“Hey, my brother, my friend, handsome man. How are you? Come try our fresh fish. Caught today. Tuna, mahi mahi, marlin, crab, prawns, calamari. Cooked in banana leaf, traditional Keralan style. Sit down. Grab a cold beer. Watch the sunset. Now.”
The waiter outside God’s Own Country Kitchen beams a massive smile at us as we walk towards him. This is the first of many restaurants we plan to check out that sit perched on the red cliff above Varkala beach. However, this man has no intention of letting us past his restaurant without at least buying six whole fish and a few kilograms of grilled prawns.
The sun is setting over the Arabian Sea, beyond the iconic cliffs at Varkala beach, creating that warm orange glow that casts everything in such stunning light. My stomach has other priorities however, and it is feeling a worrying combination of anxious and greedy.
The waiter can smell that I am an easy and hungry target, and sure enough, we are ushered into his restaurant to feast on freshly grilled fish cooked in banana leaf, the traditional Keralan style. We go back most nights.
To fully appreciate how the fish arrives at the footsteps of smiling Indian waiters, and subsequently on the tongues of smiling tourists, it is worth exploring the 5 km coastal path. The scenic route leads North, away from Varkala towards the next village of Keppil, which is where the next day’s adventure takes me.
While the Southern Indian state of Kerala is known for the quiet backwaters that are interspersed through the lush palm tree forests, the village of Keppil is where these backwaters meet the ocean and the Arabian Sea. On one side of the coastal path is the sea and the white sand of the beach. On the other side is the brown backwaters and the vivid green palm trees, creating a truly unique beach setting.
Perched on the quiet beach, untouched by parasols or beach hawkers, are rows upon rows of colorful Vallum boats, used by fishermen who grind away day after day catching seafood to sell to local restaurants. These boats are made by tying together planks of wood with coir rope, and made watertight with an internal pitch coating; a thick black liquid that is left over from the distillation of coal tar.
“Do you want me to help?” I shout to the fishermen hauling in their giant net. They laugh, but wave me over nonetheless. A group of 15 men are drenched in sweat, casually chatting amongst themselves while their muscles tense and their hands grip tight around the thick wet rope. I put down my camera and wander over to try and at least look useful, even if I couldn’t actually be useful.
After a few minutes of the rope sliding through my quickly blistering fingers, and realizing my contribution to reeling in the fishing net was irrelevant, I step back to give the men some space.
I crawl back into my comfort zone and get out my camera to document the amazing hard work, team spirit and camaraderie on display.
Upon realizing I am much better at eating rather than catching fish, I turn around and begin a leisurely stroll back along the coastal path towards the restaurants of Varkala. After a tiring day watching how tiring the fishermen’s days are, I feel I have earned another seafood based feast.
Once again the sun starts to drift towards the horizon. The walk back takes in the relaxing sounds of the waves crashing on the beach and the sites of hammocks slowly rocking between palm trees. While it is tempting to stop, my stomach makes its feelings known, and pushes me on towards the giant stands of freshly caught fish on ice, that sit outside each restaurant.
The only decision that remains is the eternal food dilemma; do I once again order the delicious calamari I had last night, or do I risk it all and try something new like the catch of the day? Decisions decisions…
While pondering the toughest of life choices, I look up to see the beaming smile of our waiter outside the restaurant. He doesn’t say a word today. He just carries on smiling with his arms outstretched, welcoming us home.