Saturday, 26 February 2011

Rounding the Tip

Kovalam – Madurai

Kerala is heavily populated, with house after house and village after village. While we enjoyed the scenery and it was fascinating to see life in the fishing villages, we sometimes got a little tired of all the attention. Shortly after Kovalam we left Kerala and crossed into Tamil Nadu. Suddenly, the landscape became a lot more spacious. There were larger expanses of agricultural land between villages with many banana plantations and rice fields. The roads were quiet and the pace slower as life became much more rural.

Also, unlike in touristy Kerala, we were not getting asked for money or pens here, which was ironic as Tamil Nadu was definitely more affected by poverty than Kerala. Too often we noticed that many people were extremely thin, especially the elderly. We felt pangs of pity when we saw an old man using a pink plastic chair as a walking frame to inch his way up a hill. Some of the restaurants had no running water, and we experienced power cuts several times a day. There was also more rubbish around in some of the towns. Obviously there was no official, municipal rubbish collection, so the rubbish was collected by the side of the road, and often pigs were employed to eat as much rubbish as possible, whilst some of it was burned and the rest just left to eventually rot. ||

Old lady with heavy load   Swarmed by school kids

Today was a special day as we, if all goes well, will have cycled 10,000km since leaving our little abode in West London. However, it seemed we would have to work for it, as we approached the mark and turned east rounding the tip of India we went straight into a ferocious head wind. Our speed dropped to 10km/hr, then 5, then 3 until we had to use all our force just to keep from coming to a complete stop. It seemed like our odometer was stuck on 9,999km for an eternity.

Finally our little odometer ticked over and we passed the 10,000km mark óf our trip. By luck, this almost exactly coincided with our arrival at the southern tip of India. Kanyakumari, the small town at the tip, was busy and crass, full of souvenir sellers and pilgrims bathing in the holy waters where three oceans meet. We were nonetheless happy to be there looking out over the Indian Ocean and reflecting on the past 10,000km.

The mention of wind farms in our guide book should have been a warning. The following morning we faced another ferocious headwind, slowing us down again to a crawl. It was 95km to the next town with accommodation, so we had to just put our heads down and keep pushing. The landscape was very spacious with a lot of shrub land, glimpses of the sea and only occasional villages. We spotted some wild peacocks, and Guy proudly returned from a pee break to present a beautiful peacock feather to Freddie. This was probably as remote as India gets and would have even been suited to wild camping. Shame we didn’t have our tent.

Wind farms

At lunchtime, we arrived in a sleepy fishing village and rode down to the tiny harbour. Many fishing villages in Tamil Nadu were badly affected by the 2004 Tsunami, and this village was no exception. We saw many new houses being rebuilt, some on a hill a little further inland. It’s very sad to think what these people have been through. There was only one small restaurant with four tables, where we had lunch with the local fishermen. At lunchtime, we usually have a Thali – a set meal of rice, pappadum and several curries, served on a banana leaf. It is often the only option, and it is fresh, tasty, cheap and filling. Often, we are watched by 10-15 pairs of eyes while we are eating. In the beginning we found it a bit awkward, but now we are getting used to it. The fishermen had a good laugh when we got our own forks out rather than eating with our hands.

Even though we were lacking the language skills to talk to the locals, we are now getting much better at performing the famous Indian head waggle which had confused and annoyed us so much in the beginning of our stay in India. As we understand it now, a side-to-side head waggle can mean “yes”, “ok”, “no problem”, “thank you”, “hello” or “goodbye”. (Just as the Indian head waggle confused us initially, our nods seem to confuse the locals and are often misunderstood to mean “no”.)  Our little unexpected waggle can set off a sometimes alarming response where the returning head waggle hits an almighty frequency, accompanied by huge beaming smiles. We love to waggle now and have a competition as to who can get the most enthusiastic response!

After a long tiring day cycling into the headwind, we finally arrived at our destination. The small town of Tiruchchendur was a colourful pilgrim’s town with a large temple. Our hotel room neighbour, dressed in an orange loin cloth, his face streaked with white paint, told us that there was an annual 10 day festival at the temple, so we went over for a look in the morning.

Sadhu   Tiruchchendur temple

The temple complex was quite large and teeming with pilgrims even at the early hour of 8am. Modern families mixed with wandering sadhus and many people were bathing in the water near the temple. We strolled around unhindered with no other tourists or touts in sight. Our neighbour had mentioned a slightly morbid ceremony where 16 men push a spear through their cheeks, unfortunately we didn’t see any signs of this gruesome act so decided to push on to the next town, Tuticorin.

Tiruchchendur temple 2   Pilgrims bathing

On the road, we passed pilgrims walking towards Tiruchchendur. We were curious so stopped to ask a few guys what their story was. They told us that they had been walking for five days, barefoot, to get to the temple for the festival, which is an annual event for them. Religion is hugely important and influential in India, you see it in almost everything aspect of peoples lives. For the poor, who are at times in such dire situations it’s their lifeline and way of dealing with their predicament. Without faith India would simply collapse in on itself.

The headwind was still there the following day when we cycled from Tuticorin to Aruppukkottai. We were on small, traffic free country lanes all day. In fact, the lanes were so quiet that the farmers took the opportunity to spread out their millet harvest in the middle of the road, then waited for passing vehicles to drive over it and thresh the millet. The grains were then swept up from the road and repeatedly poured onto a sheet, allowing the wind to blow away the lighter chaff. We just love this about India – the freedom to do things without the constrictions of too many rules and regulations. As long as you’re not hurting anyone else, you can pretty much do what you like – whether you decide to lie down and sleep on a pile of furniture on top of a moving lorry, go into business by converting your bicycle to a knife sharpening machine, or spread out your harvest on a public road to be thrashed.

Threshing millet on the road   Removing the chaff

Arriving in the small town of Aruppukkottai on dusk, an elderly cyclist showed us to a small hotel. The hotel manager was delighted to see us, explaining that we were something “unexpected and interesting”. He recommended a tiny, very dingy looking restaurant nearby for dinner. Usually we like to follow local recommendations, but this place looked quite scary with bare chested chiefs messing about in something that resembled a filthy garage that would make you think twice before taking your car to for a service. We hesitated, we could see it was popular but the sight was so off putting. Local advice has never let us down before so we took the plunge and marched in, down the dark and dirty corridor for a little Adventure Dining.

The main room was full of men who all seemed to help themselves from a large pot. We weren’t sure about the protocol, but luckily a waiter noticed us and whisked us off into a smaller air conditioned section where we joined another 8 diners or so. The friendly waiter recommended us a few dishes. We realised that all ears were on us as whenever the waiter could not decipher something we said a voice would intervene from some distant corner of the room to translate our request to the waiter. The food turned out to be cheap and delicious.

On our sixth day of consecutive cycling, still into a strong head wind, we were relieved to finally make it to Madurai. Madurai was hot, chaotic and loud. Really loud. We spent a couple of frustrating hours looking at 13 different hotels and fighting off the odd tout and beggar before we found an acceptable room for an ok price and a safe place for the bikes. We flopped on our beds exhausted, sweaty and dirty. Our priority was to rest and visit the Sri Meenakshi Temple which dominates the city centre with its intricately decorated 50m high Gopuram towers.

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