Two men stand on the clifftop of Soul & Surf’s garden - one born in the hills, the other raised by the ocean - and discuss a mutual love of wave riding.
Surf instructor Varghees, born and bred near Kovolam on India’s south west coast, could best be described as a lion-hearted surfer; his prowess in the water and his reserved nature belied by a softness gifted to you over time spent with him. Rakhul, who grew up in the misty hills of Munnar, is all smiles and jokes. He jests at his dark skin – made darker from teaching in the water as a surf instructor too – playfully joking that before he arrived in Varkala, he was pale-skinned, blonde-haired and blue-eyed.
For these two friends, surfing has shaped them and in turn, they have shaped the surf community in this small coastal town of Varkala, where Soul & Surf was born just under ten years ago. For Rakhul especially, who learnt how to surf through the Sunday Surf Club, and who was put into training by Soul & Surf, it’s something which has and continues to shape his future.
Growing up in Munnar, located 5,200 feet above sea level, surfing was the last thing Rakhul thought he would be making a career out of when he was growing up.
He arrived in Varkala four years ago to visit a friend; yet seeing its burgeoning tourism and an opportunity to become exposed to new people from far and distant lands, he was compelled to stay.
“I had heard of surfing before, but I thought it was a really dangerous sport. I had been in the ocean but not many times; it was really rare for me to go. When I saw the ocean for the first time, I thought it was like a swimming pool; I thought you could just jump in and maybe touch the ground and walk.”
Rakhul spent his first two seasons here working in the cafe - like many of our surf instructors and assistants - and his love for surfing grew exponentially.
“I went surfing everyday. If I had a morning shift, I would have time to surf in the afternoon. My best wave came after 5 days - that’s when I could start to cross. When I got that first wave, it was amazing. I became addicted, I just wanted to do this more and more. I would grab my board everyday and go paddling, even if it was just to go and get wiped out.”
Even now, after four years of tirelessly surfing, learning and teaching, that surf stoke and utter excitement at being the ocean has clearly not worn off. I see it in his face when he talks about it; even more so in the water, especially when we paddle out together and I watch him catch waves. Rakhul has a distinct style, so a reflection of his infectious personality and unstoppable enthusiasm for everything and anything.
Soul & Surf paid for his training, which enabled him to making a living out of what he loves doing. He laughs that his parents have still never seen him surf; that when he goes home during the off-season (May-October, during monsoon months), “they say ‘you have to come home, you’re getting dark.’ When I show my photos to my mother, she thinks it’s so dangerous. If she came over here and saw me surf, she’d think ‘Oh my son is dead, he’s been eaten by the waves!’”.
Culturally, I have learnt that there is still a disconnect between generations here in Kerala. To become a surf instructor is so unfamiliar, so rooted in the tourism industry and so far from traditional labour-intensive work or the tech-driven, air-conditioned offices of India’s bustling cities; to make money from something like surfing seems like such a far-off dream. Yet here, it is a beautiful reality.
Similarly, Varghees’s family have never seen him surf. He grew up in a fishing village, 1 kilometre from Kovolam, having never known what surfing was. He dropped out of school early on to help earn money for his family, going out on the fishing boats and learning the family business. It wasn’t until he found out about a foundation program called SISP, which provided free transport, free education and free food, that his journey towards becoming a surf instructor really began.
“There were a lot of foreigners visiting for social work and to help in the school. I met this guy called Yellah who would take us to the beach. We would play games like football; but he was a surfer, and he said he was going to teach me surfing. I didn’t even know what that was.”
Learning to surf was a different experience for Varghees than it was for Rakhul. No foamies, no bigger boards. Just the small quiver of short boards Yellah had brought over from Europe. I can see that this education in surfing has informed his style in the water: so confident, so big and bold. At 14, he began his surfing career on the same boards he rides now, 13 years later.
Varghees has been a part of Soul & Surf from the beginning, meeting Ed & Sofie when they made a trip to Kovolam to check out waves, where he was working and teaching at Kovolam Surf Club, a respected NGO SISP which helps to motivate kids to stay in school through teaching them surfing (as well as offering lessons to tourists). Ed & Sofie offered him a job and he has been working every season in Varkala ever since.
Talking to Rakhul and Varghees, I am struck by their passion and excitement for surfing which seems to emerge in two such different ways. I think it’s what makes them such great instructors; the difference in the way they were brought into surfing, their individual styles both in and out of the water, yet this simultaneous relief and gratitude for what this opportunity has brought them.
Surfing - but also working in this environment - has enabled them accessibility to new people, new perspectives and even new waves in different countries. Varghees has journeyed to Portugal, Belgium, Holland, Sri Lanka and the Andaman Islands for his passion; Rakhul to Sri Lanka and Bali. They tell me that surfing has given them the chance to travel; to learn more about different waves and different people.
Yet here in Kerala - this is their home. Varghees speaks of his love of surfing here, noting that the waves are always different. Rakhul is eager to travel: “I want to try some different waves. I don’t know where. Maybe California!” In true Rakhul style, his infectious laugh starts every sentence, jesting at winning the lottery so he can build a wave garden high up in the mountains of Munnar. “We have lots of land there - like rice paddy fields - so if I get rich I would love to do that. I want to travel; but India is where I want to live.”
Their thirst for knowledge, to voyage far and wide and surf the world’s oceans - it is real and it is vast. But I think what makes them so special is their roots and their grasp of home. The opportunities surfing has given them have served them well: to discover that India is where they choose to belong.