Saturday, 29 January 2011

Enter the Tiger’s Den

Gundlupet – Ooty - Mettupalayam

Shortly after leaving Gundlupet we turned off the main road, leaving the pilgrims in their speeding 4WDs and the noisy old buses behind. With the newly found calm we become more in tune with our environment. Monkeys swung from trees as gentle mist rose from the green farm lands around us. Passing through small villages we watched as the locals went about their morning routines. Women dressed in colourful saris skillfully balanced water urns on their heads as men drove ox ploughs churning up the dark red soil. A boy on his way to school cycled alongside us for a while, and together we struggled up the hill: us with our fully loaded touring bicycles, and he with his old single speed bicycle carrying a 10l canister of milk on the rack, which he was taking from his parents’ farm to the local dairy to be processed. ||

We could feel our legs working hard as the road began to climb; we had entered the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve. This used to be the Maharaja’s private wildlife reserve and contains several sanctuaries and national parks within its boundaries. Among others, the reserve is home to elephants, deer, bisons, mongoose, lemurs and some big jungle cats such as panthers, leopards and tigers. The red soil is hidden under the thick vegetation consisting of deciduous trees and shrubs. A national highway (really just a quiet one lane road) runs through the middle of the reserve, which is otherwise off-limits to private vehicles.

Monkey

The first area we entered was Bandipur National Park, which is renowned for its wild elephants. Around 5,000 Asiatic elephants live here – a fifth of the world’s population. There wasn’t much traffic, and we enjoyed the cycling through the beautiful area, always on the lookout for any wild animals.

We knew there was a tiger reserve on the way to Ooty and had imagined it to be nicely fenced off – if only for the protection of the tigers who might otherwise end up as roadkill on the national highway. However, when we left Bandipur National Park to enter the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve, the signs made us feel a little uneasy: “You are entering a tiger reserve. Do not stop. Do not get out of your vehicle.” Do not get out of your vehicle! Errr…ok. Maybe this wasn’t the best place to cycle, and there certainly weren’t any fences to be seen.

Cycling into a tiger reserve   Mudumalai tiger reserve

As we tentively rode up to the boom gate we half expected the park official to turn us around. However he cheerefully waved us through not looking too worried for our safety.

As we entered the park we gave ourselves a little pep talk to ease the anxiety.

“Look, lets think about this. Tigers are rarely spotted during the day.”

“Right.”

“It’s unlikely a tiger would be roming around the main road.”

“Right.”

“Cyclists don’t make good eating, too salty.”

“Right.”

On the off chance we did have an encounter we had a cunning plan: Turn the bikes to face downhill and cycle like hell.

In reality aggressive elephants were probably a more realistic danger to us, and we did hear one trumpet in the nearby forest, though we never saw it. We saw many shy spotted deer darting into the undergrowth, and monkeys and lemurs jumping from branch to branch or sitting by the roadside giving each other belly rubs. Eagles soared above, and a mongoose waddled off into some shrubs.

It was nice to be on a bicycle as we could hear all the noises and rustling in the forest, which helped to spot the animals. It also provided an opportunity for local tourists to snap some unusual “wildlife photos” of two crazy tourists on their bicycles going through a tiger reserve. Cameras pointed at us out of every bus window, and at one point a jeep safari driver actually stopped his vehicle so that his passengers could take photos of us.

Guy cycling in Mudumalai National Park   Monkey with coconut

Except on the main road, the national park can only be visited through government run tours, which take place in a rattling bus, not the ideal way to appeciate wildlife. Private jeep safaris and treks can only access the area around the park, outside of its boundaries. Expecting to be taken a little deeper into the park, we bit the bullet and went on the government run tour when we reached the centre of the reserve. We wasted 45 minutes in a jam packed bus full of chattering tourists, rattling its way through the forest and scaring away all the animals. All we saw was more monkeys, spotted deer and a peacock. We had had a much better time exploring the park on our bicycles, even though we could not go as deep into the forest.

Having found a hotel in a nearby village, we spent some time in the afternoon watching the park’s working elephants being fed and their tusks and toes brushed. The elephants had their feet chained up so that they could only take small steps. They were giant beasts and could certainly do a lot of damage if they decided to do so. Apparently a lady was killed last year when she went trekking in the area just outside of the national park, as her group had antagonised an elephant by throwing stones at it…

Elephant tusk brushing

On the way back to the village in a shared jeep taxi, we saw a huge dark beast stomping through the forest. Thinking it was an elephant, we were surprised to see a large bison with curly horns – a gaur. There really way a lot of wildlife around!

Unfortunately Freddie felt quite rough the next morning and developed a high fever and a case of the trots, in addition to her lingering cold. We stayed an extra day to allow her to recover, and luckily we had some nice accommodation with satellite TV, allowing us to watch lots of wildlife shows on Animal Planet, including one about leopards and tigers attacking small villages near national parks in India…

Facing a big climb

Once Freddie had recovered, we left to cycle up to Ooty. We were facing a very steep 1,350m climb over only 13km. There was a handy countdown of hairpin bends, 36 in total. As we were unsure how Freddie would cope, still a little weak from her illness, gentleman Guy took over some of her weight and we fought our way up the hill. As the road was so steep, and with such tight bends, buses and trucks were unable to use it, and therefore it was fairly quiet.

Climbing up to Ooty   36 hairpin bends

Towards the top, we started seeing tea plantations and many fragrant eucalypt trees reminding us of Australia. We had a lovely break near a tea factory where all sorts of local products were manufactured, including different types of tea, eucalypt oil and face cream. They served us a delicious chocolate tea – cocoa powder, tea leaves and sugar mixed with hot milk. Yum!  

Amazingly, the climb was so steep that once we had made it to the top and conquered the last hairpin bend, we could still see the valley below us where we had come from that morning. It was 1.3 vertical kilometres below us! We had started at 900m altitude and topped out at 2,250m when we reached Ooty. It was very cold up here, only 3°C at night.

Ooty valley

Ooty was a hill station established by the British in the early 19th century as the summer headquarters of their government. It sprawls out over a large area of rolling hills and valleys. The city centre is busy, but there is a lovely lake and a beautiful botanical garden. We really enjoyed our walk in the botanical gardens, but as we were resting on a bench, an elderly lady with curly grey hair and a dirty orange sari approached us. “Toda” she mumbled, pointing at herself, and then she seemed to invite us to her tribal village up the hill. We knew the Toda were a local tribe with a unique culture and spirituality centred around the buffalo. Their traditions had been uprooted by the arrival of the British, and some of the Toda were obviously in a bad place now. The lady continued to mumble something about a coffee plantation and proceeded to ask us for money. When we refused, she spat at our feet and turned to leave. It was sad to see how members of this ancient tribe had been reduced to begging from tourists. We made sure to take a wide birth when we saw any more Todas around town.

A family arrived and asked if they could take a picture of us, together with one of the ladies and her baby. As soon as they left, a group of young men took pictures of us with them posing next to us in various combinations. Then, a shy Tibetan girl approached to take a picture too. And so it continued, until we had done about 15 picture sessions and escaped into the more hidden reaches of the park! We are used to people taking pictures of us when we are on our bicycles, but it usually doesn’t happen very often when we are just normal tourists, in a touristy town. We also did not see people taking pictures of anyone else, so we were a little confused. At the park bench we were sitting at we turned around thinking there might be some giant sign that provided some kind of comedy backdrop.

Our hotel room had no heating and was a little moldy, so Freddie’s cold got worse again and we left the following day, not before we had stocked up on some of the chocolates that Ooty is famous for.

It was time to cash in our hard work and enjoy an awesome descent. First, we had to climb a little to get over the pass and out of the valley. At 2,300m altitude, we realised we were actually above the clouds. On a windy road we dropped down through the clouds into a forested valley and lost 2,000m altitude over the next 40km.

Downhill from Ooty     Enjoying the downhill

At the bottom with burning hot rims, the temperature was lovely and warm again, and we were back in coconut plantations. Even though the descent had only been a workout for our hands gripping the brakes, we were feeling decidedly tired, maybe from the after effects of our big climb and Freddie’s illness. We called it a day and checked into a hotel, and soon another reason for Guy’s tiredness became clear: he started feeling very nauseous and was soon reaching for the dunny, so we had to take another rest day.

India has not been good to us in terms of health, and most of the time at least one of us is feeling below par so we are slowly limping from one place to the next. We compare this to hygeine obsessed Iran where we didn’t even have a sniffle. Hopefully things will improve soon, otherwise we are going to struggle to make it to Chennai in time.

Sunday, 23 January 2011

Hill Climbs, Coffee Plantations and a Dazzling Palace

Sullia – Mysore - Gundlupet

“Madikeri!” exclaimed the hotel manager. “Oooh. The road is closed for construction. Let me just call the traffic police to see if you can pass through.”

“The road is very bad,” mentioned the shop keeper. “You might have to walk and push for most of the way.”

“You will have to cover your faces,” advised a tea shop owner serving up steaming cups of chai. “It is going to be very dusty as there is construction going on.”

“Madikeri?” said two passing doctors on a motorbike. “You will need lots of energy for that road. Here, let us buy you a fresh sugar cane juice.”||

The road sounded like hell. The last 20 kilometers on the way to Madikeri were a steepish climb of over 1,000 vertical metres, and according to the locals, there was construction going on the whole way up. We had nightmarish visions of sandy, rocky surfaces, construction vehicles passing backwards and forwards, and expected that we would have to walk most of the way. In the morning of our big day, we got up extra early, all pumped up for our toughest cycling day yet.

The first 25km were quickly covered, and at 9am we had arrived at the start of the dreaded climb. Just before the roadblock we had one last chai and some snacks to ready ourselves for the road ahead. Passing the roadblock along with some motorbikes and a bus (private vehicles were banned due to the construction work), we noticed people looking at us with pity. This was going to be bad.

Climbing up to Madikeri   Thirst!

For the first few kilometres, the road surface wasn’t great, but not any worse than it had been for the previous 100km or so. Perhaps this was the calm before the storm. As we cycled further on the potholes got worse, rocks were strewn across the road and sections became very sandy, but nothing that we were not already used to. 10km later, we were actually enjoying the cycling through the plantations of rubber trees, bananas, coconuts and betel nuts, and the road condition held steady. Later on, we passed a few construction workers on their lunch break, and still later, some families breaking up the old road. Women in pink and green saris, with children on their hips, were carrying heavy baskets full of rocks on their heads, while the men broke up the road with their pickaxes, pausing only to take a photo of us with their mobile phones.

The road was quiet as most traffic was banned, and we plodded on up the mountain undisturbed, watching an amazing variety of butterflies – small lemon coloured ones, black and white ones with tiger stripes, and huge bright blue ones with black tips on their wings. Eventually we passed a 3km section with “real” roadworks going on, but the temporary dirt road was good and we passed the section quickly. Arriving at the top of the long climb in the afternoon, we were tired but could not believe how much everyone we had been talking to had exaggerated the condition of the road. We had made it to Madikeri without even getting off and pushing once.

Madikeri is the centre of the Coorg region, an area known for its coffee and spice plantations. We took a rest day here, staying in a nice hotel in town, along with dozens of young, affluent members of the Bangalore IT crowd. We find that there really is a large middle class in India, with most cars being mid-range and quite new. Former food shacks have swapped their coconut drinks for mobile phone contracts, and big brands such as Pepsi and Kingfisher run grassroots campaigns by splashing their logos in bright paint over village shops and bus stops. On the other hand, we also pass very poor farm areas where people’s lives are not that dissimilar to how they were hundreds or even thousands of years ago. In these villages, ox carts with wooden wheels are the vehicle of choice, and most houses don’t have running water, a reminder that India´s booming economy is not benefiting all levels of society.

We were looking forward to exploring the Coorg region south of Madikeri and decided to take a detour there on our way to Mysore. Following a small, quiet road, we passed many coffee, spice and banana plantations, as well as cheerful farm workers bringing in the hay.

Farm workers

During the day, we had noticed several “home stays” advertised along the road, which sounded like a pleasant way to experience life on a plantation. The road surface was pretty bad, and there were many small hills to conquer, so by mid afternoon we started to feel a little tired and spotted a sign for a home stay. For a while we debated whether we should stay, but in the end we took what we thought the “sensible option” of pushing on a little further, as we had only covered 50km, which would make the next day a very long day into Mysore. “I have a feeling we will find somewhere to stay down the road,” Freddie chirped and got back on her bike.

Coorg house   Coorg region

We agreed that we would start looking for accommodation around the 60km mark. By then it was 4pm and we enquired at a shop if there would be any hotels or home stays down the road. “It’s all forest down there, no accommodation,” the shop keeper said. “The next hotel is in Hunsur, 35km away.”

This was bad news. We only had 2.5 hours of daylight left and did not relish the idea of cycling in the dark on bad roads, as our lights were not good enough to allow us to spot the pot holes. Usually that would be plenty of time to cover 35km, but on these broken roads and steep hills it would require a serious push. “Thanks!” we yelled as we took off on the bikes at top speed. Shortly afterwards we zoomed past a sign welcoming us to Rajiv Gandhi National Park. Not the kind of sign you want to see when you are looking for accommodation late in the afternoon. Dodging potholes and skidding through sandy sections, we raced through the National Park, passing groups of bemused monkeys, listening to creaking noises of bamboo trunks splitting and imagining how freaky it would be to cycle through the park at night.

After about 20km, we passed through a village and saw what looked like a hotel. Guy went in and immediately came out again. “There’s no way we’re staying here, better to take our chances in the National Park,” he proclaimed, putting his helmet back on. The place had a seedy whiskey bar downstairs and a brothel above. We pushed on.

Out of the National Park, we now cycled through many small villages, watched ox carts being loaded up with hay, and chatted to kids on their way back from church (there are many churches in this area!). Even though we still received many waves and greetings, we have found the people a little less friendly since Madikeri and also found that people were overcharging us much more frequently.

To our relief, the road surface finally improved a little and the hills became less steep. This made all the difference, and we flew into Hunsur right on dusk. Stopping to ask for directions to a hotel, Guy was surrounded by a group of men trying to help out, while Freddie was swamped by about 20 boys who were curious about her bicycle. These boys were a little different from the ones we had encountered on the coast, all prim and proper in their school uniforms. Here, they were of a rougher variety, with grubby clothes, no shoes and dusty faces. They played with the brakes and gears, pulled at the panniers and quizzically pointed at the bike computer and water bottles. Although the attention was a little overwhelming after a long day on the bike, Freddie practised being patient as the boys were just curious and had probably not met many cycle tourers before. Surprisingly, this was the first time we had received so much attention in India, as we had had visions of this happening on a daily basis.

At the hotel, we had a well deserved cold shower. When we asked about hot water the hotel manager gleefully announced they have 24/7 cold water! Hot water is not that common in Indian hotels, which was fine in the heat of the lowlands, but up in the cool hill areas it was a bit cruel. After dinner, we sunk into a deep sleep. We had cycled non-stop since lunch and covered 96km on very bad, hilly roads. A tough day!

In the morning, we had a sleep-in and got ready to leave at 10am. However, first we had to get our deposit back (it’s common for hotels to request an up-front deposit), and wait for our bikes to be unlocked from their storage room. The hotel manager took his time, and after half an hour of waiting we were starting to get annoyed. It did not help that he then tried to short change us, and we left without another word, only to be stopped a few metres further on by a local journalist. We were still bothered and not really up for sweet talking the local press, but Guy did his best to answer a few questions, and we posed for a photo before we were on our way.

The final 50km into Mysore were on a good road, and we had a nice lunch in between, so although we were a bit low on energy we got there quite quickly and found a nice hotel. Mysore was a fairly relaxed city with less traffic chaos than other Indian cities. There were plenty of tourists around, and we returned every day to a popular tourist restaurant for its cheese and mushroom omelette. During our previous backpacking trips, we usually spent a lot of energy trying to get away from the tourist trail, but since we cycle tour, we are off the tourist trail most of the time anyway and really appreciate the facilities that touristy locations offer! Sometimes we do have pangs of guilt though, especially when the huge Indian portion sizes defeat us once again and we leave bowls of rice and curry behind, only to step outside into the street where people go hungry.

We spent a few hours exploring the dazzling Maharaja’s Palace, which was rebuilt in 1912 after the previous palace had burned down. It was designed by an English architect and has a magnificently over the top interior with golden columns, stained glass windows, mosaic floors and intricately carved wooden doors. The paintings of state processions in the Raj’s time were impressive: regiments of turbaned and moustachioed gentlemen carrying swords and daggers, the Raj being carried in a palanquin, and the state elephant wearing a golden head piece and bracelets on its tusks.

Mysore Maharaja's Palace

Mysore’s colourful market was worth some exploration too. Rows of serene flower sellers making garlands for the local temples, and pushy merchants selling powders as colourful as their personalities, which they mixed with water to make body paint. 

Mysore flower market    Mysore flower market garlands

Leaving Mysore, the road was quite good but busy. We were now on a high plateau and found the cycling fairly easy. Coconut sellers were everywhere, carrying their coconuts on overloaded bicycles or hanging them from trees to display them. With a machete, they cut a hole into the coconut and provided a straw for a refreshing, natural drink.

Coconut seller

That night we stayed in a weird, overpriced hotel in the small town of Gundlupet. After we arrived in the afternoon, we went out in search for a snack and decided to get some takeaway food for dinner so we did not have to go out again. However, all restaurant kitchens were closed, and cooked food was only available from 7pm. Fair enough. But then we got a little busy and went out for dinner at 8:30pm, by which time the kitchens were already closed again! Eventually we found a small restaurant, which looked like a garage and was absolutely filthy. We had no choice as we were starving so we took our chances. They were still serving rice and dhal. So far, we had always managed to get a spoon or a fork to eat with, but this time we were out of luck and had to eat the gruel local style - with our hands. Messy!

Back at the hotel, the manager made food gestures (English is not widely spoken in rural India, so communication can be a little tricky at times). “No thank you”, we said, thinking he was asking us if we wanted food, “we’ve already eaten.” Things became clearer when we unlocked our room and he poked his head in, pointing to our bunch of bananas and then to himself! Seeing it was a case of “what-else-can-I-get-from-these-rich-foreigners” Guy gave in.

“Alright”, he grumbled, “you can have the smallest banana I can find.”

The following morning we were woken up at 5:45am by a persistent knocking on our door. “What is it?” we asked. “Sir! Sir! Chai! Tea!”

“NO, thanks” we groaned.

Despite our protests, the knocking continued every 10 minutes after that, until we finally got up as we thought there might be some other reason for the persistent knocking. Guy opened the door.

“Chai?”

“Arrrr, no, just sleep” insisted Guy.

With that “Mr Chai” put the TV on, extra loud of course.

Obviously we weren't allowed to sleep any further so we grudgingly packed up and left Gundlupet to head towards the hill station of Ooty via some hopefully very scenic national parks and the odd tiger reserve, not the place for a flat tyre.

Friday, 14 January 2011

Hippies, pilgrims and the dreaded Delhi Belly

Patnem Beach, Goa – Sullia, Karnataka

“Good morning, Ma’am!”

“Happy journey!”

“What is your good name, Sir?”

“Which country?”

Those are the shouts that accompany us for most of the day, originating from passing motorbikes, school children, jeep passengers and shop keepers. The people in this part of India are exuberant, bubbly and fun, and there is never a dull moment in our day.||

Leaving Patnem Beach and Goa, we followed a beautiful windy road into the next state, Karnataka. Rising up and zooming back down again, we passed bright green rice paddies and fishermen in dug-out canoes and on the tops of rises we could see the Arabian sea shimmering below.

Fisherman   Rice harvest

We felt surprisingly good on the bikes and did 100km quite easily. It would be nice to think this is due to our supreme fitness but it’s more likely the extra pounds we shed by sending our camping kit back home. The easy access to good quality food has also been a huge bonus as we now carry less with us during the day and we eat very well so our energy levels are constantly restocked. On the other hand, we did have to get used to riding in the heat again, as it is now noticeabley hotter than in Mumbai, and with high humidity at around 80%. Though we shouldn’t complain as at 32°C it is still 15°C cooler than when we were cycling in Eastern Europe and Turkey.

Arriving in the seaside village of Gokarna, we soon found a cheap hotel room for only £3.50. It was a bit of a prison cell though – dark, manky and with a rock hard mattress. Gokarna is a holy village and was packed with Indian pilgrims and Western hippies. The pilgrims were visiting the local temples and joining evening processions where a statue of a goddess on a cart was pushed through the village with a group of young men banging thunderous drums, chanting and dancing bare chested. The temples themselves were off-limits to tourists, but we were able to visit the temple tank, a large pool where members of the Brahmin priest cast were washing on the steps, next to washerwomen doing the laundry.

Gokarna Temple Tank   "Ratha" for religious processions

Gokarna felt very spiritual, and we met one lady from Pune who was excited to celebrate the end of her daughter’s fasting period in one of the temples. Cows were wandering wherever their spiritual nature guided them, and at one point we watched as a man fed a cow a few bananas, then bent down to touch his forehead with the cow’s tail. Most of the cows (including the ones that are just lying around on the highway or rummaging through rubbish dumps) have a red “third eye” painted on their foreheads to foster their spiritual wellbeing. It seems very strange to us, but also quite endearing to rever an animal which is so “common” to us.

Pilgrim ladies   Gokarna "holy beggar"

Most of the local men were wearing only a lungi (a sort of loin cloth looking like a little skirt), and nothing else. This was fine with us, but we did find it a bit strange that some of the tourists were following the same dress code, walking around barefoot with just a loincloth on… We really had arrived in Hippieville. Overall, a disproportionally high number of men had dreadlocks, and almost all of the Westerners were wearing local Indian clothes, which made us feel a little out of place with our khaki trousers, cycling shoes and personal hygiene.

Gokarna wall painting   Flower seller

We were not the only ones though, as we met two other cyclists the following morning. Rick and Erik were from the California and on a tour of India. So was Klemens, a German cyclist who we had shared a lunch with a couple of days before. From talking to some of the locals we realised that cycle tourers were a fairly common sight in the area. It’s good to know we are not the only crazies!

Rick and Erik pointed out a waterfall to us whilst on the road the following day, so we went to explore. Guy had a quick dip, but when it was Freddie’s turn, three excited teenage boys followed her to the waterfall, probably hoping for a wet T-Shirt show. They were quite disappointed when she decided against a swim and just had an ice cream instead! Afternoon chai stops are becoming a new habit for us now, although we sometimes find the chai shop owners during their afternoon nap. A little drowsy, they are still happy to brew us a cup of tea and join us for a chat and a perusal of our map.

Arriving in a non-descript town on the coast, we found a nice hotel for about £6, complete with bathroom and TV. This was lucky as Freddie suddenly felt lunch making a re-appearance and was soon bathroom bound, spending the rest of the night on the Big White Telephone (loo) with the typical symptoms of the infamous “Delhi Belly”. Luckily she bounced back quickly, but we did stay an extra night so she could recover some strength. The guys running the hotel were quite sweet, offering to bring us cups of tea and recommending mild dishes for her to eat.

When it comes to even basic hygiene it still feels India is well behind. People use their hands to wipe their bum in the bathroom which is fine but many bathroom sinks don’t even provide soap. Spitting in public is common and tap water is dubious. Looking in restaurant kitchens we sometimes see people sitting on the floor and cutting vegetables. Many restaurants don’t have a fridge. It’s no wonder that most travellers eventually get sick. Even by sticking to vegetarian food and being obsessed with washing hands it’s difficult to avoid.

Once Freddie was back in shape, we were on our way south again, this time for a 90km day to Udipi, famous throughout India for inventing the Masala Dosa, a sort of lentil pancake stuffed with potato curry. We love cycling in the mornings when the buses and trucks are still asleep, and the school children are on their way to school. Up to 10 kids piled into a rickshaw designed for 2, sitting on each other’s laps, and all waved and shouted greetings to us. Young boys in their prim school uniforms raced us up hills on their rusty bicycles, supplied to every child in Karnataka for free by the government, and groups of girls with pigtails and stacks of school books giggled and waved.

A guy on a motorbike shouted “look at my fish!”, proudly pointing to the back of his motorbike, and sure enough, there was an 80cm fish strapped to the back of his bike! Fishing is very common in this area, and we often see ladies dressed in colourful saris balancing heavy baskets full of fish on their   heads, on their way to the local market where they lovingly display their fish on old newspapers on the dusty ground.

Fishermen Wooden fishing boats

We had been worried about leaving our bikes out of sight when in a restaurant, but now we are here and understand the culture more we feel pretty relaxed. People are just curious, and they are usually pretty respectful and keep about a metre’s distance from the bikes while they point out the various features to each other. Sometimes curiosity gets the better of them and they will try out the brakes or give the bell a few ringa-ding-dings which makes us laugh when we are out of sight and can hear our bells being rung. The great thing about our bikes is that it’s very difficult for people to break or misalign anything – even if they shift gears, it’s no problem because we have the Rohloff hub and can shift gears while the bikes are stationary. Often people don’t even notice the gears as they are accustomed to single speed bicycles. The most intriguing part of our bicycles is, surprisingly, our water bottles. People keep asking us what they are for.

During the day, we usually buy a bunch of bananas from a little wooden roadside stall. Whole stems of bananas hang from the roof and they just cut off however many bananas we ask for. The bananas are very small and sometimes don’t look great from the outside, but they are always sweet and ripe and are good to transport as they don’t easily squash. So far, away from the touristy areas we have rarely got ripped off and feel that we almost always pay the right price, whether we are buying a pack of cookies, a bunch of bananas, a restaurant meal or a hotel room.

Arriving in Udipi, we realised that although many little restaurants have a “hotel” sign out the front, we often just get blank looks when we ask if they have a room available. They are not hotels and we have no idea why the signs say so. For some reason people here seem to have taken to calling restaurants “hotels”. In Udipi we actually went to 5 different “hotels” until we found one that was a real hotel.

Do you have any rooms?

At dinner, we noticed that the restaurant menu listed “toast with butter and jam”. This was exciting news as we have been struggling with the Indian breakfast which usual consists of something fried with curry. Looking forward to our continental style breakfast, we rushed to the restaurant the following morning, only to be told that toast was in fact not a breakfast item, but only available later in the day! The only options were idlis (spongy savoury rice cakes), and masala dosa (the above mentioned lentil pancake with a curry stuffing). Deep fried savouries and curry are not our idea of an ideal breakfast, so we walked out in seach of toast. After 20 minutes, we ended up eating idlis and masala dosa at another restaurant…

Udipi is famous for its Krishna temple which has pilgrims visiting from all over India. We popped over in the morning following the sounds of drums and trails of cow dung. There were many excited pilgrims and some beggars making the most of the pilgrims generous moods. To Freddie’s delight, men had to enter the temple bare chested. It was a fascinating temple complex, but we did not linger long and were soon on our way inland to Karkal.

Udipi Krishna Temple   Statue at Udipi temple

The coastal road had been pleasant if a little too busy at times, but we were interested in exploring the hilly interior of Karnataka and Kerala. Soon, the road became smaller and quieter, and we passed through small villages where people did not seem so used to seeing tourists. The food was even cheaper than before, and we managed to have lunch for only £0.50 for both of us, including soft drinks and a bottle of water! Our nice hotel room in Karkal cost us £6 and even had room service, which we promptly indulged in by ordering up a selection of snacks and tea. All of a sudden our budget that would allow us only a basic camp site and supermarket food in the West now allows us to live like kings.

Our first task in Karkal was to sort out our breakfast. We were not up for any more potato curry and deep fried stuff and decided to do our own. We had instant coffee, cereal and honey, but needed a few more items. Bread was fairly straightforward – there is only spongy tasteless white bread available in the shops, so we ordered some extra parathas and chappatis in the evening and kept them for breakfast to have with our honey. Milk, however, proved tricky. The milk is usually sold in small bags which have to be refridgerated as in this heat the milk curdles very quickly. Buying it in the morning was not an option as shops rarely open before 9am. UHT milk is not so common, but after asking at a few shops, one man advised us to ask for “Goodlife”. He pointed us to another shop, and then other people pointed us to further shops, and after visiting about 5 different shops,  everyone in the market area knew what we were looking for. Two young guys on a motorbike hit gold when they pointed us to a little shack selling toothpaste, where we found a glorious bag of Goodlife milk. Breakfast was saved!

We seemed to be on some kind of pilgrim route as we saw the pilgrim vehicles on the road regularly, and they also stayed in the same towns as us. They usually travel in 4WDs that are beautifully decorated with orange flags, golden tinsel and yellow and orange flower garlands. As locals told us, many of the pilgrims were on their way to an annual festival at the Sabarimala temple. (Sadly, the news today has been dominated by a stampede at this festival, in which over 100 people have died so far – unfortunately this is not an uncommon event at the big Indian religious festivals where hundreds of thousands of people congregate with few security measures…).

There was a small temple in Karkal and we watched the evening ceremony where a man in an orange lungi danced around a goddess statue whilst waving a handful of burning candles. Animated music with automatic beating drums and high-pitched screeching sounds accompanied the ceremony, and around the temple many people were selling flower garlands in different colours, and beggars were trying their luck with the passers-by.

Beggar in Karkal   Roadside temple

At dinner in a local vegetarian restaurant (veg is the norm, only some restaurants are “non-veg”), pilgrims filled the tables around us. We seemed to be the only tourists in Karkal and were surrounded by men in lungis and sarongs, with bare chests and white and orange paint streaked over their faces and upper bodies, as well as some women wearing white flowers garlands in their hair. It was fascinating to see, and we felt pretty lucky to be there at this time.

A long day saw us cycling to Puttur via some pretty bad roads. We spent all day going up and down hills in the intense heat, swerving around pot holes and braving dirt and gravel sections. There was quite a bit of traffic on the narrow road, with buses hurtling towards us and 4WDs overtaking us at the last second. We really had to be on the ball and never took our eyes off the road and our mirrors, ready to jump off at any time. However, we still prefer to be on a bicycle where we are in charge and can quickly dive off to the side of the road, rather than being in a bus or taxi, at the mercy of the driver and constantly on the verge of a head-on crash.

By the end of the day, we were knackered. As usual now, and very differently from the other countries we have visited so far, on arrival in Puttur we headed straight to the biggest and nicest looking hotel in town. In these smaller towns off the tourist trail they are almost certainly to be a bargain. Tonight we ended up in a lovely room with ensuite bathroom, fan, TV and comfortable mattresses for only £3. Our best value room yet!

The following morning we were very tired and had a sleep-in. We were feeling the effects of the previous day and only managed 40km, interrupted by a nice lunch to celebrate our 9000th kilometre. We stayed in the small town of Sullia where we happened upon a festival which included a small ferris wheel that had been tweaked to rotate at lightning speed, much to the shrieking delights of the joyriders. In fact, all the rides seemed to go at 2-3 times the speed they were designed for, including the children’s carousels! It was like a carnival on speed, very surreal. We had some fried noodles (Chinese food is very common in India for some reason) but opted out of a ride as we couldn’t find anything tame enough so had early night to get our energy up for our 1000m climb to Madikeri the following day.

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

9,000km Photo

“Stop, stop!” cried Ebrahim, rushing out of his restaurant to greet us as we were dragging ourselves through the midday heat on the boneshaking road to Madikeri.

“You must come in and try my chicken kebab, and how about a free health check-up!“ he continued.
Now there was an offer we couldn’t refuse.

As we pulled in to the restaurant we noticed there was quite a crowd. Ebrahim explained that a free monthly health clinic which had been funded by a local business man was taking place today. Many of the locals can’t afford healthcare and were queuing in a makeshift waiting room while a few doctors saw patients in a small area in front of the restaurant, dispensing medication as well as bars of soap to promote hygiene (a good idea we think!).

We had a nice lunch to celebrate our 9,000th cycling kilometre. After a chat to Ebrahim and some of the doctors and locals, we felt much recovered and gathered some of the crew around us for the photo.

||

Thursday, 6 January 2011

Goa: A Portuguese Enclave in India

Panaji – Patnem

The train journey from Mumbai to Goa took 12 hours, even though it covered only 600km, and is rated as one of the most scenic train journeys in India. The old locomotive stopped at every little station, where colourfully dressed locals loaded and unloaded all sorts of goods from bags of rice to motorbikes. Economy travel involves sitting in rather compact surroundings on wooden benches, fun for a few hours but we felt the call of a little more luxury so travelled 2nd class. We each had a sleeping berth (a bit weird as it was a daytime train) that doubled as a flat bench to sit on when not snoozing. Our compartment was shared with two other travellers, a young South African guy who was also into cycling, and an elderly man from London who was originally from Sri Lanka. Conversation flowed and time passed quickly, intermittedly interrupted by the food and chai wallahs walking the carriages with their steaming pots. The window in the cabin was small and scratched so we often joined the locals sitting at the open doorways to soak up the scenery as it flashed past.||

Konkan railway   Freddie in open doorway

On arrival at the last station, Margao, in the evening, we waited (a virtue in India) on the dark platform for our bike boxes to be unloaded whilst stray dogs and beggars milled around us. An hour later, they had finally made it off the train and onto the platform. Even though we could have just taken them ourselves, we had to wait for them to be carried to the parcel office where we could officially receive them. However, the luggage men were not touching them until we agreed to pay an extra “fee”, upon which two wiry men were called to take the boxes. To our dismay, they grabbed one box each and placed it on their head, hands free and disappeared between train carriages. A little concerned as to the whereabouts of our boxes we took off in pursuit, over the tracks, struggling to keep up with all our heavy luggage. We soon realised that they were just taking a shortcut to the parcel office where we were finally reunited with our bikes.

A terrifying taxi ride later, we arrived at our guest house in Panaji, the small capital of Goa, the starting point of our Indian cycling leg. We were total exhausted so the 1 inch thin mattresses didn’t really bother us but the million and one rules posted all around the place made us chuckle. Everything we wanted to do was forbidden: “Restaurant closed. Internet facilities not available. Laundry services not available. Do not wash clothes. Do not use additional electrical appliances without permission.” To top it off, there was a 10pm curfew, after which the gates were locked, and the checkout time was a cruel 8am! However, as it was just after Christmas and pretty much all other accommodation was booked out, we had no choice but to spend a few days in boot camp.

On the upside, the guest house was located in a lovely part of town: the Fountainhas quarter with its colourful colonial houses, beautiful gardens and old ladies in flowery dresses sitting on their porches and chatting in Portuguese. Goa was a Portuguese colony for 450 years until 1961, and the influence of the Portuguese culture is still very strong. Christianity is the dominant religion in Goa, and most houses had made a real effort with their Christmas decoration, hanging up large, luminescent stars and garlands, all beautifully lit up at night. Many people also create elaborate installations depicting the birth of Jesus, which are placed in front of their houses. In one case, we even saw a very large installation floating on a pond.

Panaji house   Floating Christmas scene

There are many Portuguese style whitewashed churches in Goa. Once we had reassembled our bikes (to our relief they had survived both the plane and train journey intact), we did a leisurely test ride to nearby Old Goa, which is famous for its churches. In the 16th century, Old Goa was a powerful city bigger than Lisbon, but now a handful of churches is all that is left.

Panaji church

The following morning, we checked out at 8am sharp and set off for our first day’s cycling in India. We were rearing to go, as we missed cycling, but also a little worried about our loss of fitness after a whole month off the bikes. We took a beautiful quiet road which wound its way through a lush forest along the coastline. To our delight, there was not much traffic at all. The area was quite prosperous, with many candy coloured villas ranging from hot pink to aquamarine, fire engine red, lime green and canary yellow. Indians are certainly not afraid of colour! The abundant tropical environment made a welcome change from the desert mountainscapes of Turkey and Iran. There were flowers, coconut palms and other greenery everywhere, and more wildlife than we have seen for months: water buffaloes with accompanying herons sitting on their backs, colourful tropical birds with sweeping tails, holy cows, lazy dogs, lizards and the occasional monkey scurrying past.

Coastal road   Candy coloured houses

Every village had a large whitewashed church, and many houses had gardens. This was the first time we had seen such lovingly tended gardens since we left Romania! We also passed luxury holiday resorts the size of a small village, and once in a while we nipped down to the coast to find quiet sandy beaches. A delicious lunch was had at one of many restaurants, and after 40km of ambling along in this cycling paradise, we called it a day and checked into a hotel near the beach, where we were planning to spend New Year’s Eve.

For the first time since Istanbul, we were now firmly on the tourist trail. Package tourists mixed with elderly resort residents, trendy backpackers and ageing hippies. Many stalls along the village main drag were selling the loose cotton trousers and woven bags that constitute the uniform of young travellers in India. There was even a German bakery, and banana pancakes were firmly on the menu.

After trying a vegetarian spaghetti dish, which was “indianised” with copious amounts of ginger, we decided to stick to the local diet instead and celebrated New Year’s eve with a lovely dinner of tandoori chicken, Aloo Gobi and a few cocktails. This was a mistake though, as the cheap local rum caused Guy some horrendous stomach cramps so that we staggered home just before midnight and only saw glimpses of the fireworks from our hotel window. Fortunately being back on the bikes the following morning in this beautiful area was the perfect start to the new year.

Beach shacks   Fishing boats on beach 

We took a windy road through small villages, which followed the coast. There were quite a few rivers to cross, and not all of them had bridges. We had been looking forward to some ferry crossings, but the first ferry we came across was out of order, causing us a 10km detour to the only bridge. On the way, we got a little lost and ended up on a dirt track, which was surrounded by water on both sides as it led into a river. The track became smaller and smaller and was obviously not used very often. Just as we became convinced we were on the road to nowhere and would have to do a humiliating backtrack past all the happily waving villagers, the track rejoined the mainland and we emerged in a little fishing village, much to the surprise of the fishermen. 

Road to nowhere

After a 60km ride we ended up in Patnem, the most southerly developed beach in Goa. It was very busy and most of the accommodation was booked out. We ended up in an overpriced, very basic room where Freddie experienced her first bucket shower. This consists of a bucket of water supplied by the guest house, with a smaller bucket which is used to pour the water over yourself. Shortly after this, Freddie opened her pannier, only to find a massive 10cm long cockroach crawling out!

The beach was lovely, though very busy with travellers. We decided to risk some Mexican food as this might be our last opportunity for a while, and had dinner at a beach shack. Having subsisted on chicken kebabs for so long in Turkey and Iran, we enjoyed the variety of food and easy availability of facilities. However, we also suffered from a bit of culture shock due to the sudden exposure to hundreds of European tourists, and were looking forward to crossing into Karnataka and the “real India” the following day.

We are planning to follow the Karnataka coast south to Udipi, and then head inland to visit some of the hill stations and tea plantations. There will be some tough climbs involved, but hopefully they will be worth the effort. We are planning to travel to the Coorg region, visit Mysore and the hill stations of Ooty and Munnar, and cycle through a tiger reserve (!) before rejoining the west coast further south at Kochi. From there, we are planning to follow a small coastal route through Kerala right down to the tip of India, where we will turn north east to cycle through Tamil Nadu, visiting Madurai and Pondicherry on the way. We will probably stop just south of Chennai to avoid the big city traffic, and then fly from Chennai to Bangkok in early March.

Monday, 3 January 2011

Dharavi – the largest slum in Asia

We had heard that it is possible to do a walking tour through the Dharavi slum in Mumbai. Initially we hesitated, but as 55% of Mumbai’s population lives in slums, we thought we should see for ourselves how “the other half” lives. Dharavi was created on a large rubbish dump, which was covered with mud before people started erecting shacks and houses on the site. It is now the largest slum in Asia, housing over one million people in an area of just 1.7 sq km.||

Neither of us had really been to a slum before, and we had many negative preconceptions. We felt uneasy, imagining we would meet desperate unemployed people living in shacks, dirty children begging for money, and thieves roaming the streets.

We were met by a guide from Reality Tours (who also lives in a slum) and took the train to the slum area. Reality Tours has been running these tours for the last five years, working closely with the slum dwellers. They donate 70% of their profits to their charity arm, Reality Gives, which has a kindergarden and cricket academy in Dharavi, as well as running a community centre with English, IT and Social Skills classes for young people. It’s great when tourism contributes to such a positive development in a community.

To show respect to the people, no photography was allowed, so unfortunately we don’t have any photos in this post. The first thing we saw was a group of ladies making wicker baskets on the foot path. We were told that there are over 10,000 businesses in Dharavi, generating an annual turnover of $650 million. Amazingly, two thirds of Dharavi’s inhabitants are actually economic migrants from other parts of India, who have come to the slum to work and send money home. In Dharavi, they are able to earn 3-4 times as much as in their own villages. However, their wages are still pitifully low, starting from around $2 per day.

The slum is organised into different parts, according to the businesses that operate in the area. The first area we visited specialises in plastic recycling. Plastic bottles, tubs etc are collected from Mumbai and even shipped in from Europe, sorted by colour and quality, washed, shredded and formed into pellets that are then sold to companies to produce new plastic items. Most of this work is done in sheds made of corrugated iron. Plastic canisters and bottles are everywhere, stored on the roofs, in the buildings and on the streets.

The workers usually sleep in the same place where they work, or on the roofs. If they find a group of friends, they may rent a room together. Developers are trying to convince slum dwellers to let them build high rises in the area. They would offer some ground floor apartments for free to the slum dwellers and sell the apartments in the upper floors. Some of these projects have happened, but for many of the slum dwellers this is not an option, as they would lose their business premises.

We then visited an area where paint cans are recycled. They are placed into a furnace where the remains of the paint are burned and scraped off. The cans are cleaned and can then be repainted with a new company logo. It was amazing to see so much recycling and reusing in action; everything has a value, and nothing is wasted. Unfortunately, the working conditions are not particularly good, as there is not much ventilation in the shacks, and heavy paint fumes hang in the air. Our guide told us that he had talked to some of the workers to convince them to wear masks and gloves, but they were resistant to change. “We have always done it like this, why change now?”, they said.

There is also a thriving leather industry where goat, sheep and buffalo skins are salted and spread out to dry on top of a large rubbish dump (the only place available where they can dry in the sun). They are then coloured with spray paint and turned into shoes and hand bags.

Entering a residential area of the slum, we noticed that the houses were quite well looked after. Many are made of concrete and look quite clean inside. Most houses don’t have doors, just a curtain for privacy. They are provided with electricity by the government, and running water works for 3 hours a day. Most houses have a fridge and a TV. The biggest problem is the sanitation: the roads are not cleaned by the government, so there is a lot of rubbish around. There is no plumbing, so many people have to go to the loo in public places, or use government toilets, which they need to pay a small fee for. As our guide told us: “We are six people in my family. If each of us goes to the government toilet once a day, it costs us 12 Rupees, and it really adds up if someone has to go twice a day.” Unfortunately this leads to diseases like malaria and typhoid becoming a problem in the area.

Many of the local women make poppadums in the mornings (crisp flat breads). The dough is rolled out on a little plate in front of their houses, then the breads are dried in the sun for 2-3 hours by placing them on wicker baskets in the alleys. Then, they are packaged up and sold to companies. (Might this be the origin of the poppadums we buy at our supermarkets?).

One area where people seem particularly settled is the pottery area. Here, families collect sand and stamp it with their feet to turn it into clay. They then make pots of various sizes, either with a manual wheel or an electric wheel, and heat them in kilns, which are located between the houses, before glazing and selling them.

The people in the slum were all quite busy, even though it was a Sunday morning. The children looked reasonably clean and were pretty cheerful, greeting us with waves and shouts of “Hello! What’s your name?” Two little girls were sitting in an alleyway playing cards. Some young men were busy with a game of cricket. Nobody asked us for money and we saw no beggars. The conditions in the slum are far from perfect, but people are making the most of their situation, and many seem to have found a sort of happiness in their close knit community. In fact, since the violent riots between Hindus and Muslims in the 1990’s, things have moved on and they are now living together quite peacefully. We even passed a shrine covered in icons from many different religions, including Hinduism, Islam, Jainism, Zoroastrianism and Christianity. Anyone can come to pray at the shrine, no matter their religion. What an inspiration!

At one point, we heard some singing and, turning a corner, saw a procession of women walking through the street. They were beautifully dressed in colourful saris, their hair done up, but many had no shoes and were walking barefoot in the mud. The women were on their way to a wedding, which was taking place in a small house nearby. It was great to see such a cheerful event taking place, with everyone wearing their best outfit and having a good time.

Our preconceptions about the Dharavi slum were smashed by the reality of it. We certainly would not want to live there, but we were impressed by the spirit of the people and by the thriving business community.