Update: Kerala suffered devastating flooding in August 2018. Here are some suggestions on how to help the region.
I shook out my umbrella, dropped it on the floor, and plopped myself down at a table. The rain drummed on the tin roof with force, as if it were trying to tell me something and I wasn’t listening. I had the entire cafe to myself, save for the few employees sitting together in the back. One ambled over with a menu for me. I fidgeted with my phone, but the wifi wasn’t connecting. I wanted to get some work done.
“No wifi?” I asked him.
“No. Lighting last night. It’s not working.”
I sighed and looked out at the view. There was a beach somewhere out there, but it was obscured by sheets of rain so dense it was like a warm fog. I hadn’t come to India to catch up on my reading, but that’s exactly what I got.
I’ve always been conflicted about the idea of a trip to India. By all accounts, India is an intense place, with moments of transcendent beauty, spirituality, and nature right alongside choking pollution, chaos, danger, and poverty so intense and in your face, that it leaves you emotionally and physically drained. No matter how you prepare, you still might get pickpocketed, injured, or ghastly sick. But the rewards are worth it! So they say.
Knowing all this, India was not at the top of my list to visit. But when I was invited to attend a two-day event in Bangalore on sustainable fashion put together by the international nonprofit Ashoka and the C&A Foundation, I couldn’t turn it down. I decided to book my return flight for later, because you can’t go to India for just two days! But I was unsure of what to do with my additional five days. (I had to be back in New York City for an important event a week later.) What’s more, I had only a little over two weeks to plan my trip. To India. Oh my God.
Bangalore itself is in the south of India, a two and a half hour flight (or full day’s train ride) from Delhi. It’s not for tourists, but rather for young, professional Indians in technology and manufacturing. There are high-end bars, restaurants, and clubs, but in terms of learning about Indian culture and experiencing some of that traditional magic we’ve all heard about, it’s not a top destination. So I wanted to leave there and see more of India, but where to go next?
Five days seemed like not enough time to do more than one city. Plus friends said doing a city by myself for my first time in India might be too intense. The closest destination is Goa, a beach city made for dancing, but with the monsoon moving up the coast from the south, it would be completely dead. More recommendations poured in: Mysore, Hampi, Rajasthan, Sri Lanka, Kerala. I was completely overwhelmed, and had to make a decision.
Kerala. An affluent state in Southern India. Beautiful, I heard over and over. Nature. Relaxing. Peaceful. Free of the kind of poverty that accosts you, tugging on your sleeve and asking for money. So I looked to the skies, trusted that the universe would provide me with what I needed, and booked a round trip flight from Bangalore to Trivandrum. I wouldn’t (couldn’t) overplan this trip. I would let it unfold.
Bengaluru, as it’s called by those wishing to un-Anglicize Indian names, was as promised. The air was thick with humidity and incense as soon as I stepped out of the airport. I hailed an Uber to take me to the hotel that had been booked for me. It was located inside an ultra-luxury Western compound in the heart of the city, a new shopping mall with a Louis Vuitton store, metal detectors at the door, and an outdoor food court with high-end Indian and Italian restaurants and bars. Every Western Hotel in the area had bomb sniffing dogs inspect each car, a result of the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks. It made me feel both safe, and deeply uncomfortable. It felt… colonial, even though there were just as many Indians taking the escalator up the grand entrance as Westerners. But I have to admit, I appreciated walking into a foreigner-friendly restaurant after 24 hours of traveling and knowing the ice they put in my water was purified.
I’ll be writing about what I learned at the sustainable fashion event over the next month or so. But focusing now on India, I decided to do a little shopping for gifts. So I went to Anohki, a sustainable and ethical Indian clothing company, and bought hand block printed dresses, shawls, pajama shorts, a robe, and block stamps, all ethically handmade in Jaipur with vegetable dyes. Anohki does not allow photos in its pretty, peaceful store, housed inside an old mansion along with other India shops. So you’ll just have to visit one of their shops in India or elsewhere, or visit their US online store.
My final night in Bangalore, I met up with a friend of a friend, a woman named Payal who grew up in Bangalore. She wanted to take me to a small party, something called a Midsummer’s Night Picnic, by an organization called Gathr. We got there hours late, having left her house late, driving 45 minutes outside of the city, down a back road, waiting at a train crossing for 15 minutes, and wandering around the countryside listening for any hint of music that might clue us into where it was. Finally, we found it: the Courtyard House. The gate swung open and we parked the car. All was quiet, just crickets and frogs chirping in the woods. The Courtyard House is a group of modern standalone structures – living room, kitchen, bedrooms – wrapped in a spiral around a courtyard with a fountain and trellised vines for shade. We found a group of people lit only by candlelight in the living room structure, and were quickly pulled into a game.
I was asked to close my eyes, and a woman I just met was to guide me around the property using only two fingers pressed to the back of my neck. She would guide me so that I was a few inches away from something – flowers on vines, a candle, a stone pillar – and would ask me to open my eyes, then close them again, so that I got a snapshot of a detail or texture. In this way, I experienced the dew-wet garden and the architectural details of the house in the most mindful, detailed way.
We broke for a meal of healthful, sustainable food, and that’s when I realized I was the only non-Indian in the gathering. We were asked to come outside, and two musicians treated us to a jam session of handpan and didgeridoo. (It sounded a little like this.) As I listened, wrapping my arms around my knees against the cool, night, country air that was freshly washed by monsoon rain, I felt such gratitude and honor for being brought into the gathering.
But we left at 2 am. I had a 6 am flight, Payal had barely gotten any sleep the night before because of her demanding job, and we had 45 minutes to drive back into the city.
Varkala, Kerala, India
The next morning after no sleep, I flew into Trivandrum, a small airport, and got a prepaid taxi to drive me to Varkala, a tiny beachside town an hour (or hour and a half, depending on traffic) north. I elected to stay at an eco resort called Puccini Lala. It has a woodfire organic kitchen serving healthy meals, vegetarian cooking classes in the evening, purified water served in glass bottles instead of plastic bottles, a yoga area for retreats, and simple cabanas built using local materials and finished with upcycled saris.
(Another eco retreat you might choose would be Bohemian Masala, which was built by the tribes from the North of Kerala using their traditional methods of construction using just mud, a mix of herbs, and a traditional Kerala tiled roof that is durable and safe enough for a resort environment.)
The owner of Puccini Lala, Dhanesh, was there to greet me when I arrived. (He usually is not so available, and lets his employees run the resort for him, but it was low season.) He arranged an Ayurvedic massage for me (after I took a quick nap) at a nearby place called Ayushi Ayurveda. You can stay at Ayushi for an entire week long treatment, complete with a healthy diet. But I just had an hour’s massage by a petite woman, with warm oils poured over me and rubbed into my skin and scalp. When she was done, she showed me into a humble wash room where I could rinse off by pouring hot water over myself.
Thus restored, I walked through the resort’s restaurant onto the main walking path on the cliff overlooking the beach, and walked. Everything was deserted. Half the shops were closed up for the season. I saw more hibiscus flowers than people. Instead, I passed locals idly socializing and passing the time, a mosque, the black sand beach, palm trees, more resorts, some with large manicured lawns, others that looked like they had been abandoned for years, tiny fishing huts and fishermen mending their poly filament nets. Everything was quiet and damp. As night fell, I returned to the resort. I sipped tea and read while Dhanesh cooked me a healthy dinner of puttu: red rice that is dried, blended into a rough flour, then steamed and served with coconut.
The lights of the resort went out. Then, the radio at the restaurant next door fell silent. The whole beach had lost power. A resort employee lit another brass oil wick lamp for me, and I just sat and took it in. Just be.
The week flowed on, as slowly and placidly as wide river. Tourist activities were circumscribed by the amount of monsoon rain falling steadily every day. I could have gone to Ajengo Fort and climbed to the top of the lighthouse for the view, but the rain would have prevented me from seeing anything meaningful. If it were nice outside, I would have taken a boat tour of Kappil Lake, a 15 minute drive away, and visited the Golden Island. If I had more days and hadn’t booked myself for all the nights at Puccini Lala, I might have signed up for a backwater houseboat trip.
But I didn’t do any of those things. Instead, I practiced some Indian yoga at the resort a five minute’s walk north, which was authentic, but was so different than the New York-style power and flow yoga I’m used to. It was slow, relaxing, with savasana happening throughout instead of just at the end. I had small, light meals of smoothies and local seafood and curry dishes at the cafes overlooking the beach. There were dozens of cafes, serving everything from pizza and Italian to German and Tibetan, but Juice Shack and Darjeeling Cafe were my favorites, with their health focus and Indian dishes. I met a group of four backpackers from the UK. I listened to their stories of India, had dinner with them, debated politics, enjoyed tropical drinks. (Technically, restaurants in Varkala are not allowed to serve alcohol, but some do anyway.) But they grew bored and left to their next destination.
I kept hearing in my head what someone in Bangalore had told me: “Well, there is monsoon tourism.”
“What is that?” I asked.
“You sit and drink tea and watch the rain.”
I put up only a small fight against this.
I walked 20 minutes through the rain, fighting with my umbrella, to visit the Janardhanaswamy temple, which is reportedly over 2,000 years old. Unlike most Hindu temples, you’re allowed to go inside the courtyard of this one. When I got close, I passed a Spanish woman who told me with obvious frustration that it wasn’t worth it. But, I was so close and had nothing else to do, so I forged on. I took off my Teva’s at the entrance, and walked into the courtyard. Two men saw me, and called out. I pressed my palms together and bowed. They bowed in return and waved me over.
“Come inside, it’s raining!” they said, and brought me into a small, dim office, where a woman pencilled figures into the ledger at her desk. I paid them some rupees, about $4, so that I would be allowed to take pictures of the temple, and then waited for the rain to let up. The men joked around with me and the woman with their halting English. “How old do you think she is?” one asked. I laughed, “What a question!” She blushed and smiled, and we had a moment that women do. What we put up with from men. “She’s beautiful,” I said in reply. An older woman entered and handed me a paper cup with a sweet, boiled rice dessert. I savored it slowly, listening to their talk in an Indian language fall around me, watching the rain. They asked me if I had children, asked me what my husband does for work. The lights blinked on. I hadn’t realized the electricity was off – I preferred the romantic gloom. The rain didn’t look like it was letting up, so I finally opened my umbrella and took pictures in the courtyard. I thanked them for their hospitality, and walked back to the cliff.
Dhanesh arranged to have a auto rickshaw pick me up and take me to a local elephant farm. I thought that the “farm” meant maybe they were wandering around a large area like cows in a family farm’s pasture. I knew that might not be true. I was told I could ride them if I wanted, which was a warning. But I thought if I paid just to see them and touch their trunks and feed them bananas, it would show the owners that tourists will pay just to see them and don’t need a ride. But when I got there, I found four elephants in chains. I walked toward two that were side by side under a shelter, but a guy warned me away. My auto rickshaw driver translated: these ones were new to the farm, a little crazy. Where did they come from? Another state. Caught there in the jungle and brought here [to be broken in and ridden.] If I could wait for 10 minutes, the elephant driver would be there and would take me to the other, nice ones. “The people, they like elephants too much. For the festivals.” I looked at a “tame” one who looked back and me with glassy, empty eyes, swaying forward and back. Then I turned around and walked back to the rickshaw and asked to be taken back to Varkala. I don’t know when I’ll be back to India, and I may never touch an elephant’s trunk, but I’m willing to wait to see them in the wild. If I had taken that opportunity to feed them and get a picture, I would be no better than those bros who snuggle up to drugged tigers for their Instagram. It doesn’t really matter to the elephant farm if I pay or not – they have the festivals for income. But I just can’t. And you shouldn’t either.
Four days. Too many to fill at an empty resort town during monsoon season, too few to travel elsewhere. If I had planned better, or had more time, or came during the right season, I might have flown into Trivandrum, driven to Varkala for a night or two of parties on the beach, then into the interior to the Periyar Tiger Reserve in Thekkady to see the wild elephants and do some glamping, up to the Wild Elephant Resort in Munnar, then ended my travels in Cochin, a European-style city, where I would stay at another eco-friendly homestay. I would have done a Visit.org sustainable farm tour, and definitely done a few days on a houseboat.
I knew there was much more to Varkala. Instagram commenters gushed about Varkala changing their life, about it being transformative. I could tell that it could be a place to meet likeminded people, to do some work on yourself with the help of health retreats, relax on the beach and go swimming in the ocean, then dance the night away. A local guy showed me this video of his rhythm band playing on the beach, and I thought, oh, I want to be there with those people, dancing. It was all so empty, that the whole area felt like a giant, all-inclusive resort. I saw the same people over and over again, all of us sitting, waiting, reading, drinking tea. A single American woman, I found myself repeatedly declining offers by two different local men to hang out, have some tea, have a drink. They were sweet and interesting – one was part of a team filming a documentary, the other was the band member and a DJ who had lived in Stockholm. But I declined, for obvious reasons, murmuring something noncommittal and moving on down the path. The dogs were just as friendly and sweet. When they saw me coming, would trot out for a pet, then trot alongside me, happily, like old friends.
Almost every cafe had shelves full of books that other travelers had left behind. I finished mine and traded it in for something by Zadie Smith. The internet was slow, if it worked at all, and I was forced to put away my phone, order more tea or some spicy prawns, and read.
On my final day, the sun came out strong. I considered visiting some of the nearby sites, but my weather app insisted it would definitely start raining again. So I went down to the beach and waded into the water up to my knees. The lifeguard told me swimming was prohibited – the monsoon makes the rip tides deadly. I stood in the waves and looked and thought. Then I retreated to the beach to read some more, and got a sunburn. I should have rented that umbrella that was offered.
I could see my four days in Varkala as a failure of planning, as a wasted opportunity. But I don’t. I used to love reading. I grew up addicted to books. But because of the fast pace of New York City life, I haven’t read an entire book in less than a month for years. I trusted the universe to send me where I needed to go. And maybe this was it: four days of drinking tea, doing slow yoga, having conversations with locals instead of tourists, eating healthfully, finished two whole books. Four days of letting go of the need to be stimulated and entertained. Four days of peace and introspection.
Hopefully, some day I’ll be back. But for now, that was enough.