The Beach Hustler

“What did you say your name was?”

I logged it as Hustle, which wasn’t so hard to remember given his next offer.

“What is your plan tomorrow?”
“Meet me at 5am. I take you out on the water.”

I raised my eyebrow at my boyfriend. The man had fiercely glittering eyes and a toothy smile.

We had a thousand reasons to say no, but instead, we said yes.

The stars were out as we picked our way down the dirt path. The dogs of Varkala moved in the darkness and were alert to our footsteps as they sniffed at the burning piles of curled plastic and spiky metal. The markets were folded up and the corrugated shutters were down. The babies with dark kohl eyebrows to ward off evil and the boys learning how to ride motorbikes were fast asleep.

As he promised, he was there with his motorbike, waiting for us. Wings danced in his headlight. We bundled onto the worn leather saddle behind him, kickstarted down the hill and wobbled as we took a hairpin.

The sky turned a faded blue as we crossed Aaliyirakkm beach. Large black crabs scuttled away leaving patterns in the sand. Birds in profile picked at morsels left by the fisherman. The brightly painted boats stretched their necks towards the surf, waiting for the men to push them in. The water was sacred here.

The horizon was just starting to reveal itself as we pushed the thin kayak over the waves. Armed with wooden paddles, we quietly rowed out past the sandy cliffs and the palm plantations. Silhouettes of men casting nets waved as the sun began to spill bronze, then red, then gold over the surface towards us.

Mahesul pointed out an eagle as it dove and reappeared victorious, a long fish writhing in its beak as it launched back into the air. We dived into the water, holding our breaths but for a thin trail of bubbles that jetted upwards. Below, we saw angel fish, big black butterfly fish, large blue groupers with dorsal fins tinged with green. Around us shot small silver bullets, followed by blurry silver shapes with beating yellow tails.

He pointed to the coast and told us that he lived in this small village, called Chilakkoor, but he worked as a lifeguard at the popular tourist beach. We asked why we had seen the local men being chased away with whistles the day before, and he said they were not allowed to hassle the women sunbathing. I felt uncomfortable. The men did not seem to be doing anything wrong when they were shooed away. The beach should not belong to the visitors.

He told us that he was raised a fisherman with his brothers. The fisherman now ingeniously use cameras to see underwater to know where to cast their nets. He recalled that his first trip out to sea was a whale trip with his father. Dolphins are frequently spotted in the area but seeing sperm whales migrating north is a rare treat. Despite this, he chose to become a lifeguard. Four people drowned in these waters the year before due to the rip tides that swell around the crescent-shaped bay at Varkala. All of them were Indians who could not swim.

He changed his tone suddenly. “What does IST stand for?” he asked. We thought it stood for India Standard Time. He smiled wryly and replied, “No. India Streeeetching Time!”

As the light grew, the still magic dissipated and the true shapes of the trees were revealed. There were shouts from the beach as the first hauls were dragged in. Women and children joined the men as they untangled the nets. The crows and eagles were opportunistic and swarmed around the beached boats, flapping their shadowy wings.

We drove back to our guide’s home village. We sat outside a small shopfront, where we were handed a chocolate Mickey Mouse cake. The owner scowled at us when Mahesul interrupted her morning conversation with a friend. She disappeared into the dark room without a word before reemerging with three cups of sweet steaming chai. The thick skin on top cracked and sank as we stirred it with our finger, but left a thin film on the tip. We drank in amiable silence as two young boys played by the swamp and an old man rinsed his face at the pump, the only source of fresh water here. It was a world away from the yogic retreat of Varkala, ten minutes down the coast.

When we returned to our hostel, we took a stroll on the beach to settle into the day. Ascending the steep stone steps was a woman who wore a tower of cardboard, plastic hessian bags and crushed bottles on her head.

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