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Leftie foote, maximum high

Lazy days in Varkala

sunny 33 °C
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Well, we left Kovalam, but we didn’t get very far—just about two hours up the coast to Kovalam’s fraternal twin, Varkala.

Once again we’re practically tripping over yogis and ayurvedic doctors (some with actual credentials, others not so much) and there’s a wider, longer beach, this time backed by dramatic red cliffs. Unlike Kovalam, where restaurants, shops and hotels lined the beach, Varkala’s beach is comparatively unsullied. The restaurants, shops and hotels line the cliffs above the beach instead, in a long, curving march from south to north. It’s the same profusion of tourist-oriented restaurants, flower-power clothing, embroidered textiles and Buddha figures.

The tourists are slightly different—unlike Kovalam, this is not a package or charter-flight destination, and you have to put a little more work into getting here, so more people are independent travellers. There are a surprising number of families among them, including some with very small children. But we’re definitely outnumbered by the dreadlocked Nirvana-seeking crowd. It’s not uncommon to be walking home from dinner along the crowded, convivial cliff-side boardwalk and have to walk around a traveller sitting cross-legged smack in the middle of the sidewalk, eyes closed, deep in meditation. There are yoga classes on the beach at sunset (and long-bearded yogis in psychedelic flowing robes promoting them), and people practicing their poses or sun salutations in the sand, or meditating on the nearby rocks, every time we visit.

The beach is, again, much cleaner than I would have expected from India, and the surf is perfect for body boarding. Handily, body boards are available for rent, so we’ve developed a routine that revolves around heading to the beach late every afternoon for some wave jumping and body boarding. The kids have learned how to catch some good rides and are having a blast.

It took me a few days, but eventually I noticed an odd thing about Varkala’s beach—there seems to be some informal segregation going on. One half of the beach is dominated by bikini-clad foreigners, while the other is almost exclusively Indian, where you see women fully clad in saris or salwar kameez splashing around in the shallows. The foreigner side does still suffer from the usual gaggles of Indian men wearing business clothes who stroll the beach slowly just to gawk openly at all the flesh on display. And as for the Indian side, I tried jogging through it the other day, barefoot and wearing a one-piece bathing suit and sarong, and was accosted by an outraged-looking Indian man who stepped in front of me and started barking something about the absurdity of me running while clad only in a bathing suit—through his section of the beach, he probably should have added for clarity, since there certainly are foreigners who run through the tourist stretch wearing much less than that.

We’re staying at a small, family-run hotel called Mummy Bamboo House. The online reviews I read about this place all raved about a woman named Rani and her amazing cooking. We assumed she was the owner, but it turns out the eight-room guesthouse is owned by her husband and his mother. Rani does most of the chatting, managing and cooking, and is more or less the face of the hotel. She has two children, a daughter aged 13 and a son who seems to be eight or nine. Rani is a warm, effusive woman without whom this guesthouse would be lacking its key attraction, since the rooms are nothing special. Mummy, on the other hand, is a force to be reckoned with. Mummy spends her days stalking the premises, sari-clad but barefoot, steel-gray hair tied up in a tight bun, eyebrows drawn low over her eyes, looking simultaneously purposeful, suspicious and displeased. She wears a permanent scowl and has the sort of general bearing that would make you not want to cross her.

We’ve taken two neighbouring rooms on the second floor, and from the small balconies that overlook the front yard, we’re free to watch the entire family’s comings and goings. Mummy, Rani and her husband, Sudhanan, along with their two children and a large assortment of extended family members, live in a small, one-storey, thatch-roofed hut next to the hotel, without running water or apparent electricity. It’s fascinating to watch the family go about its daily business, whether heading off to drive rickshaws or taxis each morning, hanging out laundry, heading off to school in uniforms or even just wandering around brushing their teeth, spitting into plants and bushes. It’s as though they built the hotel smack in the middle of what must have recently been their backyard, and now they conduct their personal and family business and chores under the watch of any and all interested guests. I might guess that this could be the source of some of Mummy’s unidentified angst, except that she seems to take considerable pleasure in snatching and counting up the money whenever someone checks out.

Miraculously, out of the tiny, dark and waterless little kitchen come some pretty incredible meals. Breakfast and lunch are available here, and we’ve tried both. Breakfast consists of chai (tea)—the best we’ve ever tasted—and what Rani calls banana pancakes – they’re actually more like thick chapattis folded in half over sliced banana and grated coconut with lots of syrup. Those things stick with you all day. Lunch is a banana-leaf thali, basically rice with an assortment of sauces and side dishes. The plate is a fresh banana leaf, and you eat with your hands. We were prepared to love it, based on what we’d read about Rani’s cooking (and because we generally like thalis), but she must have watered down the spice content for the kids. I found it all a bit too heavily reliant on coconut and not particularly spicy. It was still a novel experience to be eating banana leaf thalis with our hands on a rickety table in a parking lot with Rani fussing over us, though.

Ciaran, for his part, remains unamused about Rani’s determination to see him eat heartily. He isn’t a fan of her pancakes or her thalis, and although he’s old enough to know he shouldn’t do something rotten like say, “Yuck!” out loud, he frowns and picks at his food and eats lightly and reluctantly. The last time we had lunch here, Rani actually tried to feed him personally, so concerned was she that he wasn’t eating enough. He was still chewing a previous mouthful when she tried to shove another forkful of rice and sauce into his mouth, doting-Indian-mama style, smiling broadly all the while. He gently pushed her hand away and made a very subtle displeased face. Ciaran is really tired of being pinched, tousled, grabbed, kissed and otherwise manhandled by people. He’s been pretty patient up to now, but it’s starting to wear a little thin.

He does love Rani’s chai, though, and will drink three or more cups if we don’t stop him. For that matter, Ciaran has turned out to be the most adventurous eater among us, and we are constantly having to talk him down from trying to order what we deem to be the riskiest items on the menu. Basically, if it’s likely to have meat, fish, fresh fruits and veggies or mayonnaise in it—or best of all, all of the above—he’s probably going to want to order it. Then he’s miffed when we tell him we’d rather he didn’t. We’re most comfortable sticking to a vegetarian diet here in India, but the kids can only eat so much dhal and spinach. The upside is that we’ll be bringing home two kids who will eat just about anything Canada can dish out. Whereas at home, both would often complain when I made than eat sauce on their pasta—they preferred it entirely plain, with butter—now they’re just thrilled if they can order the spinach and mushroom lasagne (with béchamel, no less) instead of dhal and rice.

In an effort to get our curry-and-chapati-stuffed bodies moving, Mark and I are taking advantage of the natural and local resources. Mark has taken to running along the beach most mornings, and I’ve signed up for a few yoga classes here and there. Today we bought a yoga mat, so I guess all we need next are the dreadlocks (don’t worry).

The first yoga class I took was quite an experience. It was conducted by a yogi on the rooftop of a nearby guesthouse. The yogi, a potbellied, moustached little man, was unexpectedly bossy right from the start. Noticing the water bottle and sarong I’d brought to the class, he introduced himself by ordering me to place them both off to one side, and he was quite precise about where he wanted them. There was only one other student in the class, a woman who was evidently abundantly experienced. When the yogi asked if I’d done yoga before, I said yes. He seemed to take this as a sign that I would need no pointers or demonstrations whatsoever. He introduced each pose briskly by its Sanskrit name as a sort of command, without offering the English translation, and since he wasn’t doing the poses along with us, I had to look at the woman next to me for clues as to what I should be doing with my limbs. But it was hard not to develop a conciliatory fondness for the guy when he started telling us what to do with our feet. “Leftie foote up now, maximum high,” he would say, and then, “rightie foote next, also maximum high.”

Despite his peremptory approach, it was still a thoroughly enjoyable experience. I could hear the surf crashing and see palm trees swaying above me in a blue sky. It was really pretty sweet.

As for the kids’ recreation, they’re exercising their usual creativity. Ciaran has been collecting empty water bottles, and he uses them as bowling pins; the ball is a baby coconut he found on the ground. Sometimes he varies the game by hitting the coconut with a hockey ministick instead of rolling it by hand. The same tools can be used for a game of baseball, with palm trees representing the bases. Rani’s kids and their cousins were home these past two days because it was the weekend, so we brought out the Lego and all of the kids spent hours building with it.

Other than that, both Chloe and Ciaran are reading up a storm. It’s gotten to the point where they can barely be bothered to look up from their books long enough to read the menu and order food, which is actually a bit irritating. Chloe, of course, was like this before we left. In Ciaran’s case, we feel we’ve driven him to it by depriving him of friends, toys and all the regular diversions of his Canadian home and neighbourhood. We counter any guilt we may feel about this by reminding ourselves that he’ll be seeing all his friends again soon enough, and now he’ll always have reading (not to mention Asia).

So we’re really not sure why we should leave Varkala. The big family joke is that we should just stay here until February 24, then fly to Mumbai, visit for one day, and head home. Of course, we won’t really do that. There are at least three or four more destinations in Kerala that are on the agenda, and Goa after that, and possibly one or two other places in between. But it’s going to be hard to tear ourselves away from here.

Posted by The Rymans 20:51 Archived in India Tagged family_travel

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Patti, still loving reading your blog, your familiar wonderful writing style along with the amazing content. :) Thank you for sharing it. xxoo Corinne

by Corinne

We're also travelling in India and blogging with travellerspoint. We can't track down the email or phone number of Mummy's Bamboo House and wondered if you could help. Agonda in Goa is really nice if you get away from Kerala.
Colin and Sue

by armrig

Corinne, hi and thanks for the comment! I miss you guys!!

Colin & Sue: Fun to hear from you. You can find contact info for Mummy Bamboo here: http://mummybamboohouse.synthasite.com/. Rooms are Rs. 600 for a double. A little on the small and simple side, but quite clean. Thanks for the Agonda tip! We are headed to Goa after Kerala.

by The Rymans

Colin & Sue again: Looked up some info on Agonda and it sounds lovely. Do you have any recommendations on a place to stay? You can post a comment back here or email ryan.patti@gmail.com. Thanks! What's your blog URL?

by The Rymans

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