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Published: February 8th 2007
Indian fishing boat
off the coast of Varkala catching Dave's dinner
We got out of Trivandrum as fast as we could and made our way to the beach town of Varkala in Southern Kerala. Varkala is set atop a cliff and mostly attracts foreign travelers and the businesses set up to service them - offering a wide variety of clothes, souvenirs and restaurants serving everything from spaghetti bolognaise and pizza to Tibetian momos and of course Indian curries! All of the development is atop the cliff, leaving the beach pristine apart from the odd sprinkling of sun umbrellas. It was a nice place to hang out for a few days relaxing in the sun, body surfing in the waves and watching the fishing boats. Dave has been an almost vegetarian since the start of the trip (aside from the odd piece of bacon) and so he was able to enjoy seafood for dinner confident in the fact that it had been freshly caught.
Unable to resist the beautiful colours and intricate textiles we picked up a few bargains at Varkala and needed to relieve ourselves of our recent purchases so a trip to the local post office was in order. The first day we attempted to post anything we missed “parcel
hours” and were told to come back tomorrow, and with our parcels properly wrapped. Regulations state that all parcels must be wrapped in white cotton, stitched or hand sewn up at the sides, and finally sealed with wax - they end up as small works of art! There was no parcel wrapping person at the post office so we set off on a mission to find a suitable tailor for the task, who proudly took as much care in producing a quality stitched parcel as he would’ve a handmade item of clothing!
The next day we arrived back at the post office to absolute chaos at the parcel counter with 20 people all pushing to the front of the “queue” (please note the term is used rather loosely as it was more like a mosh pit!) arms outstretched waving their parcels and letters. The parcel lady remained suitably unfussed by the chaos, slowly and meticulously working her way through the throng of parcels and limbs in no particular hurry. Meanwhile in the adjacent booth the “stamps” man sat reclined in his chair yawning as there was no apparent rush on stamps and he might not have been trained in
These stretch for over 900km and run adjacent to the coast separated only by a thin strip of land (to the right)
the art of parcel assistance, or perhaps was biding his time until the next stamp rush began. After battling our way to the front of the desk, hovering the parcel under the lady’s nose, and filling out the customs forms in triplicate, we were done - having learnt a valuable lesson in both the Indian postal system and the need to curb our consumerism.
We headed North into the Keralan backwaters which are a 900km stretch of waterways that wind along the coast alongside villages and take on the form of both narrow canals and major lakes. We took a passenger boat cruise (which again we almost missed as the train was running nearly an hour late!) through the backwaters. The boat trip passed through the canals and we were able to glimpse the local life with villagers using the water for cooking, cleaning, washing, bathing and recreation alongside the hundreds of jellyfish who also call the waters home! On the water we passed houseboats, Chinese cantilevered fishing nets, fishing boats, canoes and local ferries. Local kids would run alongside the boat and call out "one pen, one pen, one pen please"
as they're known to do to foreigners.
On the journey we approached some seemingly out of place highrise buildings which we were surprised to learn were the buildings of the Amrithapuri Ashram, home of the hugging mother. To break up the eight hour journey decided to stay overnight and check out ashram life.
Amma (mother) has a worldwide following and is renowned for her therapeutic and comforting hugs, or dharsan
as the hugging has become to be known. Amma has physically hugged more than 24 million people! By 1979 the hugging, love and compassion had grown into a worldwide movement and the ashram with Indian and western followers was established. When asked what her religion is, Amma will reply “My religion is love. Love is our true essence. Love has no limitations of caste, religion, race or nationality. We are all beads strung together on the same thread of love”.
Amma encourages her followers to inquire into their own being, look deep into the self to find their own spirituality.
The ashram runs a wide range of charitable projects in both the humanitarian and environmental spheres, ranging from free housing, education, disaster relief projects, environmental education and reforestation projects. It's pretty imressive what they've
achieved - to find out more visit the Amritapuri website
Amma also encourages the act of seva
which means "selfless service", so when Suz was approached in the evening to assist in the kitchen (women only, so Dave made a narrow escape!) she felt it was in the spirit of the ashram and so agreed to assist. Seva
involved washing dishes but it was a good opportunity to talk to some of the regular visitors and long term residents and get the "inside scoop" on the ashram.
The next morning (after another dose of seva
for Suz) we resumed our trip. The boat we boarded was practically empty so there was tons of room for sunbathing on the roof deck. We stretched out watching the villages pass by and marveling at the eagles soaring above us. The boat came into a passage of water with so many fishing nets on either side that it formed a sort of tunnel through which the boat passed.
Eventually we came to a lock that separated the salt water from the fresh water and the coconut palms gave way to farmland and rice paddies. The boats were a chilled out way to
Chinese cantilevered fishing nets
The bildings of the ashram are in the background
view this part of the world.
We've planned to make the most of the beach life while we can given that after India our next beach experience is likely to be Estonia around June! So we opted to head north to the idyllic beaches of southern Goa in a train ride that lasted 15.5 hours and covered 864kms! We had third class non-aircon seats which meant that there were six people to a berth, and at night the seats folded out to form three bunks on either side.
At about 8pm the whole carriage morphed into a dining car as dinner packets (rice and curry wrapped in banana leaves and bound in newspaper) began to merge from people's bags and the contents were dutifully consumed. The chatter died down and the air became infused with the myriad fragrance of curries. We fitted in perfectly eating our egg briyani previously purchased from a platform vendor.
Sleep was intermittent throughout the night as the shake and rattle of the carriage and the noise and lights of the stations jolted us awake. We were finally woken at 6am to the calls of "chai"
(tea) and "kopi"
(coffee) as the pantrymen
wound their way up and down the aisles of the carriage trying to entice people awake with the sweet smell of freshly brewed coffee. Along with coffee, breakfast was a delicious masala dosa
(a thin crepe filled with curried vegetables) that had been prepared onboard.
All in all our train experience was a good one although we arrived at the beach pretty exhausted. We're now at Palolem beach in southern Goa and have ourselves a little beach hut for the next few days. Goa is more chilled out than Varkala and we're loving it. Last night we had dinner around a bonfire and listened the live music by a duo who played some good classics with guitars, violins, mandarins and mouth organs. Very cool.
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