I’m a sucker for a view, me. Any chance to get up high and have a look around and I’ll probably take it provided it doesn’t involve me edging too close to a sheer drop that doesn’t accommodate a nice, stable handrail given my balance or lack thereof. And the best way to get a view in Varkala is to strap a Frenchman to your back and jump off a cliff, provided that the aforementioned Frenchman is attached to a parachute. Paragliding is way more fun than walking up 144 steps to the top of a lighthouse. For ₹3500, he’ll take you up for 20 to 30 minutes and a few days ago, when the conditions were right and I hadn’t overdone the cough syrup and passed out, I met him on the helipad and off we went for a ride over the cliffs.
I’ve done this once before in Venezuela and it was awesome then. Apart from the initial running off the edge of a cliff part, tandem paragliding isn’t an adrenaline sport. You just sit back and enjoy the view, and whilst the view in Venezuela was stunning it was all hills and fields and hills and fields. In Varkala you get ocean views to one side, endless palm trees to the other and in between you get the cliffs and he’ll explain everything he’s doing as he’s doing it. You start from the helipad and are taken immediately by the thermal lift then he glides one way, turns and glides the other to try and get some height. Conditions today weren’t the absolute best but despite the fact I’ve insisted on stuffing quite large quantities of dessert into my facehole recently he said I wasn’t too heavy and he was confident that we could get enough lift to get to South Cliff, and indeed we did.
This is an awesome way to kill a bit of time. There are so many cool birds here. Back home, if you see a bird of prey hovering over a field you stop the car and get out and watch it for a while in slack jawed wonder. Here, they’re as common as sparrows and he watches them to find out where the best lift is to get higher. Everyone waves at you from the ground too and I asked him questions I probably didn’t want to know the answer to such as had he ever crashed. He insisted that he never had, not even when he was training, because you learn slowly. Goooood to know. Towards the end he flew us over North Cliff where we glided over the cafes and restaurants that I frequent before he swung over the helipad again in tight circles my stomach didn’t like very much in order to land us.
I love Varkala ay. Love it. Despite the fact it’s stupidly touristy and relatively expensive, it’s a really fun place to be. Shiva Garden is great even though the mosquitoes in the garden want all of my blood, and it’s really cheap in the roof top dorm. People think that the shop keepers and restaurant managers hassle you. These people haven’t been to Rajasthan. They ask you if you’ll look at their shop or want to eat at their restaurant, and they’ll ask you every time you walk past, but they won’t actually pester you or follow you and they’ll take no for an answer, at least for that time. And hey, you’ll need to go into the restaurants at least once a day to feed yourself. You can get the usual north Indian vegetarian options you get in every westernised restaurant. Palak paneer, malai kofta, paneer butter masala, the safe-bet stuff, nothing spicy unless you specifically ask so you can order safe in the knowledge that you’ll retain your stomach lining. There are some awesome Keralan options an’ all, I think “Keralan” basically means “has a fuck tonne of coconut milk in it,” I need a restaurant in Brighton to serve this shit. Fish molly. I have no idea what it is, I just know I enjoy shoving it into my facehole and someone back home who has an ability to cook without having to disable all of the smoke alarms first needs to learn to make this for me.
And Hello to the Queen, another tourist restaurant favourite. Tis an Israeli dish consisting of crushed biscuits, warm to caramalisation point bananas, cashew nuts, chocolate sauce and ice cream which should be slightly melted if they did the bananas right. I decided to try and find the best one on the cliff but I’m not gonna lie, I eventually gave up keeping score and used it as a blatant excuse to consume a large quantity of sugar for dinner. Or lunch. Or breakfast. Whatever. I’ve been justifying it with the sheer number of steps you have to walk up to get from the beach to the cliff. The seafood is great too, they lay it all out on ice around 6pm and you can choose your fish or prawns or whatever manner of dead sea creature they happen to have available. And you can enjoy your meal with a cold beer, they all give frequent bribes to the police to override Kerala’s intense alcohol laws and it’s sometimes served wrapped in newspaper and you have to keep the bottle on the floor in between topping up your oversized coffee mug. Really subtle, guys. No one will ever know.
Once I’d psyched myself up to the fact that there was a high possibility of getting sand on me I headed to the beach quite bit. Near drowning is considered the height of fun in Varkala and I eventually learned the art of catching a wave. Instead of flailing like you’re on a dance floor after several vodkas and your favourite tune just came on, you time it properly, jump up, kick like mad whilst keeping your arms either by your side or straight out ahead of you and maybe three times out of ten you’ll ride the wave. The remaining seven times you’ll end up in the washing machine as the sea tries to relieve you of your clothes, your dignity and the lining of your nasal passages whilst acquainting itself with the inside of your lungs.
You can hire parasols to keep out of the sun on the particularly clear days, and sunbeds to keep you away from the tiny grains of evil that are hell bent on causing you the maximum amount of chaffing possible in the most inconvenient places. On hazier days, you can fuck the idea of the parasol off because it’s just not that sunny anyway, fall asleep on the beach and burn your fucking eyelids. That’s about as much fun as waking up to find that all of your floors have been replaced with broken glass and someone has nicked your shoes. The next day my eyelids were swollen, I looked like I’d had an allergic reaction to life. As I sat up in bed trying to massage more sunscreen, the only moisturising substance I had, into my face and eyelids, Al walked into the dorm room and exclaimed, “What’s happened to your face?!” So yeah, maybe just hire the damn parasol, or keep your sunglasses on and make do with the badger tan.
And the rain! Dude, like every good tropical town, Varkala knows how to do rain. It only has to piss it down for ten minutes and the roads and footpaths become actual running rivers of muddy, ankle deep water. If a tree is in the way here, they don’t chop it down, they just build around it, so where a tree is growing through a roof the water will come in. Around the supporting columns, water will come in there too resulting in restaurants hurriedly moving tables around and away from the open sides so their guests stay dry. Nothing demonstrates which parts of the dorm roof leak like a good downpour either, staying in the dorm in the rain is like camping. Part of you wants to enjoy the sound of the rain, part of you is wondering if you’ll wake up in a small lake. And all of you is too fucking lazy to get out of bed to move your stuff to a dryer part of the room. One night I lay awake as water dripped onto my foot. I contemplated shifting my mattress back a metre. Then just moved my foot a few centimetres instead.
But yeah. Varkala. I’ve had an awesome time here. The first time around was great, hanging out with people I’d met in various parts of the country. The second time around was just as awesome, making new friends and settling in somewhere for a nice holiday. I think I’ll be finding sand in my luggage for the foreseeable future but right now I don’t mind. Give me a week or so and I’ll probably have a nervous breakdown, but right now, it’s all good. Nice one, 2014. You were pretty awesome and you ended well. Let’s see how 2015 shapes up, shall we?
And in other news, I’ve totes gotten into the little local restaurants where you walk in, sit down then just get handed a plate of whatever’s on offer, the ones with a sign outside saying “Meals Ready” that look kinda grotty and you wouldn’t even contemplate until you’d been in India several weeks for fear of spending the ensuing week shitting though the eye of a needle. Me and Ruth went to one during an excursion to Trivandrum and I ate at a few in Kanyakumari among other places. Usually you get a big pile of rice with three or so delicious things to mix into it, and they keep topping these up until you’ve finished your rice or until your stomach refuses to accommodate anymore food, whatever happens first. Usually the latter for me. I’d been putting off going into these places because I had no idea how to eat rice with my hands but since Alappuzha I’m a fucking pro at it. Sort of. Ok, so I can eat a plate of rice with my hands, it just takes a while and some of the rice may or may not end up down my front. It’s a massive money saver too, you can feed yourself til bursting for around ₹80 in most places, especially the ones with absolutely no menu, or a menu written only in Malayalan or Tamil (in which case you just ask for a meal) in the less touristy places. In the tourist restaurants you’re looking at ₹120 plus rice or bread. Aaaaand you know you’ve been in India a while when you recoil in horror at the prospect of paying around £2 for a full feed!
But yeah, one day I’ll make a video on how to eat rice with your hands and post it here. I may need to be drunk for this to happen on account of feeling like a prick when I so much as photograph my food in restaurants, never mind make a video of me talking to myself whilst shovelling rice into my chops.
Varkala, Kerala, India
Stayed at: Shiva Garden