Viva la Varkala

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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.

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Gokarna: The Armpit of Paradise

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Gokarna is a strange old beach town south of palolem. However, the two beach paradises are very different.

For one thing Gokarna is much less trodden, has much less tourists and much less capacity for any extra prospective tourists. It makes for a very small and strangely insular group of young Israelis and Europeans, ageing hippies, and in general, partially or completely insane individuals – drawn in by it’s gritty yet relaxed charm. Attitudes are lax here; you can show off your greased abs whilst hula-hooping in front of a crowd of people or else withdraw from social situations completely and live a life of muttering to yourself in solitude. You are hidden away from civilisation, or at least you feel like you are, with only bamboo huts and palm trees surrounding you.

At first, it’s hard not to be slightly unnerved by the unhinged atmosphere that lingers about the place. We lived opposite a huge, wild-haired man, who despite living on his own, could frequently be heard bursting into fits of chuckling and unintelligible conversations with himself. He could be seen drifting off into an almost sleep-like state at the dinner table, only to snap back to reality with a jump and mutter of “efemphup” or “nehmehma.”

However, there were plenty of activities aside from the fascinating people watching, such as swimming with wild dolphins or taking a walk around the bay to one of the ‘deserted’ beaches. However, far from being deserted, they played home to incredibly tanned and hairy travellers who looked surgically attached to their hammocks.

It was only after starting a fire on the beach under the stars one night and suddenly having all of the straggling travellers drawn to us like moths to the flame, that we started to understand why so many people seem unable to leave the place. Nearly every country in Europe had it’s representative, with a few Israelis and of course Indians. Even the cows joined us one by one, each person and animal adding to the strange and interesting bunch; the likes of which you would never expect to see in the same place at one time. Our week long commitment to the Om Beach family paled in comparison to the residents who had stayed for months, and some had no plans to leave at all.

The diversity amongst the people that have come together, careless of whether they have just met or how they ought to behave, is something worth coming to Gokarna for (despite the terrible food and the prospect of being trampled by cows on the beach).

They introduced us to the wonders of disturbing the plankton at night. For some wonderful reason, at night the plankton (tiny little sea creatures) glow in the dark when disturbed, and so if you swim out into the sea, with every arm and leg motion, hundreds of little glowing specks flutter around your limbs like underwater fireflies – there is no other way to describe this phenomenon without reverting to magical fairytale language. What made this better was the clear sky in which you could see thousands of stars, making the sea look like a continuation of the sky; and swimming around in it is the nearest I will ever get to space travel. I could have stayed out there all night if I hadn’t turned into a cold prune or else realised that I’m actually quite scared of being stung by a jellyfish.

And so I think we got off on the wrong foot with Gokarna, or else missed the point for the first half of our stay. It did seem like a refuge for the insane, but then you realise this only adds to the character of the place and if you’re not there to meet people, then you may aswell head to Palolem – or else sit back and enjoy some of the most interesting people watching of the Indian beach scene.