Town in India is both scenic and affordable

What’s it like to live in a far-off place most of us see only on a vacation? Foreign Correspondence is an interview with someone who lives in a spot you may want to visit.

  • Jan. 28, 2011 7:00 p.m.

Varkala is a touristy beach town in southern India that fronts the Arabian Sea.

What’s it like to live in a far-off place most of us see only on a vacation? Foreign Correspondence is an interview with someone who lives in a spot you may want to visit.

Travel journalist/humorist/author Doug Lansky, 40, has been living on the Malabar Coast of southern India this winter. His wife, Signe, a Swedish physician, has been studying diseases there.

Q: Where are you in India, and what’s it like?

A: We’re close to the southern tip; south of us is the northern end of Sri Lanka. The town is called Varkala. It’s a touristy beach town perched on a huge cliff of red sandstone that is crumbling into the ocean a little too quickly for anyone’s comfort. There are hundreds of stalls selling cheap clothing, food and souvenirs. It’s popular with travelers who want to get away from India for a few days without actually leaving India, as well as with “flash packers”—people who used to be backpackers and now have kids or are older or have jobs. They’re just doing a couple weeks here and got here on a direct flight. You get hippie backpackers and a handful of well-to-do tourists as well—an odd mix of people.

Even more odd is that there’s another Varkala—the original town, about two miles away—where Indian people live and work. It has about 50,000 people, and it’s amazingly chaotic and littered with plastic. Tourists don’t often venture there.

We rented a house right on the ocean, about a 15-minute walk north of the center of town. We must have 80 yards on the water, and it goes back 60 or 70 yards as well. The property is like three-quarters of a football field; for this you pay $15 a day for a rustic four-bedroom house.

Q: Your wife is doing medical research. What do you do all day?

A: I had plans to work while I was here, but so far that’s been derailed. Our oldest two kids attend a Swedish school 100 meters from the house. It’s really great, has nine students and the teacher is fantastic. Unfortunately, all three of the kids can’t go there: Our youngest daughter, Belize, is 4.

You know how in the book “A Year in Provence” the character gets a villa and gripes how workers never show up? That’s my experience here, so far.

A coconut fell out of one of our 50 trees; it missed my daughter by a foot. So I called a coconut tree guy: How much to take the nuts down? He wants 50 cents a tree to trim; he climbs up with no ropes or anything. Just shimmies up a seriously high tree with a machete on his waist. Then you can sell the coconuts and come out about even.

The problem is, he says, “I’ll come tomorrow at 9,” and of course he doesn’t show up. I spend the day waiting for the coconut guy. This takes three or four days. Then I found the cobra in our yard.

Q: The cobra?

A: I came in through the front gate and was walking to the cement steps and saw a bunch of black crows gawking.

So Belize, who is 4, runs after them and I kind of kept walking.

I turned back when she shrieked: She’s like Indiana Jones face-to-face with a cobra, but she’s not that tall. The cobra stood up and its hood stood out. It could easily have nailed her: It was only a foot or two away.

She instinctively runs to me and we go for the front door eight or nine yards away. Inside, we peek out the door and I pull a camera out of my pocket and snap a picture of it.

My 6-year-old had just done a report on the snakes of India, and this was an Indian cobra. If you Google an image of it, it looks like it has a smiley face on the back of its hood.

The 4-year-old looked at my picture and said, “Look! It’s the smiley face!”

I’m taking drum lessons from this Indian guy. When he showed up, I said, “Dude, there’s a cobra here.” He didn’t care. He picked up a stone and started running after it. The snake ran into the bushes. But the bushes are inside our fence, so the cobra was still in the yard.

So I had to wait for the bush-cutter people to show up. And that took ages. Also, the grass has to be cut so the snake holes can be filled.

Only the bush cutters don’t do that: It’s something grass guys do. There’s only one lawnmower in the city, and it’s owned by a guy who wants $25 to cut this little area of grass.

Then we had to get four guys who were going to take out all the tall grass. I thought they’d come in with scythes and give it a crew cut. But they came with hoes and cut everything out at the roots, which takes forever. They want six bucks each for the day, and it took three days. That’s cheap. In Sweden the job would take 50 bucks an hour, but the guy would come with a riding lawnmower and finish in 45 minutes.

Q: So did they find the snake?

A: No, but they found a lot of snake holes. He didn’t go into the tall grass and sniff around. It’s not worth the snake-bite risk.

So they got rid of all the grass. There isn’t any grass now. They shaved the yard and plugged up all the snake holes.

Then we had pounds of cut grass and weeds.

It’s one stupid thing after another. It goes on and on.


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