Surprisingly awake, I arrived at John's Residency at just after 7am to find John awake and just one room available. It looked like a nice place and quite near to the ferry port to Fort Kochi so I snapped it up and went in search of the Indian Coffee House to wait for the room to be cleaned.
For some reason, after checking in, I wasn't yet tired so hopped on a ferry (for 2.5 rupees - about 3pence) for Fort Kochi where I later met up with Olli, Christine and Maria who'd continued to Kerala for a further week ok the tour. It was great to see them again but I was disappointed to hear that they'd not enjoyed the third week of the trip as much as the first two, seemingly mostly down the guide and the group as opposed to the places they'd visited. We wandered around Fort Kochi ending up in 'Jew Town', presumably a former Jewish quarter and home to a synagogue. Like in Goa, the architecture in Fort Kochi seemed to be best described as 'crumbling European' and, in addition to the synagogue, there were also a few churches dotted around.
Christine was attempting to do some last minute shopping for friends and family and we were thrilled to come across a shop advertising itself as hassle free where, as we passed, the owner sitting outside indicated that he was not going to say anything. It was a stark contrast to the rest of the shops which seemed particularly hassley and I remarked again that many of the shop keepers seemed to think that Europeans would buy anything as long as it was 'good price' regardless of what it was. They also didn't seem to understand the contradiction of saying 'only look' followed immediately by 'good price for you my friend' and it was difficult to refrain from snapping at several of them.
As the sun began to go down we visited the Chinese fishing nets on the north side of fort kochi - gigantic wooden contraptions with huge nets attached which were lowered into the water before being pulled our by several people using a simple pulley system and the flapping fish being transferred to buckets. Along the shore there you could select your just caught fish at little stands and then pay for it to be cooked up while you waited.
As it was their last night, we went in search of somewhere good to eat their last meal in India. Unfortuantely trip advisor's number one restaurant in kochi was full so we wandered aimlessly for a while passing some overpriced and some bad looking places before, too hungry to look further, settling on a hotel restaurant called 'drop inn'.
Despite having kingfisher napkin holders they did not serve beer. That wasn't the only thing they didn't have. As we attempted to order, the waiter explained that they did not have any of their menu choices that required cooking in a tandoori oven as it was too expensive for them to turn on. This included most forms of bread. By the time Ole came to order he asked 'just bring me what bread you can make'. The back of the menu stated that food could take 35-40 minutes but, being almost empty, we assumed that this was just a precautionary disclaimer. Turns out it was not. Even a lemon soda (bottled) took over 10 minutes to arrive. When the food eventually arrived I was just glad that this was not my last meal in India. As we left, the waiter demonstrated his comic abilities which were much better than his food. He did impressions of various nationalities including an American asking for a bottle of water.
Having missed the last ferry back to the mainland I went back to the hotel that Olli, Christine and Ole were staying at to take a taxi with Maria who was heading to the airport and would pass nearby my hotel. The hotel was better than anything we'd stayed in as a group and far better than anything I'd stayed in since leaving them. As we waited for the taxi in Ole's room, I nicked a toilet roll (mine didn't provide such luxuries) and a toothbrush from his room.
Eventually, utterly exhausted, I said goodbye to Maria and got out of the taxi as pulled up outside John's. as they left I noticed that the front shutter was down and there were no lights on in reception. I looked for another entrance but finding none I began to panic. I pulled at the shutter and pushed the door but it didn't move. Desperately trying to remember the name of the others' hotel in case I had to go back there I banged extremely loudly on the door. Fortunately, one of the staff members who was sleeping on a camp-bed in reception quickly woke up and brushed off my apologies for waking him. Panic over.
After washing off the day's sweat, sun cream and mossie spray in cold water, I hopped manically around the hotel room, flip flop in hand, attempting to kill two mosquitos who'd somehow crept in before turning the fan to full blast, putting in my ear plugs and passing out for a well needed sleep.
I'd planned to leave for southern Kerala the following day as I'd have to return to Kochi in seven days time for a flight to Mumbai. I felt like I'd seen much of what there was to see and was desperate to get somewhere where I could spend at least two nights in one place.
I therefore attempted to get to Varkala - an apparently backpacker oriented (as opposed to resorty) beachside town in the south. I bought a ticket for 95 rupees and was told to take the train at 10.10 from platform two. I had a sleeper ticket, the cheapest kind and had planned on napping on a bunk with my backpack. The only other foreigners on the platform were two younger Finnish girls who'd booked 2nd class seats.
Shoving my way onto the train with the locals, I found myself in the non-a/c reserved seating carriage instead. Not wanting to have to plough through the train looking for sleeper cars and having already struggled to get my bag into the racks, I sat in the bench and decided to cross my fingers and stay put. A man came with my seat reservation but seemed happy to sit opposite instead and a friendly woman sitting next to me seemed to think I'd be okay to stay there.
When the conductor slowly made his way through, checking tickets and ID cards, I put my book away and prepared to be down graded but, looking at my ticket he just told me that this train did not stop at Varkala and I'd have to get off at Kollam and change.
Disembarking at Kollam, I saw no sign of the Finnish girls who were also headed to Varkala and wondered what had happened to them. I talked to the station master who told me I'd have to buy another ticket for the next train, a super fast train from Delhi (a good 30 hours train journey north!). This cost an extra 60 rupees for seated class.
When the train arrived I looked for seated class but seeing a very English looking couple sat in sleeper class I got on there to confirm that this was the right train. The view the whole way on the train had been great and, on my sleeper 'bed' I sat back and admired the passing backwaters and coconut groves.
Arriving in Varkala, I shared a taxi towards the beach with the English couple. I stopped at one place that had been recommended to me but it was a walk from the beach and could offer only dorm beds for 499 or privates for 1600. I continued to the main beach strip where, carrying my backpack I was inundated with offers of rooms. I chose one that seemed clean (although I later realised I was sharing with a small lizard) and negotiated it down to 400 rupees a night.
Feeling hot and bothered, I went in search of a beer a couple of doors down. It was poured into a large mug and the bottle thoughtfully put under the table to keep cool, or so I presumed. They had free wifi so I stayed a long time waiting for some apps to update. After watching the sunset, I walked the full length of the cliff looking in a couple of the shops and eyeing up places for dinner. Eventually I settled on a place recommended by LP for its Thai food (but ordered Indian knowing there was plenty of Thai to come in just over a week). Having consumed only 5 Oreos and 2 beers all day I was pretty hungry and ordered a paneer pakora, a veg curry and a naan. As my food arrived the electricity went out and we were plunged into darkness, seemingly along the whole strip, although didn't seem to prevent them from continuing to bring out hot food. I laughed as a couple of British guys walked past, one grumbling loudly about recruitment agents (of all things to be discussing in a tropical paradise!) and I was extra grateful that I was sat in darkness on Varkala cliff as opposed to under strip lighting in a basement office. Returning to my room once the power had returned (after 30 minutes or so of darkness) I noticed that, despite clean appearances, it smelt slightly of damp but at under £4.50 a night I wasn't going to complain and, apparently still recovering from sleeper busses, I slept for almost 12 hours.
Leaving my room after a pleasantly cold shower I went in search of coffee and, despite my genuine fondness of traditional Keralan coffee, I was pleased to find a place with a great view of the sea serving a full range of western coffee shop favourites. I made a coffee and fresh juice last a good two hours whilst I sat reading and enjoying the shade. As sellers walked past offering a variety of drums, I wondered if anyone ever purchased one - if the noise they made wasn't off-putting enough surely the consequent packing logistics incurred would be a further deterrent. The bar also had free wifi and I took great pleasure in looking at the weather forecast back home (-1 in Mold, zero in London) whilst sitting in 30 degree heat before heading to the beach. I'd read that the currents on Varkala beach could be quite dangerous and whilst the sea was pleasantly warm, even as I stood with water up to my thighs, I could feel it tugging at my legs.
There was a pleasant breeze on the beach and the water was beautifully warm and I decided then that I'd probably have to stay longer in Varkala. Despite being uber-touristy, unlike Goa there was an appealing vibe to Varkala - much smaller, it still felt relatively undiscovered (although it obviously was very discovered), it was relatively hassle free and the beach was stunning - I saw how the days could easily slip by here.
After a couple of hours in the sun I went in search of lunch, needing something to cushion my malaria pills. I found a good rooftop and ordered a sprite. There I bumped into the couple I'd shared a taxi with the previous day. Looking at the menu however (that contained mostly Italian food with a few basic curries) it seemed quite expensive and I wondered when exactly I'd become a person who thought that £2 was too much to pay for lunch. I told the waiter I'd probably eat somewhere else as their food was expensive but he asked how much I wanted to pay and, when I said 100 rupees only, he agreed to make me the veggie curry I'd wanted (priced at 100) and throw in some bread and rice for free. In morocco a few weeks before coming to India, I'd been exhausted after a week of haggling for taxis and gifts but here I was, happily negotiating rooms, rickshaws, clothing and even menu prices in India without feeling even slightly bothered. I felt pleased with my inner cheapskate and felt it bode well for a future in which I had little intention of earning large amounts of money again.
I asked for my curry to be spicy and the waiter asked how spicy - I said Kerala spicy, not tourist spicy. He asked to see my tongue... When the food arrived it was pretty hot but in a good way (causing a slight runny nose but no tears). The waiter watched me and said he could make less spicy if i wanted. When I declined he seemed impressed telling me that he'd tasted it and it was quite hot. He was pretty friendly and I left promising to return the next day. He seemed disappointed when I said I was travelling alone and wouldn't be bringing a big group of friends back with me.
On my way back to the beach I came across the young Finnish girls from the train who were being followed along the path by an Indian guy - I wasn't sure if he was bothering them or not. Apparently no one had told them the train wouldn't stop at Varkala and they'd continued to the end of the line before having to take a bus back. I felt bad for not looking for them to check they knew and apparently they'd wondered what had happened to me when they finally got off.
After going slightly pink on the beach and watching the sun go down, I resolved to buy some factor thirty and, needing to pay for my night's accommodation as well, I went in search of a cash machine. There wasn't one on the cliff but LP mentioned one on its map that didn't look too far away. Yet again, I learnt not to trust my reading of LP's maps when I found myself walking for over 20 minutes away from the beach down an unlit road. When I eventually found it I felt very much as if I was out of the touristy centre and I was attracting a few too many stares.
After trekking back i popped into another guest house to check out the potential of moving somewhere that didn't smell like damp and with hot water for a well needed hair-wash. I asked how much a room was and was told 800. I laughed and told her I was paying 400 at the moment. As I walked away she shouted after me 'okay 400'. Pleasantly surprised at how easy it was to negotiate here, I decided I couldn't actually be bothered to move rooms (I was pretty used to washing my hair in cold water after all) and treated myself to a beer in a bar that was showing Slumdog millionaire. Unfortunately I'd sat far from the screen but true to its name, the Chill Out Lounge, they had comfy floor seating and chilled out music. I ordered a beer (again served in a mug) and after a couple of minutes I was told to put the bottle under the table as the police walked past. Seemingly most bars on the cliff do not have a licence - they mostly all serve alcohol but its not listed on their menus and is served in mugs. One upside of this for the drinker is that, being unlicensed, they aren't paying the hefty alcohol tax meaning that a 650ml kingfisher costs just 100 rupees.
Not particularly wanting anything non-vegetarian, I still ordered a fish curry, as is the speciality in Kerala, for dinner. The restaurants along the front proudly displayed their day's catch and some of the fish were gigantic, some up to a meter in length. Unfortunately as my food arrived the bar began to play La Macarena - it made a change from Gangnam style and I was reminded of the Martin Troost's account of life on Kiribati (the Sex Lives of Cannibals) where La Macarena was the only song ever played on the island.
The fish curry was excellent, just spicy enough and, unlike a lot of meat curries I'd seen, they hadn't omitted the vegetables. Sipping my beer, I emailed my Uncle Robin who I knew would be particularly jealous of my current culinary situation.
Several of the people I'd travelled with so far had recounted strange dreams as a result of the spicy food, not something I'd experienced until now. Whether it was down to spicy food or, more likely, a bit too much sun, I awoke at around 3am in pitch blackness with no idea where I was. Feeling behind me I felt a wall and the same to both the left and the right. There was only a small window up to one side and I felt as if I were rocking. I assumed I must be on a train. I scrabbled around desperately for my handbag, finding it almost empty on the floor devoid of all my valuables - no phone, no wallet, no iPad and, more importantly, no torch. Feeling thoroughly disoriented, I began to panic wondering how I had got here, who had put me here and where my things were. I couldn't remember where I'd been last, who I'd been with or what I'd been doing. Frightened, I thrashed around a bit more assuming I'd been kidnapped before finding my phone lying next to me. Using the light from that I discovered that my handbag was empty on the floor, next to my backpack, my iPad was plugged in charging and my wallet was next to me. I was in fact exactly where I was supposed to be, in my bed in the guesthouse that had for some reason slipped my memory. The 'train' sensation was coming from the large fan on the ceiling that I'd had on full blast which, as my earplugs seemed to have fallen out, was rather loud. Feeling comforted although still shaken it was a while before I fell asleep again and it was almost 11 before I woke the next day feeling exhausted and headachey.
I decided to stay another day in Varkala and so went in search of a new book. Not wanting to read the Da Vinci Code, one of the many books by Jeffery Archer or Fifty Shades of Grey, my options appeared to be limited. Eventually I settled on something by James Patterson to see me through the next few days.
The decision to stay in Varkala meant that I would have to choose between a trip along the back waters or a visit to Munnar, a hill station in the mountains where there are several tea plantations. Not in the mood for important decisions, I sat down for a coffee and juice (and no free wifi thanks to yet another power cut). My sister had said that all she'd done in Varkala in the summer was eat and read books. This seemed to be pretty standard for Varkala as that summed up well my time there. After investing in some factor 30 I headed back to the beach. Next to me a couple of German girls were engaged in conversation by two old Indian guys wearing dhotis. The conversation seemed to be going very well until one of the Indians said - 'Germany? Used to be very big empire. And Hitler.' At that point the girls started saying bye bye over and over until the men left.
Mari had told me there was a cafe near where they'd stayed called Blue something that served the best Mali Kofta and I had to try it so, not having eaten all day I decided to check it out. I'd walked past Blue Moon several times, never having seen any customers. Unfortunately I wasn't about to start the trend. Despite not being a huge fan of Mali Kofta, preferring something with more of a kick, I ordered one at my new favourite hang out, Cafe Del Mar. It wasn't great. Perhaps I should have listened to my sister but instead I concluded I didn't like Mali Kofta very much and that was that. Feeling thoroughly lazy having done nothing more physically exerting than climb the steps from the beach to the cliff a couple of times a day for the last few days, as the power cut again, I resolved that I would leave Varkala the following day (maybe).