete without sunbathing on the beach?

Cherai is a very long and narrow stretch of beach, spanning from semi-dirty and overcrowded with Indian tourists, to completely pristine and deserted, with only the depth of sand for a deck chair. There were only a few places to eat, and even fewer to have a drink, as the state of Kerala had introduced a prohibition that made buying alcohol anywhere near impossible. However, this didn’t deter some restaurant owners, who were happy to serve you a “special tea” in a mug and hide the bottle under the table – although you’d get some funny looks if you requested this in some places.

So the stage was set for an alcohol and snow free Christmas. We played cards by the pool with Santa hats on, attracting a few bemused stares and then tried to pull some coconuts down from palm trees to wash down all the pool water we swallowed whilst attempting to play piggy in the middle.

However, all hell broke loose when the sun set, and the atmosphere was less British Christmas jolliness and more unbridled carnival mayhem, as it felt as though the entire population of Kerala had descended upon our little beach. People were running into the sea fully clothed, rolling around in the sand, throwing it at each other, screaming like children and wrestling. Slightly different to the Christmas traditions we have back home. We then had to walk 3km for our Christmas dinner, as local tourists zoomed by on motorbikes yelling, “happy birthday” or “happy new year” – do they know it’s Christmas time at all? The meal consisted of about 5 varieties of fish and curry, despite the food being different, the concept was the same; eat until you can’t move. But instead of vegetating in front of the fire and Christmas television, we were sat by the Arabian Sea with a cool sea breeze and the flickering lights of lanterns – topped off with a firework display and beach hut shaped cake. I thoroughly enjoyed deviating from the traditional Christmas itinerary; spending the evening by the beach, and even having my parents to keep us company and play silly card games with. We were then driven home by our renegade tuk tuk driver, whose unexplained absence had caused the sweaty pre-dinner walk. With a slap on the wrist, he promised to pick us up early the next day to take us to our Boxing Day backwaters trip. Needless to say, he didn’t show…

We eventually made it to our backwaters trip, which in true India fashion took about 3 times longer than anticipated. We travelled along the wide, palm-tree lined waters at a relaxing pace, which didn’t match the serious tones of our tour guide – who could have been describing an epic tale of the battlefield, rather than pointing out the different types of flowers. We found a good way to escape prohibition, as we were shown that some of the “toddy” trees produced natural alcohol, that matured to around 80% if left for a few hours – no wonder all of the villagers had big smiles on their faces. These villagers also possessed an interesting set of skills that included catching mussels from the bottom of the riverbed using only their toes and putting up with the boats and boats of tourists that passed through their home – and even cheerily waved their fish at you as you passed by.

The backwaters were incredibly peaceful and untouched by modern society and were a welcome change of pace from the crazy Indian roads, that were to greet us the second we boarded the bus back. Upon returning to Cherai we defied Keralan law and lived up to our Brit stereotype as we enjoyed a few sneaky gin and tonics in the hotel room – ready for the next leg of celebrations for New Year in Kochi.