Continuing on my “make it up as I go along” tour of South India, I was really wanting some beach time. While the beaches along Fort Kochi were beautiful, they just didn’t look clean to me. Too close to town with too much opportunity for “runoff.” Beaches in Alleppey looked a little cleaner, but they were still city beaches. So instead, I was looking for more of a beach resort vibe with hotels and guest houses right along the coastline, calm waves for swimming, and with a little luck, some semblance of a life guard since I would be swimming alone.
I’ve written many times before about meeting fellow travelers, and how valuable their advice has always proven to be. Varkala was a byproduct of those conversations, a beach town that came with three solid recommendations. The first endorsement came from my well traveled friend Maureen, when she emailed me, “Will you be going to Varkala?” to which I replied “If you say Varkala is nice, then I will be going there.” Maureen has never steered me wrong.
The second and third endorsements for Varkala came from two different couples I met while dining in the community breakfast rooms of my guesthouses in Fort Kochi, and again in Alleppey. Continually, whenever talk of an idyllic beach came up, Varkala was mentioned. It seemed to tick all the boxes. Beautiful beaches, good swimming, a beachside path for long walks from one village to the next, and affordable restaurants offering fresh produce on an expansive menu featuring something other than curry.
One traveler even said “I have been coming to India since I was a young girl. I have family here. So I have explored the entire coastline, and I keep coming back to one spot….Bluewater Beach Resort. It’s my happy place.” I promptly left the breakfast table, went back up to my room, logged on to booking.com, and reserved three nights at Bluewater. At $70 USD per night, it was a big splurge compared to what I had been paying. But I was ready for a splurge.
The town of Varkala is perched on a cliff overlooking a wide expanse of white beach. A long, undulating path follows the cliffside, leading to a string of pristine beaches to the north. Blue Water Bungalows was actually in Odayam, a flatter beach just a 15 minute walk north of the cliffs. This walk was lined with restaurants, sunset bars, and dozens of small shops selling pashmina scarves and harem pants, ice cream bars and sunscreen, and tiny cans of Diet Coke.
Varkala is one of those places with a vibe which I struggle to label. I would call it a “backpacker enclave,” but it seems slightly more upscale than that. Every restaurant has a vegan offering. Every other door along the cliffside path offers rooftop yoga classes of all varieties, all waking hours. And coffee shops sell more smoothies and herbal teas than they do pastries and lattes. There are a lot of sinewy women wearing flowing long dresses, and lithe men sporting man-buns. Ayurveda Treatment Centers and spas offering massage and meditation are as ubiquitous as churches in my home town in the center notch of the Bible Belt.
In fact, all of Kerala is known as a haven for Ayurvedic treatment. For those who might not be familiar, Ayurvedic is sanscrit for “Science of Life,” an alternative medicine that developed in India over 3,000 years ago. This holistic practice is based on the premise that health and wellness depend on balance between the mind, body, and spirit, and when one of these is out of balance, disease ensues. Therefore, the focus of the practice is more towards prevention before cure. When healing is necessary, it’s always natural, or plant-based.
I have long been a fan of massage, and always like to try the local experience when I travel. Being in India where it’s offered on every corner for the cost of a small pizza back home, I planned to treat myself while in Varkala. But I also wanted to take advantage of being in the heart of ayurveda, and go beyond my usual boundaries of a 60 to 90 minute relaxation massage to try something new and different.
Whenever ayurvedic massage is advertised, it is often times accompanied by a treatment, “shirodhara” portrayed by an image of a person pictured lying on the massage table, flower petals strewn about. The persons are eyes closed, and their face wears a look of sheer nirvana as a small copper pot suspended overhead slowly drizzles warm oil back and forth across the forehead, allowing tiny “tears” of oil to trickle down the scalp. This image has always looked so relaxing and inviting to me. So no better time to try it!
I consult my go to app, Trip Advisor for “best ayurvedic massage in Varkala,” then make a reconnaissance trip in person to check the place out. I make an appointment for a 60 minute massage, followed by 30 minute a shirodhara treatment for 1800 rupees, about $24 US.
If you have never had an ayurvedic massage before, you should be forewarned that it’s a little “different.” First of all, they slather you in what feels like 40w motor oil to the point that sliding off the vinyl massage table is a valid concern. They don’t use sheets on the table for the same reasons, and the only towel provided must be preserved for washing up later. One strips down naked (at least of any clothes you have hopes of ever wearing again) and a tiny tissue paper “loin cloth” is provided to preserve some semblance of modesty.
My 60 minute massage goes fairly well, though there is more “slapping and snapping” than I am accustomed to in traditional massage. But hey, it’s a quarter of the price that I am accustomed to paying as well. At least I am feeling relaxed and cool on a hot sticky day in spite of being oiled up like a pig being prepped for the spit.
Next, my attendant begins to prepare me for my shirodhara treatment. She takes the copper pot from its nearby lamp stand and places it on a gas burner across the room to begin to heat the oil. Tissue plugs are inserted in my ears, and cool wet pads are placed on my eyelids to protect my eyes. A roll of cotton is positioned along my brow line to make sure the oil does not run into my eyes. Then she walks back across the room to tend to the oil, warming over the flame of the gas stove.
I am all poised practically naked on the table in darkness, breathing deeply, ready for my ascension into a higher state of nirvana. I am eagerly anticipating the feel of the warm oil drizzling upon my forehead, when just as if a switch has been flipped, my oxygen is cut off! I. CAN’T. BREATHE!!! I start to cough and gasp. “I’ve been gassed!” I sputter. Practically naked, I sit straight up, the eye pads go flying, and I rip the tissue plugs from my ears. I see the room is completely filled with smoke. My masseuse, (who had to be all of 14) is over by the stove fanning wildly. She set the damned oil on fire!
Every time I try to inhale, my lungs just shut down. Still coated in motor oil, I try to get off the vinyl table, but I can’t get any traction. I am coughing and gasping for air. Finally, I grab the only towel available and cover my mouth to breathe. GOT. TO. GET. OUT!!! But I am all but naked! And I can’t even find my clothes, let alone put them on over this oily mess!
I manage to carefully shuffle one foot in front of the other into the adjacent bathroom, followed by my attendant, still fanning as she tries to reassure me. “Eeess ok! OK! Smoke gone now!” I turn on the shower and use up two small hotel-sized bars of soap and a minuscule bottle of shampoo trying to strip the oil slick off, all while cursing loudly beneath the stream of hot water. Then I grab my clothes and while still wet, I wrap myself in my sarong and go running out onto the patio where at least I can now inhale, though cough spasms occur with every exhale.
Suffice it to say, I did not pay.
By this time, I have changed hotels from my weekend splurge at Bluewater in Odayam to the more affordable, highly recommended Kaiya Guesthouse, owned by a kindred spirit, ex-patriot Debra from Chicago. In recounting my horrifying experience to Debra later, I tell her “I want to try shirodhara again.” “Are you sure you want to do that to yourself??” she asks. But I explain that it is something I have wanted to experience for years. And I don’t want my Ayurvedic introduction to end on a bad note. I feel confident that if the young woman had not set the oil on fire, my experience would have been different. So I am willing to give it a second chance.
So Debra recommends her favorite place where she typically sends her guests, and this time I will go be prepared. I take my own towel, and a dispensable pair of clothes. I visually map out an exit strategy before the process ever begins. And I keep my eyeglasses and belongings within arms reach.
I am happy to report that not only was the massage substantially better than my first, my second attempt at shirodhara was nothing short of sheer nirvana! Om my!