Varkala: Boozy skulduggery in paradise
Not one among the dozens of beach-facing restaurants in Varkala have beer and cocktails in their menus.
But ask a waiter for alcohol and he’ll produce a tattered home-printed sheet from his pocket listing Tom Collins, mojitos, Cosmopolitans, all the classic mixes. Order a beer and an ice-cold Kingfisher bottle will appear in seconds.
The restaurants aren’t allowed to sell alcohol. But like anywhere else, in Varkala, the rules are negotiable if the price is right.
According to multiple sources in the local hospitality industry, restaurants pay the police to leave them alone. This is quite standard and should surprise no one familiar with the ways of the third world.
But it gets interesting when this is used for revenge politics among establishments.
Varkala, in the southwestern state of Kerala, is a beach resort town relatively new on the tourist map. A simpler, cheaper alternative to overdeveloped Kovalam, it lures hippie types who sport dreadlocks and wear Indian clothes by choice, not just out of respect.
The beach is actually just a small patch of sand, smaller than a soccer field, tucked between two red rocky cliffs. Most of the life is at the top of those cliffs. Five years ago there were barely five hotels; today you can choose from an unbroken necklace of cheap guesthouses, posh bungalows, cafes and restaurants, all offering Ayurvedic therapies.
The town seems to have been built and run by Nepalese and Kashmiris, who, to my surprise, excel in the tourism business. They work as managers, waiters, and souvenir sellers, closing shop and going home for the desolate monsoon season in June.
Local Indians do mostly menial tasks like repairing roofs and patching sidewalks.
I have been spending my evenings at a restaurant called Hill Top Indian Spice, the only place that openly advertises Indian food (the rest cater to homesick Germans and Britons with “continental” menus).
It’s delicious. The chef, a Nepalese man in his fifties, has been cooking at resort towns for 22 years all over India. The red curry sauce he makes on a stuffed tomato dish is so exquisite I demanded cooking lessons.
The restaurant opened in August of this year and was an instant success, the owner tells me. To the surprise of many, people who come to India want to eat Indian food.
For a month, Hill Top was packed while its continental neighbours struggled to fill a few tables. It’s clear Varkala grew faster than demand. There’s an overcapacity of eateries and lodging. So the politics began.
Hill Top hadn’t paid off the cops. Their neighbours tattled. And the restaurant was shut down for two months.
It’s back in business, and slowly filling up again. This time, with their baksheesh installments in good standing.