Saturday, 23 January 2016

CYCLING INDIA - MUMBAI - FORT KOCHI

                                                             CYCLING INDIA
                                                    MUMBAI - FORT KOCHI




                PHOTOS



13 December - Mumbai – Alibag 20 km
The time has come for me to leave Mumbai and cycle to the harbour where I got a ferry to Mardva. Leaving Mumbai for the South Coast, or getting into Mumbai from the south, is made easy by the very convenient ferry across the bay. The ferry ride saved me from cycling through the city with all its traffic, something I was extremely happy about. The bay was quite hectic with loads of ferries coming and going, some obviously a bit overloaded and leaning precariously to one side.

Shortly after I left the jetty at Mardva, I met Ashish Agashe, a cyclist from Mumbai. He is a journalist for the local paper but also a keen cyclist who has cycle-toured all over India. Ashish introduced me to his brother Anil, his brother’s wife Janhavi, and the small boy Abhinav, who lived in Alibag. Ashish was visiting for the weekend, and I was invited to stay for the night.  It was, as always, a pleasure and totally fascinating to stay with a local family.

Interestingly enough, they are of no specific religion but are instead Realists and extremely concerned about the poor and the footprint we leave behind. This all made for a rather interesting and fascinating conversation. All I can say to them is, “Bravo and keep up the good work.” I was also introduced to Sumit, India’s famous endurance cyclist, who also lives in Alibag. By endurance cycling, I mean a cool 400 kilometres a day!!! I can’t get my head around those kinds of kilometres!!!

14 December - Alibag – Murud - 50 km
I sat chatting to Janhavi until I realized that it was already after 10h00. I cycled the Konkan Coast on my first visit to India, and it seemed that nothing has changed. The road was still as bumpy and narrow in places, and the steep uphills were still there. It was a wonderful rural cycle through endless villages; we passed local markets and villagers drying their produce along the road.

It's hard to believe that this undeveloped coastline still exists, and it is a mere 50/70 kilometres south of the very busy and large metropolis of Mumbai. After I had reached the sleepy fishing village of Murud, I decided to continue along the road, but later turned around and went back to Murud as there were far more amenities in Murud than further along the coast.

That evening, I sat watching the sunset over the Arabian Sea and could not help but smile; it has been a long time since I left the coast in Thailand, and I was happy to be next to the ocean again. The weather in December was perfect, and at sunset the food stalls made their appearance along the beachfront. I found myself a chair, ordered some of the local cuisine, and was quite happy just sitting there watching a game of beach cricket.

I woke to a beautiful morning and watched the fishermen bring in their catch. School kids continued their cricket game of the night before, and I sat watching the comings and goings of this small village while sipping my sweet chai. All this happened while villagers used the water’s edge for their morning ablutions; this truly is amazing India! 

In the end, I decided to stay another day as there was truly no rush to get anywhere. I took a walk along the beach to the market, stepping rather carefully! The little fish market was a hive of activity, and as I looked at all the tiny fish and shrimp for sale, I was once again amazed that there was still any fish left in the ocean.

16 December - Murud – Harihareshwar - 52 km
Shortly after I left, I took a ferry across the river, which made it a much shorter day. From time to time, the road was narrow and bumpy but always a pleasure to cycle. Monkeys darted across the road in a playful manner and, in contrast to the cities, pleasant smells drifted across the road. I could smell frangipani, sandalwood and the sweet smell of incense drifting from the roadside temples and from time to time the lovely aroma of the good ‘erb. This stretch of the coast is known for its short, steep hills, and it is not a myth!

I pulled into Harihareshwar, known for its beachside temple which is extremely popular with local tourists/devotees. The structures itself was rather unimpressive for such a famous temple. The temple is dedicated to Kalbhairav, a manifestation of Lord Shiva and was built in the 18th century. Today it houses an ancient Shiva Linga adding to the popularity of the temple.

I found myself a room and the staff looked quite taken with the fact that a foreigner was in their hotel. I was not surprised to look out of my window straight into the neighbour’s water buffalo shed. The whole night I could hear the buffalo stomping, snorting and chewing the cud; not that I minded - it was actually quite nice listening to all the sounds.

17 December - Harihareshwar – Harnai - 61 km
I first had breakfast at a local “restaurant”. The lady went out in the backyard to do the dishes and stoke the fire, then came back with an omelette and chapatti. Sometimes, even having breakfast can be an adventure.

Four kilometres after leaving Harihareshwar, I took a ferry across the river to the town of Vesavi. From the jetty, it was a “push-up-the-hill” road to get to the main road. Again, it was pure pleasure to be on the back roads. The road runs partly along the coast and partly inland, and soon I reached another point where I could get yet another boat across the river. This time, it was a rather tiny one; it was a bit of a mission to get the bike and the panniers on the boat and across to the other side, but it saved me nearly 40 kilometres.

One minute I was next to the coast, and the next up in the hills, through small villages where markets spill onto the road. Then I was on narrow farm roads where ox carts have preference and villagers stared at me, slack-jawed. By the time I reached the third ferry, I decided rather to cycle around and cross the river via a bridge instead of loading everything onto a boat again.

I continued to pass the smallest of villages where locals dried both clothes and shrimp in the road. I soon reached the small village of Harnai, famous for its colourful fishing harbour, and decided to stay there for the night.

18 December - Harnai – Guhagar,  90 km
I was slow in leaving as the previous night I tossed and turned and could not fall asleep. My host provided breakfast, and what an interesting breakfast it was! I first turned down to the beach as I thought I could follow the coastal road via Karde. The road, however, petered out and later disappeared altogether. Fortunately, it was not far so I turned back and followed the main road. It was a hilly ride and although not difficult it was a slow day on the road. There are few things I enjoy as much as following back roads through small villages and today there were plenty! I could not have been happier.

Again, I had to cross a river by ferry - this time it was a car ferry, making it rather easy with the bicycle. The price for both me and the bicycle as a hefty 16 rupees! Again, the road leading from the jetty to the main road had a steep switchback but the rest of the day was relatively easy cycling.

19 - 20 December - Guhagar – Ratnagiri 100 km
I first had a breakfast of very spice idly and tea, with the result that it was already 9h30 by the time I left. The plan was to cycle along the coast, but everyone I asked told me it was not possible. Instead, I had to turn inland for 4 kilometres and then turn right. No one mentioned the 4 kilometres being uphill, and soon I had to make an Eno-stop—fried chilies and uphills don’t go well together.

Both my GPS and Google Maps indicated a route along the coast, but I did not want to make the same mistake as the previous day, so I went with the local knowledge. It was somewhat further than the coastal route and rather hilly. Needless to say, it was a slow day. The inland route was rural India at its very best. Women doing laundry in a stream made for a colourful picture, and here men still wear the Dhoti.

It was not an especially difficult route, just slow and very sparsely populated, to such an extent that I ran out of the water and had to flag down a truck to ask if they had water to spare. A few kilometres further, I found a roadside stall selling freshly made lemonade. I gulped down one glass and ordered a second to put in my water bottle. At last, it seemed that the road was heading downhill, but 5 kilometres from the town of Ratnagiri, I encountered the mother of all hills!  Phew….. I even had to walk the bike. That was not what I needed at the end of the day!

I stayed an extra day in Ratnagiri and did nothing, except for some internet stuff and long overdue laundry.

21 December - Ratnagiri – Devgad 100 km
It was good weather again - I love the weather in December as it is not that humid, and although it was around 30/33˚C it was good cycling weather. By that, I do not mean that I did not sweat buckets!  It was not the most interesting of stretches so I pushed on to Devgad. It was still “hilly an’ all” as they say here.

Not much I can do but put the bike in an easy gear and peddle on. It makes for a slow day, but there was no rush. I entertained myself by following the signs painted on the road for “TOD” which, I guess, is a bicycle race. When they said “push”, I pushed, and when they said “slow down”, I slowed down.

I met the most interesting woman along the way, dressed in traditional clothes and with facial tattoos, interesting nose and toe rings - she made for a rather cool picture.  I stopped in Devgad, found a room, looked for food and that was me, done for the day.

22 December - Devgad – Malvan - 50 km
The day started off in the usual manner with me first having breakfast at one of the local joints. As always, when I walk in the whole place generally comes to a complete standstill. I have two choices: first, I can ignore it, sit down, order my food, eat, leave, and pretend no one saw me; or I can say a loud “good morning!” give them a smile, and let them discuss among themselves where I’m from, how old I am, and where I’m going. This morning I opted for the latter.

Today I had one of those crazy days with a guy on a motorbike passing me and then stopping just ahead. This action typically means trouble and today was no different. He started playing with himself and as I cycled past he had the audacity to tell me to stop. Did he really think I was going to stop and watch him?  What a wanker! I continued cycling, but he soon came past me again and once again slowed down. I flagged down a tuk-tuk, and although they did not speak any English, the wanker on the motorbike saw me pointing at him and left. This made me feel rather uneasy, as it was again a lonely stretch of road; where is the traffic when you need it?

About 30 or 40 kilometres later, my bicycle suddenly came to a complete halt. I thought the gear cables snapped, but why both at the same time? I could not turn the pedals at all, and the shifters did not respond. While trying to loosen things up, a friendly couple on a motorbike stopped and flagged down a lift for me to Malvan, where they assured me I would find a bicycle mechanic. Upon reaching Malvan, we stopped at the bicycle mechanic, and once the bicycle was offloaded, I noticed that…wait for it…everything was in perfect working order!!! What the heck was that all about? What a strange day!

24 December - Malvan – Arambol 80 km
In 2008, I cycled this route with my sister, Amanda, who, at the time, claimed that on this stretch, she had to walk her bike up six hills within a space of 25 kilometres. It was not that bad, but I did cross about that many valleys where the road descended steeply to the river and then climbed, just as steeply, away from it. I was not impressed when I found the approach road to Arambol equally hilly. I was expecting more of a gentle descent to the beach.

Arambol has been a favourite amongst Europeans since the ’60s and still is today a bit of a hippy town. It was, therefore, no wonder that pulling into Arambol was a bit of a culture shock. There were white people everywhere! The place was literally swarming with scooter-driving Europeans, decked out in their feathery earrings, flowy Indian cotton dresses, and bandanas. Time to don my feathery earrings and floaty dress! I’m going to hang out here for a while.

25 - 27 December - Arambol
It was a slow life in Arambol. Nothing happens very fast, and most days were spent on the beach or taking a walk along the cliffs. In the evenings, I sat sipping coffee or beer at one of the beach restaurants.

In the process, I overheard a conversation where people were swapping travel stories, and I had a little giggle at the comment, “…and at one time there was not even any internet.” Adventure travel has just taken on a whole new meaning! More interesting was people-watching on the beach; I am now convinced that people of my age should be prohibited, by law, from wearing bikinis in public! It’s not a pretty sight! The same goes for the beached whales! Maybe I only say this as the Indian women customarily swim in their clothes, in stark contrast to the Europeans in their skimpy swimwear.

Arambol is also popular among a certain country's travellers. They are not the most popular of travellers; I overheard a hostel owner telling them that they were full while I knew they were not. The reason being that they are high-maintenance guests and are mostly not worth the effort. They are the type that will eat other people's food in a hostel, taking pride in the fact that they ate and did not pay for it. Personally, I don’t like the way they always try and do the locals out of a few cents. The local people are already poor, and to bargain them down to near a no-profit situation is unnecessary, according to me. Live and let live, I say! Sad that money has become so all-important. You hardly ever find them travelling alone, and they will always try to squeeze as many as possible in a room and then still complain about the room rate!

28 December – 4 January 2016 - Arambol
I enrolled in a five-day Iyengar Yoga course and was excited to do something different for a change. The course was far more pricey than anticipated, but it is rather well-known, and I liked the whole concept of this type of yoga. The main purpose is to align the body so it can heal itself. I was shocked at just how inflexible I have become, especially the upper thighs, back, and shoulders. This I blame on the years of cycling and the lack of any other form of exercise.

The course was quite intensive and lasted just about the entire morning, making me feel like I did not waste my money. Not only did we have an instructor, but she had three helpers who would walk around and help where needed. I enjoyed the yoga course as it was very much my type of yoga. It is not about the poses or whether you can touch your toes but all about what is best for you and your body, and after three days I could already feel a difference.

In the evenings, I wandered down to the beach just to observe the spectacle. Every night, the beach was packed with people all involved in some kind of activity. From doing yoga to fire dancing, they were all there. On the one hand, someone would have a drumming circle with spaced-out people dancing, each to their own tune, and on the other hand, there was, equally spaced-out, the Hari Krishna’s singing and drumming. It looked like every man and his dog were sitting in the lotus position staring into space or had a stall selling feathery earrings, handmade flutes, and jewellery. Restaurants put out tables on the beach, and there was a general air of festivity in the air.

I was quite out of my routine and hardly wrote in my dairy or took any pictures—not that very much happened in Arambol; it was very much the same every day.

The Peach Garden, where I stayed, had a restaurant/bar area that was a favourite joint, with music every night. I, therefore, did not have to go far to socialise; I could just plonk myself down on one of the cushions, and soon enough, a conversation would start. The best part of this type of socialising is that one can leave at any given time without anyone being offended. I quite liked it.

5 - 7 January - Arambol – Panjim (Panaji) - 35 km
Even though I had met some really nice people, I was getting itchy feet and wanted to move on. I packed up my belongings and headed down the coast to Goa’s capital, Panjim. Panjim is an interesting city as it used to be Portuguese territory, and the city still has a very distinctive Portuguese feel to it, down to the tiled-street names.

I headed straight for Probyk, the local bike shop, as I wanted them to go over the bike with a fine-toothed comb. We, as always, chatted about cycle-touring, and I was offered a room in one of the local guest houses at a much reduced rate. Needless to say, I stayed in absolute luxury while my bike was being cared for. I took to the streets of the old quarters as it was there that one could find a whole host of narrow streets with the most colourful old Portuguese buildings. One could be excused for thinking you had walked right into the back streets of Lisbon.

I collected my bicycle from the bike shop and was more than impressed with the professional service I received. The mechanic was very good at his job and fixed and replaced even the smallest thing. I also ordered 2 new tyres and had to wait a day or so for it to arrive. In the meantime, I walked the old part of the city and marvelled at all the old houses with their colourful door and window frames, all still so very Portuguese right down to the lace curtains and sleeping cats.

In the evening at sat on one of the tiny wrought iron balconies overlooking the street, enjoying a beer and a plate of masala peanuts. It’s time to hit the road again, me thinks!

On the 7th I got my bike back, squeaky clean and with a set of brand new tyres! I was ready to go!

8 January - Panjim – Akonda 75 km
I did not want to overstay my welcome at The Royal Phoenix Inn, and with my newly serviced bike, I left the town of Panjim.

If ever you have the inclination to envy me and my life on the road, today was not one to be envied!  On a day that should have been as easy as pie, it turned out a most difficult one. Although well-rested and with a newly serviced bike running smoother that it did in months, I felt tired and had no energy. As always, along this coast, there were a few hills, and I had no energy for those today. It was with great difficulty that I got myself and my load up and over these hills. On one of the long hills, I even stopped for a photo, and not that there was any photo in it, it was just an excuse to stop (LOL). Gee, some days just takes more mental strength than others!  

I was more than happy to see the top of the hill - after that it was almost all downhill into touristy Akonda with its rows and rows of beach huts, touristy stalls, and beach restaurants. I found myself a beach hut and paid more that I should have, but I was in no mood to look for a cheapy.

I stayed one more day, just lazing around. Even although Akonda has grown beyond all measures, I still liked it and may come back here one day.

10 January - Akonda to roadside hotel – 82 km
Thanks to everyone who has sent me energy; I must have received it, as it was a much better day on the road, and I felt energized and in good spirits. I was up and over those hills like a hot knife through butter (ha, ha, ha). At last, I left the tiny state of Goa and crossed the border into the state of Karnataka.

As soon as I left Goa, the scenery started resembling the backwaters of Kerala; even though I was not even there yet. It was a lovely ride through the countryside and past the rice paddies. I even tried to take a selfie, but I’m really bad at selfies, even though I have promised myself to take at least one in every country. It must surely be the most boring thing I could do. I gave it one shot and then gave up; maybe another day.

Although most people are extremely friendly and helpful in India, there is always some that, as we say in South Africa, “want to pull the ass out of the chicken”. I stopped at a juice stand and bought three glasses of juice. I drank one and put two in my water bottle. The stall owner took a 100-rupee bill out of my hand, even after I had paid, and he did not want to give it back. In the end, the juice cost an astronomical amount. There was little I could do about it, so I left. 

I was unsure if I wanted to turn down to touristy Om beach or just continue along the road. It was getting late, so I settled for a roadside hotel where the same kind of rip-off was happening. I was shocked; this had to be a Karnataka thing. In India, the price of all items is printed on them, but at this place, they charged double that amount. Maybe they only do it to foreigners, as they think they will not get reported.

So, whatever you do, never stay at the Varadara Hotel. However, I’m quite sure no one will ever have the need to stay there. I subsequently discovered that the Varadara Hotel was the place where backpackers from Om beach come to catch the bus. Suddenly, it all made sense: someone may, after all, have the need to stay there.

11 January – Roadside Hotel – Murdeshwar 90 km
I woke fairly early, but again, it was 9.30 a.m. by the time I left. It was a day of easy cycling, and for the first time since being in India, I met another cyclist on the road. Unfortunately, I lost her as I thought Murdeshwar was still a few kilometres away.

In any event, I was not sure whether I wanted to turn down to the Temple town of Murdeshwar or continue on. In the end, I had a look at the map and could not see anything interesting within an hour or two’s cycling from Murdeshwar, so I decided to pay this temple another visit. Along the way, I saw many buses and cars, all decorated with flags and flowers, and wondered where they were going. Arriving, I had to wonder no more as they were all parked outside the temple.

I understand that Murdeshwar is another name for Shiva and, as can be expected, there is a huge statue of Shiva on the little hill overlooking the town. The statue is 37 metres high and is said to be the second tallest in the world. In addition to the statue, there is also a large 20-story temple dedicated to Lord Shiva. As can be expected, the town is extremely popular with devotees of Shiva. The town was packed with barefoot and bare-chested men in black wraparounds, as men can only visit the temple with a bare chest.

12 January - Murdeshwar – Udupi -109 km
It was a bit of a mixed bag of cycling as road works continued along the coast; I kept an eye out for a smaller coastal road, but there was nothing I could see and, therefore, had to keep to the busy main road. The road works were a royal pain in the ass, as the road was terribly narrow, busy, and in poor condition. Half way to Udupi, I suddenly found myself on a new road that was a pleasure to cycle on, and I was smiling once again.

Udupi was another temple town, and home to a 13th century Krishna temple surrounded by eight monasteries. Under normal circumstances, Udupi is a hive of activity, but on this day, it was even worse as it was the Udupi Paryaya festival - a festival held every even year in which the outgoing Swamiji hands over duties to the new Swamiji. There was not a room to be had, and I cycled around and around looking for one. In the end, I settled for the rather fancy Hotel Sri Ram Residency. Even with the discount they gave me, it was far more than I would normally pay. However, it was a much nicer room than what I normally get for my money.

I took a walk around town. The mood was festive, with music outside the temple, a show on the square, and the temples decorated with strings of flowers.

13 January - Udupi – Kasaragod 110 km
On the outskirts of Udupi, I stopped at a roadside stall for breakfast. It’s always a pleasure to eat at these stalls. Not only are they dirt cheap, but also, the conversations with locals are priceless. It was a really slow day, as the road works were in full swing along this section, making for a rather miserable day of cycling.

I crossed the state border into Kerala and was surprised to find a rather conservative-looking area. It was clearly a Muslim area and a conservative one on top of that, as there were more burkas than in Tehran. More surprising was that there was an election or a celebration of sorts going on, and the roads were decorated with strings of Communist Party flags. Now, that is a combination that could put the fear of God into many a person! LOL.

I did not escape without someone giving me the middle finger out of a car window. I did shout “sit on it and swivel!” after him, but my words were lost in the wind; by that time, the coward was long gone and would, most likely, not have understood the phrase. On reaching Kasaragod, I found, once again, that all accommodations were booked out, but I eventually found a room and was happy to put my feet up.

There is never a dull moment. My mom, now 86, and although healthy, needs some assistance and TLC. I will, therefore, be flying to South Africa on January 22, to assist her and do what I can. I’m not really the right person for the job, but I will figure something out. I have no idea how long I will stay. All I know is that I will stay as long as it takes to see that she is comfortable, stress-free and happy.

14 January - Kasaragod – Kannur 107 km
Again, it was a day of getting on the road late; it must have been close to 10h00 before I finally left. There seemed no end to the dreaded roadworks and, this time, it included long diversions. In a car, a 10 kilometre diversion is nothing, but on a bicycle, it is 10 kilometres!

There was not much looking around as I concentrated on the road that became narrower as the day went on. In India, the traffic has a tendency to drive without looking left or right. They will cut you off, pull in front of you, and overtake when they can clearly see you coming along. Clearly, this is breeding ground for road rage and made for a tiring day of cycling.

To keep my mind off the bad driving, I made imaginary jewellery. I used all kinds of things, like feathers, stones and crystals, and they were quite beautiful, I must admit (LOL). In real life, it felt like the day passed slowly, and I stopped numerous times for coconut or sugar cane juice, always trying to have a chat, but off the beaten track not much English is spoken. Once I reached Kannur, I pulled into the market area, where I found the Meridian Palace Hotel. It was not much of a Palace, but it did me just fine for the night.

15 January - Kannur – Kozhikode 94 km
I was blown away by my Facebook posting of the previous day. It is wonderful to have such incredible support! I love them all!  I had to make one thing clear: I was NOT going to look after my mother. I can't even fry an egg, let alone take care of anyone!  My mom made it clear that she did not want any of us caring for her, and she also did not want to live with any of us. Her reasoning for that was sound and I agree with her 100%. She wanted to move to an old age home and I just want to be there and help where I can; she may even decide to go to an old age home closer to Cape Town, where my sisters live.

My day on the road was a bit on the slow side. I felt lethargic, and the road was not all that interesting. I stopped at Fort Thalassery for a few pictures and was on my way again. Fortunately, there were plenty of fruit and juice stands along the way to keep me occupied. I pushed on to Kozhikode, where I thought I would find beachside accommodation. That was, however, not the case as it was quite a large town and the hotels on the beachfront were too expensive so I had to settle for something in the back streets.

16 January - Kozhikode – Guruvayur 90 km
From my previous cycle in India, I thought that coastal Kerala was more interesting. In fact, it was one long, drawn-out village with a busy and narrow road, not even running next to the ocean. I was also a bit lethargic, which is always the case after cycling for 7 continuous days. Sadly, I’m not a machine. I did not feel particularly tired; it felt more like I was coming down with a bout of bronchitis, not surprising in this polluted air.
I found the people from Kerala very friendly and in just about every town was greeted with “Welcome to Kerala!” and a smile. I always like it when people say that. Of course, there were also plenty of “What’s your country?” and “What’s your name?”

In India, the most asked question must surely be “What is the purpose of your journey?”, to which I feebly answer that I’m just travelling, leaving them looking a bit perplexed, normally repeating “Just travelling…” with a wobble of the head.

17 - 22 January - Guruvayur – Fort Kochi 70 km
It was my final day of riding in India and I was (as always) half happy and half sad to reach my destination. From Vypin Island, I took the short ferry ride to Fort Kochi and I took the first room I saw as I did not feel like looking around for accommodation. It was, most likely, not the best room as it was hot as hell during the day. Not even the fan could make a difference.

First things first, and I needed to start packing my things - always a huge hassle!  I hate flying with the bicycle, not that it is such a big deal; it’s just me being too lazy to put the bicycle into a box.  

The following day I cycled to the bike shop to get a box. Once there the staff was kind enough to pack the bicycle for me. I had a few days to spare, not that there was much to do in Kochi. Once I had been to the cultural show and visited the few places of interest, there was truly nothing to do. I did not mind as it was seldom that I got to do nothing. In the day, I mostly ate momo at the Tibetan restaurant (yum, yum, yum) and drank coffee at the No18 Hotel. One hell of a hard life!

My flight was in the early hours of the morning on January 22. The last bus to the airport was at 7 p.m. on January 21, meaning the usual long and boring wait at the airport, or a pricey taxi ride. I opted for the “long and boring” as I thought I had enough to keep myself busy while there.

As always it was a long flight but miraculously I arrived in Cape Town, South Africa, on the same day.

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