“A most happy Pongal,” insert famous head wobble (an ambiguous gesture that can mean yes, maybe or I have no idea)."Welcum to India, Madam!"
We arrived at 2:30 a.m. in Chennai, Southern India, after about 24 hours of travelling - our bags did not. Filling out Indian luggage claim forms (plural - there were lots of them, all with multiple carbon copies) proved to be a lengthy and exhausting process taking several hours. We finally crawled into our hotel bed about the time the sun was starting to bake its way through the exhaust-laden morning sky.
The experience taught me my first lesson about this country. Patience is mandatory! Here's a snapshot of my conversation with the young airline clerk who handled our baggage claim:
In an accent you could cut with a Butter Chicken knife, he said, "No, no most honourable madam. Your bags, they are not lost! No, no, not to worry!"
I responded, by asking him, "Well...where are they, then?"
Bobbing his head he replied, "They are just not here!" He gave me a big smile and bobbed his head some more. “Not to worry, Madam.”
Obviously, I have much to learn. It seems I’m going to have to adopt the Indian philosophy, "It will be alright in the end, and if it's not alright, it's not the end...most honourable Madam!
The plan: sixteen of us, all similarly-crazed cyclists, are going to navigate by bike across Southern India from the Bay of Bengal to the Arabian Sea – around 800 km coast-to-coast.
Our illustrious leader and quirky friend, Dave (the “Dave” in Dave’s Best Kwality South India Bicycle Adventure), is a professional freelance photographer for publications such as Canadian Geographic, Elle and MacLean’s... and, we’re hoping...a best kwality guide! His passion for this country is contagious.
Auspiciously, we landed smack in the middle of the Pongal Festival. Dave tells us it is a Tamil celebration for family and friends to come together and give thanks to the gods for the harvest. To truly embrace Pongal, Dave says it’s imperative we visit the beach.
Cramming ourselves into about six tuk-tuks, we slalomed through crowded streets so narrow they clearly were never meant for cars. Dodging vegetable carts, rickshaws, scooters, people and cows adorned with garlands of fresh marigold flowers, we arrived just before the sun set over the Bay of Bengal. Greeting us was a sparkling sea of techni-colour saris. We estimated there had to be at least 500,000 souls on the 30-kilometer stretch of golden sand beach. We were the only Caucasians.
I was stunned! There are moments you remember all your life. This was one of them for me. Music, chatter, kids, colour, crowds and cooking odours combined to create a crazy, carnival-like atmosphere. There were rudimentary, people-powered rides for the little ones and concession stands grilling mystery meals. Balloon, kite and cotton candy hawkers worked the crowds. And we were one of the side shows.
We got mobbed. People wanted to shake our hands, wish us a Happy Pongal, give us their babies, take our photos, their photos and be in photos with us! I felt like a Bollywood rock star and hubby, Don, looked like one. He has been sporting lovely, pearl-white shades – my second pair - as his sunglasses are still traveling around Southeast Asia in our lost luggage.
We are leaving Chennai soon. Our group will ride through the world famous heritage sites and traditional temples of Tamil Nadu, then climb to the breathtaking hill stations in Western Ghats, followed by a magnificently, sweet descent into the bird sanctuaries and enchanting waterways of Kerala. The trip will culminate in the colorful spice trading streets of Cochin.
Let the adventures begin...