Last New Year I was fortunate to be in Barcelona on a Running Crazy weekend. This little sojourn sowed the seed that spending New Year overseas was quite preferable to paying triple the price for a taxi, to go to a pub for that one night a year charged me to get in, only to be too busy to buy a drink and too noisy to chat to my friends; I am definitely getting older! In 2019 I turn 50, so I decided the best way to see in this milestone year was by being somewhere and doing something completely new to me! So after much Googling and researching I decided that cycling along the tropical Keralan coastline was the trip for me. Many of you will be aware that I am not the biggest fan of cycling, this is actually a misconception as I in fact do like the idea of cycling I am just not much of a fan of it on British roads, in the British weather and with impatient car drivers along every stretch. So gently cycling through beautiful landscapes, fascinating towns and colourful fishing villages, in a warm climate whilst sampling superb south Indian cuisine along the way had me sold in an instant. So on my Birthday in 2018 I booked my first every cycling holiday and my first ever trip to India; I only had 9 months to wait!
Finally on 28th December I arrived at Heathrow, I checked in with Air India to fly to Kochi via Mumbai, to spend 8 days with 13 other people I had never met, to share a room with someone I didn’t know, to cycle for 6 days in an unknown country and stay overnight in 5 different locations; what could go wrong!? The shortened version is that absolutely nothing went wrong, I had the absolute time of my life!
Arriving in India the first thing I learnt about Indian airports is that they have no concept of queuing, whereas the British can start a queue with one person in the middle of a field! At Mumbai I started off being very British and tried to queue but I quickly realised it was more of a bundle, then finally after being pushed and elbowed out of the way by a 5ft Indian woman in a flowing Sari I gave up trying to be British! I couldn’t quite bring myself to elbow fellow passengers out of the way but did find the female evil stare quite effective! The second thing I learnt was that for once it was advantageous to be a woman travelling though Indian airports! At security women have a separate queue as we have to go behind a curtain to have the security wand waved over us and with such fewer women flying than men, for once, our queue was considerably shorter! The third thing I learnt is don’t lose your boarding pass, even after disembarking, at every security checkpoint you have to produce your boarding pass to be stamped by various officials, sometimes just metres apart! Lastly I have never been called Madam so often, and not as in ‘you are a Madam’!
At Kochi airport I was whisked off for my transfer to Wellington Island which is near Fort Kochi and about 1½ hours’ drive away depending on the traffic! The traffic is something else and along with peoples’ daily life just happening as you pass by, the cacophony of noises, the diversity of smells competing with each other and the unfamiliar but wondrous scenery your every sense is awakened immediately, however bad the jetlag is! In India when it comes to the road there is a strict pecking order; pedestrians are at the bottom, bicycles make way for cycle rickshaws, which give way to auto-rickshaws, which stop for cars, which are subservient to trucks. Buses stop for one thing and for one thing only; The Holy Cow!
At the hotel I was welcomed by our Exodus tour guide, Shibu, and then gradually some of our group materialised either having arrived the day before or having landed shortly after me. I met my room-mate for the first time, Sharon, and fortunately she seemed normal (not sure what she thought of me!) and subsequently turned out to be a brilliant room share! At 4pm everyone convened in reception, all 14 of us for the first time, and had our introduction from Shibu to what would be happening, we also met the rest of the Exodus team; Sherga who would ride at the back of our group and Franglin who would be driving our support vehicle. We then went outside to be introduced to our bikes for the first time and have a little ride up and down the road, which was fortunately a quiet one, to check we were happy with everything. My bike was number 73 (each bike was numbered so we could identify which bike belonged to who) and it was a Montra Blues 1.2, for those bike aficionados, which according to the official blurb ‘blends the best characteristics of both road and mountain bikes into a bike that is sturdy, comfortable and fast, and ideal for riding on streets and bike paths. This bike is for the rider who dips in and out of disciplines or who wants to ride mixed terrain in comfort.’ I cannot argue with this description as I loved my bike for every mile I cycled, I would have brought my Montra home if I could have done! After all the excitement we retired to the hotel bar; you know it’s going to be a good group when within a few hours of meeting you all bond over bottles of Kingfisher beer!
Sunday 30th December - Our first excursion out on our bikes and our first experience of Keralan traffic! The first thing that hits you is the noise; the chaotic symphony of deep blasts, staccato honks, high-pitched beeps and musical notes which accompany you constantly! The second thing that you are very aware of is that at any junction in any town the traffic is coming at you from every angle and it’s a complete free for all! But somehow the traffic system and constant honks works, everyone seems to know where everyone else is going and the traffic for whatever reason seemed to part for us! I am not sure whether it was because 14 westerners on pedal bikes caused concern and everyone just stopped for us but for whatever reason we were grateful! Our bike ride, or first mission as Shibu called it, was to cycle the ½ mile to the boat crossing as we were effectively on an island. So far, so good. Bikes loaded and across the water we went. Then it was a cycling and walking tour of Fort Kochi, St Francis Church, Jew Street, Paradesi Synagogue, the Dutch Palace in Mattancherry, the fish market and the Chinese fishing nets. Not the quietest of areas but a baptism of fire to get to know your bike and the road etiquette quickly! As we were stopping regularly and were in a busy town we all rode together. We stopped for a wonderful lunch at Shibu’s house where his wife and mother prepared a spectacular feast for us which was served in the traditional way on a banana leaf. We met the rest of Shibu’s family and the lunch was a wonderful and memorable way to start our trip. We cycled back to the hotel via the bridge this time and without any incident had survived our first 14 miles cycling. In the evening we went to see a traditional Keralan dance; the Kathakali Dance where admittedly some of us had a snooze and the evening was then finished off with a wonderful dinner at the Seagull Restaurant which was situated on the water’s edge.
Monday 31st December – Time to leave Fort Kochi and as we left for the coast the traffic parted and allowed 14 riders to successfully negotiate ourselves on the open road. With Shibu at the front, Sherga at the back and Franglin following in the support van we made our way to Arthungal. Along the way we stopped to regroup, to take photos and refill our water bottles from the van. At Arthungal we had our tea stop where we enjoyed soft drinks, tea and a selection of Indian pastries which was to become the norm. From there we cycled onto our hotel on Lake Vembanad in time for lunch and for where was to be our home for New Year’s Eve, a total of 32½ miles cycled. Kerala is a dry state so beer, wine and the likes is not always readily available from hotels so we had to estimate how much we thought we would drink on NYE and on the houseboat. Poor Shibu had to use an array of disguises to source our beer and wine from the Government liquor store! The afternoon was spent relaxing by the pool and then it was onto our New Year Bollywood style party! We ended up hijacking the hotel’s entertainment system once their dancers had finished, with Sara hitting the decks and us on the stage! All the hotel staff and other guests joined in and we were such good entertainment we were not charged for our evening buffet meal. We certainly saw the New Year in Bollywood style!
Tuesday 1st January - A New Year and a new mission! With Santa Hats stuck to our cycling helmets and balloons attached to our bikes we left Lake Vembanad. From the moment we left everyone we passed whether driving anything or on the roadside, both children and adults, were shouting out ‘Happy New Year’ and this carried on every pedal of the way. It was just wonderful, the happiness was contagious. We stopped for tea in Alappuzha which was busy and chaotic. We had the opportunity to walk around the town and to see the elephant at the Hindu temple. What was apparent as we cycled along was that we were in reality being photographed more than we were taking photos; we were certainly a novelty and as we left Alappuzha we were snapped by the local newspaper. Once we left the busy town we had a glorious ride along the backwaters to our homestay and after 23½ miles we arrived at Mathew Jacob’s home; Nedungad House, Nedumudy. His house is situated right on the water’s edge with an outstanding outlook view and of course we were there in time for lunch! The group was split into two homestays and after lunch and afternoon tea we all met up for a walk and talk along the waters’ edge, we then returned to our homestay via boat. We then had a cooking lesson from Mrs Jacob in their kitchen and learnt how to make some local curry dishes and chapatis. After another spectacular dinner the girls had a lesson on how to wear a Sari and the men on wearing a lungi. I had my own Sari which I’d brought along, Mrs Jacob patiently tried to explain to me how to put it on but I certainly cannot remember now. It looked fabulous but I was in constant fear that if I trod on the hem that the whole thing would unravel!
Wednesday 2nd January - After breakfast and a little explore up the river the 14 of us were reunited and we then had a very gentle cycle around the backwaters to board our houseboat at Pallathuruthy. It was only 6 miles but the scenery was breath-taking. This time we were split between 3 houseboats; ours was obviously the best! How wonderful it was gently sailing down the river and seeing life pass by; fisherman, locals bathing and doing their washing in the river, boats carrying all manner of goods and of course the wildlife, especially the swooping eagles. We moored just around 4pm with the 3 houseboats side by side and wooden planks in between so you could get from one boat to another. We then went off for a walk with Shibu where he broke the news; Kerala was striking tomorrow! At first we were not sure how this affected us but gently Shibu let us know what a state-wide bandh from 6am to 6pm of nobody being allowed to work meant! Firstly we would have no support vehicle, shops would not be open so water, tea stops and lunch could be an issue, there would be no buses so instead of cycling 25 miles and then taking the bus we would have to cycle 55 miles and if the boats were not operating to take us across the river this would add another 9 miles! Then the pièce de résistance, the support vehicle would have to leave that evening with our luggage so whatever we kept behind we would have to carry the next day! The state-wide bandh was after two women, in their 40s, entered the Sabarimala Temple and offered prayers to Lord Ayyappa. The issue is women of this age are not allowed to enter the temple and this was the first time that women under the age of 50 had entered the shrine so protests were seen across the state following this. Back at the houseboats panic packing ensued after which we all had dinner in our cycling gear whilst rehydrating on the last of our beer and wine that Shibu had sourced for us!
Thursday 3rd January - An early morning start and we finished our cruise in Trikunnapuzha where we all disembarked to start our epic cycle to Varkala. Carrying only the essentials and extra water off we set and the one immediate noticeable upside of the strike was there was barely any traffic! There were bikes and mopeds and the odd car but no buses and no trucks; it was glorious! The ‘Happy New Year’ shouts continued especially by the school children who would frantically wave as we went by. With the clear roads and often good tarmac, which would put some of our roads to shame, we could get a good pace going. We would generally cycle in smaller groups to the next re-grouping point where we would share out the water and snacks we were all carrying. Finally we came to the moment when we would discover if we could catch the boat or we’d have to cycle an additional 9 miles. Somehow one boatman had been bribed and with some clever loading 16 bikes and 16 people fitted onto a boat which from first viewing looked like it would carry just 10 adults! Woo, hoo we’d made it across the river the easy way and a few miles on Shibu had managed to arrange a tea stop where we sat in the back courtyard away from view. Spirits were high as we were doing brilliantly and then we could hear a noise out front; a protest was going by! We were understandingly concerned, both Shibu and Sherga tried to make light of it but I am not sure how much of them saying ‘it’s nothing to worry about’ was true, however unbeknown to us we were about to find out! Only a few miles after the tea stop we could see a different protest ahead and it became apparent that the strategy was to stay to the right of the march, keep your head down and cycle as fast as you could through and past it (and don’t stop to take a photo)! When I saw the large sticks and the police with riot shields I was a little alarmed but to be honest the protesters took little notice of us, however it was my fastest mile of the whole trip! Miraculously Shibu had managed to sort lunch and another fantastic buffet had somehow materialised in the back of someone’s garden! Our support vehicle was also there but poor Franglin had had to sleep in the bus overnight, after dropping our luggage off, to be there for us and would not be able to drive off again until 6pm. Refuelled, refreshed and water replenished we set off for the final stretch of our journey along the coastline to the beach resort of Varkala. 56 miles later a swimming pool and a bottle of Kingfisher beer has never been so welcome!
Friday 4th January - Before breakfast Friday; myself, Sharon and Emma got up early for a little joggle along the stunning beach at Varkala. Even at 7am the beach was busy with worshipers going about their morning rituals, fishermen, yogalites and walkers. It was only 2 miles but the most invigorating run ever! Today was our final day on our bikes with a tour around Varkala and our first one with any ‘real’ climbs. We saw some stunning beaches, Anchengo Fort & Light House, busy towns and wonderful countryside. We had our last tea stop of our tour but as the stop didn’t sell tea Shibu had to buy the tea from next door, they did have an amazing array of pastries though! It was wonderful to see and experience the surrounding area and after 19½ miles we were back at the hotel and saying goodbye to our bikes; it was quite sad really as it marked the trip was coming to an end. In the afternoon myself and Sharon headed to the seafront for some well-earned lunch, our first opportunity to go shopping but most importantly to go in the sea and play in the waves like children! The evening was our last supper together and was an evening of much laughter as we reminisced on our 8 days together. We were now a group of good friends, we were no longer strangers. Then it was time for the start of the first goodbyes as our little band of merry cyclists started to disband.
Saturday 5th January - Up at 5.30am to wave Sharon and many more of the group off before making the most of my last few hours. I headed to the beach for a barefoot run and at 6.30am it was even busier than the day before. The temple on the beach is the ‘Bali Mandapam’ and is a traditional place where rituals are performed to propitiate the spirit of ancestors I have since learned. 5km later and I was the first down for breakfast! The rest of the morning was spent saying last goodbyes, doing a little more shopping, having another play in the waves, enjoying a good curry lunch before my pick up at 2.30pm. My adventure had come to an end.
I can honestly say that I loved every minute and I can see how India can get under your skin, so to speak. The group I was lucky enough to be part of were the friendliest people ever and we were so lucky to have such special tour guides. I miss my curry for breakfast, and lunch and dinner, how the Indians wobble their heads whenever you ask anything, that the Indians cannot say ‘no’ even when they know something is not possible and that Indian music is often 12 unidentifiable tunes that are all played at the same time! I don’t know what I was nervous about! So where to next?
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