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.

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

10,000km Photo

A short distance out from the very tip of India where the Bay of Bengal meets the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea we rode our 10,000th km. We were hoping for something spectacular to mark the occasion but when we arrived at the tip we were a little surprised to find a Gandhi Memorial disguised as a giant pink marshmallow. We wondered how poor old humble Gandhi would have reacted if he had been alive today to see what was created in his honour. Nonetheless it certainly attracts your attention and hopefully makes people remember the great man.

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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.

Thursday, 17 February 2011

Cycle Touring Route Planning and Navigation

Before we set off we wanted a cost effective, straightforward way of navigating. We knew that once we left Western Europe we were going to be limited to low resolution road maps, not ideal for finding those quiet country lanes and navigating our way through big cities.

During our rides in the UK we started playing around with Garmin eTrex H. It’s a cheap unit (around £70 on eBay) with high sensitivity and a robust outer shell. Navigating is done by uploading your own “Tracks” then following what is effectively a marker on a line from Track start to Track end. It does not have the ability to upload detailed maps and will not be able to tell you where the nearest coffee shop is, but it’s an affordable solution that has served us well over the last 10,000km or so of our trip. ||


EQUIPMENT USED

- Garmin eTrex H GPS.

- Laptop, required for route planning on the internet and for uploading Tracks to the GPS.

- Serial to USB cable. The eTrex H only comes with a serial cable, newer version should have USB.

- Garmin Map Source software includes Garmin eTrex H driver.

- GPS bike mount to fix GPS unit to handlebars.


PROS AND CONS OF OUR SOLUTION WITH THE GARMIN ETREX H

As with anything there are pro and cons. We have tried to list them all below. As can be seen a later version GPS should alleviate two of the cons we experience.

PROS CONS
Reliable, accurate and fast GPS. Laptop and Internet access required to create and upload new Tracks
No need to purchase expensive GPS maps First time setup can be a little fickle
Cheap - small outlay in the beginning to buy GPS Does not show landmarks or cities, only the line of the Track you have loaded
Ability to review height profile of route Average battery life of 17hrs without route tracing (newer version should have longer battery life)
Knowing your altitude is useful in the mountains and for longer climbs The Garmin eTrex H is limited to 750 points per Track, so you have to split up your longer Tracks accordingly (newer version allows more points)
Ability to have access to exact position data. Useful if you need to tell someone your exact location  
Can trace your entire route if you fancy reviewing at a later stage.  


THE PROCESS

This might look like a lot of work but once you are set up and have gone through the process a few times it’s pretty quick. We generally route a couple of weeks in advance in about half an hour. This time spent is saved very quickly when you consider the time exhausted trying to find your way in a foreign country especially when you can’t read the signs or speak the language.

Steps 1-4 can be useful for your route planning even if you don’t have a GPS and just want to check the height profiles of different route options.

  1. Jump onto the Internet and access www.bikeroutetoaster.com then click on Course Creator

  2. Find your start location on the integrated Google Map (annoyingly you cannot search for it, the webmaster won’t acknowledge our pleas!).

  3. Set the options: Use Auto Routing. Data: Google

  4. Click along your desired route and a Track will be automatically created (if the road is not found, uncheck Autorouting). As you create your Track you can review the real-time route profile (altitude, distance) generated via the Summary tab. When we are planning we often review a few routes to find the best combination of a fairly scenic route with not too many harsh climbs.

    Elevation Chart for Munnar, India   Route Summary

  5. Once you are done routing go to the Summary tab then select Download To File (gpx) 

  6. We often take a photo of the route profile with our phone so we can refer to it on the ride. Useful to know exactly where that killer climb is. 

  7. Once the file is downloaded we use Garmin Map Source to upload the file to our GPS. If you don’t have Map Source you can use one of the many free apps available on the Net but you might need to install the GPS driver.

  8. Before uploading the Track you need to make sure the number of Track points is less than 750 as it is the maximum amount allowed on the Garmin E-Trex H. (You can skip this step if you have a newer GPS model that allows more points per Track.) To split up a Track we do the following in Map Source. Edit –> Track Properties. Holding down shift select the first 750 points then copy. Open another instance of Map Source, then Edit –> New Track. Then paste the points in. This will be your first Track. If the points remaining on the first instance are less than 750 this will be your second Track. If it still exceeds 750 then repeat the above until the original Track has been split up into Tracks containing no more than 750 points.

  9. To upload the Track, ensure the GPS is on and plugged into the PC. Then select Transfer –> Send To Device. If you do not see the device then turn it off and on and plug it in again. If it is the first time, ensure the driver has been installed successfully and the operating system has identified the GPS. During the upload the GPS unit will give feedback and signal upload successful.

CONCLUSION

This solution has worked really well for us as generally Google maps is the most detailed and accurate map available. A big benefit of this solution is that there is no need to buy expensive GPS maps for every country we travel through. Of course sometimes you may spontaneously decide on a different route, but you can always see where you are in reference to your planned route and it tells you how far you are from your end point.

The pre routing takes out so much of the hassle of getting lost on our way that we never ride without it. Every time we breeze through big cities, know exactly where the climb starts or find the small road not even marked on our map we bless our little GPS and the small investment in time spent planning our route in advance.

If you have any other thoughts or tips regarding route planning and navigation, please leave a comment below.

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Kochi and the Kerala Backwaters

Kochi is a town spread over several islands and peninsulas on the Malabar Coast in the south-west of India. The town had a colourful colonial past involving Chinese, Portuguese, Dutch and British merchants and invaders. Cycling over several bridges to reach Fort Cochin, the popular traveller’s hangout at the tip of one of the peninsulas, we were still very much in India, with hectic traffic, horns beeping all around us and rickshaws competing with buses and cows for space on the dusty streets.

Turning a corner not far from the Basilica in Fort Cochin it was as if we had ridden into a bubble of calm; we took a sigh of relief. We were surrounded by leafy streets and tranquil guest houses and restaurants. Tourists meandered peacefully along unhindered by touts. It really felt like we had stepped into a small European oasis, just a hundred metres from the chaos of India. ||

We found a cosy home stay near the Basilica. Ours was one of four upstairs rooms in a house run by a few motherly Indian ladies that made us feel instantly at ease. Exploring our surroundings, we quickly found the few streets packed with great cafes, relaxed restaurants, souvenir shops and internet cafes. For a change from our usual Indian fare, we really enjoyed the cafe lattes, pizzas and chocolate cakes, and most of all a non masala dosa breakfast.

A short walk took us to the sea shore where fishermen were busy repairing their huge Chinese spider-like cantilevered fishing nets, or selling their catch to passing traffic.

Chinese fishing net in Kochi   Fishermen repairing nets

Kochi was a great place to get things done, especially those items that have been waiting patiently in our “too hard basket”, such as visits to the hair dresser and dentist. There were yoga and cooking courses, massages, backwater tours and dance performances on offer, and everything was no more than 10 minutes walk from our home stay.

On our first evening, after we had finished hanging out at the trendy Kashi art cafe, we visited a traditional Kathakali dance performance. Kathakali is an ancient traditional art form of Kerala. The dancers were ladies dressed in bright green, blue and yellow costumes and decked out with golden jewellery and head decorations. They wore small bells around their ankles and elaborate makeup emphasizing their eyes and mouth. The dancers were accompanied by a drummer, a singer and an older lady who was the choreographer and assisted in keeping the rhythm on track. The dance was very expressive, with ankle bells ringing from the stomping feet, graceful arm and head movements and captivating facial expressions. 

Kathakali dancer   Kathakali dancer 2 

The following morning we were picked up to do a day trip to the famous Kerala Backwaters, a network of waterways that fringe the coast. We had expected a larger group, but somehow it ended up being just us and a young Israeli couple, whereas normally there would be 20-60 people in the group.

Being such a small group, we got to choose the boat in which we wanted to travel. We chose a simple boat made out of wood and bamboo, tied together with coconut fibre rope and shaded by a canopy made of palm fronds. We were told that a boat like this takes about 2 months to build and is made almost entirely of natural materials.

Tourist boat in Kerala backwaters   Old man punting our boat

The boat had no engine but was powered by two lean 60-year old men, one at the front and one at the back, standing in the full sun and punting with long bamboo poles. Slowly we moved through the natural canal network between several islands. The canals were fringed with coconut palms and ranged from wider expanses on the main thoroughfares to 4 foot wide canals that had our boat struggling to push through the the dense reeds flanking the sides. Guy had a go at punting the boat and found it highly enjoyable until 10 punts later when he had to retire due to fatigue. 

His colleague punting in front

Our young guide, Vipin, had an huge variety of interests. He speaks 7 languages, studies Graphic Design in the morning and Sociology in the evening, teaches kids English and Maths in between and works as a guide during the day. We felt pretty lazy in comparison.

We drifted past many small villages and Vipin explained that the villagers make their living through a variety of means that are all dependent on the backwaters: toddy (coconut beer) tapping, coir (coconut rope) making, collecting and selling mussel meat, extracting calcium carbonate powder out of the shells, selling sand collected from the bottom of the canals, making coconut oil and keeping goats and chickens for milk and eggs. Villagers were washing their clothes in the backwaters or having a bath in the water as we floated past, and many used small dugout canoes as their local transport. Meanwhile, our journey was accompanied by the rhythmic waves Indian music coming from a housewarming party and following us across the waters.

Backwater view   Local villager

We stopped to visit a family and admire their garden. It was an amazing tropical garden containing several herbs for cooking and medicinal purposes, as well as bananas, coconuts, yam, tapioca, ginger, vanilla, pepper, chilli, nutmeg etc. The family also made and sold delicious tapioca chips, which we munched on and shared with the men punting our boat as to ensure their energy levels were kept topped up.

Lunch   Villagers making coconut rope

After a relaxing day cruising the backwaters of Kerala, we spent a couple more days in Kochi. Freddie attended a cooking class and finally got introduced to some of the secrets of Indian cooking that she had always wondered about while Guy had the mind numbing task of doing his tax return. We both had a much needed hair cut and a check-up and clean at the dentist. We finally managed to book our flight to Thailand and catch up on some overdue emails. And we visited the nearby SOS Children’s Village, which provided an inspiring insight into the way the charity helps orphaned children.

Kochi was a great place to hang out for a while, but after 5 days we were getting restless and keen to make our way further south, to finally reach the tip of India.

Monday, 7 February 2011

A Visit to the SOS Children’s Village in Kochi

When Freddie was little, her parents used to support SOS Children’s Villages with a monthly donation. Periodically, letters would arrive with stories about orphaned children who had been placed into a family environment by the charity. This unique concept of a Children’s Village as opposed to an orphanage stayed in Freddie’s mind and played a role when we chose a charity to support with our bike journey.

SOS Children’s Villages have been great in their communication with us and were more than happy to allow us to poke our heads in and say hello at one of the children’s villages during our trip. The charity has 500 children’s villages in 124 countries, including several villages in India. ||

On arrival at the SOS Children’s Village near Kochi we were greeted by Vipin Das, the village director. Vipin took time out from his busy day to tell us about the village and answer our numerous questions. As he told us working for SOS is a way of life requiring 100% commitment, it is not just a job. Vipin and his family live in the village and are always available to attend to the needs of the village. Vipin acts as the father figure, always being available for the children from birthdays and marriages to problems at school.

Freddie and Vipin   House in the SOS Children's Village

The village was set up 21 years ago and is home to 15 “families”. Each family has their own house and also shares a last name to create a stronger identity for the family unit. There is a “mother” in each family, and 8-12 children of varying ages. Several “aunts” are available to help out around the house, especially when a mother is ill or has babies to look after. Most of the children are orphans, and some come from dysfunctional families. On arrival they become part of a family unit and always remain part of this unit. Even once they have left the village, they will still come back and visit their family.

Most of the mothers are unmarried or widowed and have been at the village since it was founded over 21 years ago, dedicating their lives to the needs of the children. Unfortunately with the lure of more luctrative placements in private clinics and with the changing values of society it is becoming more difficult for the charity to find new mothers who will commit to such a demanding and long term placement.

Children in need are either referred to the charity by other people in the community, or the charity goes out proactively to find children when they have a vacancy. With each child, a formal evaluation is completed to see if the child is really in need. In total, the SOS Children’s Village in Kochi is home to nearly 200 disadvantaged children at any time.

Little orphan with her new mother and aunt

One thing we really liked about the charity is that they respect the children’s background and religion. There are Christian, Hindu and Muslim families in the village, and the children are placed in a suitable family according to their own religion. Depending on this, they will visit a church, temple or mosque in the nearby village. They also go to school in the village so that they have an opportunity to make friends with children outside of their own environment.

Boys leave the village at the age of 13 to live in a neighbouring and associated community. The reason is that the charity believes they need more male role models at that age, so they live with other men and boys. Girls stay in the village until the age of 15 when they move to a boarding school. The children have continual access to their families, no matter what stage they are at and often come back to the village to visit.

The aim of the charity is to help the children grow up and live independently, and to that effect they will pay for the children’s education, including university tuition. In true Indian fashion, they take their parenting duties so seriously that they even arrange marriages for many of the young adults and provide a small amount of money to fund a modest wedding. In the last six years, there were 64 weddings in the village, and in this way many of the orphans have found a new family and are able to live independently.

After speaking to Vipin for a while, we were handed over to Daisy who is in charge of sponsorship and has been working in the village since the start, 21 years ago. She took us to visit a couple of the families. We had brought along some games and colouring-in books which made useful gifts for the lovely families we met.

Albi and his new mother  Albi munching on the door step

In the homes, we realised what a demanding job the mothers are facing, looking after so many children, cooking all meals, cleaning etc. The first mother we visited had her hands full looking after two ultra cute 6 month old twins, Albi Joseph and Irene Rose. They had been taken in by the charity at the age of only 2 days as their mother died in childbirth and their father was very poor and not in a position to look after them. He will still be able to visit and the children will be told about their situation around the ages of 9 or 10 when they start to ask questions. In most cases they will consider their family to be the SOS Children’s Village.

In the same family, we also met a young woman who had just completed her MBA and accepted a job with an accounting firm. An orphan herself, she had grown up in the village and had come back to visit her family.

Guy with Irene   Irene exploring our backpack

The village consists of 15 homes and various communial facilities nestled within its spacious gardens. The homes each have three small bedrooms – one for girls, one for boys and one for the mother and any very small children. The furnishings in the houses are quite sparse and most children don’t seem to have many personal possessions. Each house has a small garden, and there is also a play and sports area in the village. We felt that the village was very well run, with a clean and comfortable environment for the children, providing for their needs but not spending on extravagances.

As Vipin told us, the cost of looking after a child varies for each children’s village, but in the Kochi village it is around 7000 Rupees per child, per month (about £100). That includes the expenses for education and modest weddings for the older children, as well as administrative costs. With the impact of the recent recession and smaller amounts of donations received, they have had to cut back budgets in some areas.

If you would like to make a donation to SOS Children’s Villages, please click here to sponsor us. You can donate any amount using your credit card, and all donations are sent directly to the charity. Thanks to some generous sponsors we have raised over £500 so far – please support us in raising £1000 and helping children like little Albi and Irene have a bright future.

Twins Albi and Irene

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

The Perfect Climb: Munnar’s Tea Plantations

Mettupalayam – Munnar - Kochi

Somewhere around Ooty it felt as though a switch had been flicked. Suddenly people became much friendlier again and we were paying local(ish) prices again. We had more interactions with locals and met many friendly Indian tourists, including one who called his German speaking wife so she could have a chat with Freddie and ended up inviting us to stay with them. Unfortunately their house was in the opposite direction of where we were going, so we had to forego the invitation, but it was a nice gesture we appreciated all the same. ||

One night we were having some grub in the small town of Mettupalayam when three children joined our table for a chat. They spoke good English and were interested in talking to foreigners, and when they left each of them took turns giving us a cheek-squeeze. Confused, we asked the restaurant manager what this meant. “You do this when you like something very much, or when you think something is beautiful”, the manager smiled. And we thought they were being cheeky!

Guy was still suffering from nausea. A little bored lying in bed he spotted a cute little monkey on the nearby roof top. He threw the rest of his banana to the little fella as he watched him gladly devour the remains. The next morning as we were getting ready to have breakfast in our room we could see the silhouttes of several monkeys walking in front of our window. Pushing back the curtains revealed the little fella was back with some buddies - some big buddies. They were sitting right in front of our window glaring at us and taking turns jumping on our two inch window sill and trying to open the window. The window had no locking mechanism, so they were able to pull it open, but luckily bars prevented them from coming in. Now we know why almost every hotel we have stayed in has bars on the windows and that little cute monkeys cannot be trusted.

Once Guy had recovered from his illness, we turned our bicycles south once more for a tiring day on a busy road going through the city of Coimbatore and into the next town, Pollachi. In Pollachi we ended up in an awesome hotel with a fancy restaurant, for less than £10. We have found the quality of hotels in India amazingly good so far. Our budget is generous enough not to force us to stay in rock bottom places, and outside of tourist areas we can really afford some quite nice places. We always have an en-suite bathroom, cable TV, fan, and often there is room service. On arrival, there is always someone there to help us with our bags, which is a luxury we appreciate after having carried all our bags up countless flights of stairs in Turkey and Iran. The first thing we do is to ask for a bucket of hot water to have a shower, and then we order tea and some snacks, if there is room service. A cycle tourer said to us before we arrived in India that it actually feels like you’re on holiday, and we must admit that is how it feels at times.

Our only gripe with Indian hotels is that they never have internet access. Apparently there is a security concern since the Mumbai terrorist attacks in 2008, and even in internet cafes we are sometimes not allowed to use our laptops, and we often have to give our passport details before we are allowed to log on. We had imagined India to be much more connected, being such an IT leader.

Cycling through busy town Farm workers

We had been planning to cycle up to Munnar, another hill station, before returning to the coast. It was a detour and another 1500m climb. We were feeling low on energy and we knew that the coast was only a day’s ride away. As we got to the turnoff we stood there in the midday heat and contemplated our options. We had all the excuses in the world to not push on to the hills again but deep down we both knew what we should do, so we grudgingly took the hill route, confident in the fact that almost always hard work translates to greater rewards.

As we left the crowded urban area behind we felt we had taken a wrong turn and ended up in Europe. We were cycling across a flat plateau of agricultural land and in the distances swung giant wind turbines. The weather was overcast and windy and there were few people in sight.

Soon we started climbing and entered the Chinnar Wildlife Reserve. We had a deja vu moment when we passed another boom gate with a “tiger reserve” sign, this time quite unexpected. This national park was much less visited than Mudumalai, and there was almost no traffic on the small road. This made wildlife spotting even better, and when we turned a corner, we heard something stomping into the forest. A wild elephant had just crossed the road and was startled by our arrival. A little further down into the shrub it settled and pulled some branches down to munch on whilst keeping a very watchful eye one us. It was amazing to be so close to such a huge beast in its wild habitat.

Chinnar Wildlife Reserve

Shortly after this encounter, Guy stopped again when we heard some rustling in the long grass near the road. “Let’s go, it might be a tiger”, Freddie pleaded. Staring expectantly at the grass, Guy was quite excited by what might be hiding in there. There was definitely something there as the four foot high grass was splitting when the mysterious animal moved about. Suddenly the animal moved towards a clearing and stuck its head out, glaring directly into Guy’s eyes. There was no mistaking the distinctive features of - The Common Chicken.

Humbled by our encounter we pushed on. The landscape was very dramatic with dense and lush vegetation and steep craggy peaks. We were climbing up the side of a valley carved out by the river snaking its way through, periodically flowing into large lakes or cascading down rock faces as powerful waterfalls. We could go 5-10 minutes without a vehicle passing us and were enjoying the peace and quiet. On the way, we spotted a wild boar foraging in the undergrowth, some endangered giant grizzled squirrels in the tree tops, and a couple of curious kingfishers with their red heads and green and blue feathers.

We had planned to spend the night at Marayoor, not far from the bottom of the climb up to Munnar. However, Marayoor was much further than we had expected, and we ended up climbing 700m – almost half the climb to Munnar. We were pretty tired when we arrived in Marayoor, and as we stopped to admire the view a couple of young guys and an older man welcomed us to the town, offering us some fruit. They were taking pictures of us, and we were taking pictures of them. One of the things we love about India is that the people seem to be just as fascinated by us as we are by them.

Cycling up to Marayoor   Old man in Marayoor

The following day we climbed up to Munnar, via a pass at 1,880m altitude. Soon after we left Marayoor, and just as we thought the scenery couldn’t get any better the tea plantations started. They were perfectly green, almost fluorescent and formed a patchwork carpet over the surrounding hills and mountains, sometimes clinging to impossibly steep slopes. To add to the magical setting, there were many waterfalls and small rivers, and the views were different after every twist and turn of the road. The movie directors in Bollywood had obviously taken a liking to the scenery as well and were filming a movie in this setting. 

Guy in tea plantations

We stopped at a small chai shop for a tea and omelette to strengthen ourselves before the last push, climbing up into the clouds again. Every few hundred metres we stopped to take pictures, and as we were so distracted, the climb seemed to pass pretty quickly, but some of us had a helping hand.

Chai stall   Tea estate

After lunch with the sun directly above us, the gradient steepened quite sharply and we began to work hard. Just as we felt The Burn kick in, a fleeting gift was presented to Freddie in the form of a one way ticket to the top. A truck had overtaken at a speed only slightly faster than us. On the back corner, only three feet away from Freddie’s nose was a perfectly grippable handle. It was too good to pass on. Within an instant she had docked onto the mother ship and was being propelled up the hill whilst Guy looked on in disbelief, smitten that he had not been quick enough. Soon Freddie and her host had disappeared around the corner leaving Guy in their wake.

When her arm got tired, she let go. As soon as the truck driver noticed this, he stopped the truck, stuck his head out the window and said “Help you! Help you!”, motioning for Freddie to hold onto the back of the truck again. It was a sweet gesture, especially as Freddie was worried about annoying the driver by adding her extra weight to the already struggling truck!

Tea plantations on way to Munnar

The climb up to Munnar was one of our favourite climbs of the whole trip, and we are so glad we made it up there – we really would have regretted it if we had opted out and gone straight to the coast. Out of all the mountainous cycling we have done in India, the stretch between Udumalaipettai and Munnar is the one we would most recommend to other cyclists, as the road is quiet, the scenery amazing and the gradient challenging but never horrendous.

Freddie enjoying the cycling   Tea plantation patchwork

Arriving in Munnar, we struggled to find a hotel for the first time on our trip. Everything was booked up! It was a national holiday in India, and there were also many foreign tourists in the town. We eventually found an ok guest house and a nice restaurant. At the restaurant, the waiters all gathered around the bikes to examine them, a group of boys tried our bells and gave us the thumbs up through the window, and other Indians quizzed us about our route and tried to work out how the front panniers were attached. Travelling on a strange looking bicycle is definitely an easy way to get in touch with the locals!

The following day, we had a lovely big downhill for the first 50km and stayed in a very fancy hotel (the cheap ones were booked up) before we made our way back to the coast and to Kochi the following day. We were looking forward to being back on the coast for some easier riding, and also to explore the much talked about Kerala Backwaters, a “top 10 thing to do before you die” according to our guide book. We shall see…