We rise about as happily as you’d expect at 5am and check out, after one of the guys on reception takes a selfie with us, in good time to catch the 7.05 to Thiruvaranthapuram. We’re heading back to Kerala – specifically, to the hippy paradise, surfing and yoga hotspot that is Varkala.
I spend the journey flitting between the frosty air conditioned carriage and the warm, scenic spot by the open doorway, watching plains, palm trees and more endless wind farms roll past as the train strikes down towards Nagercoil and Kanyakumari at the southernmost tip of the subcontinent, before looping north again towards Thiruvaranthapuram. After eight hours’ travel we arrive at the Keralan capital, and because we’ve not pre-booked tickets for the connection to Varkala we join a boisterous queue at the station with a slick grey-haired Italian-American who seems to have picked up the crassest traits of both cultures.
Brash, condescending and a touch passively racist, he yammers loudly in the dense crush about what a shithole India is and how much he hates it. I venture that I quite like it and he looks at me as if I’ve just spoken up in favour of dental plaque.
“Oh yeah? Whaddya like about it?”
I fumble a bit and go with “The people are friendly,” just as a large man behind me assumes my space in the queue by means of an elbow dug expertly into the small of my back. Don Corleone rolls his eyes.
“HA! The people are friendly. Good one.”
Already in a foul mood after eight hours on a train eating nothing but tangy tomato crisps and 50:50s, I storm off to the platform as soon as we have our tickets in search of food and to create some daylight between me and Tony Montana. I buy a samosa each for me and Rebecca, eat mine, eat Rebecca’s, then start off in search of more, at which point I realise that the trouser pocket I stuffed the tickets into is empty. With half an hour to go until the train arrives, I trudge resignedly back to the collapsed maul that is the station ticket counter.
Having been travelling since dawn, we arrive at the Short Giraffe hostel in Varkala in the early evening. It’s a stereotypical backpacker joint – hammocks, acoustic guitars, a stack of board games – staffed and frequented by trendy youthful types whose chipper attempts at conversation with Rebecca and I are met with the blank stares of the tired and ravenous. Despite this we somehow befriend Patrick and Rachel – who as the only other couple we gravitate towards, especially as Patrick has, like me, just left a job in recruitment and Rachel, like Rebecca, grew up in Bishop’s Stortford – as well as a wiry long-haired traveller from Hertford (Vancouver for the past two years) called George, a smiley dude named Josh from Reading, and Bea from Clapham who immediately treats me with suspicion since, due to a hostel mixup, I start unpacking my things on her bunk in the mixed dorm.
Rebecca and I wait an agonizing hour for veggie burgers at White Rabbit on the cliff. Once we’ve fed we decide that we’ve not done enough socialising so far on our travels so join Patrick, Rachel and George at a Bob Marley night at Rock ‘n’ Roll Café. None of us feel like dancing so we natter happily in between ordering drinks (which involves a curious system, where we’re directed to a guy behind the counter who takes the money and writes everything down on a slip of paper which he then passes to another guy in front of the counter, who walks round behind the counter and takes the drinks out of a fridge right next to the first guy), watching a clutch of committed ravers do their thing on the dancefloor.
I spend the day exploring Varkala, reading The White Tiger from the hostel’s library, and doing the hippy traveller thing while generally feeling a bit old to be doing it. Me and a lanky German jam awkwardly on acoustic guitars outside the hostel. I say awkwardly; what I mean is he’s very good and I can’t remember a thing about how The Music works so I play notes at random while he grimaces and tries to come up with chords that match the made up keys I’m operating in. In the evening everyone at the hostel sits around outside smoking endless joints. It’s nearly six months since I smoked so much as a cigarette, so Rebecca and I sit a bit outside the main circle feeling sensibly nearly-thirty and wondering if we’ve left travelling a bit late.
This is the millennial plight, of course. I wanted to go travelling when I was eighteen but couldn’t get a job because of the credit crunch (at least that’s what I told myself and everyone else – a little bit of current affairs is a dangerous thing). Britain’s upcoming self-imposed recession means I’ll have to work ceaselessly for decades just to keep myself in tinned goods and black market antibiotics, so it really is now or never. Travelling has always been the one that got away, so even if it feels a bit like I’m doing it a tiny bit wrong it still feels incredible to be doing it.
Varkala would have been my kind of place as a wide-eyed, idealistic eighteen-year-old. I don’t know if it was the sacred status of the waters, which Hindus believe wash away sins, or the eminently surfable breakers they generate that first brought the hippies here, but a solid chunk have made it home and the place now resembles a chilled, low-key music festival strung along a cliff looking out over a glorious sun-washed beach. Green Man with white sand. The cliff is thronged with stalls selling everything in the hippy toolkit, from Ali Baba pants to dream-catchers, healing crystals and didgeridoos, plus the tourist essentials like sun cream and Lots of Stuff in Plastic.
It’s as weird as it is depressing that there’s so much plastic around. After a while in India you get a little desensitised to all the rubbish. There isn’t obviously landfill, or recycling, or a lot of the time even bins as such. When something is done with, the side of the road or out the nearest window is just where it goes. Even if you put it in a bin, that’s still where it’ll end up. In a country of desperate poverty the resulting clear-up creates much-needed jobs.
This thankfully hasn’t been the case in the various nature reserves we’ve visited so far, which maintain admirable zero-plastic policies and are on the whole spotlessly clean, and given that Varkala’s inhabitants are mostly hippies and devout Hindus who regard it as sacred I’d assumed it would be similar, but no. The steps down from the cliff are littered with ice cream wrappers, piles of plastic bottles accumulate in discreet nooks between the rocks. I fear that it’s my kind, the generalist Western tourist, that bears responsibility.
Despite that single blemish, Varkala is stunning. The Arabian Sea stretches as far as you can see left and right, meeting the sky in a crisp blue arc that gives a powerful sensation of just how massive the world really is. Come to think of it, I reflect stretching out on a towel under the dreamy afternoon sun, it’s my kind of place even now.
We had to stay in Short Giraffe’s mixed dorm room for our first night because their private double was booked. Having reserved the double from night two onwards the week before, we realised soon after arriving that it was Patrick and Rachel staying in it and they’d tried to extend, but because we’d already booked it by then they’d had to move out. Awks.
They didn’t seem to bear a grudge though, and were gracious enough to invite us to a rooftop Yin yoga class at their new place, Mad About Coco. It starts at 4.30pm, by which time Varkala’s humidity is just nudging below the Amazon rainforest’s average. After an hour and a half of alternate nostril breathing, stretching, clicking and folding of long-forgotten body parts into improbable positions and the French instructor’s sing-song “Inhaaaaale deeplyyyyyyy… Exhaaaaale completelyyyyyyy”, we emerge a touch confused but feeling happy and limber in ways that hadn’t felt possible since hitting financial independence.
Short Giraffe hosts a barbecue in the evening. Rebecca and I buy a few Kingfishers for it from a nearby hotel. We ask the guy on the front desk if we can buy three, and he says yes, 510 Rupees, which is problematic because our hostel told us 150 each so we’ve only got 500 on us. After we explain this he cheerily head-wags away the missing 10, hands us a receipt and, a tad unexpectedly, asks us to go upstairs.
We ascend cautiously, arriving before long at a landing on which a shady-looking door marked ‘Beer Parlour’ stands next to a lobby piled high with boxes of Kingfisher in three different flavours: Deluxe Lager, Deluxe Strong, and Strong Lager. A beady-eyed porter appears, peers suspiciously at our receipt, vanishes briefly then re-emerges with three ice cold bottles of Deluxe Lager, dripping with condensation.
Pat and Rachel join for the tail end of the barbecue after which everyone from Short Giraffe piles down to the cliff for a boogie at Blue Marine. Rebecca and I arrive on the sober side of tipsy so order a cuba libre and Long Island iced tea while everyone else struts confidently onto the dancefloor. By dancefloor, I of course mean the patch of dusty ground between the DJ booth and the main restaurant area.
Forty-five minutes pass and the waiter notices we’re still drinkless. He gestures that ours are up next, and they arrive scarcely half an hour later. It’s impossible to tell which is which so Rebecca allocates me the more eye-wateringly alcoholic of the two. Its flavour lies somewhere between cheap grappa and industrial superglue, and after a few mouthfuls my right leg goes numb from the knee down. Rebecca meanwhile realises she’s unwittingly given herself the one with a garnish of dead mosquito, and when she points this out to the barman his first response is to offer her a new straw.
Both our moonshine cocktails finally vegetarian-friendly we screw our eyes shut, hatch as much as we dare and skip giddily to the dancefloor, where it’s all kicking off. Patrick, up until now a picture of calm serenity, is near the centre of a pulsating huddle of topless blokes from our hostel, and the moves on show have graduated from rhythmic head-bopping to a perplexing sea of fluid hand movements and thumping fists. By and large the DJs are decent, dolling out bassy, danceable house and some funkier fare, and Rebecca and I are by now well-oiled enough to cut some shapes of our own before popping off to the bar for another drink. We agree a bottled beer is probably safest all round.
“How much for a Kingfisher?”
Proffers three hundred.
“Actually, two eighty.”
“Pardon? You said two thirty.”
“No sir. Two eighty.”
We find this funny enough not to quibble and giggle back to the dancefloor, where Karl – a reflective engineer from Croydon, with family in Chennai, who we’ve got chatting to since yesterday – stands philosophically just outside the main circle. We exchange an incredulous few words about the absurdity of the world we’ve swapped for the steady corporate jobs we left behind.
“It’s amazing,” I tell him, “but part of my brain can’t let go of the idea we should be working and earning money.”
He casts me a sage look and replies “Better to spend your money here than save it up for some flashy car so you can impress people you don’t know”. He’s right.
Rebecca and I dance while watching her predicted pairing-offs among the Short Giraffe crowd come true, then order another beer and are now quoted 330Rs. I burst out laughing.
“First it was two thirty, then two eighty, now three hundred and thirty?”
“Ha ha!” The manager slaps a big, amiable arm around my shoulder. “Yes sir! You see when you first ordered it was 11pm, then it was 12am, and now that it’s 1am the cost is three thirty.”
Without bothering to point out that the first two prices came seconds apart from each other I check my watch.
“Ha ha! Yes sir. Nearly 1am. Three thirty.”
“Well since it’s nearly 1am, why don’t we pay you nearly three thirty and call it three hundred?”
After a good-natured back and forth, during which it emerges that he’s a Manchester United fan (“Ole Gunnar Solksjaer! Baby-face assassin! Ha ha!”) he agrees, at which point Rebecca and I realise we only have two hundred on us.
“Ha ha! You can come back tomorrow daytime and buy for two hundred, but now it’s three hundred.”
“How about we buy it for two hundred now, write you a good TripAdvisor review, then come back tomorrow and buy it for three hundred?”
“Ha ha! OK. But you must be coming back tomorrow.”
“Of course we will!”
Six months to the day since my last cigarette. On the whole I don’t miss them, but Varkala’s bohemian vibes trigger a few passing cravings. One of the girls who works at the hostel offered me a drag on hers last night and I declined instinctively, which is good news.
I wake feeling surprisingly perky and embark on a day-long mission to nurture Rebecca, a hapless advert for the perils of binge drinking, back to health.
I potter happily around the hostel, sourcing water and omelettes for my ward and debriefing on last night with a succession of people who seem unusually stand-offish. I put this down to my hangover, until the German guy appears and straight away tells me I have toothpaste all round my mouth.
We mooch about for most of the day, have a delicious dinner at Café Darjeeling then wander back for our last night in Short Giraffe, bumping into George on the way. We ask him what he’s been up to.
“Oh you know… Went to the beach. Took some acid. Played football. Pretty chilled really.”