Kerala & Karnataka
Bicycle Vacation South India II
The trip continues along the Arabian Sea from the most southern spot in India along the coast with its backwaters and spice trade cities like Allepey, Cochin and Calicut. The tour continues via Wayanad National Park to Mysore (Maharadja's Palace) and Bangalore, the ICT Center of the world. This densely populated part of India is still internationally oriented.
Travelogue & photos: Aart & Gerrie Dijkzeul
We bicycle northwest from Kanyakumari, the most southern town in India. We leave Tamil Nadu and arrive in Kerala. According to our travel books the population density is one-and-a-half to twice that of Tamil Nadu. So we know what we're in for.
Kerala is a relatively prosperous state: the average level of education is the highest of India and illiteracy the lowest. Christians and Muslims outdo each other with churches and mosques. There are less Hindus here than elsewhere in India, but they still form a little over half of the population.
The city already traded with the ancient Greeks and Romans
Via Kovalam, Varkala and Kollam we bicycle to Alappuzha. We decide to take a day of rest in the beach resort Kovalam. We stay in an out-of-the-way hotel where we are the only guests and spend the day on a nice beach with reading and cooling ourselves in the clear seawater.
And - not least important - the restaurants serve beer. It's heaven.
We succeed reasonably well in finding secondary roads that are nice an quiet (comparatively speaking) and there is much to see. Twenty kilometers past Varkala, which also lies on the Arabian Sea, we hear a drum and a wind instrument at a temple: a wedding.
The father of the groom approaches us and invites us to attend the ceremony. It is a colorful happening with many rituals. The temple priest burns incense, bride's maids bring bowls of... something we can't see.
Garlands and flower wreaths are exchanged. For a climax it rains flower petals and there is the deafening noise of fireworkds. We decline when we are invited to join them for the wedding meal. We are inappropriately dressed in our simple bikers' outfits between the wedding guests who are all in their best clothes.
We now are bicycling in an area that is known for its backwaters: creaks, lakes and canals which sometimes are and sometime aren't connected to the open sea. It's a beautiful area with only one drawback: frequently roads turn out to end at some body of water. And that means we have to ride back kilometers.
Alappuzha (Alleppey) lies amidst the backwaters. The city already traded with the ancient Greeks and Romans. The main tourist attractions are the lighthouse and the colonial buildings along the coast. Alappuzha is also the starting point for many excursions on the backwaters.
Crossing backwaters by ferry
We take the ferry from Alappuzha to Kottayam. For two-and-a-half hours we are crammed in a sailing bus that docks at every big tree. Our bikes are on the roof. We get what we paid for... (12 rps = 0.20 euro a head).
On the way we see everything the backwaters have to offer: open water, canals, beautiful views and many water birds.
The days follow a fixed pattern. We get up around 6 AM and then try to find coffee, toast and fried eggs. Not really an Indian breakfast, but curry and massala with rice, rotis, purris or whatever all the baked or fried dough is called are too heavy on our stomachs in the morning.
On the way we visit a bakery. Delicious pies, danish or rolls filled with something sweet or savory. They are good at this. It's harder to get good coffee. Their basic recipe is lots of sugar, milk and some ground coffee or instant coffee.
Transferring coffee three times over a meter's distance and voilà, cappuccino. A black coffee without suger is harder to get; because of communication problems this often ends badly.
We always have lunch in one of the many restaurants that serve one or more of the already mentioned dishes. On a banana leaf or - if we ask - on a plate. Eating is done with the hands.
In the evenings we usually are in a larger town and have dinner in a restaurant with a wide selection of delicious Indian food. Curry and tandoori (clay oven) dishes are our favorites. If they serve beer at all, it's wrapped in a brown bag or we have to put the bottles on the floor.
In Cochin they serve beer from a teapot in a mug. It is sub-legal to serve alcoholic beverages. Kottayam is a trade center for rubber from the many rubber plantations in the surroundings.
The port city used to be a trade center for spices
The leg to the port city of Kochi (Cochin) is not on the map. We just keep going straight north. The route is pretty and quiet. At a fork in the road we ask an Indian for directions: "Take a right, and you'll arrive at the through road."
Because we have an aversion of through roads, we decide to take a left anyway. It works, the road turns north eventually. Less pleasant is that the asphalt is later replaced with grit and still later with sand.
Before we know what happens, we are standing in a backyard with an Indian family. As if something like this happens every day, the lady of the house walks with us to show us the way to the road. We walk over the properties of three neighbors, over mats of just plaited palm leaves. And then we are on a paved road.
She shows us how to continue. Just as with most Indians, her gestures seem to indicate we have to fly up. Within ten minutes we are on the road the man at the fork pointed out to us earlier.
Kochi, another port city, used to be a trade center for spices. Fort Kochi was the first European colonial settlement in India. Respectively the Portuguese, the Dutch, and the English colonized this area.
Nowadays Kochi is the second IT-city of India. The slums around the city are alternated with technology campuses of foreign companies.
After the hustle and bustle of other cities Fort Cochin is a relief. There hardly is any traffic and the atmosphere is friendly. We visit the oldest Catholic church in India, the Saint Francis Church from 1503, and take a stroll on the footpath along the entrance of the port. It's fun to watch people fish with Chinese nets.
Percussion, wind instruments and elephants decorated with gold
We are lucky when we arrive in Guruvayoor: the annual temple festival is taking place. Dance troups from cities and vilages in the surroundings are performing in the streets around the age-old Guruvayur Shri Krishna Temple, one of the most famous temples of India.
Percussion, wind instruments, men and women dressed up as gods, elephants decorated with gold. It's a beautiful and colorful scene. As soon as we grab our cameras, the performers become even more enthusiastic. We don't feel like peeping Toms, but like appreciated guests.
Many people ask us to take pictures of them, with their family or with one of us. When we are bicycling, people often take pictures of us with their cell phones.
The trade route to Calicut made an imperial power of Portugal
We leave early, because we have over 100 kilometers to go to Kozhikode (Calicut). It's quiet on the road, also because the schools are closed. Except for the Islamic ones. The roads are crowded with black-clad Muslims. The atmosphere is different. These children don't greet us enthusiastically. And the women with their black clothes aren't paragons of cheerfulness either.
In order not to have to ride on a through road, we have to cross a creek past Ponnani. The ferry is a collection of planks laid crosswise over two long, narrow boats. To reach the boarding plank, we have to wade in the water for a few meters.
On the other side of the river we only see a sand plain with something that looks like a path. When three out of four Indians confirm that this is the route to Trissur, we take our chances.
For ages, Kozhikode also was a center of spice trade. The Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama set foot on land in 1498 in Kappad, 25 kilometers from Kozhikode; he found the sea route from Europe to India. This marked the beginning of Portugal as an imperial power.
In Belém, a suburb of Lisbon, the huge Jerónimos Monastery was built to commemorate this discovery. Da Gama was buried here. There was no need to be stingy, because the construction of the monastery was financed with the income from the 5% tax on spices that were shipped from the coast of Kerala.
Wayanad National Park
The elephants with chains around their legs don't count
Our route takes us east after Kozhikode. Here the real work begins: we are in the mountains now. It's not a long route (74 kilometers) but the inclines are tough. We get from an altitude of 38 meters to 756 meters in ten kilometers. The many Indians who pass us and look in amazement at our struggling, call out words of encouragement. Their amazement is understandable: we could have taken the bus for less than 30 euro cents.
The many moped riders who would like to chat with us, are out of luck: we don't have enough breath left to tell where we come from, what our names are, how many children we have and what we think of Kerala.
The owner of our hotel in Kalpetta advises us to visit the nearby Wayanad National Park not at the end of the afternoon, but early in the morning. We'll have a better chance at seeing elephants and tigers at an early hour. So the next morning we enter the park in a jeep with guide at 6:30 AM.
A line of five jeeps with high school students is in front of us, behind us countless jeeps with unknown passengers. To our left and right is fog. After one and a half hour of bumping on bad roads, we have seen a few deer of the kind we can alos see at home and a very large squirrel.
We don't count the four elephants with chains around their legs that we saw at the park entrance.
The Maharadja's Palace is fairy-like
After this adventure and coffee in Sulthan Bathery we get on our bikes - later than usual. We decide to cut the 110 kilometers leg to Mysore in two, as we expect to be able to find a lodge in Gundlupet.
It's a beautiful ride. The first thirty kilometers lead through the national park. We see deer and a large squirrel again and also many birds. The second part of the ride takes us through a hilly area with small-scale agriculture: beets, tomatoes and potatoes. But also more exotic crops like chilis and cilantro.
Our evening stroll in Gundlupet - we have now arrived in Karnataka - takes us through unpaved streets with often cheerfully colored houses. Women do the laundry at a communal tap, children play a board game with beans.
Cows try to find something edible in the heaps of garbage that are scatterd on the street. Two men sit on the shaft of a buffalo wagon and discuss climate change.
Mysore is a lively city with the Maharadja's Palace as its main attraction. Until Independence in 1947 this region was ruled by a maharadja. The palace is fairy-like: colorful, onion-shaped steeples, richly colored interiors and many paintings that picture the pump and circumstance of the rulers of the olden days.
And an extra free attraction is to sit on a bench and watch the hundreds of Indians who also visit the palace with its many annexes.
The icon of India as a technologically developed country
In Mysore we discuss how to spend the remaining time until we arrive at our final destination: we will travel parts by bike and parts by train.
We ride to Bangalore in two days. The region is beautiful and lively, great to cross by bike. We stop at little roadside stalls for food and drinks. We meet a man who proudly shows us what he grows on his land.
We meet an approximately twelve years old boy who drives the oxen that draw his cart to keep up with us, because he wants to talk to us, with hands and feet.
And then we arrive in Bangalore, the icon of India as a technologically developed country. The ICT center of the world. Apart from the by now familiar city scenes, we also see a district with chic stores, trendy bars and young men with impressive cars and credit cards.
And don't forget the many soldiers behind sandbags near large buildings and the fact that our backpacks are scanned when we enter a chic hotel. The November 2008 attack in Mumbai hasn't been forgotten yet.
We bicycle to the train station at 5:30 PM. We already bought tickets in Mysore. But we still have to make arrangements for our bikes. Contrary to what we expected, we can only retrieve our bikes at the final station in Channai when we travel on this express train.
We have to give up our plan to get off the train a few stops earlier and to bike to our final destination tomorrow. So we bike from Chennai to Mammalapuram.
With that, we have rounded the circle and at the end of the afternoon we arrive at the point where we started our tour of Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Karnataka five weeks ago.
It's easy to describe our tour in numbers. We have bicycled almost 2,200 kilometers and spent nights in 30 different hotels.
It's harder to describe our impressions. It's an endless series of images and scenes: cow dung between our toes after an evening walk in a badly lighted shopping street; a funeral procession with music, fireworks and a sedan chair decorated with flowers on which the body of the deceased sits.
Temple priests with their hair in a bun, long pointy nails and earrings, who perform complicated rituals. 120 schoolchildren in uniforms crammed in a bus; housewives bent over twig brooms to move the dirt from their properties to the street.
The traffic mess to which we undoubtedly contributed by not heeding the tradition that bicyclists swerve to the roadside. That our mission in South India hasn't passed unnoticed, is clear from an article in the Hindu Times yesterday, which said that the government wants to create more facilities for bicyclists.
India, you love it or you hate it. That was the response of some people when we told them we were going to bicycle in South India. It turns out you can do both. But the scales tip to we love it.