Yesterday just about this time I was swimming in the Arabian Sea in Varkala. The previous four days I had be content with watching from the shore as the surf, pounding and wild, shot ten foot high spray up into the air. Waves (the kind surfers can only dream of), rose and crested into perfect tunnels then shattered into roiling foam until they crashed against the rocky shore with a thunderous boom. Only the foolish or those wishing a non-stop trip to Africa courtesy of the ferocious undertow dared to swim.
But yesterday the sea, at least in our little cove, had calmed somewhat and the undertow disappeared. To be sure, there was still enough rolling surf to make for an adventurous (albeit safe) hour playing in the waves. The water was just about baby bath temperature. The sky was robin’s egg blue and the scorching hot sand inspired this ingenious adaptation of something you typically seen thrown by the side of the road in India.
Apparently this is nothing like what is going on back home where we have read reports of two feet of snow.
Overhead sea eagles (Krishna birds I was told they are called) hovered low and riding thermals with barely a flap of their wings, hunting for fish.
Varkala’s beach is a 150 foot wide strip of beautiful at the foot of a cliff that follows the coast. There is a brick and packed red dirt path atop the cliff that hugs the coast for several miles in each direction from our hotel. Heading south you come to Black Beach, set a hundred feet down from the path and accessed by a narrow winding staircase of two hundred some odd steps. Above, the land side of the path is lined with open air restaurants and shops selling sarongs, sun screen, tee shirts, and jewelry made in Tibet. In this part of India where even the air is called Ayurvedic, you can choose from dozens of yoga classes, mediation sessions and every conceivable type of massage. As streams of pale-skinned, sun burnt Ukrainian, Danish, German and English tourists stroll by, the merchants call out to them, “Just look-see, very cheap!” And every promise of “Maybe later” is registered by that merchant who remembers who said what and reminds them on the return trip that “now is later.” Walking north on the sea side path brings a welcome relief from the bustle of the tourist area. Here coconut palms and banana trees wave over scattered thatched-roof bungalow colonies and Jamil sells water and soft drinks at the one stand we encountered on our walk. The cliff in this area has been dramatically undercut by the waves, and like the path in the other direction, it looks as if it could tumble into the sea in the next storm. Besides the tranquility I found walking this direction there were a series of sandy beaches where the cliff had in fact fallen, leaving easy access to the water. I passed people (both in groups and solo) facing the setting sun while meditating and doing yoga. Children coming home from school wished me a cheerful “Good evening!” and the more courageous asked, “Where are you from?” From the distance the call to prayer from the lime green and bubblegum pink mosque mingled with the sound of Hindi pop tunes from someone’s radio. Boys playing cricket on an adjacent field shouted orders to each other. Goats gamboled by and the occasional water buffalo kept company with a committee of skinny legged, graceful white egrets. The palm trees rustled overhead and incense, along with the occasional whiff of weed, perfumed the soft breeze.
Last night at this time we sat at a table by the sea, using our fingers and slices of Kerala nan (the local vegetable stuffed flat bread) to scoop up tender pieces of garlic and butter rubbed red snapper hot from the tandoori oven. We watched the moon paint the breaking waves with strokes of quick silver that seemed to come from below the surface of the water and then disappear as soon as it made its magical mark.
Last night the waves supplied the perfect white noise, drowning out the sound of the occasional motor scooter and conversation from the road below our bedroom window. It was India “light” in perfect form.
Today we are in a car with a driver named Joseph who came, unexpectantly, in place of Nigel, our regular driver. His job was to take us the 130 km from Varkala to Alleppey to meet up with the houseboat we would take for two days to the Backwaters, the series of canals and inland waterways that this part of Kerala is famous for. The drive had taken two hours on the way down with Nigel at the wheel. Aside from our being highjacked and having to pay a ransom on the outskirts of Cochi (see David’s post below), it was a smooth trip as Nigel was a confident driver whose ego didn’t drive him to pass every vehicle on the road. Not so with Joseph. His insecurity coupled with cluelessness about both direction and directions to our destination turned him into the classic ‘Indian Driver From Hell.’ Because I have a propensity for car sickness I try to sit in the front seat of any car in which I am a passenger. I have spent many hours (days, actually) sitting next to good Indian drivers who, like Nigel, don’t have to show that theirs is the biggest dick on the highway. When Joseph finally located the highway – after stopping at least five times to ask directions – his right hand hit the horn and his foot hit the gas. He honked at rickshaws as he passed them with inches to spare, he honked at buses ten times the size of his car, moving in so close that I could read the tiny print on the advertisement on the back that should have said. “If you can read this you are a raving maniac!” He honked at families on motorbikes as he pulled close enough to see the fingerprints of the toddler on the back clinging to his mama for dear life. He honked at bicyclists hauling enormous loads of green bananas to market. He honked at pedestrians walking nowhere near the road and goats tethered in the field. If there had been road kill he would have honked at that as well.
He carved his own lane between us and oncoming traffic in a video game parody of how not to drive. I began to think of it as as version of Whack-A-Mole called Forge-A-Lane, as he hit the brakes with both feet when the oncoming driver wouldn’t get out of his way.
Thus our rhythm was established:
Stop go beep
Stop go beep
Stop go beep
For three and a half excruciating hours we were thrown back and forth and side to side as we whizzed past billboards promoting wedding saris, wedding jewelry, wedding caterers. We caught micro-glimpses of posters advertising everything from the Communist Party to the healing powers of the local swamis with their bushy black beards and wild Charles Manson eyes.
As all these signs were in Malayalam (the local language) I was actually making up the text in my head trying to distract myself from the probability of going through the windshield (‘We don’t need no stinkin’ airbags!) or succumbing to the waves of nausea sweeping over me.
I couldn’t talk to David in the backseat over the incessant noise of the car so I pulled out my phone and wrote the following message:
Ikk kilm myptseff Ipuf wr hacee /0 2 Usd thif guf ob tephw wy badl tp3 xoCKE!,,,,
Of course I meant to write “I will kill myself if we have to use this guy on the way back to Cochi!!!!
It wasn’t until we arrived in Alleppey that Joseph admitted he didn’t have a clue where he was supposed to drop us even though we emailed ahead the address and contact number. After numerous telephone calls and multiple stops to ask for directions, adding yet another hour to the trip, we finally made it to our destination. I am certain that Joseph was happy to see the end of us, just as we were delighted to watch his brake lights flashing on and off from the outside of his car as he peeled away toward yet, I am sure, another series of wrong turns toward home.
Tonight we are on the Backwaters in a houseboat. It’s just the two of us, our captain, the cook and an attendant who is seeing to our every need. While this boat probably has a horn, we haven’t yet heard it, and our captain is of the slow and steady as she goes school of navigation. What a relief. Next post I’ll add some photo and film clips (inexpertly captured) of the Backwaters.