Wednesday, 23 February 2011

A Canoe Ferry, a Temple Feast and an Elephant Trader

Kochi - Kovalam

Leaving Kochi, we followed a quiet but bumpy coastal road, passing through small fishing villages dotted with boat building workshops where local hardwood was being skillfully shaped and bound together with coconut rope to form new fishing boats.

With Kerala being a touristy area, we were being asked for money, sweets or pens more often than in other parts of India. So when a man ran out of his tiny photography studio to stop us and ask if he could take a photo, then insisted on printing it for us, we were highly suspicious. Surely this was a clever scam and he would expect payment for his “services”. But after having lovingly edited the photo on his computer and printed it, he then wrote a message on the back of the photo wishing us a happy journey and presented it to us with a smile. ||

Boat builders   Photographer

Cycling into Aleppey that afternoon, we struggled to orientate ourselves as the city was so hectic and confusing. In the end we stumbled across a very nice little guest house with a chatty manager. Aleppey is located right in the middle of Kerala’s backwaters, offering a great base for house boat tours. Our guidebook had described Aleppey as “a slice of Venice in India”, we’re not sure if the author had been drinking the town’s water, as all we found was a couple of overgrown canals and a manic Indian cityscape, so we did not linger long and were on our way early the next morning.

Our plan had been to stay on the coastal road all the way down to the tip of India. Other cycle tourers had mentioned that it was quiet and scenic, with several ferry crossings where rivers interrupted the road. We knew there were a couple of rivers in the way between Aleppey and Kollam, but according to the locals there were no ferries and no way to get across. Therefore we had to opt for the main road, which was not so enjoyable.

The main road was busy, but there was a shoulder so we felt safe enough. Indian two-wheelers don’t stick to their lanes and we often had oncoming vehicles travelling in the wrong direction on “our” shoulder. Therefore, we needed to constantly keep our eyes on the road. In deep concentration, Freddie managed to cycle right past an elephant who was standing on a truck parked about a metre away from her, without noticing it at all! Guy was astonished you could cycle right past an elephant  without even seeing it.

Fishermen    The overlooked elephant

We have found the local cyclists in Kerala very proud and competitive. As soon as we overtake someone, they will speed up and overtake us, only to slow right down immediately, and then the game begins again. We played this leapfrog game for a while with a group of four ice cream sellers – teenage boys carrying a metal container of ice cream on the back of their bikes, and a stack of cones swinging from their handlebars. As soon as one of them got tired, the next one would overtake us. In the end, they were so intent on cycling ahead we decided to just slow down and stay behind them to enjoy the draft.

Having spent the night in a mosquito infested hotel in Kollam, we were back on the small coastal road for a short day to Varkala beach, only 30km away. As usual, we had planned our route using Google Maps, which is normally a very accurate map source. However, after cycling through some small friendly fishing villages wedged between the ocean and a lake, the road suddenly ended. Large rocks had been placed on the road to prevent vehicles from accidentally plunging into the sea.

Fishing village   End of the road

Locals told us that the road had been washed away in the last monsoon, 4 months ago. Our only option seemed to be to cycle all the way back to Kollam and take a detour on the main road to Varkala, which would have made an 80km day out of our planned 30km. As it was such a big detour, we asked at a nearby yoga centre which had unfortunately lost five of its huts to the flood (no yogies were hurt in the flooding). They suggested that some fishermen might be able to take us over for a small fee.

When the fishermen arrived, our hearts sunk. They were perched on a narrow canoe which seemed to be slowly filling up with water, one of the men was hastily bailing water out of the canoe with an old piece of plastic, repeatedly muttering “Problem? No problem” as he struggled to drain the water out. The clearance from the top of the canoe to the water level was no more than 20cm. There was no way our fully loaded bikes would fit into that tiny boat, and if they did, we would surely sink. We were having visions of our laptops, camera, passport etc. all going overboard. It was quite a big risk and we weren’t sure our insurance company would have been too understanding.

Still a 50km round trip seemed like such a drag when we could take a short boat ride to the other side only 300 metres away. We figured the fishermen were pretty skilled and were used to largish hauls of fish. Guy went first. He took off all his panniers and piled them on the back of the canoe. He then sat down on the little bench, while the canoe wobbled from side to side. Holding his bike next to him he gave a nervous wave to Freddie as they set of for the distant shore.

Once the canoe had gained some speed it felt more stable and the captain seemed pretty relaxed as he joyfully sang and propelled the canoe forward. Soon enough the little canoe was safely beached on the shore, much to the relief of Guy. 1/2 complete.

When it was Freddie’s turn, the second fisherman decided to add to the challenge by also climbing into the canoe. With this added weight the water line lapped dangerously close to the top of the hull. With the canoe fully loaded they headed off. Again it was a smooth crossing and we happily paid the fisherman for their trouble, which they seemed to really appreciate.

Loading the canoe   Don't let go of the bike now

Arriving at Varkala beach, we immediately knew we had arrived in another tourist bubble. Steep cliffs towered over the pretty beach, and most of the guest houses and restaurants were sitting high up on the cliffs, overlooking the water. We found a nice little guest house and excitedly visited the German Bakery for lunch. Sitting up there on the cliff, with the glistening water right below us, we felt like we were on the upper deck of a cruise ship.

Most restaurants display the daily fish catch in the evenings so you can choose a fish and have it prepared for dinner. It was nice to see how tourism actually supported the local fishermen in their traditional trade, no doubt fetching higher prices than at the local market. One of the waiters at a restaurant told us that he works as a fisherman at night, and as a waiter during the day, surviving on only a few hours of sleep that he sneaks in as the fishing boat travels out to sea. Unfortunately it seems that quite a few people in India need to work two jobs to make a living, particularly if they also support their family.

Varkala Beach

Walking down to the beach, we passed a dental spa. “No thanks, we’ve just been to the dentist in Kochi,” we beamed, much to the disappointment of guy handing out flyers. Joking about the omnipresence of tourist dentists in Kerala, we watched the sunset on the beach when Guy’s tooth suddenly started hurting! The next day, the pain was worse and we went back to the dentist to make an appointment, to the amusement of the flyer guy (we still think he put a voodoo curse on poor old Guy). The dentist prescribed some X-rays to check if a root canal was needed, of which he was 90% sure. After a sleepless night, we had the X-rays done the following morning, and much to our relief the tooth was fine – it was just an inflammation. However, we were quite impressed with the well qualified dentists in Kerala and now understand why medical tourism is booming in India. The cost is a fraction of the price in the West with equivalent or even better standards. Get a root canal and nice tan all in one!

After a couple of days in Varkala, we turned our bikes south again to cycle onwards to Kovalam, following the coastal road. Unfortunately we came across another non-existent ferry crossing and, whilst trying to find a bridge, got lost and ended up on a small cow track. This was the last of our many anticipated ferry crossings – in all this time on the west coast of India, known for its ferry crossings, we have not managed to complete a single one!

Fisherman repairing a net   Hello! Pen!

While we were cycling through a small village, a little lost, we happened upon a Hindu festival in honour of the Goddess Meenakshi. It was a hive of activity with locals preparing for the big feast. Loudspeakers were pumping out rhythmic Hindu music and the streets were beautifully decorated with tinsel and colourful ribbons. Some men pleaded for us to stop, pointing towards a track leading to the temple and gesturing that there was food being served. With impeccable timing, we had arrived just as lunch was about to be served!

We pushed our bikes down a dirt track lined with village women, each sitting behind a pot, kept warm over some hot coals. Some young men explained that they were offerings for the Goddess. The ladies had cooked rice with coconut and spices, which was then blessed by the temple priests. A small amount was offered to the Goddess, while the rest of the blessed food was shared with the family.

Village Festival   Women with their offerings

A village senior motioned for us to park our bikes in his driveway, and then we were swept past a long line of smiling and giggling women who were queuing up for lunch. Men were queuing from the other side. We were introduced to a temple priest who showed us the temple and invited us to enter the compound from the rear, avoiding the queues. We felt very VIP, honoured to share such an important moment with these friendly people. Here, men were busy cooking food for the 5,000 visitors in oversized pots. The pots of rice took several men to lift, and various curries were stirred over the fire with spade sized spoons.

Rice pot   Lunch with spectators

Two chairs and a table were fetched and we were served a delicious lunch of rice, pappadums, five different curries and sauces, and dessert, while everyone else was eating standing up or sitting on the dusty ground. When the the priest noticed us struggling to eat with our fingers, he got us some spoons. A group of men was standing around us, chatting, watching us eat and attending to our every need. When we had finished, the head chef came over to see if we had liked the food. After this very special lunch invitation, the priest and a few other men escorted us back to the bikes, thanked us for our visit (!) and waved goodbye.

In the early evening, we arrived in the overdeveloped beach town of Kovalam that was once a pretty, palm lined cove and is now full of hotels and restaurants and heaving with touts and middle aged package tourists.

Whilst waiting with the bikes while Guy checked out a hotel Freddie was approached by a man with a very interesting proposition. “I see you have nice bicycles. I am trying to sell my elephant. How about a swap?” For a moment she thought about it, just to see Guy’s reaction when he returned to find her saddled up on an elephant!

Having decided to stick with the bikes, we went for a pizza dinner (luckily they had a wood fired oven, as there was a long power cut just after we had placed our order!). We now had a long stretch of cycling ahead as we planned to round the southern tip of India and then cycle up the East coast to Madurai, 400km away.

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