30th October – Varkala/Trivandrum, Kerala, India

It’s a funny kind of day. I’m tired and spend much of my final day’s surfing bobbing about in the ocean gazing out at the waves and contemplating my onward journey. Today I’ll be leaving Soul and Surf and tomorrow I’ll be leaving India altogether. To be honest this is where my solo adventure begins – I have no real set plans and no more tours booked, I can go where I want, how I want, when I want. I catch a few waves, I wipe out a couple of times, but my final attempt sees me standing and surfing from out back to the beach in a textbook ride. I step out of the ocean and onto the beach happy with the knowledge that I have dipped my toe into the world of surfing and not been an absolute disaster at it (as I am with most other sports!).

After breakfast I finish packing, check out of my room and laze around the garden reading and snoozing.

At 2pm I have an indulgent hour long full body massage with Emma, Soul and Surf’s resident masseuse. Emma has magic hands and to soothing background music in her treatment room with the sound of cracking thunder and falling rain outside I completely zone out as she expertly rubs them massaging my tight surfing muscles with warm coconut oil. The hour passes way too quickly and I am left in a meditative state, relaxed and revitalised.

Under the garden dining room canopy, protecting me from the pouring rain I have time for my favourite meal here, the fish tacos, and a final coconut water before my taxi arrives to whisk me off to Trivandrum. I say a fond farewell to the staff and guests and hit the road leaving the peace and tranquility of Soul and Surf for the chaos and beeping of the Indian roads once more. What should be an hour journey takes two long hours as the rain comes down and the traffic comes to a standstill. There are elections due to take place in Kerala and the entire time we have been here vehicles drive the streets with massive speakers tied to the roof blaring out annoying music and the declarations of the candidates party promises at a ridiculously loud volume. I’m stuck in traffic and they are all around me – there is no escape, the situation couldn’t be worse except I need a wee!

The hotel is nice, all things considered (nothing is going to live up to the standard of Soul and Surf). It’s clean and my room is nice. I have a shower, watch crappy tv and order room service. As I eat my vegetable biryani in bed I say an internal prayer that I don’t wake tomorrow with a bubbly tum!

29th October – Varkala, Kerala, India

At long last surfing conditions are excellent in the water in front of Soul and Surf today, meaning we can just walk down the cliff steps from the garden to the beach. Rachel has joined too for a final lesson before she leaves me this afternoon bound for Mumbai then Sydney.

The highlight of today’s lesson comes when I manage to catch a green wave and ride it for a bit totally unassisted, so awesome. I am silently devastated when Tyler asks for a go on my lucky white board and snaps off the nose in a massive wave. I just cannot get used to using a red board and nose dive a lot. Reading the waves is such a skill that I lack and it is complete luck whenever I manage to ride a wave. Mostly I just panic when a wall of water comes at me. The feeling of standing up successfully though is so worth the tremendous amount of wipeouts.

After breakfast my travel buddy Rachel leaves. I am so happy that we got to know each other and had such a wonderful tour together through India. It isn’t goodbye for good though as we have future plans (watch this space!). After her sad departure I do what I do best, sunbathing. I do however multi task – booking flights, accommodation, completing e-visas and doing travel research. Before I know it it’s lunchtime, followed by more sun.

My final rooftop yoga class absolutely relaxes me as the sunsets into the ocean. I am filled with calm and at the end of the session could lay on the floor all evening. I thank Hayley for my first introduction to my new hobby and promise to continue practising on my onward journey.

Tonight is the Soul and Surf BBQ, we dine on fish and an array of healthy salads. Followed by gajar halwa, a most delicious dessert made from spiced grated carrots, fruit and nuts served with ice cream. We chat and have freshly prepared juices spiked with rum. I head back to my room to pack my bags and settle down for a final night’s sleep at Soul and Surf.

28th October – Varkala, Kerala, India

I wake up this morning and can’t get out of bed. Normally this would be because I am so very tired and also kinda lazy, but this morning it is because of my stupid rib. I have to hug my pillow to my right side to allow myself, in a rocking motion, get the momentum to stand up without screaming. Once I’m actually no longer horizontal I feel much better but, as I am about to embark on surf lesson number 4, the plan is to spend a great deal of this morning laying face down on a surfboard.

The conditions today are super clean. There is no sign of a riptide as in previous days, the waves are long and I have a very good feeling. Because of the perfect surfing conditions we are heading “out back” – gulp! This means that we will paddle out on our boards beyond the white water to the flatter water beyond. This does scare me as I have the Jaws theme music playing in my mind almost all of the time that I’m in the water and now I am sitting astride my board both out of my depth physically and out of my depth mentally. Luckily Nick our instructor is here to guide us and calls us forward one by one to manually push us into the waves, no paddling necessary, all we need to do is stand up. After a few wipeouts and with Nick’s advice, “keep calm and just pop up”, I manage to ride my first wave. It is such a buzz and surprisingly high as the power of the surging green wave lifts me up and forward before crashing down – I go tumbling into the surf with a huge smile on my face. I am a surfer! (Not a particularly good one but a damn good tryer).

I discover while waiting out back for my next turn that behind the surf zone is a chat zone! Sara, Lucy and I sit on our boards, bobbing up and down, watching the flying fish seemingly bounce across the water, chatting and really getting to know each other. Nick has taught us how to look for sets of waves and encourages us to shout “set” when we see them – childishly this becomes “sex!” And gets a laugh every time.

After breakfast I sunbathe. Later I join Rachel on a shopping excursion to North Cliff where she umms and ahhs over handbags. Back at Soul and Surf I eat fish wrapped in a banana leaf – it is so good. Rachel, Sara, Lucy, Kurt and I have booked paddle boarding this afternoon. We are taken in a tuk-tuk and together with a guide we navigate Kerala’s back waters. The wide calm river is lined with lush tropical palm trees as we paddle slowly along maintaining our balance. It begins to rain, with sheet lightening, but we endeavour on our journey. As the rain lightens we pass through a huge expanse of water, our guide points out the return of the rain way off in the distance but travelling towards us like a wall of wet. The water’s surface is rippled by the heavy downpour and we brace ourselves for it’s imminent arrival – it hits us hard, visibility is reduced, but still we continue on. Such a weird experience standing on the water below but getting drenched by the water from above. Then as fast as it arrived the rain is gone, the sky clears and we begin to dry. We all agree that the experience has been heightened and made all the more memorable by the rain. We pass under a road bridge waving at the school children shouting from their bus. We pass under a rail bridge and see the sleeper train speeding passed. We reach our furthest point at a gigantic lake. We’ve seen fishing boats along the river but this expanse has no other users, it is all ours. Eerily hundreds of birds of prey fly above us making circles in flight. We pause for a few photos then turn around and head back. The return journey is way quicker as we are assisted by the current, the sun sets and the sky turns pink. Cows moo and somewhere in the near distance Indian music plays carried on the wind to us. It is all a little surreal as dusk settles, I feel like I’m in a film and wouldn’t be surprised if the head of a diplodocus pushed between the palms.

Back at the retreat we enjoy a balcony beer and dinner in the garden, Rachel’s last supper – incredibly sadly tomorrow she leaves on her journey towards Sydney. I leave her packing in her room and head to bed.

27th October – Varkala, Kerala, India

Today I give myself a day off from surfing. My rib, which I now suspect may be cracked, needs a rest so I sleep in. 11 hours do wonders and I wake feeling refreshed. I’ve booked an extra night here at Soul and Surf on Thursday night so I can take today’s lesson off guilt free and bolt on another lesson on Friday. I still haven’t decided what to do from here but need to give it some serious thought at some point!

I have a leisurely breakfast with Rachel and Sara and some of the others. Then spend a few hours sunbathing on the cliff top. It is so lovely and relaxing here, but around lunchtime we decide to finally leave the paradise bubble and head to North Cliff with Oleg who lives in Ireland but is Russian. North cliff is the main touristy area, a line of shops, restaurants, lodgings and hotels line the cliffs edge overlooking the ocean. We eat lunch at Cafe del Mar, a scrumptiously spicy chicken tikka roll in naan bread, then wander in and out of the shops all the way along the cliff. The girls haggle for clothes, Rachel orders a pair of tailored trousers and I buy a scarf for the cold days ahead in China and Japan – the lady asks for 800 rupees, I leave paying 300! (£3).

I chill out in my room for an hour before yoga on the roof, but take care during class not to aggravate my annoying rib. During child pose Hayley rubs the most amazing smelling ointment onto my shoulders, warm and mentholated I feel myself totally relax. After a quick shower, I take a swift dash down to the cafe for a can of Sprite and a couple of glasses filled with ice and limes to enjoy our dark rum contraband! Kerala has strict drinking laws but we can drink in our rooms. Rachel, Sara and I have a beverage on my balcony before dinner.

Tonight we dine at Kumari’s. A short tuk-tuk drive to a house where Rachel, Sara, Kate, Joel, Oleg and I sit together at a table in the garden. Loads of home cooked vegetarian food is presented about 15 dishes in all. Rice, poppadums, curries, raitas, shredded salads, spiced potatoes, dal, spicy chickpeas, creamy beetroot and sweet sliced pineapple. We spoon out the wonderful array of dishes not onto plates but onto a sheet of banana leaf. Then begin sampling the tasty offerings. There is more food than we could ever imagine eating, even after seconds the dishes are brimming. It is all delicious – not a dud dish amongst them! Dessert comes in a small handled glass – the lovely chef explains from her seat on the porch when we ask that it is a mixture of milk, fresh banana, sugar, cardamom, cinnamon and a Cadbury boost heated together then frozen to a drinkable smoothie. When she’s not looking we add our own final touch (a slug of rum!) it tastes like actual heaven. I can honestly say this humble home garden restaurant serves one of the tastiest, original and most memorable meals I’ve had in India. Feeding the cow my banana leaf plate before we leave is a great ending to a lovely evening.

Back at home we have a final drink on my balcony before bed.

26th October – Varkala, Kerala, India

Surf lesson 3. The conditions have deteriorated since yesterday, battling against the rip tide is such an exhaustive chore and at times, due to the messy waves, I can’t tell which way is out. Waves come at me from all directions including from the beach! How does that happen? My bruised rib is doing my head in, every time a wave crashes into it or I lay on the board I get a shooting pain, but I’m now a hardcore surfer so I persist. I still haven’t lost my Johnny Utah mojo yet and I manage to succeed in today’s lesson – rail turns in the pigdog stance. Crouching low, gripping the outside rail with my right hand and touching the wave with my outstretched left hand. This results in a tighter turn and allows me to ride the wave parallel with the beach rather than just heading directly towards it. My first attempt sees me grab the wrong side of the board resulting in a wipeout. The Guinness advert music plays in my head – “tick followed tock followed tick followed tock”. I only manage to succeed at pulling off a rail turn twice but that’s enough as I am so tired today. I take regular breaks and watch as, like me, my fellow surfers struggle against the tide to get out into the ocean. On one attempt I wade out by the rocks at one end of the small beach, get battered by the churning foam so much that I find myself at the other end of the beach by the other rocks and have to get out and walk back along the sand to where I started without even catching one wave.

Back at base I take a shower and head down for brekkie then collapse into a hammock in the garden where I remain for a majority of the day reading and writing. Astrid, Ian and Sarah come and hang out with me for a while – the only time I move is to use the loo. This is the life. We sip blended coconut ice and talk about all sorts of stuff – mostly we laugh. We eat lunch with Rachel followed by lounger lounging. I utilise Rachel’s bath while she’s at breathing yoga class to do all of mine and Rachel’s washing.

Yoga this evening is so relaxing. The view is stunning from up here on the rooftop. Palm trees wave, the beautiful sun sets and in the distance, dotted in the ocean like stars, lights on the fishing boats twinkle as the fishermen cast their nets. Later, when it is dark, from the cliff top you could be fooled into thinking that there is an inhabited island out in the ocean as hundreds of boats fish through the night.

Sarah, Rachel and I leave Soul and Surf to dine at a family restaurant nearby with Al and Elaine. Beef fry, tomato curry, masala dosa and vegetable rice – very southern Indian. Then back at Soul & Surf we drink rum cocktails and listen to Brian play his guitar accompanied by Sarah and Astrid singing. Exhausted I turn in for the night.

25th October – Varkala, Kerala, India

Inspired by last night’s surf cinema screening of Point Break this morning I have decided to channel my inner Johnny Utah for my second surf lesson and it only freaking works. I’m standing again and with the encouragement of Nick and Alec, the surf instructors, I learn to steer my board and switch step from regular to goofy mid-surf (it’s way more impressive than it sounds!). Although we are only learning and working with the broken waves closer to the beach I am so chuffed with myself. Alec shows me how to speed up and slow down the board to keep myself in the wave’s sweet spot. Today, however, the surf conditions are messy. There is a strong sideways current making walking out with my board exhausting and the waves are much bigger than yesterday with less time in between consecutive waves. By the end of the 2 and a half hour lesson I am pooped.

Breakfast is followed by sunbathing, though the sun never makes it through the clouds, therefore breakfast is followed by cloudbathing. I am achy. When it starts to shower we seek refuge under the sheltered sofa area. Then munch a traditional thali lunch followed by a much needed nap.

I wake up for yoga on the roof, it hurts today with my surf injuries: I’ve bruised my ribs and I have skinned my left knee – how cool am I? I am the proud owner of surfing injuries!

The kitchen is closed this evening so after drinks with Rachel and Sarah on my balcony we venture off campus to North Cliff. The cliff top is lined with tourist shops and restaurants. Rachel, Sarah, Kirk, Lucy and I meet Astrid and Brian at Darjeeling for drinks before heading to My Place for dinner. My camera has finally given up and refuses to work which is devastating as we’ve been companions this entire trip. Back at Soul and Surf we all chat in the garden then at 1am head to our rooms – I’ve got surfing in 5 and a half hours!

24th October – Varkala, Kerala, India

Yesterday was my first yoga lesson. Today is my first surfing lesson. It is 6.30am, I am in the garden eating mini bananas, yogurt and drinking coffee. I have decided to embrace surfing even though the thought of it terrifies me – therefore I put on a brave face as I put on my rash vest.

After a short drive in our surfboard topped super cool mint green buggy we arrive at Black Beach, so called due to the volcanic sand being black. The waves look incredibly rough to me and totally unsurfable but it appears that this is where we beginners will be learning. Our instructor Alec is very calm and very professional – he teaches us the knowledge we need to be safe and courteous to other surfers in the water. We learn the basics on the dry sand and then put these new skills into practice in the water. Body surfing first. The water is a lovely 28 degrees bath-tub warm and after a few attempts we have body surfing down.

I don’t remember learning to stand as a baby but I imagine it was pretty difficult – today I learn to stand again, on a surfboard, propelled by a giant unpredictable wave in the Arabian Sea – simple. There is so much to remember – look for a lonely wave with a straight break of foaming water, lay on the board not too far back not too far forward, paddle slowly looking for the wave behind you, board must be facing directly forward, just before impact paddle hard and fast, then move hands by chest and push up arching your back, then bring your foot to your hands, then stand up, weight 60% on your front foot, both feet over the centre line of the board, low stance, arms outstretched, feet facing forwardish, open chest and head up – not so simple.

I wipe out a lot. My long legs don’t do what I want them to do. Alec suggests that I try to pop up – jumping onto both feet at the same time. His actual words, and I quote, “James you look very athletic” – I have never heard these words before in reference to me, but I am flattered and decide to believe the hype. It works – a bit of positive mental attitude and I’m standing, riding a wave. It is over as soon as it begins but it’s a marked improvement and such a rush. For the rest of lesson I improve, riding waves to the shore standing. Like yoga, I have another new love – surfing.

On return to the retreat breakfast is served and we are ravenous. A fresh fruit platter followed by fresh banana pancakes and as much coffee as we can drink.

I spend the afternoon sunbathing in the cliff top garden. Rachel and I eat fresh fish tacos in the shade then head out to buy a few bottles of beer to drink later this evening. Yoga on the rooftop stretches out our aching limbs from using unfamiliar muscles surfing. We drink a beer on my balcony. Tonight is surf cinema night and a screen has been erected in the garden. We eat wood fired pizza and watch the 90’s classic Point Break starring Patrick Swayze and Keanu Reeves. Then bed.