VIA – THE GUARDIAN
Surfing: a lucky break in Kerala
Kerala is the ultimate away-from-it-all destination and, with its pristine waves and quiet beauty, the south Indian coastline is attracting soul-searching surfers, too
The Observer, Saturday 19 November 2011
Silver surfer: India’s empty waves are a surfer’s paradise. Photograph: Ed Templeton for the Observer
Beneath a propped-up wooden fishing boat, colourful paint peeling off in strips, two men sit musing over a game of cards. The frenzied activity of Kappil beach swirls around them: fish are laid out to dry and bartered over, rickshaws and bicycles blow their horns, clothes are being washed, greetings, shouts – all a storm’s outer rings to their eye. To the right, beyond the boats and fishing nets being laboriously hauled in by teams of men wearing bright kailis, the Keralan coastline disappears into sea spray, fading coconut palms the last visible markers of where ocean meets land.
Out on the water a wave rolls from left to right, breaking over a sand bank. This is Ed’s Wave, christened by surfer Ed Templeton after he scouted it when exploring the coastline’s potential surf spots. “I suppose that could be seen as quite conceited,” he says as he waxes his board. “But isn’t that what mountaineers do when they climb a route for the first time? As far as I could tell no one had ever surfed here before so I figured the privilege of naming it fell to me.”
Since opening the Soul & Surf centre in 2010, between frenetic Varkala town and the laid-back beach resort of Varkala Cliff, Ed and his wife Sofie have had that privilege on more than one occasion. India has 4,700 miles of coastline, but the way fishermen react with astonishment as you paddle out on your board is an indication of just how embryonic surfing is in the country. And that means empty waves and undiscovered beaches and a spiritual environment which taps into the heart of the ultimate soul sport.
“This isn’t Bali and we’re not a surf camp,” says Ed the next day, over a pre-surf roadside early-morning chai. We look at our boards, strapped to the roof of Jason, Ed’s white Ambassador car, the design of which has changed little since its creation in 1958. The chai is powerfully sweet. “There’s almost nowhere else in the world where there’s a wave with no one else on it, and that’s priceless. It’s off the beaten track here – it’s nice to be somewhere that’s so early in its development.” Draining our tea we pile back into Jason, the car’s carpeted ceiling and walls picking up the smells which are becoming the signature of the area: salt, curry leaves, lush heat, a hint of coconut and bananas slowly baking on the dashboard. We are heading for Jengo’s, a beach break at the far end of a Christian fishing community bordered on one side by a lagoon and the other by the ocean. The beach shares its name with Anjengo Fort, a 17th-century spice port owned by the East India Company which in 1721 was the site of a six-month siege by an Indian force, aggrieved over the traders’ manipulation of pepper prices. Today it stares forlornly out to sea, playing no part in the squid and fish trading going on under its nose.
“Yes! Yes! Me! Me!” yell charging groups of kids as we unpack, scampering around our boards desperate for a go. Eventually Ed caves and loans out his board. One lad, Vijid, takes on the waves with a thoughtful confidence. Together with the developing surf club in nearby Kovalam, it’s youngsters like Vijid who are taking up Ed and Sofie’s surfing baton.
The water is clear and tepid, despite it being the tail end of the monsoon season. At this time of year, after the storms, many of the previous year’s beaches are eaten away by strong drifts from the north. It takes some time once the monsoon is over for the southward currents to move the sand back. But in this part of India time ticks slowly. Waiting for a beach to form is no big deal.
We surf in the morning while the heat is still friendly. By 10.30am we are back at the Soul & Surf house for a breakfast of Sofie’s muesli mixed with peanut brittle bought from Merlin’s supermarket in Varkala. A peacock struts casually across the grass and disappears behind their pink house. It’s set back from the side road, two buildings housing eight people in spacious, high-ceilinged rooms where large insects do battle with the fans. The kitchens are communal, the living areas shared. It’s a simple environment. “For us it’s a lifestyle,” says Sofie. “We both gave up good jobs to do this because the atmosphere is unique. It’s soulful, it’s peaceful. There’s so much stuff to do and see here, even if you’re not a die-hard surfer.”
Come out of their house, turn right and walk for about three minutes and you reach Temple Junction, where the Janardhana Hindu temple sits in vibrant technicolour. Rickshaws line up on the corner, adorned with garlands and bunches of plastic grapes, their drivers lolling on their seats. Cross the street and you can duck inside Sreepadman, a no-nonsense, no-decor, locals’ bar with a backyard seating area commanding a view over the temple’s square stone bathing tank, moss-covered steps leading down to the deep green water.
Varkala is a temple town and its surrounding beaches also have spiritual importance. Papanasam beach is known in the local language, Malayalam, as Papanasini or “sin destroyer”. Hindus come here to make offerings for dead loved ones and to bring the ashes of their dead to be washed away by the waves. “We don’t surf here much,” says Ed, with a wryness that masks a deep reverence for the culture and traditions of his adopted home.
Varkala Cliff is almost all hotels, restaurants and Ayurvedic practitioners. The accommodation is not giant megaliths but rather shabby-chic places catering to a mostly western crowd. You can eat everything from pancakes and maple syrup while dolphin spotting on the beachfront terrace at the Marine Palace Hotel to traditional Tibetan kothey at the Tibetan Café in its soporifically lit, barn-like dining area. In contrast, Varkala town is almost completely Indian – rickshaws, lorries, taxis, cyclists and pedestrians competing for dominance on the central roundabout against a ceaseless cacophony of noise. We eat in Suprabhatham, dosas and chapatis are slammed unceremoniously down on the table and we use our right-hand fingers instead of cutlery.
Each evening we join Sofie’s yoga class on the Soul & Surf roof as dusk takes the suffocation out of the heat and the wind gently cools our skin. It is a chance to stretch surf-aching muscles, to deepen the sense of peace that the mellow pace of life nurtures and to process experiences.
On one excursion we surf at Shirley’s beach, so named by Ed because of the small temple that stands at the top of the beach road. It was here, below the rust-coloured cliffs, that Vishnu washed ashore thousands of years ago. We paddle out beyond the tumultuous waves to where the sea lies serene, shades of silvery blue catching the glitter of the sun. The shore is dotted with deep-red Martian rocks, bright splashes of green vegetation breaking up the cliffs. There is a strong sense of passage into another world.
On our last night we have takeaway curry Keralan style: pots of beetroot thoran, fish curry, white chapati rice and dhal cooked by next-door neighbour Minni and eaten at a long, candlelit table in the garden. Time slows. The peacock is nowhere to be seen.
Soul & Surf (soulandsurf.com) is £230pp per week or £35pp per night (minimum three nights). This includes accommodation, breakfast and guiding. Yoga classes are £5 and surfboard rental £7.50. Return…
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