If you sit in a cliff-top café in Varkala, close your eyes and let your mind drift, then it doesn't take a lot of imagination to drift off to Indonesia, Ghana, Thailand, or any of a whole host of travellers' haunts the world over. The sea breeze is warm and keeps you cool as you shelter from the hot afternoon sun; the surf crashes onto the beach below; the sound of trance music throbs gently from speakers sitting on the sandy floor of the bar; and contented travellers wander past in their little huddles, showing off far more flesh than is considered polite in the country outside. But it doesn't matter here, because in the same way that major cities have a Little India, a Chinatown and a Latin quarter, most countries have at least one Hippy Haven, where westerners can drift in and kick back, well away from the pressures of life on the road.
Hippy Havens are a natural part of the life cycle of tourism, and Varkala is a good example of a Hippy Haven that's about halfway through its life span. Broadly speaking, travelling spots go through a fairly predictable set of stages. The first stage is anonymity, where you only find out about the charms of a particular beach or village by word of mouth; next, the locals cotton on to the fact that there might be some business to be done here, and the odd tea shop or restaurant starts up, possibly with some rooms by the beach, or even some basic huts on the edges of the sand; soon enough, the man from the Lonely Planet hears about the place from some particularly chatty travellers, and notes it down as a possible attraction for those en route, but gives it little more than a tiny mention; as travellers discover it for themselves and the number of guest houses and restaurants grows, the guidebooks give it a bit more of a write-up, and more and more people take the detour; eventually it's a big enough draw to warrant a map, by which time it's fair to say that we've got a genuine Hippy Haven on our hands; and the next stage is that things start growing out of all proportion, the concrete hotels start to spring up, package tours start creeping in at the corners, and before long your Hippy Haven has become a Proper Destination, and most of the attractions of the original solitary bay have been lost in the process.
Varkala is probably a shade past the cusp of being a perfect Hippy Haven. It has enough guest houses and restaurants to enable visitors to cut themselves off completely from the harsh reality of travelling in India, and it is utterly beguiling because of it, but at the southern end of the beach there are ominously permanent concrete structures creeping up, and it doesn't take much imagination to see Varkala turning into a genuine brochure destination over the next few years, losing a good deal of its charm as it does so.
Right now, though, Varkala is a classic, template-based travellers' haunt. It has a pretty little beach where the locals seem to tolerate bikini-clad women with a reasonable lack of leering, and the touts, such as they are, are mild-mannered and happy to take no for an answer, as they try to sell you bongos, maps of India and magnetic stones that make the sound of a cicada as you throw them up in the air. The bars lining the top of the cliff are – at the northern end – distinctly bohemian in their approach, with colourfully decorated bamboo shelters overlooking the Arabian Sea, their coloured light bulbs and mandala throws practically insisting that you sit down, kick back and take a big hit on the sea breeze. It's the Buddha Bar, it's the Café del Mar, and it's exactly the kind of safe, alternative lifestyle that these days every self-respecting twenty-something should have on their CV. Hell, there is even dope here, and the gentle waft of marijuana smoke is as much a part of the atmosphere as tandoori fish, or the waft of the increasingly polluted cliff slopes, with their growing collections of empty bottles, plastic bags and yelping dogs.
So Varkala is completely generic, and as Peta and I lapped up the delightful atmosphere, the lovely seafood and the gentle thump of the trance, we could have been anywhere. What a great way to ease one's jet-lagged mind into the prospect of exploring India; bravo for the Hippy Havens out there, even if they're sometimes rather hard to tell apart.