Updated: Apr 3, 2018
How an off-beat assignment in December '17 took me to Gokarna, where I learnt respect for physical hard work, the value of doing nothing, and, most importantly, that a café by the beach is a terrible corporate retirement plan.
All those in cubicles, working well past sunset, handling work enough for 3 of you, battling a crazy deadline, dreaming of quitting the madness, raise your hands. You want to purge in the simple joys of farming, don't you? Run a chilled-out beach café, maybe? Or just travel the world? The pressures of corporate life often throw such pure, feel-good desires.
So, when my friend, a traveler with very itchy feet, invited me to her restaurant she was partnering at in Gokarna, it was all those desires coming true, rolled-up in one!
Sprawling fields sprouting oregano, parsley, spinach, herbs and sweet potatoes. A simple home beyond the fields, opening up to the beach and a jog to the restaurant. And, the restaurant itself absolutely gorgeous, slowly revealing itself in the rising sun when I arrived in the wee morning hours. The chilly December morning was pregnant with the good times, what with Christmas and New Years just around the corner.
I had a swagger about how I had beaten every other fried jobber who would kill to be in my shoes, on this quiet eastern stretch of the main Gokarna beach. I was already on a break from my 18 years career in advertising MNCs a few months prior. Hello, short-term retirement life! Hello, digital nomadic life!
I accompanied my friend around like an excited trainee. Restaurant life starts early, as everything needs to be prepped before people start getting hungry. And, ends late because guests don’t go home despite full stomachs and protesting livers. You are surrounded by gorgeous food, but obviously you can't eat the income. Mixing cocktails is fun, but drunk customers are so not! You are on your toes all day, quite literally. There are market visits and shopping, supplies management, customer-traffic management with special events and menu revamps, language issues, erratic electricity issues, disturbed neighbour issues, toxic people-politics and the most challenging of the lot, lady boss issues. My friend had been at it since the start of season for 4 months, round-the-clock, without a single day’s break.
Wait! That is nothing like the retirement I imagined! This is a fuller full-time job on the contrary. What imbecile advertising people sell this as a retirement dream?! A week later, with even more respect for my friend and her hard work, I threw in the towel. The realisation dawned when the sun set most days without me having the time to catch it.
In a cold cubicle in the city, it somehow seems OK not to care for a sunset. But out here, when the setting sun is kissing the open restaurant golden, it is criminal to miss it.
I wobbled away with the shattered pieces of my retirement dream on swollen feet, a desperate need to lapse into sweet nothing. And that, I worked out, was the perfect plan for Gokarna.
When you relax and do little in Gokarna, a lot of things just come to you.
1. Meet some ridiculously interesting people
This really is the top of my list. Apparently, Gokarna is a hippie and junkie joint and one must always be on the guard. But do drop your guard and you’ll encounter some refreshing perspectives to life.
When I was staring at the waves one evening, a wonderful man came up to me and pointed out the dolphins that I hadn't seen jumping right before my eyes, and he disappeared down the beach. He made my sunset into one of the most dramatic ones with a foreground of dolphins elegantly diving in and out of the red-orange water.
I met a bright, engrossing conversationalist, a German who could speak on spirituality and bitcoin with equal depth of knowledge, whose career choice is to be unemployed.
A sprightly, young, single mother of 3 super-active kids who said, “They are each from a different man. And, no, I’ve never been married. You don’t need a husband to have children.”
An Italian who looks like Dali, speaks immaculate Hindi, and, can do Punjabi and Tamil accents.
My next-door neighbour, a Kannadiga lady, who boiled hot water for my bath every day and bid me goodbye like a heartbroken mother, when I was leaving.
A fierce Romanian girl who works towards protecting the stray dogs of Gokarna from poisoning by locals. She was going the lengths to get a passport for her beloved dog, Mala, who she rescued from poisoning twice, to take back to her country.
And, by no measure is this list exhaustive.
2. Saunter into a kitchen. Cook with locals from other countries.
Contrary to learning something local, I ended up learning how to make a Christmas cake and a Banofee Pie, compliments of the season, from the very genial Nepali head chef, Sanu bhai. I also stumbled upon an advertising trick I hadn’t used previously in my career - Consuming your creation before your customers. Result: We were sold out. [Well, I couldn't keep my hands off it, myself!]
We also learnt how to knead, stretch, spin and bake a pizza, Italian style, from a travelling Italian, who could only communicate in Italian. He was carrying ingredients all the way from hometown Sicily to satiate his pizza cravings.
3. Stare at the night sky
Gokarna feels the quietest after a sundown. Unlike Goa, where people get into party mode, Gokarna starts to wind down and the dimly-lit beach stretches offer an excellent opportunity to do some stargazing. On clear nights, the sky is studded with gleaming white gems and you sit under them and thank the universe for being for so kind to you.
You may see some bonfire groups; Some people singing and playing a guitar in the dark, but mostly, it’s empty. Do carry a torch and be safe.
4. Swim in the sea
The waters of Gokarna are so inviting. The beach inclines a bit near the water which make it like a swimming pool. So even though you may not go too far into the water, you will feel a very full sea around you, the waves playing about with a lot of energy.
5. Meditation/Yoga on the morning beach
The water’s always too cold in the morning to swim in. It’s best to enjoy a session of morning yoga or meditation as the sun climbs up and warms your back in the winter morning.
6. Play Frisbee with the boys
Evenings is the congregation of sports on the beach. Football, Frisbee, running, walking, volleyball. Pick your sport and join the gang.
7. Walk through the fields in the night
This is a freaky experience. Every time I returned home from the restaurant on the narrow dirt path by the fields, I felt like there was someone one behind me, which made me quicken my steps. Perhaps an echo of my own footsteps. Every time I turned around to check, there was no one but chirping crickets.
8. Enjoy music jams by travelling musicians
Gokarna has many travelling musicians and local talent who are always looking for a chance to perform and make some money. Watch out for these jam sessions. Pamphlets mostly get circulated in the bazaar. Or, ask in restaurants for live events. Some sessions are unscheduled and impromptu, depending on the instrument the musicians are carrying with them.
9. Visit a temple or two
Gokarna is a temple town. And that’s what makes it distinctly different to Goa that’s just upstate. My auto-rickshaw guy told me that it will take at least a month to visit all the temples of Gokarna. The famed ones are Mahabaleshwara temple housing the 1500-year-old deity, the Ganapati temple, the AadiGokarneshwara temple and the Kotiteertha.
My favourite, really, was the Rama Temple. It’s a small climb up a hill with a gorgeous view of the sea. But the biggest draw is the deliciously light spring water here that’s mineral rich and free for all to carry back.
10. Play with pups
I have to admit I’m not an animal person. I take my time with dogs. But the little fellas here are persistent in getting you to like them.
11. Lounge in a café
There are a lot of food options in Gokarna – Continental, French, Indian, Mediterranean and the spicy Mangalorean. Many cafes have Kombucha, a fermented tea drink. Take a stroll down any beach and pick a café depending on your mood for food. Lounge about for as long as you like, listening to music, reading a book, watching the waves or catching a nap.
My pick is MG cafe that's enroute Rama Temple, on an elevation, away from the hustle-bustle of the tourists. Being relatively new, it's not too crowded. You get authentic Mangalorean thali here. There's continental and Indian fare too. It's affordable, delicious, quiet and has an unbeatable view!
12. Learn a language
When foreigners here can speak our language, perhaps we can learn theirs too. So, if you are up for it and have the time, try learning a new language. A lot of them stay here for months and are always up for a cultural exchange. I was able to brush up my rather elementary French quite by chance, thanks to the darling 8-year old Jhunko, who conversed best in French.
13. Discover new sunset spots
Beach trekking is one of the top activities in Gokarna where you discover the 5 main beaches lined up - Gokarna beach, Kudle beach, OM beach, Half Moon beach and Paradise beach.
Trekking didn’t fit into my ‘Do nothing’ theme, but I did catch sun sets from various spots along these beaches. And, each one is rivetingly different!
One of my favourite sundowner spots was Bhagwan Café. The end of Gokarna beach is marked by this beautiful café that you get to when you cross a bridge over a lagoon. The sunset here is a quadruple band of gold; the sky, the sea, the sand and the lagoon. If you are lucky, you will see a silhouetted acrobat working with his glass orb, as you dig into their never-ending Greek salad.
Don’t leave without this!
70-year-old Raphelos is a travelling salesman who designs his own silver jewellery and knows his precious stones. There’s no telling where to find him. He’ll find you and bring you his beautiful baubles. He’s always up for a bit of bargaining, sarcasm and flirting.
Getting to Gokarna, Karnataka, India
Air: Nearest airport is Vasco Da Gama Airport, Dabolim, Goa, 154 km away.
Train: Nearest train staion is Gokarna Station, 9 km away.
Bus: Direct buses from Goa, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Kochi and Mysore. Several departure time options available.
I took a sleeper a/c overnight bus from Bangalore that reached me in 9.5 hours.
My experience was thanks to Neha Bhalla, at Chez Chirstophe on the main Gokarna Beach. It’s also known as the French café, just after Shanti Guesthouse. Or, just look for the most relaxed and tastefully done restaurant on the entire stretch. The food is excellent but priced on the higher side. The ambience is loungey and makes you want to stay longer.