I had heard that you should avoid bus travel in India because they tend to be crazy drivers and sometimes possibly drunk! Unfortunately unless you had the foresight to book a train 3 months in advance, the bus is your only other cheap option to travel. My bus driver liked to drive fast, honking and passing everyone in his path. In India, the middle of the road is the third, unofficial lane – in both directions. Having a propane truck on your left and an oncoming bus coming towards you in the same “third lane” is about as scary as it gets and that happened on more than one occasion. Surprisingly we didn’t crash or kill anyone and in just over 3 hours, I was in Varkala.
I sometimes find Lonely Planet advice to be the worst fear mongering of all. Im sure I read that Varkala beach was beautiful but not safe to swim and not to wear bikinis as you will be stared at. Perhaps I misread and this was only relevant for the south cliff beach because the north cliff beach was teeming with people in bikinis and swimming with lifeguards nearby.
Since I was staying over New Years, I chose to stay at the quieter, south end of the beach, so I thought. Turns out I picked a spot right in the middle of the north and south cliffs with the easiest access to the beach. I’m also not sure why I cheaped out on the hotel, perhaps I figured I might be out of money by this time. Whatever the reason, my hotel was not very nice and I was regretful of my choice. Oh well, off to the beach I went. My section of beach was full of Indian tourists all dressed in yellow. I asked what this meant and it is indicative of the Hindu god they follow – I had only seen the traditional white dress so far, which makes men look like they just got out of the shower and have a towel wrapped around their waist. I looked it up and the waters here are believed to be holy waters that wash away sins- there is a 2000 year old Hindu temple on my road too, so no wonder it’s so busy. The North end of the beach is where you’ll find all the pasty white westerners under beach umbrellas. Further south of where I stayed was the quiet end of the beach but it lacked a selection of restaurants, so I found myself walking to the north end everyday anyway.
I decided I wanted proper Ayurvedic pampering when I got to Varkala. I also wanted to get in some yoga classes. Well I was in the right place – you cannot walk a few meters without seeing a sign for either or both. I took a couple flyers and sat in an organic juice bar beside a bunch of smokers to do some research. I chose a well-established Ayurvedic hospital away from the beach that received great reviews. I walked over and had a consult with the Doctor who prescribed three 2 hour sessions – one for each of my days here, starting that night. It wasn’t cheap, which given that you could get an “Ayurvedic” massage on the beach for $10, helped me feel more confident that this was the real deal. I didn’t really know what I was getting into, I just knew that it has something to do with balancing your doshas – apparently I have too much vata. The young woman who was about to give me my treatment told me to get fully undressed. Feeling shy, I asked if I could have a pair of disposable underwear. Okay okay she says, probably thinking, oh you silly westerner. I then got to sit in a chair in nothing but my paper panties to receive a head, face, and neck massage. The head and neck massages were great, but when she massaged my face – all I could think is, this oil is totally going to make me break out. Once on the table, another gal joined her and I got a full body massage. After that I was beaten with what felt like a baked potato, cut in half, slathered in sizzling herbed oil and wrapped up in cheesecloth. I ended up feeling like a turkey being prepped for Christmas dinner.
Not surprisingly, I woke up the next morning with a giant pimple on my face. I slept in too late to catch the 8am yoga class, so I went to the beach and had breakfast with 3 pups and their mum instead.
My next Ayurvedic treatment was a bit different. I got the same head and body massage but instead of being beaten with a baked potato (ok, it was actually a concoction of herbs), I got to experience the Ayurvedic equivalent to Chinese water torture. With my head leaned back, a steady stream of oil was poured over my forehead for about 30 minutes. It wasn’t actually as bad as it sounds and it’s supposed to help with my anxiety and insomnia.
The afternoon was spent wandering along the super long south portion of the beach. Although there were still people in bikinis swimming, there were no lifeguards as the beach was far less populated. Unfortunately there were also men, usually alone, lurking in “caves” along the cliffs. I’m not sure what they were up to and I didn’t feel the need to stop and find out. I walked for about 45 minutes with no end in sight and finally came upon two men running a net along the shallow part of the water with one guy out in the water, nearly drowning and the other guy on the beach, a smoke in one hand. He demanded that I help him, to which I declined. I highly doubt this was legal activity and I wanted no part of it – how about you put down your smoke and use 2 hands sir… Never mind, I just walked back to my end of the beach instead, trying and once again failing to get into a yoga class (no 5:30 class like advertised).
That evening, New Years Eve, I wandered the beach in search of a glass of wine. I found one place and enjoyed my wine while watching the sunset. After reading the reviews, I opted to eat at a nearby vegetarian restaurant, then back to my hotel by 8pm and in bed by 10:30, but not asleep until after the massive beach celebration and fireworks. I kind of wanted to go check it out, but it sounded rowdy and I didn’t think it was safe to be around so many drunken Indian men.
On my last day I finally made it to a yoga class, taught by a long-haired and bearded Indian yogi, which was perfect (I turned down the class taught by a westerner) and the class was amazing. The 2 hour class was followed by my final 2 hour Ayurvedic treatment. After my massage (Pizhichil) I got to choose between the hot potato (kizhi)or the Chinese water torture (dhara); I chose the kizhi treatment. The treatments were good and very professional, but I think that will be the end of my Ayurvedic experience, being soaked in about 4 liters of oil might be fun for some, but it’s not for me.
After lunch I went for a swim on the quiet beach, away from the gamut of bikini-clad westerners and fully-clothed (jeans and all) Indians (except for the small groups of men who strip down to their scivvies). I ended the day by getting super stressed as the wifi went out in the entire town and I had planned on paying my hotel bill by wiring via western union. Being a stat holiday, there was no money to be found either. After a super delicious meal of tandoori paneer, the wifi was back up and I was able to pay my bill- phew! An early morning in a super sketchy taxi ride to the airport and I’m off to Sri Lanka.