varkala and i have something of a history. 6 years ago, when i completed my yoga teacher training in the neighboring south indian state of tamil nadu, my good friend jenna and i decided we needed some beach in our lives and we took the train from madurai to varkala in the state of kerala (on the west coat of india) on christmas eve. while living in the ashram for a month, there had been no coffee, no eggs, no alcohol or cigarettes or staying up late or eating out. in short, we were ready to break some rules, but in a very yogic sort of way. the pleasure of sharing a bottle of kingfisher, ordering a pizza or a pot of black coffee, and of course, going to the beach.
this time around, coming off of goa, with its chillum orgies and hallucinogens, dance parties, bars, coffee shops, etc., things are rather reversed and i came to varkala for the peace and quiet of ashram life.
my train was scheduled to leave from thivim in goa at just before 6pm and arrive in cochin 14 hours later. instead, i waited at the station for hours, eating samosas for dinner (feeding one to a train station dog) drinking chai, wondering where the hell my train was. it was 5 and a half hours late! finally, at 11:30, it arrived and i found my sleeping berth (always choose the upper berths, which are high enough to be out of the way and afford one some privacy – when day comes everyone who slept on the middle or bottom berth sits on the bottom one and folds up the middle one, but the top stays undisturbed). some nice indian boys greeted me and moved a bag from my berth, asking where i’m from etc. i managed some politeness, but i really just wanted to get to sleep. i stashed my guitar and shoes under the seat and clambered up to my bed with my backpack etc. i spread a sarong over myself and dozed off surprisingly fast.
sleeper trains are really the best way to go when it comes to traveling in india. second class sleepers aren’t air conditioned (fine with me) but they are roomy and comfy and fellow travelers tend to be really friendly. i awoke the next day and passed the time writing and eating some small bananas and other fruits i’d brought with me. indian trains also have chai and coffee wallas (walla means “seller of”) and food service that comes through selling inexpensive biriyani and other vegetarian indian yummies, but i don’t usually eat on the train unless it is a longer journey.
i got to cochin around 2 pm – not enough time to go to the museum i wanted to see – so i got a dosa (like an indian crepe filled with potatoes) and coffee and went back to the train station to catch my 4:15 train to varkala. unfortunately, this train – a local one, and not a sleeper – was packed to the gills (friday commuters!) and hot as balls. i got a seat, sandwiched between two keralan men. i was wearing a t-shirt and loose yoga pants, but many of the men on the train were in long trousers and long sleeved shirts. i guess they are used to the heat, but it was insanely hot and then the train got held up for what seemed like eternity (bad train karma on my part). we finally got to varkala at 8:30 (over an hour late!) and a rickshaw driver whisked me away to the cliff. i hadn’t made arrangements on where to stay so he took me to a place he knew, but it was full. on the way, i saw johnny cool’s – a restaurant and guest house i remembered from my last sojourn here. i popped in to say hello to the proprietor, manu, but the rooms were 500 rupees and no attached bath, so i passed. the driver took me to another place where they had a larger room with a bathroom for 400 (8 dollars – expensive by indian standards, but this is a tourist town in high season). i took it and headed off to the cliff to find something to eat.
that night i ended up in a place called the bistro, ordering pad thai that i couldn’t eat, after the long hot train ride, and a tall cold beer that was easier to get down :). one of the waiters had a guitar and played some songs and i struck up a conversation with the restaurant manager and some italian friends of his. the night ended and i hadn’t gotten the bill – he told me to come back the next day, no problem. ah india.
i walked back to my place along the road, with an italian chaperone, and went straight to bed, exhausted.
next day i got up and fed my leftover pad thai to some grateful adolescent puppies living behind my hotel. then i went to clafouti bakery – an old favorite of mine when i was here before. i remembered their nice coffee and the yoghurt (“curd” here) with fruit and muesli i used to love. the cliff still looks pretty much the same as the last time i was here, but some places have shifted or changed names and almost every restaurant has increased dramatically in size, expanding to accommodate the hordes of beach seekers.
people come by selling drums and flutes and leaves painted with ganeshas. one man came by selling malas (prayer beads) and i found two nice sets of nine planet malas – one for me and one for jacqueline, since both of us had lost or broken ours.
i lingered, writing in my journal and drinking my whole pot of coffee while people around me had beers with their lunches, wrapped in ‘coozies of newspaper: like the brown bag from the corner store, but craftier.
i finished my breakfast and went to find jacqueline who was staying at an ashram on the cliff, where our swami from teacher training now teaches. as i got to the internet cafe from which i planned to call her, there she was using the computer! (the abbreviation for these kind of phone booths is “std” – anytime you see this in india, it mean a place you can make calls from, kinda funny).
i gave her her mala and she showed me to the ashram and explained there was a teacher training session just finishing and i could come stay there the next day after some of the students vacated. she went to make some arrangements for a reiki course she was giving the next day and i went to the beach!
the main beach is only accessible via three sets of narrow stairs winding down the face of the cliff at intervals. paragliders carve bright arcs through the sky above the cliff and beach umbrellas add to the festive and colorful scene. the waves can be strong and surprising and they say there are dangerous currents if you swim out too far, since the beach is not a bay or inlet, but basically just part of the slanting bottom of the “ice cream cone” that makes up the southern tip of india.
i basked for a while and swam, and basked and met a nice french man who is a stone mason and a couple of friendly italian guys. the sun is strong here, so one doesn’t stay on the beach too long. i went back to my quiet hotel, this time using the little paths through the back of the cliff instead of the main road. once you know the lay of the land here, there are shortcuts everywhere.
i went out for food and decided pizza would be a good idea, since i have been rather thinnish lately and cheese is my best source of fat. meanwhile i used the wireless (another change from the last time i was here, when wifi was not the omnipresent phenomenon it is now) and drank a beer and watched the sunset. the pizza, however, was small and undercooked, bland and not what the doctor ordered. i did my best to eat it and went back to the hotel for the night.
a little about kerala: one of the two southern-most states in india, kerala is a place of sunny weather and sunny people. traditional dress for men is the lunghee – a man-sarong – which men wear with button-down shirts. lunghees are long and usually plain white with a colored border. the men have a special way of wrapping them and also of hoisting them up to make a short version of the look. if only more western men tried this look! it is kind of sexy and not as incongruous as it sounds with the button down shirt. the food here is lighter than north indian fare, and spicier. hinduism and christianity are the main religions here. the people are polite and calm, welcoming and open-hearted. it is my favorite state in india and has the slogan “god’s own country” – which suits it perfectly. a paradise of sea and jungle, mountains and backwaters.
next day it was more sun, more beach. i had curd and fruit and coffee for breakfast at the juice shack on the cliff and worked on a video from my last concert in new york (one excerpt of which you can see here :)), then went for another swim. that afternoon i moved to the ashram and had dinner there, which reminded me very much of the food we had in our ashram in madurai: yummy vegetarian keralite food (food from the state of kerala, of course). this is the food that i needed to put on some weight for my travels so as not to waste away.
my connection to this ashram is through my swami – govindananda – who was my teacher in madurai before he got a freak case of chicken pox and had to convalesce for the rest of the course. now he has separated from the sivananda organization and has his own course in varkala, so i can be here and relax while also practicing yoga and attending lectures: a yoga vacation.
the schedule here is: 6 am – satsang (chanting and meditation), 8 am – tea, 8:20 – yoga class, then brunch. after brunch there is a lecture and then free time till afternoon asana class, then dinner and evening satsang. after, most people go to bed early, but not this night owl! having a wifi connection keeps me up late trying to plot my next moves (and video chatting with my good friend sarah davis) :).
unfortunately, my sickness went into my lungs, of course, and i was awoken by coughing fits at 3 am for the first several days of my stay. though it was a great conversation starter with others at the ashram (“oh that was you coughing last night? sounded awful!”), i went to see an ayurvedic doctor recommended by swamiji and he gave me quite the regimen of things to take: syrup, something that looks like instant coffee crystals, powder and oil for my head, two bottles of tonics, etc. the good news is, it’s working! the bad news: ants are drawn to the sugary tonics and come flocking or whatever it is ants do. ants are also very interested in my hankie, which can lead to some tragic ant massacres.
yesterday i moved to a different hotel, still with the ashram, since a teacher training course started today and those students will stay in the main building. i planned to leave today, yet here i am. yesterday i went to the beach and got to play with a litter of puppies placed there under the shelter of a large rock against the cliff by their smart mom. there they attract a lot of attention – 9 adorable puppies! people bring them food and play with them all day long.
i’m hatching plans for kumbh mela, the largest gathering of people i can imagine – over 100 million people predicted to attend for the month + length of the celebration. it is in the north, in allahabad, so there are all sorts of ways i could get there: planes, trains and automobiles. i thought i’ might go back to goa and continue north from there, but now i am thinking i’ll take the train to madurai in tamil nadu – where i studied yoga before – and visit some special temples near there and a naadi palm leaf reader (will write more about this if i get to him!) before catching a flight to lucknow from chennai. i’ll have to take a train from lucknow to allahabad, but it will be a 4-hour journey instead of a 40-hour journey as it would be if i took the train from chennai. i’ll know soon! my plan is to see it during the full moon, when many people will be there. it can be dangerous to try to bathe or travel on the main days, so i’ll be vigilant regarding that, but i’m excited to see this gathering of the faithful on this historic event: the maha kumbh mela only happens every 144 years, so this is my only chance in this lifetime to see it!
i’ll leave tomorrow or the next day and might go to amma’s ashram before taking the train to madurai and continuing from there. plans are loose at best, but i’ll be in allahabad by the 22nd if all goes well.
love and miss,