Another day, another terrifying road trip. Thomas’ GPS says it will take three hours to drive from Alleppy to Varkala and even though we get lost several times, once quite badly, we arrive in exactly three hours.
Trucks and buses fly at us, horns honk, scooters swerve all over the road, tuk-tuks suddenly stop to let passengers out. It is mayhem.
For too long we tailgate a truck carrying inflammable material and every time Thomas inches closer and then tries to pass, only to slam on the brakes and tuck back in I see my life ending in flames.
Ms. GPS speaks English, mispronouncing many of the street names, but even when she clearly says turn right Thomas often drives straight. We yell out “right, right, turn right”, but by then he is over the bridge and in a rabbit warren of small streets. The GPS tries to set him straight but we end up at a dead end.
When I whisper quietly to Craig that it might be better if the GPS was in Malayalam, Thomas initially chuckles and then asks if everything is ok. I feel badly for insulting him. But he barely understands English. How did he know what I was saying?
It is no small miracle that we get to the Krishnatheeram Resort http://www.krishnatheeram.com alive, much less on time!!
The next adventure is our room. It is a wooden hut, no air conditioning, dinky bathroom that floods when the shower is turned on because there really is no shower per se, just a shower head that sprays all over the room. The walls of the hut are so poorly built that there are gaps wide enough for snakes, specifically cobras, to get through. No mosquito net to keep those pests away. And it is smack in the middle of the pool & garden common area. It’s a garden shed!
Craig puts on his rose-colored glasses and insists it will be fine. Just like in the old days, he says. For an extra $15/night I get us a stucco bungalow with air conditioning and suggest that he might want to stay in the wooden hut, just for old times.
Hot and bothered from the drive and the room fiasco, my first impression of Varkala is definitely biased. To make matters worse, not realizing we are at the north end of the funky neighbourhood, we walk farther north through a less than lovely part of town. It is 38 degrees, there is no shade and we are arguing about whether or not we should have stuck with the garden shed. Not off to a good start!
Later, after lunch and a swim, and a change of rooms, we walk south and discover the Varkala we have read about. Red clay cliffs above a gorgeous sandy beach, a cliff-top walking path lined with small shops selling Indian handicrafts, numerous seafood restaurants displaying the very fresh catch of the day, yoga studios and ayurvedic treatment centres. This is more like it!
Varkala is a coastal resort on the south-western tip of India. Like Goa to the north, it is a hippie haven and we see lots of dreadlocks, tattoos, piercings, tie-dyed attire. A few of the older ones look like they should have gone home when they had the chance. Too late now!
There are also lots of Indian families on vacation and pilgrims visiting the Hindu temple on the beach. We watch a procession from the temple to the water that appears to be some kind of baptism.
The shopping is too good to resist and the time comes to buy a carry-on bag for our purchases. We find something suitable at a Tibetan handicrafts shop. The shopkeeper tells us he is from Tibet but lives in Varkala in the winter and goes back north for the summer, not to Tibet, but to the Indian province of Ladakh, which is close to Tibet.
When we tell him that we were in Ladakh in 1985, he is shocked. It’s not a popular tourist destination. We ask about Tashi, the guide we used. It’s a small place, so of course he knows him. Or rather, knew him. He died a few years ago. We leave the shop a bit wondrous at just how small the world really is sometimes.
Our hotel has a yoga studio, roof-top, open-air, facing the sea. We start our second morning with some hatha. Then breakfast. A walk on the beach, lunch, shopping, swim, nap, read, nap, cocktail, dinner, goodnight. Repeat the next day!
February is Hindu festival month in Varkala, or so we are told by Anil, the tuk-tuk driver who we meet one afternoon at the beach. We want to visit the Janardanha Hindu temple and Anil suggests he take us at 5 PM so we can see a parade. That turns out to be a bit of an understatement!
An elephant, several groups of drummers, dancers, and a crowd of locals start out on a main road, then turn into a rural lane, gathering a larger and larger crowd, as they make their way to the temple. We walk along with them for about two kms, until it gets dark and we find out that the route is several hours long. The rhythmic banging of the drums, the hoots of the crowd, the dancing, the heat, the proximity of the elephant, the small shrines by the road, all make for a very intense and memorable experience.
The Indian men want their photos taken and I must say they are a very handsome lot. In particular, they have absolutely magnificent hair: dark, shiny, thick, stylishly cut. Craig & I are both envious.
Varkala turns out to be a trip highlight, but three days is enough. The heat is fierce, like a blast furnace. We are grateful for the air conditioning in our new room, especially at night, when the temperatures cool down to about 28 degrees.
It’s a running joke that the garden shed would have been “just fine” in this heat. Craig continues to insist that we could have made do … in 33 years of travel, I’ve yet to smash those rose-colored glasses of his … and maybe we could have. We’re glad we didn’t have to find out.