Visiting the same place twice over a span of time gives you an additional dimension, and a chance to see the effect of time (and tourism) on a place. Back when we visited Varkala in 2003, it had of course already been a tourist attraction for decades, and so was well developed with the typical assortment of tourist amenities, such as hotels, restaurants, tour desks, souvenir shops, etc. [Varkala is also a place of pilgrimage, though the pilgrims and tourists in Varkala do not mix much, as the main tourist development along the North Cliff is almost exclusively a foreigner traveler ghetto.] We found on this trip, however, some four and a half years later, that the tourist neighborhood of Varkala had continued further north, for perhaps a couple kilometers. Hotels grow more seldom as you head up, but western beachgoers could be seen making their way along the now paved walkway up and down the headlands to beaches beyond. The tourists had also changed. We’d of course heard of the phenomenon of backpackers and more adventurous travelers “discovering” a place, and then that place being opened up to gradually bigger and more upmarket tourists, but not really experienced it firsthand (frankly, most of the places we go to are already well developed and well touristed, as we thought Varkala was in 2003). Varkala 2008 however was clearly much older, overweight and generally less hip (not that we really consider ourselves hip) than Varkala 2003.
Even the Falun Gong have arrived in Varkala!
Fortunately, the expansion of tourism has not affected certain things about Varkala. The sea and the cliffs were more beautiful than even our memories, and the newer development, though extensive, has been done in a relatively ramshackle style that does not detract as much from Varkala’s charm as, say, big, polished resorts would (one hears that Kovalam, a beach further south, has such resorts, although we have not been).
And, in the mornings, on some of the same beaches used by tourists later in the day, the fishermen still go out with their giant fishing nets to participate in a communal fishing process that entranced us in 2003. A large net is taken offshore on a small boat, while two teams of around 10 men each hold on to ropes at either end. After some time, the ropes are pulled in, drawing the net and the catch. The catch was, again, unimpressive (and somewhat depressing given the time and effort it takes to pull the net in).
After the “captain” first took his cut, the fish was sold rather than split for personal consumption, and the proceeds divided. As requested, we took turns pulling the rope, although not for the full five minutes asked for!
A random photo from Varkala