With three quick flights from Kathmandu we arrived in the south of India to Thiruvananthapuram (I know what a mouthful). Even though we arrived in the early hours of the morning we decided to jump in a taxi to take us to the nearby beach town of Varkala. We thought it would be nicer to wake up at the beach rather then a transit capital but as we arrived at our hostel via tiny dirt roads I wasnt so sure. Thankfully when we woke up the next morning and went into town we discovered we had made the right choice as Varkala was stunning in the light of day.
Set on top of a cliff the main strip was filled with restaurants, shops and ayuravedic health centres all looking out into the ocean. We wandered along until we found somewhere we wanted to eat and had a delicious breakfast overlooking the blue sky and rolling sea. After our meal had to wander to find an ATM. We got a bit lost in the process and spent 45 minutes wandering the local town. The whole place just had a great relaxed and friendly atmosphere – even the men wore sarongs rather than trousers. The locals would greet you with a smile, the streets were cleaner and the houses in better shape. James then told me it may be because it is a communist state but I just think its because they have a beautiful place to live. We spent the rest of the day was spent at the beach under an umbrella with a few paddles in the sea.
A beach in India is so different then those in Oz or Europe. For staters they are still modest when swimming and go in with most of their clothes on which made me feel scandalous in my one piece and sarong. Also it was surprising that while many people come to wander in the sand and watch the sunset very few of them do actually swim. Which is lucky because the lifeguards are tubby fellows relaxing under an umbrella that simply blow their whistles if someone is too far out. The beach we were at is also used for rituals for family’s to say farewell to their lost loved ones. We saw many families wandering at the waters edge, holding hands and praying.
As the sun was setting over the ocean we retired to a beachfront restaurant to have a drink. We ordered a beer not knowing that the restaurant wasn’t licensed and ended up with a teapot and mugs filled with a warm Kingfisher quickly bought from an off licence. It wasn’t the most refreshing way to end the day but the novelty of drinking a beer from a teapot and watching a stunning sunset was a great experience. It was the first of many gorgeous sunsets we watched at the beach and we weren’t alone. It seemed that most of the locals would come down just to sit and stare like we did. Including the local puppies who tried to come close and snuggle or play. Sadly due to risk of rabies we couldn’t play or cuddle but it seems at even in Kerala the dogs are friendlier.
After our first relaxing sun and sea filled day we got into a rhythm of waking up late, casually eating breakfast, days at the beach, evenings playing cards or reading in our hotel lounge followed by a delicious meal on the cliffside. And delicious all our meals were. There was no shortage of choice for places to eat as we wandered the cliffside we passed many restaurants with their daily fresh seafood on ice outside. You could choose which fish (including shark) or check out the size of the prawns before making your choice. I’m not a big seafood eater but as they say – when in Rome and each night I tried to eat something local and fresh. I had an amazing tiger prawn curry (the prawns were more like mini lobsters they were so big) and delicious calamari rings. I didn’t branch out far enough for the shark though. Kerala is also known for its coconut flavoured meals and cashew production so you can find many options with these on the menu’s. James tried coconut porridge and it is a new favourite along with the cashew biscuits we stumbled across.
We started to lose a bit of time and after four nights I realised we hadn’t done anything we planned to do – no ayurvedic massages, no cooking classes and no further exploration to other beaches – so I decided on a day trip to Kollam. About 30 minutes by train Kollam sounded like another beach side town but with a spice market and lake nearby. Once we arrived we headed over to the rickshaw stand and got asked to be taken to the spice bazaar. None of the drivers knew what we were talking about and perhaps we should have taken that as a sign but we forged ahead. Once we got there the Mukkada Bazaar recommended by the lonely planet was literally just a local market made of rusty ramshakle huts selling pieces of meat covered in flies, fruit and some spices. Many locals were doing there shopping there and it was obvious that foreigners didn’t drop by often because nearly everyone said hello to us or came to the front of their stall to stare. It was still interesting to see a local market but was very different from what we had expected. I guess that’s why we shouldnt always take advice from a four year old guidebook.
From there we set about trying to find the Ashtamudi Lake as it was apparently the gateway to the backwaters. We jumped in another rickshaw and asked to be taken to the lake. There was a bit of confusion, pointing at the guiebook and discussions in Hindi and English but we thought we got there in the end. 45 minutes later we only just arrived at a random resort in the backwaters. It wasn’t really what we were expecting but they did have a floating restaurant so we stayed there and relaxed over lunch and drinks looking out into the water. It was a fairly scenic place to view the lake but since it was so far away that was pretty much all we could do before having to had back to Varkala. There was no air con seats on the trains so we were packed into the standard section with the rest of the locals. I didn’t mind as it was only half an hour and there is much more going on in these carriages to look at. That said I’m glad we don’t do our longer journeys in that class – even if that makes me sound snobby.
After a fairly disappointing day trip we had one last cliffside meal as we were leaving Varkala the next day. It was a perfect place to lose a few days and experience the more relaxed and friendly part of India but it was time to move on and fully explore the famous backwaters.