Surfing in God’s Own Country: Expect Less, Experience More.

I met Niyas at Varkala hospital. A plump, burly lad of maybe twenty, he’s the sharpest rickshaw driver in town: slim fit pastel pink shirt with the cuffs turned up just so in the yacht club style and immaculate, eye-wateringly tight jeans. In hindsight I’ve no idea what he was doing outside the head and neck specialist, all I can think is that he was idling between jobs and singled us out as more probable customers than the ailing locals who looked to be on deaths door and better suited to the touch of a mortician than a doctor. I had reluctantly agreed to visit the doctor to get a third opinion on a niggling ear infection after a brash introduction to Hikkaduwa’s reef two months ago.

Initially what I liked about Niyas was his attention to detail and the endearing way he reeled off cricket facts and players names, laughing from the belly almost in disbelieve at how much he knew about the game. I liked that he took pride in his appearance (as most Keralites do), his excellent English had its own rolling rotund tone and most importantly for me, he picked up on the word ’surf’ as we rattled along the unmade road to our guesthouse. I was fascinated by his comically self aware driving style, perched at a laid-back angle on his seat, left hand perpetually sweeping through perfectly coiffured hair from brow to nape of neck. Every other rickshaw driver we’ve ridden with in Kerala so far has been a quiet dutiful man who barely says a word, Niyas however was in passionate agreement with every single thing Sam and I were saying, giving the impression that the opinions and topics of conversation actually derived from him. In particular he loved the idea of surfing, or rather transporting me to the surf. Of course he did.

“Ooooooooh yes Thomas Thomas, more beautiful spot, Edava, more beautiful spot. Veeeeeery good surf every day Thomas.”

It was perfect timing I thought, I could tick the surfing India box nice and early and we could head north to Fort Kochi around lunch time. Although we have no schedule and were in no rush to leave Varkala, after a week of indulgent seafood dinners and sunset beers, the bustling Malabar spice markets were calling. I was anxious that I wouldn’t be able to find a decent a board but as luck would have it the rental shop-cum-pashmina-shop-cum-cafe had a volumous 5’6” Temple nugget so my mind was made up and I called Niyas to confirm. Sam could read my mind and delayed her packing until we were sure we’d actually leave and not wind up on a surf trip for the next month. She knows me too well. I pressed the owners of the rental shop, two charming lads from Kashmir, for some details of Edava and in particular the swell prediction. They assured me that swell had arrived at last and there was no need for a mal. Of course it had. There was a spring in my step; the board felt great, photos of a travelling Aussie getting barrelled only a week earlier made the point look clean and quick and try as I might to keep my expectations in check, I was stoked for what lay ahead.

Poor Sam was roused at an ungodly hour by my over eager pacing, preparation of snacks, phone calls to Niyas and no doubt infuriating enthusiasm. Ten minutes into the journey an unexpected paranoia throbbed and my imagination unravelled. What was Niyas doing in hospital instead of waiting at his rickshaw outside? Why wasn’t he dressed in the standard beige shirt and sarong like all other drivers? Why are we taking so many little back streets? What if we’re being set up? The first thing Niyas said when we got in the rickshaw was, as he sauntered over to us in a pastel blue number: “You have camera Thomas Thomas? phone? money? Oooooh Thomas Thomas Thomas be careful local children taking, be careful”. In my haste to get going I only half acknowledged him at the time but what if the half nod was enough to tell him I did in fact have my camera and phone and now he knows he’s got a cargo worthy of a mugging. Oh well, it’ll make for a great story I thought, fighting off a impersonated rickshaw driver with a rented surfboard. Poor Sam, she’ll have the right hump with me. All for a few perfect waves as they say.

Of course we made it in one piece. Perhaps it was a displaced paranoia as I think I was most nervous about going left at Kerla’s answer to G-Land. I’m ashamed to say that as a regular footer only a couple of years into my surfing journey, I’m guilty of going right too often and now the bad habit had come to bite me on the arse. It turns out the direction of the wave was the least of my concerns. Niyas suggested that given it was still pitch black and the sun wouldn’t be rising for the best part of an hour we take a chai and a fried banana for the wait. I had this Romantic image of padding out alone in the half light of the moon, sitting patiently for the sunrise to cast light on the lineup, hence our unnecessarily early arrival. I insisted Sam and I were happy sitting on the beach, in the dark, for an hour. Poor Sam. By torchlight we navigated our way through, and at one point straight across, the hundreds of tiny fish laid out to dry, became aware of a shoreline dotted with dozens of sarong’d fisherman smoking and drinking tea in the dark and waited for dawn to unveil an Arabian sea of corduroy.

As we sat by the point I was startled by a bloke wading in the shallows only a couple of metres from us. He’s probably washing off scales and fish guts from his legs and hands I thought. Hmm, he squatted rather suddenly and appeared to splash his bare arse. There’s another bloke and another on the rocks next to another, we’re surrounded. Interesting how they all choose to smoke and star gaze in that same squat position, looks quite comfy actually if you’ve got the thighs for it. I’ll take a walk onto the point to suss out the take-off. Hang on, is he taking a shit right next to me? He’s waddling to the water to rinse himself. Nope, he’s actually taking a shit in the water. Oh jesus what is that smell? I think I just trod in one, it’s on my bare foot and I’ve got that horrible cut across my big toe. For fucks sake I’ll have to use up two hand washes worth of alcogel on the toe alone. It smells like a cesspit here. Well I suppose it is. Why wouldn’t they dig a big hole in the bush and all use that? Actually I think I need a shit now too, where shall I go? Somewhere a bit private ideally. Bloody hell, every nook and cranny of prime shorefront is host to a shitting fisherman. I might as well do it in the water, it seems to be the go. No I can’t, I’ll find a bush. I suppose we in the ‘West’ have been brought up to think of going to the loo as a deeply private, gross even. Something you joke about but don’t discuss seriously let alone do on the bloody beach. This is more natural I suppose. I do prefer the squat position actually, I’ve heard it’s better for the bowel movement and I’ve been raising my hands above my head after reading that in an Ayurvedic book, placebo maybe. And those bum hoses are magic, you save loads on loo roll. I’d have one in my bathroom if I had a house. Anyway, better head back and stretch.

After this internal monologue I hobbled back to explain to Sam that we had only gone and made camp in the middle of the fisherman’s latrine but her steely glare made it clear that she was already quite aware. She reminded me that we had been here before and the penny dropped. I knew it looked familiar babe! Just around the point is where we pitched up for the afternoon after our walk the other day before that mob of toddy fuelled teenagers, like flies around shit, molested you when I was off finding driftwood for a sun shade and we had to very forcefully decline their overzealous encroachment. At the time we remarked that it was a shame that all the stray dogs and goats soiled the beach, scarring an otherwise beautiful little cove. Now the facts were evident and I felt bad for cursing the dogs and goats. At least I had to the surf to look forward to, Sam had two hours of waiting by our backpacks until Niyas came. Some dates and peanuts babe? Cup of chai? No? Fair enough. Oh how we didn’t laugh. Part of me thought the right thing to do was call Niyas and forget the surfing thing but it was a very small part of me that was easily muscled out by the overbearing 28 year old grommie who was getting prrretty excited about the clean lines pulsing from behind the rocks and appearing to run all the way to the beach. Admittedly I was a little anxious about the face to faeces scenario. I imaged being surrounded by an oil slick of shit and stroking rapidly for the shore to save Sam from rabid dogs and rapey fisherman but at the same time I was distracted, as the sun rose, by the tiny swell and realised that without a longboard it was going to be a struggle. I knew I shouldn’t have let myself get seduced by the photo on the wall in the rental shop, I should’ve rented a mal.

I tentatively paddled out to what was actually a very clean wave, albeit a miniature version of one. Mother Nature is a fickle beast and as we know it’s always “tomorrow it’ll pick up” or “should’ve been here yesterday”. Nevertheless it broke fast and threw up an added challenge of either a wide bottom turn straight off the bat or a floater (excuse the pun) across the lip to avoid dry docking yourself on the rock right in the waves path. First wave, I was pretty happy considering what I saw. Never mind the threat of sharks or hostile locals or shallow reef as off-putting factors, imagine paddling on and looking down the line but catching sight of a bloke in your peripheral and momentarily glancing his way. Imagine seeing his old cock and balls like the last bag of prunes on the shelf in a derelict supermarket hanging there for all to see as he laid a fresh turd in the shallows, looking me in the eye casually smoking a cigarette. Somehow I made the wave and thank God I did as it was the only decent one I scored before a mob of trigger happy but very affable locals soon swarmed the meagre offerings. Out of respect I let them have the lions share, that and I was struggling on the small board. Then the (sort of) alpha male, a fellow Englishman from a local surf and yoga retreat, stole the show on his longboard. I don’t think he was the actual alpha male of the group because the chap who appeared to be the ring leader with whom I spoke earlier was very friendly with nothing to prove. His parents were there and the whole scene was heart warming as he pushed his old man onto waves and while his mum took photos from the shore and mingled with their guests. I got a really positive vibe from him. He warned me about the take-off rock and that it would pick up in a couple of hours but that the swell has likely missed us. This other chap however, with his anarchic turbo hippy dreadlock/shaved head combo and infuriatingly over-nonchalant air, had something to prove as an adopted local. The real locals were more than happy to make brief conversation as were the stoked learners. Suit yourself, bro. He surfed great but his attitude reeked.

I conceded that it wasn’t going to be an all time session, so drifting with the current I opened my eyes to the whole unique scene. Red cliffs topped with endless palm groves and cacti, small one-man fishing logs bobbing on the horizon, catch nets being hauled ashore by weathered fisherman in oily sarongs, rapid Malayalam and outboard motors chopping up the still dawn air. The water was almost too warm, it didn’t have that bite to it that freshens a tired mind. What an adventure this all is. Oh there’s Sam, she looks mildly irate wrapped in her shawl with earphones in, rocking slightly and not watching me take these amazing barrels one after another.

I’m grateful for the noteworthy experience that only surfing could’ve provided and for the largely friendly crowd and the one clean wave and the excellent chai afterwards and for not being hustled off a wave by a poo. In the end it was probably for the best that as a whole, the spot was unappealing that day because I know that if the conditions were consistently prime I’d be chomping at the bit to relocate right on the beach and all others priorities would be filed under ‘mañana’. I can’t help but feel that having learnt to surf on Australia’s Sunshine Coast, I’ve been spoilt rotten by pristine beaches and clean water, another thing to be eternally grateful for given what these kids have. Edava was yet another lesson in reducing expectations and leaving behind any preconceived notions of what things will be like on this vast subcontinent, as a surfer and a traveller in general. The potential of the wave was evident and I would love to see it on its day. It warrants a bit part in a surf film, maybe it already features in one, about lesser known spots open to the shanti surf traveller but I’m in no rush to head back, I’ll save myself for Sri Lanka’s east coast in a couple of months and crack on with other endeavours here in India.

Stranger In Town: Far Out Cafe roots.


I dedicate this blog to my parents. Naturally, they’d be delighted if I lived close enough to come for Sunday lunch each week and had the perceived security of a salary or a house of my own but when they receive a postcard in the middle of an English winter from the palm fringed shores of Sri Lanka or open an email detailing my dream of following ancient spice routes through the Middle East or have to ask yet again for a reliable postal address, they’re excited to know that they are responsible.

The essence of my life overseas, the feeling that drove me to set sail, is captured in the following vignette:

Hi Tom, as promised my recollections of the Far Out Café. 1978 myself and four friends take the magic bus from London to Athens. First boat out from Pireaus is bound for Mykonos so we jump aboard and soon after arriving we hear of another island called Ios. So next stop Ios. There was one road from the port to the beach and there were two buses, that was the transport. The beach was long and wonderful and the place where the bus dropped us and other backpackers was the Far Out Café. The place was, it seemed, always full of people from all over like a young United Nations. The food was like any Greek café and I love traditional Greek food as you know but I must say the fare at the Far Out Cafe was never going to win any awards! However it had a great sound system and the one album that stands out for me was ‘Stranger In Town’ by Bob Seager and the Silver Bullit Band. It had been released in May of that year and went on to go platinum. If we were on the beach around the cafe and the first bars of ‘Hollywood Nights’ (the first track of the album) played it was enough to get us in to the place and order a round of beers and start conversations with people we had met or those we had not and who were just enjoying the music like ourselves. For others I’m sure other music will be associated with the Far Out but for me Strangers in Town and the café will always be joined at the hip.
I looked online and as with most things the Far Out has changed; it’s no longer where the bus would drop you. There’s a new Far Out at the other end of the beach where all there used to be was a camp site. Of course, its unrecognisable to the place I and many others would have known but that was then and this is now but for me the Far Out Café I know and cherish will always be the best of places. Ios has another claim to fame as it’s where I met your mum but that’s another story.

Speak to you soon Tom all my love Dad x

That is brilliant, cant believe this is almost 40 years ago, still so vivid in my mind! Perhaps I’ll tell you my story too! Mum x