Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Surf India

Real India / Tourist India

Life here in our jungle fringed pink house between Varkala town and Varkala beach drifts gently by and feels more like home as each day passes. Our location between real India (town) and tourist India (beach) affords us the best of both worlds. Last night we ate Butterfish Tikka and Tibetan Momos whilst I watched Arsenal play Villa in a clifftop restaurant yet the evening before we nipped into town on the scooter and ate delicious Masala Dosas and Vegetable Subji for 30p in a locals joint. The large three day Hindu festival being assembled in town promises to be a riot of noise, colour and spectacular ritual yet we’ve slipped easily into the evening ritual of meeting friends at the beach as the sun heads for the horizon for a swim as the scorching heat subsides and the reddening sun seeps into the sea, it’s pigment bleeding into the sky.

Our two nearest neighbours maintain the homogeneous polarity. Below us live our landlords, the most wonderfully warm and welcoming local family. We share little common language yet through gestures, smiles, head waggles and regular gifts of coconuts, eggs and bananas we are made to feel welcome and completely at ease here. Behind us, across cobra and funnel-web infested scrubland and shouting distance from our terrace, is a household of assorted europeans who have been equally welcoming and accommodating helping us with the myriad idiosyncrasies of Indian living and extending invites to us whenever they ‘make party on the roof!’. With each friendship, Sadji at the local shop, Umesh and his son Abhi at the Juice Shack, Zoe and her twin boys Jem & Jelly, we feel less like holiday-makers and more like residents which was always our intention before setting off on this expedition. We would much rather get a taste of real-life in a handful of places across the globe than have ticked-off a hundred ‘sights’ before our return.

Mornings begin early with a solitary surf session in the silky smooth Arabian sea. I’ve picked the smallest surf season (December/January) to be here, but there’s been waves every day ranging from waist to head high and looking south from Varkala cliff the mass of sand-banks and small coves creates break after break — almost reminiscent of the view south down the western Bukkit peninsular — producing small almond-eyed curls up to proper lip-pitching barrels depending on swell size and direction. These super-fast lefts are exposing my backhand weakness as I struggle to race ahead of the crashing lip. When a bank produces a rare right the dissonant capability of my left and right side becomes jarringly obvious as I have the speed, balance and technique to make a quick bottom turn and to snake, for speed, up and down the sinuous mirrored walls before pitching back off the brink as it finally breaks down in knee deep water. As our next destination is Indonesia, the land of lefts, the next few weeks practice in the forgiving sand-bottomed waves of India will I’m sure pay dividends as the sand becomes knife-edged coral and the power, size and speed of the waves intensifies.

We breakfast on porridge laced with coconut shavings, bananas and doused in wild mountain honey from our friend Sadji washed down with a spicy aromatic herbal masala tea, and either begin work on one of our many plots and schemes in the offing or just laze on the terrace with a good book and contemplate lunch, or a swim or a pootle down-coast on the scooter. The heat of the day produces a languid tropical malaise by about 2pm yet my northern-european trained body-clock doesn’t usually allow me the orthodox afternoon doze but I tend to slow to crawl and wait for the relief of the receding sun and for the onshore breeze to dissipate before heading beach-ward once more.

There’s interest amongst some locals in this surfing game, but none here can actually do it. I’ve promised to give lessons to a couple lifeguards and our friend Abhi before I go, but the scarcity of decent learner-boards is a problem as is my inexperience in teaching! I’ve begun practicing for my new-found role with Jake and Lisa, our friends from Brighton who, to our delight, leapt upon the offer of our spare room and a tropical festive sojourn, yet the bruises on Lisa’s head and thigh and my egocentric tendency to nip off to catch waves leaving my pupils floundering in the impact zone exposes my early shortcomings as a wannabe surf guru.

Saturday, 12 December 2009



Like the other great economists before me, John Maynard Keynes and his theory of macroeconomics (1883–1946) or Jean-Baptiste Say (1767–1832) bastion of the free trade principal, I’ve developed the current era’s defining economic principal. History will show that my global wanderings during the early 21st century had some divine fiscal purpose that until now I didn’t fully comprehend. Basing myself in Brighton, the pioneering commerce centre of this New World Order was a fortuitous hand dealt to me by mother fate.

Spending time straddling this dozing tiger, India, the world’s next supreme economy, this catnapping giant has turned a light on in my mind, first illuminating stray, presumed forgotten, facts and thoughts that I’ve gathered as I’ve wandered this magnificent globe and left deep in the recesses of my mind. Then with this lights guiding, tropical warmth these thoughts have coalesced and fused into, an admittedly unexpected, global economic theory that blessed with a revelationery zeal I know to be true.

As the economic drivers of the great Capitalist era fade, dwindle then implode like a white dwarf star on it’s final yet glorious death knell, as the oil runs dry, as minerals are purged, steel becomes leaden, porky bellies slim, foodstuffs once again become localized, and the exotic lure of spices are tarnished many are placing their economic eggs in the digital basket. Bangalore and Trivandrum have established themselves as centres of the pixel economy hence most pundits back India as the future. Well, these so-called experts have their geography right but are speculating in the wrong sector my friends. My economic theory, already living and breathing in Brighton, a city fuelled almost entirely for a decade on this financial model which has established it as a centre of hope for humanity’s pecuniary fate has found it’s match in India, and in particular the future seats of power, Kovalam, Varkala and Baga .

The phenomenon I’m about to expound, like an historical cycle, once again has it’s nucleii in coastal towns. Towns which will no doubt rise to usurp the cumbersome authority of the country in which they reside to become independent city states reminiscent of 15th century city Republics like Venice, yet this time around the power centres will be chosen not for the quality of their anchorage but for the magnetism of their beaches, thereby destroying our existing, already decaying models of government. Merchants will accumulate unimaginable wealth and the Republics of Brighton, Varkala, Phuket, Kovalam, Kuta, Byron Bay and Santa Cruz will be centres of a florid decadence that our epoch has yet to encounter. The nouveau riche vulgarians will raise grotesque Palazzos to host their bacchanalian orgies in honour of the source of their wealth and the globes new currency.

The future is Nick-Nacks. The future is Now.

Indian beaches and the towns at their peripheries are rife with Nick-Nacks, most of which have over the last decade migrated to Brighton to be sold in the greatest Nick-Nack bazaar the world has ever known. Yet as many of the world’s Nick-Nack suppliers economically develop, India being a case in point, their population will begin to travel and will, of course, demand Nick-Nacks as proof of their excursion. The suppliers will become the demanders, and therefore the hitherto demanders will naturally supply creating a thriving, burgeoning, proliferating cyclic trade. Nick-Nack barons will control the circumnavigation of Nick-Nackery and with it the will of the people. Nick-Nacks as the opiate of the people? You bet.

Those with a knack for crafting a Nick into a Nack, or carving a Nack out of a Nick, those who can weave and fuse a Nack through a Nick will surely inherit the earth.

Liquidate your assets and invest in all that is Nick-Nack-esque.

The last weeks have been a blur, we’ve surfed small but beautiful Arabian waves at an Ashram in Karnataka — which I will expand upon in articles for a newspaper and a magazine — and spent several exhausting days scooting about Kerala in search of a house to rent and a base to settle in for a good while. We’ve moved in to a hip pink house with a large first floor terrace overlooking a tangle of palms, betelnut and banana trees and almost immediately upped-sticks and indulged ourselves with a languid, sedate houseboat ride through Kerala’s maze of backwaters and canals to celebrate Sofie’s birthday.

Saturday, 28 November 2009

India Pictures

Hippies are alive and well and living in Gokarna. They kindly display their renunciation of Babylon - the fascist-capitalist west - and their individuality by wearing a nifty uniform of head-to-toe Ethnic Tat® branded gear. The muted orange-brown roughly woven baggy trousers in either stripes or excessive patterns or for the executive hippy an orange longhi, well worn OM© t-shirt and brown-orange coconut fibre shoulder bag are ethnic in that they aren’t western clothes. Yet neither are they Indian, no locals seem to sport this garb, but are bought as ProppaTraveller attire from the many tourist stalls mingling with the bakeries, grocery stalls and paan vendors. The upper echelon of this Brigade are ceremonially awarded after many years dedicated service, with full military pomp, a crown of DreadlocksTM®©2009. In full battle dress these seekers of love, peace and harmony attain a spiritual ego the size of Tel Aviv and Dusseldorf combined and become so enlightened that they lose the ability to even see western scum any more as they gaze vacantly beyond attempts at good natured communication. These holier-than-thou’s are enlightened only in their own ego-driven, judgemental minds, which unfortunately is the one place enlightenment cannot be attained… Bless ‘em.

Despite this peculiar tribes bad vibes (man) Gokarna is a wonderfully bustling Hindu pilgrimage town cluttered and jumbled with temples, holy bathing lakes, revered lingams and towering ceremonial chariots adorned with hundreds of flags poking outward to form a red and white fluttering globe. A hike south leads to one beautiful crescent bay after another, temporarily populated by hippies and travelers from around the world, each one becoming more secluded and therefore less busy than the last. Roads now connect the first two, Kudle and Om respectively yet they still retain an idyllic tropical charm even if the residents of the more remote retreats farther south tend to sneer at those of us nearer town. This strictly hierarchical ‘one love’ society becomes amusing after a while and days spent practicing yoga, swimming, dozing and reading whilst staying at a £2 a night guest-house right on the beach do wonders for raising one’s tolerance of the groovy-gang, even if they are banging out insipid trance and belching and spluttering chillum smoke from the hut net door till way past our bedtimes (admittedly that’s only about 10.30pm).

Our route to Gokarna began in the overwhelming chaos of Delhi. The red-eye flight and overpriced taxi deposited us right in the thick of it near the main bazaar. The booked hotel had un-booked itself during the flight and we were lead to their filthy ‘sister’ hotel down the road. Too tired, and laden with 85kg of laptops, camera, clothes, boards and paraphenalia we took what we were given and snatched fourty winks before stumbling like rabbits caught in the headlights into the heaving throng on our doorstep, all aspects of life being lived in high contrast, maximum volume and top speed. The streets appear like a single, living, pulsating organism whose defining principle is Chaos Theory. Buildings seem to grow from the dusty earth whilst simultaneously being consumed, crumbling back into the earth, tangled webs of electric cables swamp and threaten to engulf the flimsy poles carrying them in every direction, shrouding dark alleyways with the glimmer of private candlelit shrines deep within. Every millimeter of this enthralling tableu is teeming with life; beggars, merchants, rickshaws, children, cows, packs of wild dogs, chickens, goats, a smattering of westerners, teenage boys and elderly couples holding hands…. There were too many senses being engaged and too few active brain cells to engage in speech so Sofie and I ate our 25p Thali in silence trying to acclimatise to such a culturally different environment.

We flew to Goa the following morning from the glass & metal gleaming new domestic terminal, the antithesis of Delhi’s bazaar. This is new India, the super-power de jour, the progressive, economically booming India. A 24 hour education in India’s cultural dichotemy.

Goa was nice to unwind after the flight and the hectic preparations before leaving England but the distinct lack of waves and preponderance of elderly European sun worshippers had us packing our bags to heave our caravan of equipment aboard a rickshaw, a bus and then squeeze it aboard a heaving train, causing a kerfuffle at each juncture and befuddlement at why we’d be carrying a surf board with us in India. A befuddlement i currently share...

Friday, 20 November 2009

Better late.. pictures

Better late...

It feels somewhat fraudulent to be posting the finale to my European van adventure from a beach in Karnataka, India. The beach is beautiful but the Arabian Sea is calm so I have time now for the first time in weeks!

The final fortnight in Portugal was a blur of surf, fishing, barbeques, bonfires, good company and good € bottles of wine, and this crowned with three days of modest drives through Spain via the medieval university town of Salamanca to stormy Bilbao to await passage home aboard ‘The Pride of Bilbao’. The five meter seas were tossing the mini-cruisers around ‘The Show Bar’, violently delaying their arrival (and thus our departure) by eight hours whilst filling the ships bowels with vomit-ballast to help steady our return voyage. Had we not met and talked to some of these “Mini-Cruisers” we would never have believed that at least half of our fellow passengers had been hoodwinked by unscrupulous Welsh and Liverpudlian travel agencies into using this RORO transport ferry as a three day pleasure vessel. Having been forced to beat a hasty retreat back to our cabin by the unrelenting ShowTune entertainment on our first night, and two rounds of cold 37p a slice toast and butter to the good the following morning an early stroll revealed pockets of Scouse fun-seekers dotted around the ships duty-free shops huddled round hastily torn-open 24 packs of Strongbow and Stella desperately slurping their hangovers away compelling the fun to begin once more.

The days travelling back to England and awaiting our onward connection to India provided time for reflection on the previous eight weeks of 9ft by 5ft van life. The peaks, the troughs, the countries and the people. For a couple to live in such close-quarters is challenging, rewarding and a journey of discovery… Discovering those traits, those foibles, those personality ‘ticks’ that we tend to cover up in our normal spacious - proximity and temporal - living. But we survived… mostly. Learning to live as one organism, Sofie, Neil and I, was tough. Having to do everything either together or in complete sympathy is a necessity of close-quarter living. We have to go to sleep and awake at the same time, eat, sit, stand, move, wash and breathe together. Everything takes five times as long to do in the van as the stowafe system is constanlty re-arranged. To use the pan you move the coffee-pot to the side, the spices back in the cupboard, the water bottle to the seating area, the ash-tray to the side table, the washing-up bowl to the back step, the lighter from the front to the stove, and so on and so on… The constant search for water, toilets and camp spots meant an unrelenting round of moving this, packing that, stowing this, folding that, re-packing, removing, unwrapping. These trials obviously irked on some more sensitive days, but were no great hardships and living in such a basic, simple way was a great life-lesson in terms of the difference between needs and wants. Whatever, these complications were more than outweighed by the luxuries of mobile living. We dined on an Algarve moonlit terrace watching sliver-crested waves wash onto fine, pale sand only yards from our feet as we ate smoky, sweet paprika tinged squid, breakfasted on cliffs high above wild rocky ocean ravaged bays, romantically celebrated on the sunset drenched dunes of Galicia and socialised at the headquarters of the world pro surf tour’s Portuguese leg.

Luxury is available for all if you’re prepared to rough it and to search beyond the beaten track, in fact it only seems to be available at either ends of the scale. The ultra-rich can pay through the nose to stay in the most beautiful and exclusive locations, or if you’re curious, mobile and independant you can find amazing places yourself. It’s the majority middle ground which is caught in the mire of packaged, developed, managed mediocrity.

Saturday, 31 October 2009

Harsh Mistress

I’ve had the best surf of the trip so far this morning, in fact I’m at a stage on my surfing path to be able to say I had the best surf of my life this morning! It’s coming up to five years since I first set foot on a foam-board in Byron Bay but the mix of being a late starter, with an already (too) well developed sense of mortality, and the intervening years being spent deep in the design mines of England’s south east - keeping me from surfing as regularly as I would like - means that a good surf has a fair prospect of being my best ever! It didn’t look much from our van viewpoint on the cliffs above Praia Amado on Portugal’s south west coast, perhaps similar to last nights easygoing sunset session, but paddling toward the clique I could see that at this higher stage of the tide the now submerged rock, which breaks the wide open bay here, was producing a well overhead A-frame peak offering lefts and rights to the bold and well positioned. A troupe of British kids were hoovering up everything going for the first half hour and I resigned myself to picking up the odd wave which swung wide of the take-off spot. But en-masse the Brits left the water, lured no doubt by elevenses, and there were more than enough waves to go round for those of us left. By my standards there were big sets pushing through, certainly well overhead, I might even call some double-over but then again it always looks bigger peering up from sea-level, but instead of just rearing up, faltering and closing out in unison across the bay today a distinct peak feathered, tumbled and peeled. I had countless lefts and rights, making cavernous drops which spat me down the line at speeds my board hasn’t encountered before, trailing my hand in the smooth, shimmering, carved wall of water for stability, rising to the lip before turning and dropping back down the shear liquid face again, and again….. and again, kicking up and launching myself head-over-heel over the brim before it dumps into the shallow sandbar. Every cell of my being was vibrating and alive, very much alive, reverent of the ocean’s grace for allowing me to catch those fleeting rides sharing her surging energy for a few seconds of Life.

This south western corner of Portugal feels like home, for two distinctly different reasons. To observe starched English families spending tense half-term days at some of the beaches we frequent has seemed bizarre, in a detached other-worldly way and served as a reminder of the proximity of the British tourist colony of The Algarve. Yet the wild, arid, red-earthed south western tip with it’s rugged undeveloped coastline, herbaciously pungent, sheltering herds of goats, leather-faced shepherds, packs of wild dogs and van-dwellers of all denominations feels like the place we’ve been looking for as we traced Europe’s Atlantic fringe. If only the British hadn’t invaded nearby pushing prices of land beyond it’s natural level.

Footnote [After the second surf of the day]
Don’t do your surf check from the hill above the beach, the angle and distance distorts perspective rendering judgement calls hazy at best. Don’t ignore the Swiss duo you’ve been surfing with these last few days when they come back defeated, unable to get past the cascading walls of raging spume. And, most importantly, don’t take the sea for granted, don’t get complacent and don’t ever feel like you’re getting the hang of this surfing business! I managed to get out back in a lull between sets using a rip at the north of the beach by the rocks, and when I did everything seemed more acute. The waves were not only taller, but more voluminous, more powerful, formidable. I found a position to sit out wide of the main peak in order to watch for a while, to analyse. But the peak had spread out across nearly the entire bay and this once quiet spot was in path of the relentless marching behemoths. I was in position to dig deep and go a few times but as I rose up the face, inertia giving way to gravity I pulled back as I saw the canyon-like drop beneath me, suddenly aware of the rocks scattered on the inside. I paddled up the bay navigating my way precariously over the cresting waves, and through the swirling, churning waters between as huge masses of water heaved around, but what had been the ‘outside’, the safety zone, the non-breaking belt was quickly becoming the dangerous ‘inside’ as progressively bigger waves were breaking further from shore, the gaps between sets decreasing and the faces of the handful of surfers left out more determined. My mind turned to the book I had recently finished about Mark Foo and Ken Bradshaw’s ten year tussle amongst the huge surf of Hawaii’s Waimea Bay and I began to get a sense of what genuinely large wave-riding was about, whilst gaining a humbling perspective on my pickle as I visualised waves at the very least three times this size. Walls of ferocious whitewater were unavoidable and on my buoyant fish un-duckdiveable. Numerous times I tried only to have my board ripped from grasping hands and flung about thuggishly underwater. Once I turned and tried to ride the whitewater in on my belly, yet the boiling, seething mass was too turbulent sending me end over end, head over heels, inside and out. Edging closer to shore in any discernable hiatus I was reserved to an un-triumphant exit and looked for smaller waves to shuttle me back to dry sand. Choosing my monent, and wrapping my arms around my board I hugged her as I was shot gleefully onto the beach and trudged back up the hill to the welcoming arms of Sofie and Neil, bedraggled, defeated but wildly exilerated. Two things were traced on my mind:
I loved the experience, the Nowness of the situation, the sharpening of the senses, the vitality of being.
She’s the boss.

Monday, 26 October 2009

More pictures...


We should have seen the individual events as omens, portents of the approaching storm, nature’s way of warning there’s trouble ahead. First a flip lost it’s flop rendering it useless except as a fly swat, whilst in the background the van’s fridge was petering out. ‘These things are to be expected on a long trip’ we rationalised. Hurtling into Portugal, making use of the first, and admittedly unplanned, toll-road we’ve savoured we heard a loud crash-scrap-bang. Scanning windows and mirrors for the source I saw the blue taurpalin that once perched comfortably on the rear roof-rack swinging and swaying behind the back doors and immediately feared that it had spilled it’s contents, a bike, a fire-pit, wood and charcoal over the motorway behind us. At this speed the results could have been disasterous, but once we pulled over to the hard-shoulder to inspect the damage we could see the reassuringly bulging tarpaulin clinging to the one remaining roof-rack bar by one precarious bungee, with the other bungees tangled up around the cargo and the broken roof bars. A close scrape, but a few minutes later we were on our way and nothing more sinister was read into it.

Pulling into Praia Baleal car park just north of the surf centre Peniche the surf looked uninspiring and prohibitively busy so we decided on lunch before a surf-scout further afield. Pouring over my Stormrider for likely quarry the calm was broken, first by the sight of boiled eggs, pan and accompanying water sailing out of the back doors onto the tarmac, followed closely by loud yelps from Sofie as she ran round the van pulling her trousers down. Now we’re a broad-minded couple but this seemed extra-ordinary behaviour even by our standards. I’m ashamed to admit my first instinct was to rescue lunch and I leapt after the eggs until Sofie’s mantra of “Cold water, Cold water, Cold water...” alerted me to her predicament. The scalding water had melted a crisp-sized layer of skin off on first contact and the spillage had reddened a much larger area further down the leg. Cold water followed by application of a burn-sooth pad from our first-aid kit gave a little respite from the sharp, incessant, deep pain of the burn and as the day passed so did the worst of it. It wasn’t great, but the feared hospital trip wasn’t necessary. So once the patient was comfortable Dr Templeton went for a little surf. And what a surf! A little north of Peniche near Ferrel are lots of beaches down winding, rutted red earth tracks and we stumbled upon one with some rocks shaping two A-Frame head-and-a-bit high peaks and a mixed crowd of locals and traveling surfers crowding it. I spent the first hour watching great waves come and go with better, hungrier, more aggressive surfers aboard until high-tide flattened the peaks and everyone left the water. I hung around looking to snag a few small ones before trudging back up the cliff to tend the sick, and to my surprise fifteen minutes later the wave started working again and it took another thirty minutes before everyone cottoned on and flooded the water again.Thirty minutes in which I had the best surf of the trip so far, carving fast across the open faces, cutting back toward the curl to gather more of the waves energy before racing the feathering crest ahead, finishing with a do-or-die off the lip re-entry and a quick paddle out to do it all again, but this time on my backhand.

That night the heavens opened and our lazy night-time preparations resulted in a drenched, muddy boardbag and chairs. Another harbinger of doom? Or just a bit of rain? We opted for the latter and headed in to town to dry off and stock-up on provisions. Pulling out of our beloved InterMarche, just as we approached a pedestrian crossing, the van lost power and ground to a halt. And wouldn’t start. And there we were, stuck in the worst possible place on a busy town centre crossing with angry locals, beeping, shouting, swearing and at one point trying to run over the silly foreigners who’d parked in the wrong place. Whilst contemplating our current plight the previous three days pickles began to press home, are we having a run of bad luck or is there something more to it? Finally some friendly faces helped push us out of harms way and my hard-fought (for a ’91 Nissan) breakdown cover kicked into gear. Within three hours we were on our way with something-that-we-couldn’t-quite-work-out-in-translation having been cleaned and still time for a little surf before dark. And another great surf it was too. Buoyed by the previous days blockbuster I charged the Baleal beach break with a new vigour and scored my fair share of waves and then a few more, taking off on and handling the monster wave of the session, as a new-found friend described it.

We drank the evening away with the new-found friend and his girlfriend, corraling our vans together against the wind yet what should have been a light-hearted evening seemed infused with something more ominous. We got too drunk, there was a crackle of tension in the air, Sofie and I concluded the evening with a pointless yet deep-felt argument, talking late through the night as if compelled by this cogent unseen force. We woke, bleary eyed, hung-over and drained to find the carpark buzzing with excitement. The storm we had disregarded, that had been building these last few days, had hit…. And BOOM! It really hit

The carpark we called home was coincidentally also home to the travelling World Pro Surfing circus for a couple of weeks as the worlds best surfers earned their transient livings, and as I stumbled to the loo the breaking news was that Fanning and Knox were readying the jet-skis to tow-in to the huge waves lashing the headlands around the crescent shaped bay. I don’t really follow the pro surfer thing, but the the excitement was palpable and we gulped coffee and rushed to the headland to join the throng watching the spectacle. It really was an amazing spectacle to observe, for these guys to not only survive, but to feel so comfortable amidst the power, fury and energy of the storm, energy created and stored at the epi-centre of a storm thousands of miles away, transferred across the ocean and unleashed on our beach for us to watch and for them to tussle with.

It felt like the previous days crosses to bear had been building toward this moment, as if nature was communing with us in abstract ways… either that or we’d had a bit of bad luck. Either way, the release of the storm energy spread a lightness over us. Our moods lifted, the bad luck petered out and we headed south again.