On the Cliff

Day 746 – 16 March, 2017

Varkala is a sleepy little touristic beach town towards the far southwestern edge of India. It’s uniqueness lies in the remarkable cliffside views overlooking the Laccadive Sea and the Indian Ocean beyond. I had randomly picked one of several almost identical guest houses where I could rent a private room, bathroom, and porch for 450 rupees/night ($6.50/night). Jill and Mel shared a similar room next door. This time there didn’t appear to be any animosity about the separation; nevertheless, I was silently stewing about my shoulder injury from earlier that morning and needed some privacy to decompress and assess the damage.

Recalling nine months earlier and my week long stay at an Ayurvedic resort in Sri Lanka (and the fact that Ayurvedic medicine is promoted in India like Cialis is in the United States), there was no question that I would make a visit to an Ayurvedic doctor to see if anything could be done to ease my pain.

The doctor was young, perhaps in his mid 20s. When I arrived, he was handing over a brown paper bag stuffed with orange-tinted vials and small plastic baggies with brown-colored powders and dried leafy herbs to a middle-aged woman. She listened intently while he softly spoke to her in Malayalam, explaining the use for each of the potions. When his attention turned to me with kind almond-shaped eyes, he effortlessly switched to English and offered me some tea and a place to sit in his office before he even knew why I was visiting. The office was a two-room cottage, one half of which was a cluttered sitting area, the walls shelved with medical journals and a pharmacy of sorts. The other half was the privacy room for women if there was any need to get undressed. A teenage barefoot girl sat on the edge of a massage table swinging her feet and proclaimed to be the doctor’s sister.

He methodically checked the mobility of my shoulder until I winced in pain. He nodded as if this validated what he already suspected. He said something to his sister so that she disappeared behind the privacy curtain. And then he told me I needed to get a massage (doctor’s orders!) and that I should return in a few hours when he would have some medicine prepared for me. His sister peeked from behind the curtain where she had lit some lavender incense and said she was ready for the massage.

I paid about $5USD for the medicine. There was a bottle of brownish green oily liquid. It smelled slightly floral, but also a little like pumpkin seed oil. I was to rub it on the shoulder area 2-3 times a day. The other medicine was a bag of capsules that tasted herbal. I was warned to take these with food or it may cause an upset stomach. Mostly, I was cautioned against lifting anything heavy for a couple of weeks. I nodded understanding even as I counted how many times I would be taking buses, trains, or planes (presumably with backpack in tow) over that same period of time.

I met up with Jill and Mel for dinner on the edge of the cliff. They had spent the day frolicking in the surf and shopping in the kitschy storefronts on the cliff. After having spent some hours apart, it was fun to catch up and I was feeling relieved that we seemed to be getting along so much better. A rarity to find a restaurant that served alcohol, we ordered two for one Kingfishers served in palm tree souvenir mugs. As the sun dropped behind the horizon and the sky changed from marigold to amber to dusty pink, you could just see a whole pod of dolphins ducking and diving in the calm sea.

I love places like this, where the pace of life is so conducive to marathon coffee breaks and sitting for hours while time stands still. The three of us had breakfast together the next morning, but I remained long after Jill and Mel had gone on to other things. The oil I was applying to my shoulder was meant to stay out of the sun and I began to contemplate other things I could do out of the sun…maybe now was the right time to get another tattoo?

A few hours later, I was admiring the newest addition to the collage on my body. It was half way completed and random tourists would occasionally peek their heads into the shop to gawk and praise the work of the tattoo artist. Not willing to leave much to chance, I had carefully selected a stencil online that the artist could copy. Suddenly, as if it was the first time I realized India doesn’t (usually) operate on a barter system, I looked in my wallet and realized I was embarrassingly shy of our agreed upon fee. I spent the second half of the appointment, trying to figure out how I was going to pay this guy and what I could leave as collateral while I made a trip to an ATM.

When he was finished, I sheepishly smiled and gushed about how satisfied I was. He, too, seemed very pleased. I pulled out my passport and reluctantly admitted that I had forgotten to bring enough cash. I said he could keep my passport until I returned with enough money to pay him. He gently pushed it away and said no. He insisted it was ok that I could return with the money whenever I had it, that leaving my passport was unnecessary. The trust that is constantly demonstrated in developing countries always surprises those of us from capitalist nations, but it is infinitely refreshing and at least for me, a principle that mandates you prove the blind faith is deserved.

I immediately rushed off to an ATM, determined to return to the tattoo shop before the artist would have time to doubt me. I walked back and forth from one end of the cliff to the other, not seeing a single cash machine in sight. I returned to my guest house to ask the proprietor if he could give me directions. Sympathetically, he shook his head and said the closest ATM was in town. It would be too far to walk and the prospect of finding an auto rickshaw on the quiet dirt paths of the residential area was nil. Seeing my despair, the owner of the guest house checked his watch and said if we hurried, he would just have time to drive me himself. In a flash, he grabbed his keys, jumped on his motorbike, and patted the back. I threw my leg over behind him and once again I was treated to the kindness of strangers while he drove me to not one, not two, but three ATMs to find one that wasn’t broken or devoid of cash.

I missed dinner that night with Jill and Mel due to all of the running around, but we only had loose plans anyway so I really didn’t see the harm. As we prepared to leave Varkala for Alleppey, it seemed again that I was getting the cold shoulder. Meanwhile, I silently counted…two nights in Alleppey, two nights in Kochi, and then I’m free again. Just keep the peace until I’m free.