“I won’t drown. If there’s one thing I trust, it’s my body’s ability to push the panic button and get my legs kicking. Help will come before it’s too late. I’m not alone. I will be fine.”
Surfing was unchartered territory for me – I didn’t even know how to swim – so it wasn’t surprising that I was reaching into the depths of my mind for comfort. As a kid, my swimming classes always ended the moment the floats and other gear were taken away. This meant that I never really learnt how to swim – gracefully, at least – on my own. Every inch of my body rebelled against being thrust into the water without a life-saving device. And yet there I was, convincing myself to walk right into the waves.
The aquamarine ocean beckoned with all its might. We were at a little cove called River Temple, which is a 20-minute drive from the Varkala cliffs, near a tiny fishing village named Paravoor. The waves were kicking up quite a ruckus that morning. Fishermen were hauling their catch in, rowing arduously against the current. The sand was cordoned off by boulders that looked menacing, more so if you were to accidentally drift towards them while surfing. I was staring out to sea, trying to muster up whatever spunk remained to embrace this stormy sea, when our instructors returned from studying the waters. They had what should have, with all my fear, been a relieving announcement: The waves were too rough. But to my surprise, I felt disappointed.
From the time we made our reservations for our graduation trip to Kerala, my friend and I had been counting down the days to embracing Varkala’s waves. There was a lot of back and forth – it was the end of tourist season, which meant most surfing classes had shut – and this was a stroke of luck. And while my scaredy-cat gut pointed out how big a mistake this could be, we’d come too far to say no. Plus, I knew I wouldn’t be able to sit through the stories she would return with. This was to be my “I had an adventure” moment.
The fearful little voice in my head clung on as tightly as the swimming costume I had on as we made the 2km-trek from our Vedanta Wake Up! hotel on the North Cliff to our surfing instructors at Soul & Surf on the beach town’s South Cliff. But by the time we were seated in their turquoise jeep – surfboards stacked overhead – and en route to the beach, things began to change. The excitement of being part of this new community overtook my nerve-wracking fears of Murphy’s Law becoming real; “Maybe it really will be OK,” I told myself.
And sure enough, we had lucky stars that day. The beginners (i.e. us) were to stick to the white water only – this meant that it would be shallow enough for my feet to reach the sand. My friend was dismayed, but for the first time I felt calm.
It may have been the deafening sound of the waves crashing, but I couldn’t hear the terrified little voice any more. Before taking our surfboards out into the refreshingly cool water, there was a quick how-to session that covered everything from paddling with our arms to the right way to jumping up on the board. Rash vests on, boards in hand, we were ready.
Not everything you learn on land works in water. I had mastered the art of jumping up onto my dry, sandy surfboard, but it’s different when you’re in the sea. I fell off the board innumerable times, and after multiple attempts at standing, it was clear that wasn’t on the day’s agenda. Chances are that you’ll forget a lot of the other tips you get before heading out, but your instinct is without a doubt a good companion. For instance, when you fall off the board, and are underwater, you’re supposed to raise an arm over your head and duck so that your surfboard doesn’t hit you. When I fell off, salt water was trying to seep into every orifice. I could make out swirls of watery green through scrunched-up eyes, but I couldn’t think of a thing apart from possibly drowning in slow motion like in a cinematic montage. The sand was soft below my feet like a cushion propelling you upwards. And yet, I found myself with a hand shielding my head, jostling around to find the board that was tethered to my ankle.
I don’t know how quickly those three hours passed. I did manage to lie flat on the board and cruise into the sand, a feat that, even a year later, I’m still holding on to with the utmost pride. And I was made aware of muscles in my upper arms that I never knew existed until the post-workout body ache kicked in. Passing up that sunny day of surfing for a quiet morning by the beach would have been such a mistake.
In a commencement speech at Wesleyan University in 2013, Joss Whedon said, “You have the ability and the responsibility to listen to the dissent in yourself, to at least give it the floor because it is the key not only to consciousness but to real growth.” Listening and trying to acknowledge the panic and that constant voice of worry was the first step for me. If there’s one thing I learnt that morning, it’s the need to tune in to your surroundings as well as with yourself so that you can perform better. You’ve got to know that sometimes the waves may be bigger than you can handle, keep an eye out for what’s coming, and know when you’re ready. Whedon continued, “Peace comes from the acceptance of the part of you that will never be at peace. It will always be in conflict. If you accept that, it gets a lot better.”
I think that’s all it really comes down to. Acknowledging your voice of reason or fear or worry, and then going out there and doing what you want to do. Taking a surfing class with my best friend on our graduation trip is one of the most freeing things I’ve ever done. Having to go with the flow, literally, is quite a meditative exercise, one which left me unexpectedly centred. Learning to swim (elegantly, like a pro) is now near the top of my bucket list, only so that I can take time off and sign up for surfing classes. From my fears to the exhaustion after, I wouldn’t change a thing.
This story has been updated in November 2017.
Orientation Soul & Surf is a truly picturesque hotel on Varkala’s South Cliff. If you’re staying at the hotel and haven’t surfed before, you can book lessons. Details here. For surfers, your stay includes two daily guided surfing trips. During peak tourist season (November to April) they run Papanasam Surf School where you can rent equipment and avail of surfing lessons. Read more here.
Accommodation Soul & Surf is great if it’s in your budget range. Hotels are divided across the North and South cliffs in Varkala, which is also where all the tourists are. We stayed at Vedanta Wake Up! on the North Cliff which is a good, pocket-friendly option.
Getting there If you’re staying on the South Cliff, Soul & Surf isn’t hard to find at all. But if you’re making your way from the North Cliff, keep Google Maps handy. Ask for Papanasam beach if you’re lost. Directions here. Hike across the beach for a more scenic view, but take the inner route if you’re looking to be lost.
Explore There are multiple shacks and eateries along the coast, more along the North Cliff than the South Cliff. Don’t expect too much of a spread though, most offer just Continental fare. After an exhilarating surfing session, fuel up with a heartening English breakfast. Look out for Benny’s just past the temple junction; what could be mistaken for your average grocery store doubles as a cafe-cum-bookstore. It wasn’t open when I visited, but their pancakes and cold coffee come highly recommended. For local cuisine, explore the inner parts of the city. Stop by Dwarka in the main town area for authentic Malayali cuisine, or get hold of a seat at Mrs. Kumari’s house – she regularly caters for gatherings in her backyard that only those in the know tend to partake of. When we visited, the servings kept flowing. I recall counting up to 16 different local vegetarian preparations such as aviyal and thoran.
Good to know The surf school will give you rash vests to keep your body safe from abrasions and UV rays. Swimming is a prerequisite, especially if you plan on venturing out further where your feet won’t touch the ground.
Fabiola Monteiro was formerly a member of National Geographic Traveller India's digital team. Since then, her words have featured in The Hindu, Mint Lounge, Roads & Kingdoms, The Goya Journal, and Condé Nast Traveller India. She tweets as @thefabmonteiro and is on Instagram @fabiolamonteiro.
Jill D'Souza finds that being able to capture an incredible moment is the sole reason she loves photography. Throw in travel, adventure and art and you get the story of her life. Currently, the co-founder-director of Go Left – a surf clothing brand – and aspiring travel/surf photographer, she continues her journey exploring the world.