There are many advantages when travelling in someone’s company – you can share all those nice things that happen to you with someone dear to you, and all those ugly ones appear less ugly because you’re have that special someone that will comfort you and make you feel better. However, travelling solo has its advantages which you usually don’t notice until you find yourself in that situation, consciously or unconsciously. Although I was always on my own when I began travelling, every now and then I would find a companion, rather a female than a male one, with whom I would travel for a while. On this travel this had been a common situation ever since I’d left Europe.
And there I was, on a beach in Varkala, all by myself. It was time to get back to the roots. I had the ideas, plans, and the best thing about them was that they could easily be changed: everything was up to me and up to my mood. I had a month left before my first flight on this journey – from Chennai to Kuala Lumpur – I bought the ticket online, of course, with the help of my MasterCard. Chennai was relatively close to Varkala so I was thinking about pedalling to it – hitchhiking wasn’t a very common sight in India, I’d had enough of the cheap buses and trains, and I had never tried travelling by bicycle. At the same time, I wanted to visit a small village where no one spoke English, try to pick up some local craft and, basically, spend a month in isolation. A couple of more options passed through my head, but in that moment I saw a young white man sitting on the sand some twenty meters away from me and, with the sound of waves, was waiting for the sunrise.
And that was THE moment, the moment I decided to get on my feet, put aside all the things I’d been thinking about, get out of my comfort zone, approach and meet the guy. That was the exact moment, as I realized a couple of days after, which changed all my plans, ideas and thoughts I had up until then, and there was no going back from there. Federico told me that he was waiting for a fisherman that had promised him he would take him fishing. It sounded like something I would like to try out, but when I heard that this one-hour adventure was being charged 500 rupees, I gave up. Even though it wouldn’t be hard to pay some 6 euros to a fisherman to take me on fishing, especially since it would mean him a lot to fill his budget, and I would get a chance to make few cool shots for my Facebook album, it definitely killed all romantics guaranteed by a scene in which I come to a village and do what everyone else is doing which includes going fishing with the local people. That was, in fact, being an active participant, and just a passive by-stander. The price went down to 400 rupees, but, still, I didn’t feel like going, especially after I noticed another interesting (and free) sight around the corner – beach volleyball. I made an appointment with Federico – we were supposed to meet and go for a breakfast after both of us are finished with our little adventures.
Beach volleyball was the funniest thing I’d ever seen – there weren’t any rules, everyone was fighting over each point (even though they were exaggerating and smiling at the same time, especially when the realized how much I, the only observer, was amused by the whole scene), and also they weren’t much of a player. It was just the right environment for me – I fit in perfectly. My team lost, if anyone besides me kept the score. However, the main thing was that everyone had a good time. When it was time to say goodbye, each player shook my hand and invited my to the next game, which was due the following week.
While I was wandering down the beach waiting for Federico to come back I heard someone saying – Croatia, opposite Italy. I approached a group of three people and got myself acquainted with them – they were a bit older than my parents, and they were spending six months a year in India. They said they could afford it with the Croatian pensions. They were simply enjoying their after work life. And, just like me, the endless summer. If only my parents would do the same thing…God knows they’ve deserved it. Who knows, maybe their son would be able to afford them the same thing one day (I hope my older brother is reading this, hehehe).
When Fede came back we went to have breakfast on the northern cliff which was, as opposed to the southern one where I’d spent the past few nights, full of restaurants, cafés and gift shops. I ordered a chocolate bagel, the cheapest thing from their menu. I got pretty lazy during the past three weeks spent with Tanja. We would stay in decent hotels; eat in pretty nice restaurants, paid a lot of tickets – so it was finally time to get back to the roots, that is to Saving. Saving with a capital s.
Since I decided to save some money even on the accommodation, I checked out of the hotel and, accompanied by Federico, went to Shiva Garden, the place Federico was staying at for a few weeks. Moreover, it was the cheapest accommodation in Varkala – for only 150 rupees you got a bed and a mosquito net. I left my backpack (without my guitar – I gave it to Tanja) by the bed, not knowing that I wouldn’t move it in the following month, and went to the lounge which was, in fact, in the open, in the middle of the garden of Shiva Garden.
The first person I noticed had a tattoo on his left shoulder that said – AZRA, which is a famous ex-Yugoslavian band. Vuk, born in Montenegro, had arrived a couple of weeks before for a yoga course accompanied with a group of thirteen Montenegro ladies which returned to their country a couple of days before. This is for those who think that luck is ALWAYS on my side. Shortly after he asked me if I was in the mood for an hour of yoga on the beach – this was something he did every morning and evening so I could join him if I wanted to. Since I was in my yes phase, we went to the beach, where I did my first yoga lesson in my whole life. It was interesting and it reminded me of all the stretching I did before and after training in the local football team when I was growing up. I’m sure I would find a lot more in yoga only if I gave it a more serious try studying it a bit…maybe some other time.
After three nights spent in Shiva Garden I started working in exchange for food and accommodation. It was just a couple of hours a day: helping out in the kitchen, making fruit juices, serving meals – mostly thali on a banana leaf; lighting those little round things that made mosquitoes go away in the twilight. I became a member of the family. Three days after that, my boss suggested that I come back the following summer and take care of the whole place during his two-month stay in Europe. Naturally, I was honoured, but I had to turn him down since my Indian visa would have expired by then, and I had to go further east.
And here you go: this is an alternative way of travelling, a trick about how to travel when you find yourself in trouble and you don’t have enough money – you just find yourself a job. Okay, maybe it’s not always that simple, but is can be done. A good worker is appreciated everywhere – if I slacked, asked directly for money or something like that, I wouldn’t have been hired. Technically, they didn’t need another employee; they simply hired me because they had nothing to lose. In my first days spent there I gave it my best, and they loved me. I lost three games of badminton to my boss – 11:1, 11:0, 11:1, and with a smile of my face I congratulated him on the victory. I would always offer my help if there was something that had to be done. I would talk nicely about the cheap prices with other guests, but also about the accommodation and the energy of the place. Without exaggerating, of course.
During my first days of service I barely went to the beach, for which it took some three minutes walk. I enjoyed working, communicating with the local people who didn’t speak English, observing the palms trees and low-flying eagles while I was lying in my hammock. I enjoyed hanging out with the guests – in fact, I felt exactly the same way as a host in my subtenant apartment in Zagreb, only that this time the guest were paying the accommodation, not my company. A journey without a journey. At the end of the week the boss awarded me with 500 rupees, since he was obviously pleased with my dedicated work. Also, I had another opportunity to make some money – one of the guests was asking for a place where he could get some pot, but being a true Catholic and a person who despised any kind of drugs I simply shrugged. However, good business opportunities are around every corner, you simply needed to know a guy who could sell you a product for a decent price. Naturally, I didn’t know a guy down the beach who sells it in his small kiosk shop beside the green restaurant, so I didn’t make money on a commission fee.
I lot of things happened during my one-month stay in Varkala. I’ll tell you all about it in the following paragraphs, even though I would be able to write a novel about each day, if I had written down everything that happened. However, I hadn’t. I hadn’t been a good traveller, a decent writer, whatever. Nevertheless, there was a moment when I thought I was becoming a true, serious writer. It happened in a room of an Austrian girl, where I moved after having slept for two weeks in a men’s dormitory under a mosquito net, and after four nights in four different hammocks in the garden. I moved because I wanted for my boss to earn some extra money on my bed, and the girl’s room (with a huge bed) had already been paid for. Plus, the company was way better.
We were lying on the bed, each of us in our own thoughts (hers in her book, because she was a real writer), there was a slow Dylan’s song playing, I was surfing the Internet, looked at her and took my little notebook having decided to take a note of that precise moment. She was lying next to me, a tattoo of a cheerful monkey on her right forearm. In that moment she got up, but I kept writing – She gets up and destroys me conception. *uck, Bob now says “I’m gonna lick your ass”. Then she was back on her bed, but she was lying on her back, so my conception was completely messed up. She sees that I was observing her, and that I was laughing so she asks “What should I do now?”.
I translated everything that I’d written, and made us both laugh out loud. My attempt to become a writer failed in that moment. And I already saw myself – I would be the guy travelling around the world and writing everything in his little black book, which he carries around everywhere he goes. Also, everyone would want to know the things I wrote about them. A true Boehm! That’s how it goes with real writers, right? Me – not so much.
I was writing a blog about my one-month stay in Shiva Garden exactly four months after I’d been there while enjoying the Australian sun. I had the notes in my head and was only waiting for the inspiration. The inspiration that didn’t seem to be arriving. That is why I wasn’t satisfied with what I’d written. No wonder.
However, there were a couple of details from my stay in Varkala that I will never forget.
Once, Daniel, a Canadian in his thirties, a trained chef, who was travelling across India with a huge surfing board (which was being strictly used as for underwater fishing and for spraying an ankle when he was jumping out of a racing train), sat on a swing in the garden and recited a few short poems of Charles Bukowski. One of them was Bluebird. It was very nice. The moment he was reading it, I raised my eyes and looked the coconut tree above him, noticed a couple of coconuts and pictured some of them falling on his head and killing him on the spot. Morbid, I know, but the sight seemed beautiful. To be sitting in a swing, in a gorgeous garden on the south of India, while the sun was fighting its way though the branches of the coconut trees, to be reading such a wonderful poem, and to be dying in such a unique way – I would sign for that kind of death the same instance. If I had the opportunity to choose, of course. The only thing I could do when it comes to that was always do beautiful things, that is, the things I wanted to do, and have no regrets (let me quote the lat line of the mentioned Bukowski’s poem – do you?).
By the way, coconuts aren’t harmless – more people get killed by them than then in plane accidents. And there are plenty of coconuts in Kerala – it’s even assumed that the very name Kerala means the land of coconut trees. The sound that a coconut produces when it hits the ground is pretty scaring, especially if it’s the first sound that you hear while you’re sleeping in one of the hammocks in the garden. Or when two huge palm tree branches collapse just a few feet next to you while you’re serving the dinner. The only thing you can do is smile, ignore the near death experience and go on with the serving. Also, I spent the whole month working in the best uniform ever – a white lungi, without any T-shirt. No one made any complaint to the management. Oh, the freedom.
During my whole stay in Shiva Garden, there was a Thai massage course. Around ten people participated in the course, and they would use their break to have lunch and some natural juices. Once, during the course a girl came down asking all of us who were gathered in the lounge “if somebody wanted to volunt…”. She didn’t get to finish her question since I was already raising my hand because I’d assumed what it was all about. They needed another person to form pairs so what they really needed, in fact, was a guinea pig. So, during my spare time from breakfast till lunch, my job was to lie down and allow this guy to practise his Thai massage skills on me. I guess this was what life had to give to me in return when you consider the premature departure of those Montenegro girls.
Fifty six steps eastward from Shiva Garden was the location of Johnny Cool Cafe, known for three things – its owner Manu, a nice local man with dreadlocks; its desserts among which the cheese cake was the most famous one; and the time you had to wait for you order, whether it’s a lunch or a dinner to arrive. My personal record was around two and a half hours. Everybody’s just taking their time, there’s no rush, Manu doesn’t go to pick up the groceries until you order the meal, but, at the end, it’s always worth all the waiting. Not once did I have to wait for the cheese cake, and it was only a few times that I arrived that it was already sold out. That was the reason why I came there every night, just to minimize the number of my missing the cheese cake. Also, that guilty pleasure was the only food I ate, besides free and delicious meals in Shiva Garden.
The reason why I stayed in one place for the whole month were people. I also met Marija, a girl from Belgrade who had been living in Kerala for the past couple of years. Back on the Balkans she was a famous actress, and now she was a yoga instructor. I spent many afternoons in her company, and only then did I realize how much I missed Balkan humor, irony and sarcasm. Marija is way cool. Besides Daniel, a Canadian chef, I also met Daniel, an English chef (at the end of my stay in Shiva Garden I also met a Swiss Daniel, and yes, he was a chef, too). He worked on luxury yachts so in a period of a couple of months he would earn enough money to be able to travel a couple of years. He promised to help me if I try to sail across Pacific by the end of 2012. Gopal, the chef in Shiva Garden, was a whole different story. He was about 60, always with a smile on his face ready to make some jokes, despite the fact he didn’t know a single word of English. Moreover, he didn’t like sleeping in a bed so he would put two tables together at the entrance to Shiva Garden and that would be his bed. Chechi, the woman who helped around the kitchen and rooms/suites, was like a mother to me and my inspiration during my stay – always, and I mean always there was a grin on her face, and she would always comfort me when I was in a bad mood. Just like Gopal, Chechi didn’t know a word of English. Sanjay and Bhopinder taught me how to walk up straight in my life. There was also an English married couple whose name I forgot, and who were travelling with their son who wasn’t going to a normal school, but was, instead, taught by them. Also, he one of the brightest kids I’d ever met. Mick from Australia offered me his couch if I ever found myself in Melbourne. Petri and Henna were two Finns who shared with me a bunch of their iPhone photos after I’d told them I was too lazy to take any photos, and, after all, people would be expecting some photos from Kerala.
However, above all, there was Marianne, the above mentioned Austrian girl. I remember countless nights spent swinging in the hammock, endless stories, withholding ourselves from going to the toilet in order not to interrupt an interesting story, and so many things both of us learned from each other. There was always a hug and the largest smile on her face when I saw her coming for her four cups of tea which was her morning routine. She also offered me a shelter when I needed it most and when mosquitoes in hammock started organizing attacks on me.
Furthermore, in that month, three people came to visit me in Shiva Garden, only because Facebook. First of them was Saurav, an Indian who, across CS, had hosted the Australian girl who eventually married my Iranian host. She mentioned me to him how he crossed paths several times, and since he started a project called Year Full of Sundays he decided to pay me a visit and spend some days in Varkala. The two of us watched the Festival of elephants, had dinner at Manu’s restaurant and since one of the beds in men’s dormitory was free I sneaked him in and gave him a bed without my boss knowing it. I also met Pradeep who was sent by my ex roommate – the two of them, in fact, had met in Toronto and had worked together for a few months. Pradeep was just passing through Varkala with his parents so he made a stop to have a cup of tea and to make a little photo session. The last visitor was Ivan from Croatia, with whom I stayed in contact through my Facebook page, and he was the reason why the whole Shiva Garden tasted Pelinkovac (a special kind of Croatian booze)!
And so, after a month of all kind of happenings it was the time to go on. It was very difficult to say goodbye to some people, especially with the boss and guys from the kitchen, so we were done with it pretty quickly to avoid an excess of emotions. Fortunately, they all had a Facebook account so if I wanted to I could easily contact a certain person and meet him or her anywhere in the world. Marianne decided to keep me company on my way to Chennai from where I was supposed to take the flight to Malaysia. Since I had a few spare days till the flight we decided to make a stop at Tiruvannmalai, a known pilgrim centre of the Hindu people, spend there two nights, visit the holy mountain which offered a splendid view on Annamalaiyar temple, known for its five towers which, just like those flags in Nepal, stand as a symbol of sky/space, air/wind, fire, water and earth.
And then, yet again, it was time for another sad goodbye, getting on a bus and going to the airport in Chennai. Four hours of flight, setting my watch two and a half hours ahead and there I was in Kuala Lumpur. A completely opposite cultural shock – there were no bumps on the roads, cars were younger than me, the city had street lights, and I couldn’t see any rickshaw or haggard shops in the streets. I texted Marina from Serbia, who was working there for several years, to tell her that I was on my way to her couch.
I wasn’t able to fall asleep. Jet lag wasn’t the reason, but the thoughts and feelings that started piling inside me. After almost four months I’d left India, and I realized I would miss it. It was possibly the first country I would miss. Also, it was probably the first country I wouldn’t stop talking about. So many things happened there; I had both happy and sad memories, but they were all part of my stay in India. The important thing was that something was happening, that I was saying yes, and that I was following my heart and my instincts. We’ll see where the road will take me.
I was going to spend the following three months in this part of the world. Afterwards, I would be flying to Australia. While I was working in Shiva Garden, I got an Australian visa for a year and – a ticket for a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Gold Coast, at the end of May. I got it for free. Not from my sponsors, not from my parents, but I got it as a gift from a girl: the girl who was the reason why, in 2009, I started my first big journey across Europe. The girl who I would be meeting at the airport in Kuala Lumpur in less than 48 hours…
GALLERY – INDIA.