Thursday, 30 January 2014

Varkala- A Keralan New Year

After a very reclusive, very relaxing and remarkably cold Christmas it was time for us to return to the heat as Kerala was calling. Initially we weren't planning on spending as much time as we did in Kerala and we certainly don't regret the change of plans. It truly does live up to its billing as India at its most picturesque and relaxed, even the significant tourist presence of the peak Christmas and New Year season couldn't spoil this paradise.

We first took a car from Ooty down to the bustling and bland city of Thrissur the easiest jumping off point to Kerala from the Tamil Nadu Western Ghats. We did spend a day booking onward travel and mooching around the city famous for its extravagant pooram festivals, the sense of which we tasted as we stumbled upon a parade/march of children, scouts, drummers all around the city centre roundabout. It was also our first and only experience of Kerala detached from tourism and as such our first glimpse of the famous political life of the state of Kerala. Boasting the only democratically elected Communist government in the world alongside the highest literacy rate in India the Keralan people are clearly very proud of their politics and now having spent time in Rajasthan, Kerala certainly had an air of affluence and social equality most obvious in the bustling Thrissur. Other than that, awful traffic and a cracking book shop we won't really take many memories from Thrissur, and we left on a crowded Sleeper class train for the journey to Varkala in search of the Keralan beauty we'd heard so much about.

Our first experience of Varkala, however, wasn't as stress free as the place turned out to be. As it was New Year we were more conscious of issues with accommodation and surprise surprise, when we tried to find a room the day before we travelled we weren't exactly spoiled for options, especially reasonable ones. We went with one of the last places left the Haiwa Beach Residency, for a bargain (in Kerala on New Years) price of rp1000 (£10) a night, it was of course too good to be true and after settling in the room we believed to be ours we were told the price was triple what we were quoted. So. Obviously we said no, that's not fair, to which we received a still confusing tale of issues with Hostel World, telling us we should book with the obviously more expensive Expedia. They claimed they had told Hostel World to take them down, we just couldn't believe the only time we've ever used an online booking site rather than just calling in a reservation it had been a mess. In the end much to the explicit benevolence, 'you can't possibly get a room at this good price in Kerala on New Years, I'm helping you here blah blah blah', of the owner he put us up in a small but pleasant and clean bungalow just across the road for the slightly more expensive (rp1200) but equally as reasonable, or so we thought at the time. It turns out there was another guest there paying much less than we were simply because he turned up and haggled with the owner, yet it was the only place with rooms he found after 2 hours search. Frustrating to say the least and the feeling of being a bit cheated lay stale in our mouths for as long as it took to reach the beautiful cliff edge.

Varkala really is a paradise beach destination and the perfect remedy to the hectic Southern cities. It simply oozes relaxation.

North Cliff is another example of being mislead by the superlative depictions of everywhere from a toilet to a luxurious 5*. We were half expecting an over done charter tourist hell hole, in fact what we found was understated and charming. Blessed with a cliff top position the architecture of the area is forcibly minimal, rickety shacks and balconies stand alongside slightly smarter restaurants all protruding out along the inviting cliff path. The shop owners were understandably hawkerish and chatty but never overly intrusive or anywhere near as bad as other places we've been. In fact the endless shops were a bit of a vice, for Josie especially, how many hareem pants can one possibly need?

Varkala is also of great religious significance and many chose to take the ashes of recently deceased along with clothes and make the funeral rituals throwing the ashes out in to the Arabian Sea. The waves here were also super heavy, this wasn't the sort of sea you're going to swim particularly far in, but playing in the waves was great and whilst they were definitely good enough to surf the whole beach was just too crowded to be able to really enjoy surfing, so we rented a body board, much easier and way more fun in the crowds. We took the GoPro out to sea to water it after a few weeks of dry land and film some body boarding. All was going swimmingly until Josie, filming Olly, got snuck up on by an absolutely massive wave, completely levelled she spun about a little under the water and was left praying the sea water she had swallowed was cleaner than the tap water. The video is priceless.

New Years Eve came and we still had some of our own booze left over from crimbo so we obviously indulged in some pre drinks. Picked up some fresh juices on our way back to our room ready for some exotic Keralan Gin and Juice.

We went for a delicious dinner at our favourite restaurant on the cliff front, the dreadfully named Abba restaurant that served ice cold draught Kingfisher and delicious sizzlers and tandoori specials (highly recommended). We ended up in the garden of The Backside Cafe a cool place full of travellers dancing, drinking, chatting around the leafy garden and drained pool. They had a dj playing loads of throwback r'n'b: the first song of 2014 was TLC 'No Scrubs', can't complain at that really. They also had some fireworks that made us all fear for our lives as they were literally just metres from everyone and you could feel the heat and sticks dropping, but I guess it just brought everyone back to the Indian nature of the event. It was a great place to ring in the new year although never quite the same as being with all your friends. I still managed to complete my transformation in to this.

There was significant police presence along the cliff on NYE. They would roam up and down the cliff path with sticks and prod people loitering, in particular the groups of young indian men hanging around who they clearly didn't want loitering. Unfortunately for the groups of Indian men they weren't getting let in to the NYE parties so they didn't have anywhere else to go. I can see why the bars didn't want large groups of boozy men in their tourist oriented establishments, but it still felt a little odd and you've got to feel bad for the Indian lads out on the town for a good time and ended up playing duck duck goose with ageing policemen and bamboo sticks.

We awoke to 2014 with a headache and headed to our favourite breakfast spot the Sky Lounge Cafe where we were served up a proper big breakfast with everything you could imagine, all the meat, all the veg, all the fruit, all the pleasure. There's no better hangover cure than a proper brekkie and the sea air, we all know that.

It had only been a few weeks away from the beach and yet the refreshing ocean and relaxed vibes that emanated from Varkala's cliff top were ample fix before a month away from the water in Rajasthan.



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