Cycling India: final thoughts, coconuts and Cochin.
The crack as the coconut hits the ground, the rip as its husk is torn away, the thwack of the machete as it splits it in half...Much like most of my experiences over the previous 3 months it is the small details, sounds and smells that stick in my head.
Whats the opposite of sensory deprivation?
I was told India is an assult on your senses. I think it less an assualt, more a sensory 'examination', it tests your taste buds with wicked levels of spice, pumps your esrs full of blaring horns, beats upon your skin with sun and a layer of dust and grime, widens your eyes with scenes too bizarre to be believed, and its air swirls with aromas that fight with each other for supremacy. India makes sure all your senses are in good working order, and then says "right then, TRY THIS!".
In three months of travelling through India, I only managed to scratch the surface of the myriad of things to see and do, (and smell and taste). I missed out on so much, but came across plenty I had not planned for, and in no way feel shortchanged by my time there. I am glad there is so much more I want to explore here, it gives me many an excuse to visit the country again. I am grateful for those lucky moments in which I stumbled upon wonderful human interactions - drinking tea with a camel farmer, chatting with runners in Mumbai, watching the collection and husking of coconuts. Simple things, with big payoffs that left me with an even bigger grin.
The scale of this country is beguiling, with 122 official languages it is not even possible to learn a basic few words to get by. You must resort to hand waving, attempt a few head wobbles and hope the limited English spoken by some of the population is enough.
The landscape I travelled through morphed from a concrete and metal jungle in the alleys of old Delhi to a dry and dusty desert as I made my way through Rajasthan. Into Gujarat, the desert gave way to greenery, and lush farmland became a welcome sight in place of the barren ground that stretched as far as the eye can see. The mountains of Maharashtra rose abruptly from these pancake-flat roads I’d become accustomed to and offered views down onto rice paddies, cornfields and impenetrable forest below. Pristine beaches in Goa threw up a taste of the European beach break, soundtracked by chart music and flanked with hipster hangouts. The coastal roads of Karnataka wound through small fishing villages, with beaches not so pristine, instead covered in discarded waste, old fishing nets and wilting wooden boats. Finally Kerala, where my journey ended. ‘God’s own country’ proved to be a perfect place to call time on India. With coconut tree-lined highways to quench my thirst, beautiful blue waters in which to cool off and laughably cheap food with which to refuel, this was paradise for a tired cyclist.
In fact, with its abundance of repair shops, bike shops, food and water stalls, cheap accommodation, fantastic highways and diversity of landscape, India proved to be one of the most incredible places I have ever cycled.
What I will remember most about this period of time is not the big things, but the small quirks and habits, the minute differences in head wobble that can mean very different things, and the contrast to a European way of doing things that is so ingrained in my psyche. I was glad to break out of it. This is little India.
Landscapes transform from dusty desert to a glut of green fields in an instant. Mountains rise on the horizon, at the end of the flattest of roads you have been travelling for weeks. Languages are just as diverse, with each region having its own official language, as well as countless other dialects. “Namaste” can only get you so far here.
Workmen wear smart trousers and a well-pressed shirt even if they are digging pits, climbing over trash heaps, or mixing cement. It is a place where women are doing all the jobs that men do, and wear colourful saris while doing so, no matter if it involves hard manual labour, the men are shown how it is done here. A place where the phrase “health and safety gone mad” cannot be uttered, because there isn’t any.
Rickshaw drivers sit cross-legged, settled in for a long day on the roads they travel every day of every week of every month, often earning money for families hundreds of miles away, protected from the choking streets their breadwinner must battle each day. Phones often are glues to ears.
Head wobbles greet every interaction. It could mean hello, thank you, goodbye, yes, no, maybe, I don’t know. No really, I don’t know. I have been unable to decipher the subtleties of these motions, and found myself nodding yes, and so often met with blank stares.
It is a culture where tiny cardboard cups are used for drinking tea because the taste is so strong, and where the local chaiwalla recognises you and hands you a cup before you’ve even asked for one. And you are almost always about to ask for one.
Food is abundant, from the fresh produce spilling off the back of flatbed trucks, to the glass cabinets full of pastries and poori. Freshly cooked dishes are preceded by the all-important question for a westerner - “spicy or not spicy?”. Translation - “do you want to cycle tomorrow or be curled up in the foetal position?”
Thalis are refilled with such precision and regularity you can never truly clean your plate. Often they are accompanied by deserts like gulab jamun or fresh lassi with cardamom and fennel, (just in case the rice, curry, daal, veggies, roti, pappadum and chutneys were not sufficient).
Meals are finished with the bill and a small box of fennel seeds to help freshen your breath. Useful if, like me, you’ve eaten something swimming with garlic.
Spice markets, piled high with canvas sacks spilling their contents onto the street, lash your throat with clouds of chilli. Meanwhile, fish and poultry markets leave you with a distinct feeling of being a vegetarian all of a sudden.
Streets are lined with repair shops and spare parts. Old tyres are painted black to look like new, and decades-old motor parts are hung up as justifiable replacements for knackered trucks that limp into the roadside stops. Bike shops will have the spare part you need, hidden at the back, under years of unread newspapers or in a box of metal components so disorganised even having the slightest tendency to be obsessive-compulsive will cause you great distress.
Road rules, presumably taught at some point, are quickly forgotten, the roads working on an instinctive and unspoken set of agreements that boils down to this - I will point my vehicle in the direction I am travelling (as the crow flies) and everything else will get out of my way.
Beautiful, colourfully painted advertising and shop signs, buses and trucks stand out starkly against the dull concrete. Interestingly, it appears cement and construction companies have the most incredible of these shopfronts and billboards.
Cows can and will appear in front of you when you least expect it. On occasion, they will also headbutt you.
Frowning doesn’t exist, or is banned. The smile is king.
Remote villages will help you find water, tell you to avoid the back roads and direct you to the national highway. Drivers will pull over and give you snacks. Motorcyclists will match your speed to chat to you. School children will scream and run after you.You will be in selfies with all of these people whether you like it or not.
Suffice to say I could write for hours about small tidbits I discovered while cycling through India, let alone the general warm-heartedness of its people. But I’ll stop there and briefly mention what I got up to since my previous post.
Upon arriving in Goa I dived into a hostel, ready for a few days of rest in what many had told me was ‘paradise’. It was certainly I nice place to watch the sunset, but I quickly grew tired of the place.
Sun, sea and sand are great, but the beaches were soundtracked by drum and bass music and the town crammed full of sun worshippers all heading to the same places. It was crowded, and a little stressful.
I moved on after a couple of days, not particularly rested, but excited to follow the coast south for a final few weeks.
Before I left I did manage to catch a hugely satisfying scene outside my hostel as the local tree-climber came to cut down the coconuts threatening to fall down upon the residents at any moment.
A well-timed exit from my hostel allowed me to witness a fairly aged gentleman appear with a metal hoop attached to two footplates. He looped the metal around the tree and, (I’m not quite sure how), used the contraption to shimmy up the tree to a slightlynerve racking height.
He retrieved a machete from his waistband and began cutting down huge bunches at a time, their fall eliciting a brief rush of noise through the air before landing with a huge crack.
I lost count of how many fell, and couldn’t be bothered to try and count them when they were piled up in a corner. The man returned to the ground to begin removing the tough outer shell, levering each coconut against a metal spike.
He was still at it hours later when I returned from a visit to the beach to have my head pounded by chart music and a beer. I determined he must be ‘an absolute trooper’ and gave him a thumbs up, which he happily returned.
Satisfied I had taken in all Goa had to offer I decided it was time to head away from the chaos of the beach resorts. My route would take me along the coast from Goa to Kochi in Kerala, some 800km.
An unexpected highlight of the ride south was the fishing town of Murdeshwar. I arrived in the afternoon and spent the early evening taking in the awesome Hindu temple, stuck out on a peninsula out to sea, the horizon dotted with bobbing boats as the sun went down and a strangely satisfying scene of rusting bicycle resting against a wall. (I really look forward to owning a beaten up, rusted metal, fixed gear commuter bike someday).
I found this town such a delight maninly due to its contrasts with Goa. It’s beaches were full of locals hauling in wooden boats or untangling nets, not hipster cafes blasting chart music. The town was alive with shouts of languages I didn’t understand, not exaggerated questions spoken in English by frustrated tourists.
It made me grateful to be travelling by bicycle and to be able to find corners of India that other travellers may not have been so fortunate to stumble upon.
The majority of my ride from Goa to Kerala was like this, winding through coastal towns where no one spoke English and where generally people didn’t even bat an eyelid at me. It was a revelation, at least when compared to the intense stares and stilted English found on the streets of Delhi.
Much like every other visitor to south India, however, I was happy to follow the crowds of tourists descending on Kerala, to see out my visa and soak up a final bit of sun, sea and sand (less the drum and bass).
Gods own country
I arrived in Kerala in early February and settled into the town of Alappuzha for a week of rest and supposedly training for my run through Sri Lanka. Alappuzha was a little way south of Kochi and a perfect spot to explore the Kerala backwaters, a series of narrow waterways flanked by ramshackle houses, vast plains of rice fields and jungle-like landscapes.
I did manage a few training sessions, running in the midday heat with my loaded backpack, realising that running across Sri Lanka was going to be pretty brutal, and resolving to defer the pain until I actually had to start the run. Instead I turned my attention to doing nothing at all after 3 months of cycling in hot and humid conditions through chaos and only brief periods of calm.
For my final few days I visited Kochi (or Cochin as it was known under British rule). Sitting atop the walls of Kochi fort, ice cream in one hand and beer in another, the sun setting behind the great Chinese fishing nets that people flock in droves to see, I was utterly content with the experience I had gone through while cycling India.
At that moment I was thinking mainly of food, as I nursed my rapidly melting ice cream. Probably the best take away from travelling in India was experiencing such a vast variety of food and drink, quite unlike much of the Indian restaurants provide back in Blighty. I can remember almost every meal, snack stop and breakfast feast, and look forward to trying to recreate some of the more interesting dishes back home, eventually.
Unfortunately I haven't yet reached the stage in my culinary journey of discovery that mean I can chow down on seafood. It, sadly, leaves me feeling pretty ill. Still, I can appreciate the effort that goes into catching it all and bringing it before my eyes and nose, if only to leave me holding my breathe.
Much of the route I took from Mumbai was along the coast, and I was able to see just how important fishing is to the rural and coastal communities in India.
In Murdeshwar, rural life revolved round it - even the local dogs got involved, guarding the fishing nets overnight.
In Karnataka, fishing boats are pulled ashore and kept under a protective canopy. Much like how a shiny new BMW is hidden away, locked up in a secure garage, the boats here had their special place.
Fishermen in Goa pulled in their catch on a rubber dingy, paddling through the breakers to reach the beach. A friend helps haul in the boat, as other boats not in use are stuck into the sand like fish poking out of a stargazing pie.
In Kochi, under the shadow of huge wooden Chinese fishing nets, locals throw their own hand nets, taking advantage of the bountiful waters here.
Meanwhile, the Chinese nets stand against the sunset, testament to the enduring commitment to old traditions that seem so widespread India.
The shot above was taken on my final night in India. It was a beautiful way to end an eye opening few months. So goodbye India, thanks for the chaos and the calm. I'll miss you, and I’ll back.
The next challenge
Such is the delay in writing this post I’ve actually completed ‘the next challenge’ - a 600km run along the length of Sri Lanka. I’m currently planning my next blog all about this... So the next ‘next challenge’ then - a 3,000km run across Japan, in the works for 2 years and now finally a reality. I’ll be writing about my plans soon, and intend to put out a weekly blog and or vlog while running. If you know of anyone who’d be interesting in seeing this unfold please direct them to my blog, thanks!
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