Pink Cars & Purple Jellyfish: Surfing in Kerala, India

By Jane Wynyard November 2013

I certainly lived up to my Calamity Jane moniker on a recent visit to Kerala, South India. in the two weeks I was there, I was severely stung by jellyfish, shat on by a giant sea eagle and slapped by a temple elephant. I also swallowed a mouthful of polluted river and spent more than a week in bed in the UK with gastroenteritis. 

But don't let this story of nature's retribution put you off. Despite a series of unforeseen calamities caused by a combination of heatstroke stupidity and bad luck, Kerala is definitely worth a visit.

Kerala - the good, the bad and the ugly

Located in south-west India on the Malaba Coast, Kerala is hugged by the Arabian sea and dotted with acres of coconut palms. The ocean is deep blue and warm as a bath, the white sandy coastline stretches for miles and the back water canals and rural landscape breath-taking.  

Here the weather is  hot, humid and peppered by intense, moody thunderstorms while at dusk, sunsets paint the sky a rainbow of coloursDuring the day, you can get enough aryuvedic massages to turn your bones to jelly and at night, the fish for dinner is so fresh it might as well have leapt from the Arabian sea, sailed ever so gently through a tandoori oven mid-journey, and landed straight onto your plate. 

But be warned - India is not for the faint-hearted. Poverty and wealth live side by side in Kerala - on one side of the street you will see colourful gated homes while on the opposite, a fishermen's family scratches around in the dirt.  There is no official government rubbish collection so litter lines the streets and chokes the waterways. Packs of stray dogs, some with newborn pups, wander the dirt roads and 'tamed' elephants are left chained to trees. Sadly, some Keralans still practice open defecation on the beaches and rocky outcrops. 

India had never been a country high on my list to visit.  However, after a personally difficult year and with the need to go somewhere spiritual, quiet and near the sea, friends suggested I head to a surf and yoga retreat, called Soul & Surf, located in the heart of Varkala near the holy Temple beach and North Cliff.  

Surf & Soul - an oasis 

Flying into the unpronounceable airport - Thiruvananthapuram - our first introduction to Kerala was a hair-raising, incessant honking, hour's drive through small dusty and crowded villages to Surf & Soul in a white Ambassador car that smelt wonderfully of salt and surf wax. 

Run by UK couple, Sophie and Ed Templeton, the retreat is an oasis of palm trees, manicured lawns, thatched roofs and impressive cliff views. Here you will find hospitable service, gorgeous and airy clean rooms, surf guiding, world-class yoga sessions, and delicious cafe food from traditional Keralan to Thai and western dishes.

There are movie nights on the cliff with fresh pizza and candle-lit tables (especially necessary during the regular power cuts). During the day, you can hang around on the hammocks, play cards in the thatched hut, watch Dolphins leap about in the distant ocean or gaze up at the huge Kites (sea eagles) riding the air currents above you. If you're lucky, you might even see the resident Mongoose on its daily jaunt from the cliff down the stairs to the white, sandy beach. 

Travellers of all walks of life visit Kerala  - diehard hippies searching for spiritual enlightenment, keen surfers who want uncrowded waves, professionals like myself wanting a break from London, single travellers, couples and families. Some stay a week or so while, others are lucky enough to spend up to a month or six weeks surfing and relaxing.
The surf breaks

As a surf destination, Kerala is fairly untapped and if you're up early enough, you'll have the waves to yourself. 

It's also one of the rare places you can travel to the beach in a tiny rickshaw Tut Tut or a light pink Ambassador adorned with fresh colourful flowers and pimped out with quilted ceiling and carpeted floor

Surf & Soul caters for all kinds of surfers from the experienced who are taken to challenging breaks like Ed's Wave (so named by Ed who discovered the break) or Temple River, to beginners who are taught on foam boards on the smaller waves at Holy Beach.
The surf guides are friendly, fun and encouraging although some days you do find yourself battling them for waves, especially at Ed's where a single right-hander rolls at break-neck speed from a decievingly pitchy take off zone.

Although the water is lukewarm, surfing in a bikini is not recommended - firstly it offends the locals, and secondly, you're highly likely to be stung by big purple jellies which pop up in swarms along the Malaba coast.

At Ed's Wave, undoubtedly my favourite break, there is a hub of activity. Surfers hurridly give way to brightly coloured wooden boats that race in and out of the break, while the sounds of fishermen bartering over their catch, mix with the cries of clouds of sea eagles swooping on the nets hoping to snap up a stray fish or crab. 

On shore, you can get a pre-surf warm up by helping the fishermen pull their wooden boats up on to the sand, while in a nearby small rickety wooden hut, surfers and fishermen refuel on delicious hot Chai and fresh donut balls. 

Ed, Sophie and the guides at Surf & Soul have an admirable respect for the Keralan culture, traditions and customs and a tattered old note pinned to the Chai hut asking surfers to respect the fishermen's way of life, demonstrates just how unique and new surfing is to this area. 

Things to do

On dry land, there is plenty to see and do including daily yoga sessions on the roof of the beautiful residence at Surf & Soul, massages and treatments at Absolute Aryuvedic just two doors down the road, walks on the beach, and if you fancy an afternoon of bartering, a wander up to the nearby North Cliff filled with shops, cafes and bars.  

The restaurants on South and North Cliff offer delicious local cuisine including tandoori red snapper, kingfisher, marsala dosa, fresh juices, beetroot thoran, paneer butter masala curries, fresh fruit lassis - you name it. The meals are huge and incredibly cheap - around £5 maximum - and you can wash them down in some restaurants with secret Kingfisher beers (hidden under the table as many restaurants are not licenced to serve alcohol.)

I would avoid the so-called elephant 'sanctuary'.  It's hard to understand how the locals worship the Elephant God, Ganesh, yet leave these beautiful creatures chained and swaying with boredom in a small dirty field standing in their own muck and trumpeting for attention. 

There was much I saw in Kerala that I couldn't understand, but in a country crowded with millions, many in poverty and earning less than a £1 a month, with a lack of sewers, government rubbish collection, clean drinking water, it was hardly surprising. 

Saraswarthy and keeper off for their daily walk
The elephant 'sanctuary' isn't where I was slapped. Stupidly I tried to touch the Janardhana Hindu temple elephant, Saraswarthy, who lives just a short walk from Surf & Soul near the carpets of drying coconut.

 Overlooking a square mossy pond, the ancient and beautiful Janardhana temple is 2000 years old and dedicated to the Lord Vishnu. Saraswarthy, who is well looked after by her keeper, is one of the most famous elephants in Kerala and is often loaned out for festivals throughout the state. 

On this occasion, she was home and chained in the yard, alone and after throwing bananas to her over the wall, I thought I could simply walk up to her and pat her head. A six tonne elephant towering above you is scary enough, but then she squealed and hit me across the head with her trunk ... hard.  I hoped this was a friendly gesture as tourists sometimes pay her keeper to be 'blessed' with a tap on the head, but probably not.

I had over-stepped the boundary - she was a former wild animal, alone and chained and I had walked straight into her enclosure. Feeling foolish and humbled for arrogantly thinking I could 'pat' this magnificent beast like a dog, I quickly retreated.

Touring the backwaters

If you want to experience the real Kerala away from the crowded villages and honking cars, then the backwater canals are a must. 

After much smiling, talking, cups of chai and head waggling with the local tourist office we were able to hire  a traditional houseboat from Kollum - about an hour from Varkala. Our day trip cost a very reasonable 6000 rupees (£60) for three people and included a delicious traditional Keralan banquet.

During the trip, we puttered past beautiful lagoons, acres of palm groves and colourful fishing boats.  Chinese nets jutted out from the end of piers like enormous metal crustaceans and local fishermen in straw hats fished from rickety wooden canoes like a scene from Ping the Duck. We saw gleaming white Christian churches amongst the palm groves and Hindu temples from which the constant sound of prayer could be heard.  

And the birdlife was impressive - herons, cranes, huge osprey, sea eagles and tiny kingfisher that balanced precariously on power lines or tiny branches.  My travelling companions were even fortunate to spot a rare blue kingfisher.

Sadly, even the waterways out here contained rubbish but many were quick to remind me that before westerners introduced plastic, Keralans were able to burn most of their rubbish or leave it to turn to compost. So really, we only have ourselves to blame.

UK bound

After two weeks of regular morning surfs, daily aryuvedic massages, yoga and fresh food, I was completely chilled, tanned and toned and ready to face winter and the chaos of Xmas back in the UK. 

Would I go back to Kerala? I'm not sure. On one hand, I loved the sea, the weather, the people (the Keralans are SO friendly), the food, the small wonderful details and welcoming atmosphere of Surf & Soul and the gorgeous Hindu temples. But on the other - I was depressed by the rubbish, the suffering of the chained elephants and street dogs, the poverty and the seemingly lack of care for the environment. 

But then I come from a completely different world and I have to remember that my 'artificial' life might be just as much of a shock to a Keralan coming to London.  

It's a tough decision but the only way you'll every know is to take a visit there yourself. 

Tips, costs and how to get there

Surf & Soul is excellent value - for £530 per person, you get a (really) nice room with air conditioning, private balcony, big wardrobe and large bathroom for two weeks plus a yoga package for £25.  

Flights on Emirates in Nov 2013 were less than £600. I flew via Dubai. Check Sky Scanner for the best flights or Emirates' website.

Rupee - you must buy this in India and there are ATM machines at the airport and in Varkala town. Just be aware that the machines sometimes run out of money so make sure you keep your purses well stocked.

Applying for a visa - this is a painful, drawn out process. The website is confusing and takes hours to full out an application. Also be prepared to have to return to the Visa office in London several times. I was lucky to get a visa on arrival as I was travelling on a New Zealand passport, but this still took over an hour and SIX officials to process at the airport (there was even one assigned to carry my passport from one window to the next). You just have to keep smiling through the process as this is bureaucracy the Indian way .

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