2013, Cheap Travel in India, Kerala travel, Travel in India

Settling in, Varkala

An hour ago, I was swimming off Black Beach, just to the north, rising and falling with the long swells which make landfall here.

I’d been in a bad mood, feeling prissily that India was clutching too tightly.

But that changed in a moment.

Part of the change was my own clumsiness. I miscalculated. The breaker was higher than it had seemed and  knocked my I’m-walking-into-the-surf insouciance into a graceful backwards somersault. It restored my good humor.

Such moments should be chased. They’re infrequent: a beam of sunlight through a crack in the clouds that spiritualists call divine and which leave secularists like me struggling for vocabulary. Chase? Our clerkish culture makes it hard. Pursuit is scarcely possible from a cubicle life except at the simian level of the virtualists, those etiolated souls who flourish only under fluorescents and who seem always to be peering at some glowing device. To the others, the struggling brother- and sisterhood in the cubicle gulag, I send best wishes and my hope that you break free soon.

The flash of freedom… It was the sky, the water, the palms of a tropic coast along the low shore, the lifeguard (whom I had taken for a local idler) who called out to me and pointed me toward the south (dangerous rocks loomed under water just north of where I’d been swimming, he told me later, and it was easy to get cut or break a hand or foot), and blue ocean and clear high sky and the green shore, the black beach, the offshore breeze…. I put my face down in the cool water and felt for a tingly moment like the little boy playing in the foam at the shore.

Image

Net-tending boat, Varkala

I disliked Varkala at first. I’d had a comfortable train ride down from Fort Kochi with competent help from the conductor in my “AC-reserved” coach and left my city dysentery far behind, but my arrival began with a grim portent.  Specifically, petty though it sounds, I hope my tuk-tuk driver at the station doesn’t build a fleet of tuk-tuks. He was irritating. He agreed to take me to my hotel five k’s off for 80 rupees but got lost, then demanded 150 because the trip had taken longer than expected. I spoke to him sharply in Joisy (I picked up some phrases in Vermont) and he went away, scowling over his shoulder, me still muttering.

My room in Middle Cliff was OK, clean, with a mosquito net draped neatly over the bed like a bridal veil, but I was located up a littered alley far from the sea, which crashed on the rocks at the base of the cliff 100 feet down trash-littered steps (the shop keepers lining cliff-top routinely throw the day’s waste over the side. And the shopkeepers and the inumerable hangers on and assistants and idle cousins, the squads of waiters at each of 20 or 30 restaurants, the blind beggar fluttering his faded testament  of need from a doctor who won’t operate without “much money,” all reaching out, the shop folks saying, shop after shop, “You are just looking no buying,” and when to be polite you say, “Perhaps later,” they become attorneys and fasten on you like a Texas prosecutor,  asserting with a frown that the remark constituted a moral commitment to buy from them.

The newspaper vendor was a paricular blot. Newspaper sell usually for four or five rupees. He demanded 75. I laughed at him, and he got unpleasant, telling me of his hard life and he had to bring the papers out from the village and he was poor man and I was a rich foreigner. Like all whiners he was easy to imitate. The shop guys, many of them from Nepal, were amused as I walked away waving my arms, telling the idiot he should GIVE me a paper because I have gray hair and the electric power is off and I just washed my underwear by hand….

It’s a sad truth. The power keeps going off in Varkala, for long periods. It’s mid-day Saturday as I write, and the plugs have been empty and the bathrooms dungeon-dark all day. Corruption plus upcoming holidays that feature lights… The explanations vary.

Or, one last observation. My first night I was at a front table watching the flow of people. Two cops appeared assigned to make a foot patrol along this high promenade. Like most cops here, they were neatly uniformed, and they didn’t leave a wave of fear or dislike behind as cops do in Saudi Arabia or Iran or American ghettos. They stopped to say hello to the restaurant manager, standing by the fish table with its neat array of tuna, barracuda, snappers and huge prawn, all on ice. They laughed and chatted, then moved on.

Ten minutes later they returned, ending their patrol. As they passed, the manager reached out with a small bag. The near cop took it without a word, and he and his partner kept walking. The next day I mentioned it to a waiter and then to a hotel manager. They responded identically. They laughed. They weren’t amused; they were resigned. “Yes,” the waiter said, “and not just food. They also take money.”

Just next door of where I’m staying, 16-year-old Sonia runs a shop that sells cheap cloth bags and shirts and beach trousers. Her parents don’t work, and she supports them and her two little brothers, she said. They are from Gadag, in Karnataka. Of course, she’d had to leave school after the “fifth form,” she told me with a pretty smile. “I angry that!”

I bargained her down on two thin beach shirts from 1,400 rupees to 650, and I took her picture and her brother’s, 12-year-old Kumar. I haven’t asked her yet if she has to pay off the police, but O. in the Kashmiri shop does.

ImageSonia, 16

Then, recovery. I found a new place to live, a mile closer to Black Beach and pretty, with neat gravel walks, grass and well-tended new plants. It overlooks the ocean; plus, as I say, I went swimming. My fluorescent mood blew away in a hallelujah! instant.

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