Varkala – aka a time warp
Varkala…. kind of like hotel california — you can check out any time you want, but you can never leave…. here i am – headed out of town finally — several days after I planned on! Somehow, 3 days turned into 5 or 6…. seems that is how Varkala rolls. For one thing, it is actually hard to get out of here — not a ton of buses and trains leave from this area – you have to go to a bigger city to get connections and the tourist area is located on the coast – whereas the real town is further away and most tourists have no reason to go down there.
Finally, the other day, I realized I needed to take some action or I would be stuck here for awhile – so I visited one of the many travel agents in town. What I thought would be a simple plan turned into several hours of frustrating news. Basically, all trains are booked. Turns out December is a tough time to get a train around here (I just happen to be on the pathway of most-visited-Indian spots in the winter — Kerala, Karnataka, Goa) — even with the tourist quota, there are not a lot of spots available. And then, after that whole planning time with the travel agent, I left with nothing becuase I need to go down to the station to try to get tourist quota tickets.
So, train station lady and I spent a while talking and I walked away with a whole slew of tickets — Varkala to Bengalore, Bengalore to Hampi, Hampi to Mumbai, Mumbai to Ajmer. I am set for the next few weeks (though I still need to get one more ticket to Delhi!) – though, I have to say, none of these trips are super convenient. For one thing, I am in sleeper class for all of them (remember that dirty, dusty, crowded train ride I took a while back? Remember when I said I would only take 3AC or 2AC after that first experience? Yeah — now I am signed up for a whole bunch of those) and for another thing — I have long waits in between. For instance — tomorrow, I leave for bengalore at 1:30 in the afternoon — i arrive at 7 in the morning (desperate for a shower) and then take a train that evening at 8 that gets in at 7:45 (really really desperate for a shower). Yes, that is two days after I leave here…. In mumbai, I have a similar situation (though, lucky for me, even a few hours longer of a wait between two trains!)
Not sure how I will manage that time — find a place to stow my luggage? Get a rickshaw for the day? A hotel room? hang out in the train station and stare at people? Not sure — I guess it is all part of building the epic…. or something.
But — big picture — I have 17 more days in country — I will visit Hampi, which everyone raves about, for a few days and then head up to Rajasthan for a few days (not sure where I will visit — but definitely Pushkar and Jaipur). It is going to be quick and lots of transportation time — but hopefully worth it.
But — back to Varkala….
As I have said, it is a strip of souvenir stores, restaurants, and travel agents — all up on a cliff side. I have walked the strip more times than I would like to think (mostly because it is the only place to walk — especially when it gets dark). Once you get past the strip — there is great beach to the north. I spent some good time over there watching the most amazing sunset — probably one of my top 5 ever (see pictures below).
This is the first place I have really met a bunch of tourists — though two stand out: Rob and Norman. Rob and I met because we were both walking the strip back and forth one night and laughed about it – and from there decided to pick a spot and drink a beer, which turned into a few and then dinner. Rob is probably in his late 50s/mid-60s and from Australia. He is retired and spends most of his time driving his camper van up and down the Australian coast, camping and surfing. (Oh, that sounds terrible). We had a great time talking about life and travel and love and making lists and spirituality. We both are traveling alone (he is here for just 5 weeks this time, but once he was here in India traveling for 16 months!) – so we had fun talking about that as well. It was a great evening and he totally inspired me to add ‘buy van and pimp it out to live out of’ to my life list.
And then there is Norman. He and I met when we both were stopped to admire a sunset. I am not sure how old Norman is — but his oldest son is 40 – and he seems like he could be in his 70s. But — i am not good at guessing ages! Norman is also traveling alone and has been coming to India for about 13 years. He always comes to the south and spends a month or so here. He invited me along for a day on the backwaters (which, Lonely Planet says that floating in a houseboat on the Keralan backwaters is one of the iconic life list things to do). He told me to think about it and told me where his hotel was if I wanted to go – to just leave a message for him there. I thought about it and realized that, even though, I did want to leave Varkala — this was too good an opportunity to pass up (he offered to treat me for the day – but not in a sketchy way – instead he said — ‘i am already paying for all of this, why not have someone come along with me’). So – Norman and I went to the backwaters.
Long story short, our day was a bit messed up – though it all worked out. We went to a very beautiful beach in the morning and then floated in a canoe some of the backwaters in the afternoon. And, true to the hype, it is pretty spectacular. Our guide was a 23 year old who definitely had a schtick – but was knowledgable, friendly and fun. We saw a few birds, a water snake, floated past villages, learned about how they make coconut oil and coconut rope (which I have a sample that we made to bring home). Without seeing a larger map to understand how it all lays out, i have a hard time picturing where we were — but these villages seem to do their travel and life using these small canals. And, I even got a chance to pole our canoe along. And norman and I had fun talking about life and his family and travel in India (and elsewhere as he does one or two trips a year and seems to have been all over the place!)
All in all, it was a good adventure in Varkala. I definitely would not recommend it to someone looking for a quiet, off the beaten track kind of place. One night, a restaurant down the way, partied late into the night, keeping me up (which, bad on me, I should have moved guest houses — but repacking and moving my backpack is SO unappearling). Also – the men seem to be over the top forward and aggressive here. I have walked out of my room to be confronted with staring men who check me out head to toe. And you cannot walk the strip or near the beach late at night without some new male friends (who do not make me feel very friendly) who do not get the hint that i am not going to go off with them. But – that is counter-balanced with meeting fun travelers, pick up soccer games at 7 in the morning on the beach with the locals, running on the beach with the locals in the early morning (and even though that is all men too — their staring just seems a lot less aggressive!) and amazing sunsets.