We made it! All sixteen of us on Dave’s Best Quality South India Bicycle Adventure - from the Bay of Bengal to Fort Kochin on the Arabian Sea!
First, about the people. Not once during the entire trip did I feel threatened or at risk. Often we didn't even need to lock our bikes when we left them to go sightseeing (or templing, not really a word, but should be). This to me was the biggest revelation. I didn't expect to be so charmed by the people of Southern India! They are warm, friendly, gracious (...and hilarious).
Here’s a couple of our more memorable encounters - imagine if you will, lots of head bobbing and weaving, expressive hand gesturing and thick Indian accents:
When asked a question about the hotel, two employees responded, "We're on duty, but we're not working."
A young fellow whizzed by my bike on his motorcycle and shouted, "Welcum to here!"
In the middle of hard negotiations at a market stall, the vendor asked me what I wanted to pay for the item. I gave him a number considerably lower than his asking price and, holding his chest dramatically, he said, "You breaking my heart, Madam!"
Every single day of this epic journey, and sometimes several times a day, I had WTF moments when I was bewildered, awed, inspired, frustrated, thrilled or bemused. It’s impossible to be indifferent to this intoxicating country. It engenders strong emotion and tosses up the unexpected.
Let me summarize for you, in no particular order, some of high (and low) points of our odyssey:
One fellow from our group had a slow speed, head-on collision with a motorcycle. He hit the pavement and drew a crowd of interested spectators.
The brakes on our Indian rental bikes were as unpredictable as the country. One of our riders slammed on what she believed to be the rear brakes to miss a pothole spanning the entire width of the road. Unfortunately, the brakes were reversed - she hit only the front one and came to a sudden stop, flying over the handlebars into the hole she was attempting to avoid.
I’m happy to report both cyclists lived to finish the trip. In fact, a romance between the two of them blossomed en-route - no connection to their respective crashes, I'm sure!
We had a couple of monkey altercations. We’d stopped at a National Park and our bikes were leaning against a guardrail. From a tree branch above, a monkey dropped onto a pannier and opened it, tossing out the insect repellent in search of more palatable bounty. We yelled and shooed. He escaped with nothing of value.
Moments later, one of the younger members of our contingent was eating (something that resembled) chips when a large male of the same troupe sauntered over and aggressively grabbed the bag from his hand. The poor guy was traumatized, but recovered to ride again.
We got lost. In fact, sometimes we were lost the entire day. To say navigation was challenging in India is the epitome of understatement!
Each town sports two names, an old colonial one and a new one, the signs were in Tamil (or one of the other 1600 languages spoken in India) and GPS mapping didn't always accurately reflect the roads we were on. In rural areas, no one spoke any English to help with directions and the maps were next to useless. But we all somehow managed to turn up at the hotel each night with route-finding adventures to share over Happy Hour!
We drifted in a two-bedroom teak houseboat through the backwaters of Kerala (a 900 kilometre network of waterways that hugs the coast and trickles inland). Floating peacefully down canals dotted with blossoming lotus flowers and traversing palm-fringed lakes, we carefully avoided Chinese fishing nets and the wooden canoes of the local fisherman. A lovely Zen experience, at least until we had to haul our bikes off the boat, jump back in the saddle and keep riding.
No matter how small, every village in India had a teeming market selling a staggering range of goodies – anything you could possibly want (...except decent wine), and a whole lot of stuff you didn’t, although the vendors tried their best to convince you otherwise. Haggling was a given... and with blond hair, prices started high and negotiations were hard!
We saw mind-stirring contrasts in the landscape: First, The Good - we experienced the abundant natural beauty that is Southern India, up close and personal on our bicycles. Hillsides covered with carpets of emerald-green tea, lush misty pine and sandalwood forests, steamy, sun-washed beaches of the coast, the backwaters in Kerala, rice paddies, coconut groves, spice plantations, the list goes on and on....
Next, The Bad - The squalid living conditions, although the poverty wasn't nearly as in my face as I had anticipated. I suspect that may change when we visit Calcutta and Northern India.
And finally, The Ugly - garbage! It is everywhere and India has no infrastructure or system of recycling in place to deal with it. In fact, just try to find a garbage bin. Impossible!
And then there were temples! India didn't get to be a 5000-year-old civilization without having lots of ancient, sacred architecture. My poor husband, completely templed-out, suffered from a severe case of cultural overload!
We saw countless fat, happy cows...and even more skinny, less happy goats (being sacred does matter), trillions of sleeping dogs (day) and the same number of barking dogs (night). All of these critters wander the streets at will (even in the cities), munching on garbage, newspaper and who knows what else.
India has worst traffic and the most honking horns I've ever experienced...ANYWHERE. I am still proud of the way we dodged and weaved our way through streets of chaos entering the city of Trichy, without getting killed or maimed. I promise, I will never again complain about the traffic in Canada!
We are now comfortably ensconced in a lovely little boutique hotel at our ultimate destination...Fort Kochin, the first European township in India. The Portuguese settled here in the 15th century, then came the Dutch and finally the British. As a result, there is an exotic mix of cultures and religions. I mean where else could you find giant fishing nets from China, a 400-year old synagogue, ancient mosques, an impressive Catholic basilica, Portuguese houses and the crumbling remains of the British Raj on the tropical coast of the Arabian Sea? It's a great place to rest from our journey.
~Namaste, my friends~
Post-biking postscript: After we left Fort Kochin, we spent about four fascinating days (sans bikes) exploring the second largest city in India, crazy Kolkata (or as it used to be called, Calcutta)! Our buddy and bike leader, Dave, acted as our guide through the steamy, urban streets teaming with a population of over 5 million souls.
Then, we flew to Delhi where we hired a car and driver to wander through Rajistan (...in northern India), the land of the fabled maharajas, magnificent fortresses, lavish palaces, Unesco World Heritage sites....and, of course, the Taj Mahal. The place is like a fairy-tale mirage of a bygone era!
I've rode elephants and camels, charmed snakes, slept in an ancient Fort and a nobleman's palace and saw sights that would have been on my Bucket List if I knew they even existed!
Indian continues to confound and amaze me. It will take many trips to even start to unravel her mysteries...I'll be back, I'm sure!
Namaste, until the next adventure...