VARKALA, INDIA- Feel the cool white marble of the Taj Mahal on your bare feet. Check. Witness the cremations on the banks of the Ganges in Varanasi. Check.
Plow your way through the mosh pit that is New Delhi station for the overnight train to Udaipur. Check. Share a glass of milk with a holy man from the bowls on the floor at the Rat Temple. Whoa. “Thanks, just had a Fanta.”
No matter how much research you do, no matter how many people you talk to, nothing quite prepares first-time visitors for India. It is a full-on, non-stop assault on the senses. A wonderful, yet sometimes overwhelming, experience. Which is why it’s a good idea to build in a few days of pampering and decompression on any tour of India. And why we wrapped up a month-long trip with five nights in this peaceful, palm-lined beach town on the Arabian Sea in south India.
Just 200 kilometres from the southern tip of the country in the spectacularly tropical state of Kerala, the town’s tourist area is a compact community of hotels, restaurants and gift shops on a cliff top above the stunning Papanasam Beach. For the Western tourist, Varkala is an oasis of familiarity.
An affable middle-aged Londoner runs a coffee shack under a palm tree at the Café del Mar and whips up lattes and cappuccinos as good as you’d get at Starbucks - for about a buck. In fact, his takeaway cups are Starbucks seconds. Business is good with a steady stream of Euros, Aussies and the odd Canuck family happily lining up for their morning fix.
“I’ve got a local girl,” says our Cockney barista. “I’m never going back.”
And as you read your paper, sip your joe and gaze down at the beach on another perfect day in Kerala, you can imagine what the weather’s like in London on this winter’s day.
The seafood is fabulous and cheap, every restaurant sells beer (not always a certainty in India) and the beach is superb - albeit rocked with a ferocious, sometimes dangerous, surf that elicits a little prayer of thanks upon a return to dry sand. Many people head here for a week of yoga and ayurvedic massage, a kidney-rattling experience designed to clear your internal organs of toxins.
Listening to the assorted European languages being spoken, it’s easy to forget you’re in India. Life on the cliff top is very much India Lite but, as always, the real India is never far away.
Left: Cliffs at Varkala are lined with restaurants and rest areas. Right: Street vendors greet your with lovely smiles in Varkala.
Every morning, just as the sun comes up, the beach is home to a couple of lively cricket games, with players racing out into the water to retrieve well-struck balls. It’s cricket like you’ve never seen it, with the ball in constant motion, players diving to make catches and bowlers delivering one ball after another with a quick two-step run-up.
The teams are made up of fit young guys who like to get in a game before starting work in the restaurants and hotels. Occasionally an Englishman or Aussie joins in, often the victim of some good-natured heckling. “Run faster, England!”
Further down the beach, in a quiet cove, a couple of Hindu priests perform pujas for people seeking blessings for their families just as the sun begins to kiss the sea. And further still a sadhu sits motionless on a rock meditating.
This beach, at the south end of town, is where the locals tend to swim and hang out. Here too you can get a coffee or, better still, a cup of chai for about 10 cents.
At the north end of town, the beach path leads to a residential area of modest seafront homes. On the beach, fishermen haul in nets that run hundreds of metres out to sea by hand. It’s heavy work and tourists on early-morning walks are welcome to join in.
Back on the clifftop, the sun is up, the shops are opening and the cafes starting to fill up. Another perfect day in paradise.