Take Varkala, Please…

Do you remember that scene in “The Baron Munchhausen” when they finally find the rest of the Baron’s gang of heroes and they’ve all been stuck in the belly of a whale playing a stupid card game for YEARS!? And then the Baron, as if under a spell of some kind, sits down at the card table, gets dealt into the game, and from that point on he starts growing old, do you remember that?
Well, that card game is Varkala, Kerala, India and the belly of the whale for us was the Sky Lark Guesthouse!!!

I mean, from the outside Varkala looks like a fun card game, with all the right elements like a beautiful warm black-sands beach on the Arabian Sea littered with coconut palms and big breaking waves, a cinder-block walkway along the red cliffs 40 feet above that aforementioned Sea and a ton of beautiful old guest houses and eateries to choose from but what we didn’t notice right out of the gate was the absence of the most important elements of our travels in India so far… The beautiful, quick-to-smile-and-welcome-you Indian People! What we got instead was the white, underdressed, over-intoxicated, chain-smoking European elite and a non-stop barrage of carnie-style (mostly child labor victims) sales fanatics in front of every shop and restaurant on the strip along the cliffs! It was such an incredible drag that we just had to stay for almost a week…


I know, I know, I make it sound so good I bet you’re asking yourself, “Why stay at all, why not just move on for christ-sake?”

Well, I’ve thought about that quite a bit over the last few days of being back in “the real” India and my knee-jerk response to a question of that magnitude would have to be, “We thought we were mistaken! Really!!! We hadn’t seen or even heard of anything so fucking California in all of our travels in India so far that it just didn’t register as being true.”
Ok, ok, from the beginning…

So there we were in Trivandrum (digging it) when we saw an ad on Craigslist.org for The Sky Lark Guesthouse and Restaurant in Varkala (it sounded a bit cheesy with this “Where East meets West” bullshit slogan but we thought that maybe they were just trying to cash-in on some of that good-‘ol travelers’ money, no shame in that ‘eh?) and that same day one of the regulars at our favorite Chai-Wallah, Manseer was telling us that we just had to go to Varkala to see the beautiful cliffs and swim in the Arabian Sea! Of course Manseer is from there (and kind of home-sick ‘cuz-a going to school in Trivandrum) so he was really into us experiencing his home and reporting back to him in a positive way. So we sent an e-mail asking about the possibilities of a long term stay for a couple-a-writers to the woman that runs the guest-house and she responded quickly with a very obvious English-as-her-first-language reply. It said a bunch of crap about how there were quite a few writers in Varkala (a lie) and that we should fit right in (a misnomer). She also talked about pricing in U.S. dollars which was our first clue that not only was she not Indian but she had no intention of catering to Indian people at all. Once again, we didn’t want to be judgmental of a scene un-seen so we gave her the benefit-of-the-doubt, jumped in an auto-rickshaw and headed to Varkala from our very cool digs in Travandrum.

(This is not the time or place to go into full detail of our 90 minute, teeth-gritting, bone-chilling, white-knuckle ride through the back roads of monsoon-season Kerala, India with an insane driver of a three-wheeled, two-stroke death machine! I’ll just say, WOW, we lived… Again!)

We showed up a bit frazzled but alive and ready for the next chapter but nobody was home at the Sky Lark Guesthouse. The house had been recently painted a bright yellow with a red floor on the front porch with all these cheesy, squiggly starfish designs (with eyes in the middle) painted in all the colors of the primary wheel as well as other (I get chills up my spine to even call it this) “art” covering the outside of the building with an unattributed, un quoted-quote over the door that read, “Just Be…”(cringe!). We looked at each other and sneered but decided we’d hide all of our worldly belongings in the back of the house anyway and strike-out on foot for the salt water that we could taste in the air from the guest house and maybe even find a place to stay that wasn’t going to cheese us out so badly. We found our way to the water easily enough, oo’d and ahh’d at the incredible Arabian Sea for a half hour or so then headed up the cliff to check out the venders to see what was what. At first it was just only a little annoying that all of the children sitting in front of each store along the cliff-side had the very same spiel, something along the lines of “You see my shop, no buy, only looking…” But after a very short while it got really old, these little kids dressed in the garb of the store that they were carning for, with their big sad eyes selling someone else’s junk, it pissed me off to no end!

So we got fed up with that quick but were still so moved by the incredible raging Arabian Sea that we decided that we’d head back to the Sky Lark to get our stuff and get the fuck out of there as quietly as we could. On the way back to the guest house we found quite a few other guest houses that suited our needs and didn’t insult our aesthetic so badly but upon our return we found that the front door of the house was open, ug. I took my shoes off and went in and there in the front reception area sat a very plain looking, 30ish box-body of a woman with a smug ‘you’re-in-my-place’ look on her face who said to me, “Hi there, are you Dena’s other half?”

Boy do I hate that one! I mean, I’m already shaken to the bones by a “I can’t really believe we’re still alive” rickshaw experience, creeped-the-fuck-out by the 26 “Free Tibet”-Tibetan Gifts shops in a ¼ of a kilometer along the Sea front (in South India mind you), pissed off at the 60 child carnies, appalled at the lack of variety in the menus and the prices of the 42 restaurants in the same distance as aforementioned gift shops, but Dena is a whole person with or without me thank you and I’m in no mood to argue that point!

My response was a stoic, “Hello, I’m James. Don’t you mean ‘Where West meets East’?” Her smile collapsed in to something forced and before we could get into a decent fight about her lack of creativity Dena came in behind me saying, “Hi I’m Dena” and suddenly, just like that, I was very efficiently removed from the rest of the conversation.
Now, I have been a musician for most of my life and one of the most amazing things about my body is; to protect the delicate bones in my eardrums from the harmful and destructive sound waves of my percussive toys my ears automatically fill with a thick reddish-brown wax that becomes a hard plaque that makes me quite deaf if I don’t have it professionally removed every five years or so. It gets much worse if I’m recording in a studio because of the constant use of headphones. Well, just before we came to India we put out an album of 15 songs that not only did I play on but I co-produced as well so the plaque in my ears had built up much more then I had expected so by the time we got to the Skylark Guesthouse I was completely deaf in my left ear and about 40% deaf in my right. Essentially, if you’re not talking very loudly directly into my right ear or at the very least at my face I cannot hear you at all…

Once Dena walked into the room at the Sky Lark guest house (“Where East Meets West”grrr!) I turned my head to the right, exposing that very boring woman to my deaf ear and then went about exploring my new environs. When I do that all conversation kind of sounds like all the adults in the old “Peanuts” cartoons and I can concentrate on more interesting things like how (in the fuck!) all of that horrible “artwork” followed us into the main room of the house. Arg!
The sun had long sense gone down and we were tired so by the time we finished all the tourist paper-work we were both totally un-motivated to move on. So we found a room in the up-stairs portion of the house that ‘ol box body hadn’t gotten around to painting yet (meaning no starfish or bubbles on the walls) and took it. We wearily stepped in to the belly of the whale and sat down at the card table…

After showers and before we settled in for the night Dena filled me in on her conversation with our host. As it turned out she was from Vashon Island (a little community just off the coast of West Seattle in Washington State) and used to work very close to where we used to live on Capitol-Hill in Seattle. She came to India “a little over a year ago” with every intention of traveling all over but never left Varkala because she, “just fell in love with the place”. She told Dena about how she just loves all the “local boys” and how she went in debt asshole-high to buy into this guest house and how “Truly un-satisfying” it was during the Monsoon season and how she was going to go “back home” to Vashon (like she wasn’t at home already in her fucking guesthouse) for next year’s Monsoon!

…Don’t over react! I told myself, don’t judge, relax… too late, “Fuck her let’s get out of here tomorrow”!

“Ok,” Was Dena’s thoughtful reply.

We struck out again on foot for food this time after getting settled and discovered a very intricate, maze-like system of back-streets with high walls on either side leading from the road the guesthouse was on to the cliffs, it was one of the most interesting things about that part of Varkala. Finally we made it to the cliff-side and quickly picked a place to eat. If you (dear abused reader) ever decide to go to Varkala please do yourself the favor of not ever eating at any of the restaurants on the cliff-side! The food really is all the same; tasteless, uninspired and overpriced!
We walked into the place and the only other groups of people that were there were (of course) a group of loud, cigarette puffing, beer drinking, shirtless, barefoot English tourist on one side and the same scene speaking Italian on the other. We tried (unsuccessfully) to get a seat up-wind from all of them and went about our business trying to find something good to eat on the menu. I had yet to see anything even close to resembling a decent pasta dish in any of the places that we’d eaten so far in our Indian travels so when I saw a Pasta Con Fungi on the menu I shrugged and ordered it.
Now, all of you spoiled Americans and Europeans out there take heed! Just because it’s on the menu in India (especially during the Monsoon) that doesn’t necessarily mean they are actually serving that particular dish on that particular night…

…No Pasta Con Fungi, next! I had pasta on the brain so I picked the next one down on the menu; Pasta in Marinara. Dena stuck with a sure thing and ordered a Paneer Butter Masala. We ordered a bottle of water, and happily sat there trying to count the fishing boats off in the distance on the slick black Arabian Sea.
The Monsoon is the season of cleansing, the rain comes in fast and hard with an awe inspiring torrential violence that fills the cisterns, washes the streets and leaves with a whisper! Traditionally it is supposed to happen all over Asia but in recent times the Monsoon has been occurring mostly in the southern parts of Asia from about 19 degrees latitude all the way down the equator. It is the time in India of new things, weddings, children, vast green fields of rice, kind of like spring but much more intense. In Varkala they say that during the Monsoon nothing ever dries and from what we saw that’s true enough. The streets were always full of muddy water and the ground was thick and soft to walk over but the smells in the air were pungent and full of life.

So we’re sitting there on the cliff at night in Varkala watching the boats off in the distance starting to wonder why our food was taking so long when we noticed that a bunch of guys had started to collect the place settings from the other empty tables around us, our waiter comes over to us and asked us if we wanted to move up stairs and that’s when we noticed that all the lights from the fishing boats had suddenly disappeared from being engulfed by a monsoon storm. The wind kicked up to a brisk 15 knots so we grabbed our drinks and headed up to the restaurants “protected” area up-stairs behind a thin wall of bamboo blinding. Then it hit! The winds suddenly kicked up to about 25 to 30 knots and the rain just dumped with a sound that was similar to about 80 decibels of static. Even I could hear it! Our protective wall of thin bamboo buckled but held and it instantly got wet and cold all over the restaurant. The English had another round, the Italians left and all the employees of the place huddled down stairs in the kitchen. The static turned to a roar and the electricity suddenly went out. Our waiter came shuffling up the stairs wrapped in a table cloth carrying two candles and a box of wet matches. After three of the matches came apart in his hands he asked the English for a light, they concede and he lit our candle then lit theirs and came back over to our table to let us know that our food would be out in just a few minutes. Well about 20 minutes later he brought us our cold, tasteless food and we ate in the (not so) romantic candle light and a real-time, screaming Monsoon storm. After eating our cold and rained on Paneer Butter Masala (wet-orange-mush) and “Pasta with Marinara” (egg noodles in onion-ketchup) the rain just stopped so we paid with a pretty hefty tip, broke out the flashlights and made our way back to the guesthouse. Day one in Varkala!

We didn’t really want to drag our stuff all over Varkala so we stayed at “The Wale” and spent the next five days exploring our environs and planning the next leg of our adventures on the (oh-so-slow) computers at our local internet café and avoiding box-body at all costs. Part of the reason it took us so long to ditch that card game was we were stuck there durring the anual Onam festival and trying to travel in Kerala durring Onam is like trying to travel durring the X-Mas season in the states, it has to be planned months in advance!

On day two we walked the entire length of the cliffs “mall” from North to South (about 3 km) and at the end found what the locals of Varkala called the “Locals Beach”. Oddly enough the Locals Beach was also in contrast to the beach on the North side of the cliffs, it was a white sands beach. We sat there relaxing for quite some time and had a great political conversation with a bunch of communist from Alappuzah. After all that we then kind of accidentally stumbled into a bar and that is where we stayed, ordering too much food and too much rum for the next six and a half hours.
Now, this is not how we normally discover a place and Dena and I have tried to analyze, re-analyze and ultimately over-analyze why it was we just out of nowhere decided to get rip-roaring drunk in the middle of the day. I mean really, it wasn’t the fact that there was a bar every 15 meters along the cliffs that did it, it wasn’t the fact that we saw more pale, pink, patchy skin in the 3km stretch along the cliffs then we had so far in all of India, it wasn’t the fact that the local people (with the exception of our communist friends, and they weren’t local really…) didn’t want to have anything to do with us. No, it was simply the fact that we had absolutely nothing better to do then to get our three sheets into that wind, and really, our only consolation prize was that we did it in a locals bar. We really did have a great time, two guys that came in for a while bought us a couple of drinks and our bartender and waiters were really cool and very generous with the booze. I ordered a seafood biriani that was the spiciest thing I’ve ever put in my mouth and our waiter got the biggest kick out of that, really, my nose was running like a fountain and I was sweating so heavily under my eyes that it looked like I was crying like a little baby. The waiters took pictures of us, we took pictures of them and we all got very emotional at the end as we left. Dena and I then stumbled our way back to“The Wale” and passed out.

How’s this, a picture of girl in a chartreuse knitted bikini passed-out curled up around an Indian toilet with gritty, yellow puke crusted from her chin to her big perfect tits with a long string of drool eeking out the side of her mouth and into the toilet, under that the sign reads; “Varkala, where East meets West!” Or how about a billboard with a picture of a shirtless white dude lying face down in the surf wearing a pair of pink -polka-dot boxer shorts pulled half way down exposing the upper half of his harry rash mottled crack with a big bottle of beer in one hand, at the bottom right hand corner of the sign it says simply; “Varkala’s calling…” Or a T.V. commercial of a beautiful white sands beach, all you hear is the surf and some sea gulls off in the distance then the camera pans to a dangerously sun burned sweat-slick pink guy in a black speedo with sand all over his face, he’s projectile vomiting a 12 foot stream of orange-masalla-bile into one of the locals dug-out canoes, and at the end just before the fade out at the bottom of the screen it reads; “Varkala, Just be…”

On day 6 we packed our bags, paid our bill at “The Wale” and set off to find any mode of transportation we could find to Quilam. We got about a block down the street when we ran into a very cool cab driver that took us there for a really great price… “Seek and you shall find!”

We were in Varkala for a total of only 6 days and although it’s true that we didn’t enjoy it much compared to almost every other part of the Indian sub-continent that we’d traveled to, Dena and I have a way of making any situation a grand adventure. We tend to love each other more than our surroundings so ultimately the memories that we take away from a place are the things that made us happy just to be with each other…
We laughed and held hands in a vast grassy-green field in a monsoon rain, we swam in the beautiful Arabian Sea, we watched thousands of broad winged raptors swoop and dive in a seemingly endless dance in the piercing blue sky and every night we lay in each other’s arms under the coolness of a spinning fan dreaming of our next adventure together, but that wasn’t Varkala, that was Dena Hankins and James Lane, together in India.


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