Losing track of time in Varkala

So we’d originally booked a room in Varkala for four nights, but somehow we’ve ended up staying here for ten. Oops!

Time has flown and it’s been a great ten days full of yoga, surfing, beaches, paddle boarding, great food, good friends and a cheeky beer or two (or ten).

Varkala beach is by far our favourite beach in India so far. It’s just as beautiful as the beaches in Goa, but with the added benefit of sheer cliffs as a backdrop and some massive waves to splash around in. I say ‘splash’ but the waves and currents are so strong here that it’s more a case of being pummelled repeatedly. Good fun though and a necessary break from the crazy humidity!

Like Goa, it’s pretty commercial but there’s less of a stag do scene here and more of a community feel. All of the bars and restaurants are situated on the (rapidly eroding) clifftop overlooking the beach. Strolling around first thing in the morning as the heat is slowly building, the hawks and eagles are circling and the stalls and cafes are just waking up, it feels almost like you have the place to yourself. But by 11, the restaurants are teeming with brunch-goers, the morning meditators who have made their way back from the beach and the ever alert shopkeepers (the shopping here is dangerously good and our already bulging backpacks are suffering).

We’ve been staying up on the cliff top since we got here. First stop was the MK Surf and Yoga Guesthouse.

Quirky decorations but pretty overpriced considering the rock hard bed and the state of the bathroom.  Although they did have an adorable onsite puppy, Poochy, who loves me really despite appearances..

Sadly no surf hire or yoga to be seen despite turning up twice for the scheduled lessons. Luckily, though, it meant we had to go further down the cliff in search of yoga and we ended up finding the most incredible instructor, Pravin. Pravin is one of the teacher training instructors at Yogshala so he’s pretty darn good and his morning Hatha classes are a bargain at £3 for 90 minutes with a class of just six. Far better than the expensive classes in Goa which were mainly taught by international trainees. Also far tougher! We kept laughing when he demonstrated the kind of moves we’d be doing in ‘some few days more’. Sorry Pravin, but after ten days we’re still not able to contort our bodies into a pretzel like you, although Jamie’s headstand is coming along nicely.

We’ve also had a go at surfing on one of the neighbouring beaches, Edava.

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It’s not exactly a surfing Mecca here – the waves crash too close to the shore on Varkala beach and Edava has just a few small ones in the morning – but the internationally owned Soul & Surf opened up here a few years ago and grew popular after a write up in the Guardian.  Apparently there were no surfers to be seen three years ago, but it is now becoming the go to place to surf in India  – great PR case study 😉

We’d read the Guardian article ourselves and had checked if we could afford a few nights in Soul & Surf, but sadly not. Having spoken to a few people here, though, we think it’s probably for the best. It’s now become the dominant resort in a beach town where tourism has always centred around small guesthouses, home stays and locally owned beach shack restaurants. Because Soul & Surf is run by British owners and the packages (paid for in GBP) include all on-site meals and activities, there’s little benefit to the community and some of the locals were feeling pretty disgruntled.

It’s quite funny to see so many surfers hanging out in the calm waters waiting to fight it out for a wave, but it’s nice and chilled. Locals say it’s an awesome wave normally, but it seems to be struggling this season following the cyclone before Christmas.

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A morning group goes out everyday, squeezing themselves and their boards into a rickety old tuk tuk which in itself is an adventure.

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Jamie’s been a couple of times and I tagged along one day to belly flop without much success, hoping for more luck in Sri Lanka. I did, however, have great success in capturing Jamie’s wipe outs, somehow managing to miss every single decent ride.

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From MK we headed to the Mango Villa guesthouse, which was much nicer, far cheaper and run by a lovely Belgian lady who made sure we were well looked after. By the time we checked into Mango Villa, we’d already made ourselves nicely at home in Varkala and have somehow managed to bump into almost every single friend we’ve made so far in South India. We had dinner with some nice Kiwis we met in Ooty, have repeatedly bumped into groups of people from way back in Hampi and have spent lots of time with Tom and Martha. Seems everyone else is getting stuck here too!

We had one particularly funny night out with Tom and Martha which resulted in our first proper hangover since New Years Eve. Varkala has the same weird drinking rules as everywhere else in Kerala, but it’s even more blatant here. Nowhere has a license, but despite numerous policemen strolling around, every single restaurant on the cliff serves cocktails or beer concealed in not-so-subtle tiki cocktail mugs and listed as ‘pop’ on the bill. There are Kingfisher signs up everywhere, but the bottles are hidden behind the waiters backs until they pour and are then stored out of sight under the table. We’re still not entirely sure what the penalty is if they’re caught serving. I asked one waiter and he said he’d spent two weeks in jail (!) last year. Another guy told us that the police turn a blind eye to it most of the time, but that every other week they’ll storm into a restaurant, smash up some glasses and the waiters will run for their lives. Of course the tourists are totally unaffected but he said the waiters are sometimes beaten quite badly. We’ve seen police strolling past us several times, looking totally unconcerned as we sit drinking beer in the front seat of a restaurant. The bigger problem seems to be with music – not many places risk it and there’s a curfew at 11. The police hung around outside a bar we were in the other night waiting to shut it down at bang on 11 (although I also saw the owner hand the cop some Baksheesh, presumably for the multiple beers on display). On the way home we then saw them searching the premises of another restaurant. All very confusing but then this is India!

Anyway, we’d been out for beers with Tom and Martha one night and stumbled across some rare music. It started out relatively chilled, with live guitar by some old British rocker who kept complaining he was ‘too old for this man’, before descending into some chaotic Punjabi dancing, which was amazing but was spoilt when another girl decided it would be a good idea to leave leave her iPhone on shuffle, leading to a surprising rendition of All I Want For Christmas. Fair play to the Punjabi dancers, they somehow managed to keep up the same moves to Mariah Carey.

After the music was shut down, we ended up heading to Chill Out Lounge where the vibe was totally different and the place was full of hippies hanging around playing guitar in some weird pit in the ground. Still not ready to go home, we headed down to the beach to finish off the evening (or morning by this stage), a night of many parts. Cue hangover..

The next day was a bit of a write off but we made up for it the day after with lots of wholesome activities. Surfing in the morning, followed by some wave bashing on the beach and an afternoon spent paddle boarding in the backwaters. An incredible moment paddling along the serene waters into the sunset, listening to the echoes of music from a Hindu temple nearby. At least until I fell off anyway –  Santosh (our guide) reckons this happens to 1 in 100 people so I’m feeling pretty lucky.

Also not quite as wholesome a day as it could have been, given Santosh suggested we crack open a beer half way through the trip. But a great workout nonetheless and we were very sore in yoga the next day!

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We had to move out of Mango Villa after paddle boarding but we still weren’t quite ready to say goodbye to Varkala so we checked into the next door Le Coco, a brand new guesthouse which even has a kitchen. Our first home cooked meal since we got here and the savings have justified a few extra days!

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Indian Spanish omelette a la Jamie

We spent our last day here yesterday hiking along the clifftop for a beautiful 15km route taking in the nearby beaches.

Stunning but it’s heating up and it was pretty hard work in the midday sun. We definitely felt we’d earned our last sunset dinner on the cliff.

The food here (you knew it was coming..) just keeps getting better and better. Highlights include some more delicious Fish Moilee, Fish Malabari, Kerala style fish fry, mango and coconut salad, lots of delicious juices and even some pasta (pasta!!!) with fresh tuna. We’ve also had some tasty spinach and cheese momos, some more Tibetan thukpa and our best cheese masala dosas yet. Last night we treated ourselves to a proper slap up meal – watermelon mojitos and samosas with the sunset, followed by Mahi Mahi in banana leaf with coconut rice and Blue Marlin fillet cooked tikka style in the tandoori.

All absolutely incredible, but the budget has taken a seafood-curry-shaped hit and, despite all the exercise, so has the waistline. Heading off on the train to Kottayam this afternoon before our bus to Munnar tomorrow. Looking forward to some hiking and escaping the humidity and, after a very indulgent week, we’re ready to go back to vegetarian, tea-total, ‘real’ India.

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