Emerging from Trivandrum airport ahead of schedule, thanks to an Indigo domestic flight whose early arrival seemed inevitable given the snappy efficiency of its Austin-Powers-in-a-good-way cabin crew, I expected the Asia-standard zombie infestation of predatory taxi/rickshaw drivers at the arrivals threshold. So it was shields up, mirror shades on, set phasers to 'fuck you' - which made me look a bit stupid as everyone got on with their lives and ignored me. Yep, we're in Kerala people and they do things differently down here. Travel agent Anil, with standard issue white non-AC Hindustan Ambassador, pitches up within a couple of minutes and my hassle-free Indian airport pickup is done. Skipping the highway we take the coast road - 5.30pm on a weekday with everyone on their way home, so as the heat bleeds away towards another superfast equatorial sunset, the journey offers a perfect window into Keralan public life - impromptu cricket on a dusty roadside wicket; an outdoor meeting at a bright pastel Catholic church; families perambulating along the seafront. I get bonus points for a temple elephant spot and thoroughly enjoy my first hour or so outside India's airport infrastructure.
As always in India, resist the urge to even consider worrying about the driving - it IS perfectly possible for your taxi to overtake a rickshaw whilst a truck comes at you head-on on a single carriageway road, as long as everyone knows their part in this looping, perfectly synchronised fossil-fuelled ballet. The lightest touch on the horn from Anil and both the rickshaw and the truck slide onto their respective dirt shoulders, leaving a clear gap. Give a little, get a little - the horn isn't an expression of anger and frustration as in the West (yes, we're talking about you, BMW drivers). Instead, it's a simple declaration of where you are and what you're doing - auditory situational GPS - low tech, but reliable.
This is a holiday rather than some grand adventure, so I'm going to ease into India slowly, and there's no better place to do that than Varkala. Varkala Beach, and more specifically Varkala North Cliff, are explicitly NOT India - the Arabian Sea coast of Western India mostly resembles Cheryl Cole - flat and dull - but at Varkala crumbling red cliffs either side of a headland offer a pretty visual diversion from beach blandness.
Varkala Beach is a traveller cocoon, with bikinis on the sand and cookie-cutter multi-cuisine restaurants on the cliff above, while South of the Helipad it's all saris for swimsuits and the noisy, collective enjoyment of Indian families en vacance. I liked both, and didn't have a problem with either. Purist travellers can be very snobbish about Varkala, but what's the point?
Every restaurant and cafe has the same £2.99 garage forecourt bargain bin chillout CD on a loop. It's not stuff I'd listen to at home, but nor is it offensive - India is as exhausting as it is rewarding, so is it THAT bad that, along the thousand-kilometre Keralan coastline, a single one of those kilometres contains a strip of restaurants where you can sit in comfy chairs and watch the sun go down as you check your email?
Yep, there's little or no authentic South Indian food to be had, but since half the restaurants are run by super-friendly Nepalis, there are some cracking steamed veg momos on offer - definitely inauthentically Indian, but also definitely delish.
End of season as during my stay, which meant guest house bargains all over the place - basic rooms close to the beach from INR300 if you want them.
A couple of downsides, in truth - there's a fine line between quiet and dead, and in Varkala that line appears to be the second week of May - restaurants were closing down whilst I was there, or open in name only - at Gypsy Kings Cafe one afternoon, given a 3 page drinks menu, my opening bid for a Mango Lassi was rejected out of hand as were both my backup request for an orange juice and my last-ditch stand of a Sprite. OK, cards on the table people, what have you got? The answer it seemed was Fat Coke, served at room temperature. Wifi still worked though, so no real complaints.
And, as fellow Traveller Amisha discovered a week or so after me, some of the genuinely attractive local highlights are for peak season only, such as the nightly Kathkali performances at the Varkala Cultural Centre.
I'd still recommend Varkala Beach though - for a few days it was just about perfect to de-jetlag, grab hold of a local SIM card and get a refresher course in rickshaw negotiation skills.