I had managed to muster up enough patience to tackle the painfully slow (and prone to breaking) Indian Railways website, and after a few false starts I had bagged myself an onward ticket from Ernakulam down to Varkala Beach in Kerala, the southernmost state of India.
It was an early start for me as I trekked across Cochin island to the boat terminal and boarded a six pence ferry which chugged me back over to the mainland. Making my way to the station, I picked my way through the madcap mayhem of the station, pacing up and down on the platform to stop the flies from constantly landing on my skin and taking in the myriad of different people who were about to travel.
I had splurged on a comfy air-conditioned carriage seat for the three to four hour journey down to Varkala (£2). The journey was uneventful, and I gazed out of the window at the tropical Kerala countryside checking out the little communities around the stations we stopped at. One thing I noticed about the trains is that like the buses, people seemed to enjoy jumping on when it had just started pulling away. There were no “stand clear of the doors” safety whistles here; the doors were open at all times and people would happily jump on and off with the train moving slowly, or hang outside the train to catch the breeze as it chugged by. On Indian Railways it’s not unknown for the emergency brake to be “mysteriously” applied at certain points in the middle of nowhere and for passengers to sneakily jump off at “their stop”.
At Varkala station I negotiated the price I had read for a taxi by playing disinterested and then starting to walk away when he didn’t offer me it. Despite me asking and him agreeing to drop me at the helipad (the unofficial centre of Varkala), he kept on and on about a certain accommodation place and ended up dropping me there instead despite my protestations. The taxi drivers are on commission, so to shut him up I took a whirlwind look around the place and then left on foot to the accommodation I’d earmarked. I took the long way round to get there, but at least it gained me familiarity with Varkala’s looping alleys.
On arrival at my chosen accommodation, I was disappointed to find it closed for low season. At a loss, and with dark approaching, I retraced my steps to a beach resort I had read reasonable things about and checked in there for a night, planning to relocate in the morning.
Varkala is unique on India’s Arabian Sea coast in that it is the only place with cliffs meeting the sea, a couple of striking red-coloured expanses of rock covered with jungle (and the odd pile of rubbish). Far beneath the cliffs is a fairly clean and decent beach. The cliffs were home to a number of guesthouses, shops and restaurants all set up for the backpacker market; this place was well and truly on the budget travel map. I wandered the cliff path and picked a restaurant that was not playing Bob Marley (there is a time and place for the Rasta man, and in my tired and frustrated state it wasn’t now), and sat out looking at the inky-black sea, listening to the crash of the waves at the bottom of the cliffs below.
On the way back to the hotel I called in at an internet place near the helipad to check my email. Not five minutes into it came a humming and fizzing from the power lines outside, followed by a loud crack.
“OK, close now!” said the internet shop owner, jumping up and ushering me off the computer and out the door. The monsoon was showing its presence, and a killer storm had arrived at Varkala’s shores.
Outside, I barely had time to think as the powerlines hummed overhead once again. There was another crack nearby and a mild static electric shock fizzed through my entire body. I needed to get the Hell home, but the hotel was a good five to ten minutes’ walk around the looping road.
More thunder exploded nearby. I had once, in Thailand, been less than fifty yards from a lightning strike, and did not want to repeat that experience any time soon. I made my decision and legged it across the helipad to the cliff looking for a restaurant in which to shelter as the rain started to lash down in droves. I spotted a closed restaurant with a tarpaulin and ran underneath it to shelter and watch the storm explode around me.
What a spectacle! As I felt the cool air that had caused the storm rush in to replace the oppressive heat, the lightning tickled the ocean as far as the eye could see, lighting up its dark expanse, turning the sky into a flashing purple-pink hue and even striking buildings nearby. I realised full well that my position under the tarpaulin was not the safest in the world by a milion miles, but with no alternative I would have to ride it out.
The restaurant owner had come out with his son and was hurriedly stacking chairs.
“Monsoon here,” he said. “You go to your hotel now, else not get there with the rain”.
The rain was the least of my worries. I was more concerned about the several thousand volts arcing down from the sky all around us. “But what about the lightning?” I countered.
“Lightning no problem. Rain a problem.”
“But the rain will stop soon,” I argued.
“Rain never stop.” he said gloomily.
Now normally I’m one to bow to local knowledge, but frankly this guy was talking out of his arse and giving dangerous advice. From what I knew of monsoon storms, thery were often violent but short-lived. Like it or not, I wasn’t budging.
Fifteen minutes later, I earned the unspoken right to say “told you so”. The rain had petered out, and with the storm still raging loudly but mostly a few miles off, I took my chance. Lighting the way through the power-cut streets with the crappy half-a-Watt bulb in my torch, I ran through the mud and puddles with the sky flashing pinky-purple all around me, cowering from the thunder whenever it cracked a little too loudly (and therefore too near) for my liking. Eventually, splashed with mud and knackered out from my flip-flop dash, I made it to the sanctuary of my hotel room.
I awoke the next day with a mild ‘glad to be alive’ feeling after my brush with Mother Nature’s electricity supply. I checked out of my overpriced crap resort to a cheaper, cosier room near the beach, and holed up for five days or so to hunker down and do some work. It was an incredibly productive time and I managed to create a new website in its entirety, Free Wifi Guru, the idea for which I’d had on one of the many bus trips I’d taken in the last few weeks.
I warmed to Varkala during this time, although it still seemed a little one-dimensional to me thanks to its overdeveloped backpacker scene and same-same restaurants. The most remarkable thing about the place was the wildlife. One morning I awoke early and took off for a walk, and was astounded to see a dozen or so sea eagles hovering beside the cliff on the thermals and wheeling just a couple of metres above my head. Coming from a country in which the sight of any kind of eagle is a rarity, it was incredible to see them as common as seagulls would be in the UK.
With the storm Mother Nature had gently reminded me that the monsoon was approaching, and so the time had come for me to turn on my heels and head north.
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Fancy a trip to India? This blog follows the preparations, deliberations and travel experiences of a solo backpacker tackling the Indian subcontinent for the first time.
About the Author
As a "keen traveller" (or "professional bum", depending on your point of view), Steve James has visited more than thirty countries and enjoys writing about his experiences for shits and giggles, in passing hoping to inspire others to undertake an extended period of travel and experience the freedom and inspiration it can offer. Click here to contact Steve