Saturday, 12 March 2011

Goodbye India: An Abrupt Finale

Chidambaram – Pondicherry – Chennai

Leaving Chidambaram, we had no option but to stay on the busy coastal road to Pondicherry. As soon as we arrived, we breathed a sigh of relief. It was so nice and quiet, with wide, tree lined streets and a seaside promenade. Pondicherry had been a French colony for centuries and retains a distinctly French feel. There were lots of French tourists, bakeries selling baguettes and croissants, and cafés serving Croque Monsieur. In other words, heaven!

We now had only one day’s cycling left in India and still had more than a week before our flight from Chennai to Bangkok, so we decided to stay in Pondicherry for a while and catch up on our blogs, website work and some other projects. With the help of a local recommendation we found a lovely place to stay, in a small guest house, La Ville Créole, run by Famille Corneille in the Rue Labourdonnais (yes, even the street names have French names here!), with a kitchen, communal sitting area and hot water in the shower. To top it off, there was a posh cafe with free Wifi just down the road. ||

French boutique in Pondicherry   Fruit and ice cream on the promenade

However, being in India, guilt-free enjoyment of these pleasures was not without its pitfalls. Down the road from our guest house, a group of people had made their home on the pavement, complete with pillows and an armchair. Other pavement dwellers, some with small children had set up their “home” next to a French bakery, so whenever we went to get some Pain au Chocolat, we would feel pangs of guilt walking out with a bag full of expensive pastries. Several mothers forced their children to beg from tourists (thus denying them the opportunity to go to school), which was quite heart breaking at times. It can be hard but we think it’s important to see poverty up close and personal. As Guy said, “in India, you have to face the facts - you can’t just throw the Oxfam brochure in the bin and pretend it doesn’t exist.”

After a week in Pondicherry, it was time to move on. We had expected a quiet lane through fishing villages to get to the beach town of Mamallapuram, 100km away, but the road had recently been upgraded and was now the main road to Chennai. It was quite busy and not that interesting, going through prawn hatcheries, rice fields and small towns. 

Mamallapuram was listed in our guide book as “the only beach hangout in Tamil Nadu”. When we arrived, we found a fairly typical Indian small town, but with a profusion of guest houses and tourist restaurants. The beach was nothing special – fairly dirty and crowded with fishing boats, not really the place for a beach holiday. The town had been devastated by the 2004 tsunami but had been rebuilt in a flurry to tempt the tourists back.

The most interesting aspect of the town was its long history of stone masonry. In the 7th century, some impressive temples were carved by the Pallava dynasty, and they are now Unesco World Heritage sites. Nowadays, the tradition of stone masonry lives on in the 200 active stone masons in the town who create amazing sculptures made of marble or granite. Some of the work was very intricate and beautiful, having taken up to 9 months to complete. We eyed off some of the beautiful Buddha statues, but coming in at over 80kg it wasn’t such a bike friendly option so we were content with a small statue of the dancing elephant-headed Ghanesh, made of granite and adding about a kilo to our luggage.

 Our little Ghanesh statue Mamallapuram temple

On our last day, we cleaned the bikes and planned our cycle route to Chennai airport, 50km away. We had decided not to box the bikes for this flight. The decision was mainly driven by our laziness: we were unwilling to spend a couple of days hunting down bits of cardboard and cobbling together two bike boxes. We also knew that our bikes are strong, we have no exposed derailer that can get easily knocked and we figured if the baggage guys see a bike they are more likely to treat it like a bike. The flight was the following evening around midnight, but we were going to leave in the morning anyway to take no chances.

In the late afternoon, we walked down to the beach to watch the sunset. Sitting on a fishing canoe, a few young guys from Hyderabad approached us for a chat. Their English was good and they were planning to go to Australia for their Master’s degree, so we spoke to them for about an hour. They had come to Chennai for a wedding and decided to spend a day on the beach in Mamallapuram. Some of them had never seen the sea before and were amazed to discover how salty it was.

Suddenly, a fisherman aggressively approached our group. Ranting and raving at one of the Hyderabad guys in Hindi, he demanded them to leave us alone. They were not supposed to “bother” tourists, otherwise we might complain to the police, and the word might get out to other tourists which in turn impacts on tourism in that area that the fishermen depend upon.

They were eye balling each other snarling and it looked close to fisticuffs. In an attempt to defuse the situation Guy slithered his way in between the two acting as a buffer. Up close and personal it was evident from his putrid alcohol breath and blood shot eyes that the fisherman was in an altered state of mind. Nonetheless Guy pushed on.

“Brother, we appreciate your concern, but these guys are doing us no harm,” insisted Guy.

The Angry Fisherman showed little reaction, his eyes fixed on some distant object. Guy turned around to see half a dozen bulky fisherman making their way towards our group.

As they got closer it was clear that they weren’t in the mood for a fight, so after a few more words from The Angry Fisherman the crowd dispersed. The Hyderabad boys were a little shaken but we soon had a bit of a laugh as we said our goodbyes.

Back at the hotel we finished cleaning the bikes and were about to go out for our final Indian dinner when Freddie booted up her laptop to write down the flight confirmation number. As she glanced at the flight times, a shocking truth suddenly dawned on her: The flight was today, not tomorrow. Even though she had remembered the correct date, and that the flight was around midnight, she hadn’t realised that the flight was actually at 00:15 – it was very early in the morning instead of very late at night!

It was 7pm. The airport was a 2 hour drive away. We hadn’t packed, and one of the bikes was taken apart, tools strewn around everywhere. We didn’t have enough money to pay for our room, as we had been planning to get cash out later that night. Thai Airways had told us we might have to disinfect the bikes, which we expected might take some extra time at the airport. Needless to say, panic ensued.

By chance we had the phone number of the only taxi in town with a roof rack. We called and the taxi driver appeared 10 minutes later. Freddie ran to the ATM, jumped a queue of 7 men and came back with the cash. We threw all our stuff in the bags, strapped the bikes on the roof and off we went.

Around 9:30pm we arrived at the airport. We took the pedals off the bikes, turned the handlebars, protected the gear cables with cardboard and deflated the tires. We packed all of our checkin luggage into two large plastic beach bags and crammed as much heavy stuff as possible in our rack bags to take as hand luggage. We knew we were about 25kg over the weight limit and would have to cough up for excess luggage.

At checkin, the bikes were weighed and rolled onto the conveyor belt. “Have a nice flight”, the checkin lady said when she handed us our tickets. Disbelieving, we hastily gathered our belongings and left the checkin area as fast a possible without arising suspicion. Not only had we not been asked to disinfect the bikes, we also hadn’t paid a cent for our excess luggage!

Just as we thought we had got away with it a security guard stopped us. “You won’t be able to take your bike helmets on board,” he said. “Errr, why not?” we enquired. “Because it is a weapon,” he stated. We tried to envision holding up a plane with a bike helmet. We informed him that a bike helmet is made of styrofoam and is designed to crack on impact. Surely a shoe would be just as dangerous. The security guard wasn’t convinced, but we told him we were willing to take the risk at the security check. We were happy he hadn’t noticed our 30cm solid steel D-Lock lying at the bottom of Guys bag, which in our haste we had forgotten to check in.

The immigration officer was concerned about Freddie’s visa. “Next time you must get a business visa,” he stated gruffly. “Marketing is not allowed on a tourist visa.” After Freddie protested that, although Marketing was her occupation, she hadn’t done any marketing in India, he seemed satisfied and let us go, not before questioning us in detail about our travel budget.

We arrived at the gate just a few minutes before boarding time. When we sat on the plane and saw the lights of Chennai and the Indian coast disappear below us, we took a sigh of relief, we could not believe our luck. If Freddie had realised half an hour later, if the taxi driver hadn’t shown up, or if we had to disinfect the bikes we probably would have missed our flight.

Having spent 11 weeks in India and cycled 2,370km (our longest time and longest distance in any country so far) we felt ready for a change in scene and were really looking forward to Thailand and spending time with our friends Nic and Aom who have flown out from the UK to meet us in Bangkok.

Despite all the horror stories we had heard about India (potholed roads, crazy drivers, excessive rubbish and extreme poverty), we had a brilliant ride and were really glad we came. India's varied scenery, amazing wildlife, quiet rural roads, fascinating/quirky culture (how many countries do you know have retirement homes for cows?!) and colourful people have been a real highlight of our trip.

Most of all we loved the freedom that you feel in India, it holds a very special place in our hearts and we look forward to coming back and exploring more of this incredible country.

Our two India photo galleries are live here. India West covers Mumbai – Munnar, and India South East covers Kochi – Chennai.

4 comments:

Marco said...

Your helmets are weapons? Are you guys still rockin' Stackhats?

Anonymous said...

Nice getaway from India.
I experience the whole country like this. There happens some shit to you all the time but in the next moment you experience something really nice.
Greets
Clemens
(the german cyclist, we met in Goa and Varkala)


I ll cycle from Chennai to Mumbai the next weeks, probably being sponsered by Hercules Supercycles India. I ll drop some pictures!

Freddie and Guy said...

Hi Clemens,
that's very true, and we are already missing India a little bit, so enjoy it while you are there!
What happened to your bike? Does the Hercules have a rack to put your funky panniers on??
Much intrigued,
F&G

Clemens said...

Costumized for Hercules riders! (;

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