I was told that travelling on Indian trains was an experience in itself. M highly recommended it: she told us there they were full of chai-wallahs, who were selling tea and snacks, as well as all sorts of colourful people, from itinerant holy men to hijras. William Darlymple’ interviewees for “Nine lives” (a great book which revolves around non-standard spiritual folks in India) all escaped from their villages in trains. Naturally, I was very curious to inspect this part of Indian life’s rich tapestry.
Alleppey train station was a surprise, after all the dusty bus stops I’ve been through. It was clean and reminiscent of the west. The trains however were a bit shabby (we went 2nd class), but had a Mad Max vibe to them, with rows upon rows of metal fans cooling their metallic bellies. We even found seats. The crowd was not very memorable however, apart from the neighbour who set across me and who would always usurp my seat by putting up his feet whenever I stood up.
Varkala, was only 2 hours away from Alleppey and we arrived in the early morning. After F and I dropped our stuff at the homestay we booked the night before (“Heavenly Breeze”), and M went to find a place for herself, we went to its famous cliffs, which raise impressively over the Arabian sea, uncharacteristically for Kerala’s flat and palm covered coast.
The view was immediately enchanting: a flock of eagles flew above us against azure sky; flat coast stretched a mile ahead, in endless palm groves; the waves broke and released salty sea-smell. It was no wonder that Varkala became a holy site in Hinduism for its curative powers.
Our spirits were further lifted by the cornucopia of western foods on offer in the row of charming cafes perched on the cliff. Like every educated, young and budget tourist (or “traveller” – as some of my haughty friends style themselves), I like to consume “authentically” (yes, yes, that is bullshit) and look down on places flooded by gap-yah kids in it for the cheap booze. However after a week of almost exclusively veggie curry diet and places that mostly escaped westernisation (meaning: no good cafes), my heart jumped at just the possibility of having something like the stuff I like back home.
F immediately ordered a crepe, while I was looking forward to coffee. We sat next to an ultra-thin Aussie dude, in his 60s. In a stereotypically gregarious way he started chatting to us, after F read out a quote from Shantaram (his new favourite book) to me. The Aussie was slightly hippy looking, and it turned out he was running a super-sustainable farm just outside of Sydney, and had done tons of jobs, which included being a ski instructor and selling various things. He was clearly young in his heart and a joy to behold, especially as I am usually surrounded by world-weary almost-30-year-olds who are counting each year with dread. The Aussie escaped a 2 week Ayurvedic cleansing in near-by Trivandrum and decided to enjoy a bit of solid food and rest from forced vomiting and enemas. His story somehow inspired me to seek an Ayurvedic massage later in the day, after having heard from three people that it is unpleasant experience.
After the joy of Western food, we wanted to go back to our homestay. We entered a beautiful plam grove with seductive bamboos huts dotted around. A guy showed us a double room, F protested that we booked a twin. The manager arrived, and smiled: we were at a wrong place. Our actual homestay was the next door waste dump with three buildings, all of them looking like work in progress. Our room had no working lights and looked like prison. After Al Asr in Alleppey, this was a blow. We immediately decided to limit our stay here to a night and move to M’s homestay, which was half the price and on the beach (French women are resourceful).
We all separated to enjoy shopping and western foods. In Varkala there seemed to be a strict division of labour: all the touts and clothes shop owners were local women in their 20s and 30s, all with children who pleaded tourists to come in. Restaurants were run by Tibetans, while pashmina and jewellery stores were the domain of Kashmiris (all swearing that the billions of identical scarves were hand-made in their very village). The crowd was predominantly western for the first time, with a good portion of burnt-out 50 year olds, talking to themselves and smoking various funny things.
Weary from shopping, coffee and being hounded to buy marijuana shirts, I decided to take the plunge and get that massage and then jump into the rough seas. The place of choice was recommended by Lonely Planet and the massage was amazing. The description won’t do it justice: I was first smothered in pungent oils while wearing an improvised g-string/sumo pants, and then pounded with a heated bundle of herbs, and I smelled like a fried chicken. Then I was washed by a potbellied moustachioed guy in his 40s. Although it was indeed cringey, I felt light and unusually happy.
I chanced upon M and F and we went to see the sunset on a nearby black sand beach next to a mosque, where the fishermen leave their boats. I jumped into the sea (partly to wash away the strong spicy smell of oils, partly to celebrate life and freedom) and enjoyed the huge waves as if I was a five-year old. Everything seemed lovely and exciting, and every strong wave reminded me of life’s pains that I so feared. Yet happily I splashed as the sky got orange and pink, and two clouds that looked like giant wings burned golden in the sky. I was in India, the place I so feared and craved, and I was happy.
We strayed on the beach until it got so dark that dozens of fishing boats illuminated the horizon, taking pictures and looking in wonder. Then we went to Cafe Darjeeling (proudly wifi less) where we celebrated Ghandi’s birthday with a few beers (which were prohibited) and made friends with two French nurses who decided to work their way around the world. They both worked in Paris, one as a surgical nurse, the other as a paediatric one, and were just starting. It turned out that they where in charge of getting Heavenly Breeze into shape in exchange for accommodation. They were planning to finish their trip in Australia and F was dispensing his hard-earned travel advice, about joys and pains of various South-East Asian countries.
I went back to the room early, only to be attacked by fleas in the cushion of our garden chair in Heavenly Breeze. Naturally, we changed homestays as soon as we woke up.
The next day we spent haggling over various knick-knacks (all of the very finest quality produced by master-craftsmen) and I acquired a pair of local pajamas as well as few Nehru-collared beach shirts. F was moved by some chapter in Shantaram to spread the wealth through shopping, M needed stuff and she came to India with minimum clothes and I got hooked on haggling. We hung out with the French nurses and had the world’s worst cocktail (watery mojito smothered in tabasco sauce).
M, F and I started discussing plans for the next day:
“So we are going to an ashram tomorrow?”
“Yes, I think it is three days minimum, but then M and I might continue to the tip of India while you go to Delhi”
“OK, will we be able to see Trivandrum from an ashram? I hope it is not very strict, and it seems a bit far away”
“No, it is not a prison, Srdjan. You do what you like, a bit of yoga, a bit of meditation, a bit of everything”
“Great, that sounds cool”, I said unconvinced. But deep inside I was curious as to what it will be like. Still in good mood from my massage and lovely sunset the day before, I thought all will be fine.