TandemWoW // India // Blog 5
If you haven’t read our previous blog post (blog 4) click here.
We arrived in Kolkata having cycled over 2,640 miles (4180 km) around the coast of India over 34 days, staying on track to break the World Record. So far we have ridden 6,480 miles (approximately 10368km) and raised £13579 for #Oxfam and #MNDAssociation.
It has been an amazing experience which has allowed us a privileged insight into this contrasting, contradictory and fascinating country.
We arrived in Mumbai at the end of August. Leaving the airport we were immediately hit by the heat and humidity, smells, noise and frenetic activity. India can be overwhelming. It teems with life – people, but also animals of every description – cows, monkeys, dogs and goats all wandering on the streets. The aroma of cooking from the roadside stalls mixes with the smells from the numerous piles of rotting rubbish which line the roadsides. Blowing horns is a national sport and the traffic sounds mingle with the Hindi music which often blasts out of speakers erected in towns and villages – which seem to play 24/7. Visually India can be overwhelming too. Colourful saris contrast with the piles of disused plastic and crumbling buildings some of which are colonial. The temples with their multi-coloured Hindu Gods line the roadside, as do Churches, Pagodas and Mosques in this wonderfully secular society.
We arrived at Hotel Sunshine early evening and put Alice, our tandem, back together. This was our first experience of an audience which always gather every time we stop. Indians are curious and like to watch foreign women riding their bike.
We set off early the next morning trying to avoid the worst of the Mumbai traffic as we headed into the heart of the city passing the slums made famous by the film Slumdog Millionaire. The riding was tricky. I should pause here to explain Indian traffic rules. The first rule is to ignore the rules. Pulling out – never look behind, let other people swerve to avoid you. Blow your horn, before you pass, whilst passing, after you pass, when you see two women on a bike and because you are a boy and you like blowing your horn. If your destination can be reached more quickly by driving/ riding on the wrong side of the road, do it. If you survive you will have saved a few minutes. Traffic lights are optional. Never dip your headlights – you can see better with them on full beam and the fact everyone else is blinded is not your problem. Don’t wear a helmet. Ensure you have as many people as possible on your motorbike, including a woman sitting side-saddle on the back and young children. If you break the rule of wearing a helmet yourself, make sure your wife and children are not – you don’t want them to pick up bad habits. Overtake as much as you can even if you plan to immediately pull in. Overtake especially on bends – if you blow your horn it will be fine. Ensure you are using your mobile phone whilst driving or riding you need to stay connected – don’t bother with headphones when riding simply tuck the phone under your chin – that will work. If you are a bus, no rules apply apart from driving as fast as you can irrespective of road conditions, overtaking all vehicles whether you have the room or not.
Four miles into the ride Alice’s gear cable snapped. We stopped and a large crowd quickly formed. Someone’s brother in law was a bike mechanic and we were escorted to Imperial Cycles and the mechanic was raised out of bed. Chai was ordered, which arrived in a plastic bag, and we chatted with the mother of the mechanic who spoke amazing good English. After much trial and error, the bike was fixed and we set off again – this time into the rush hour traffic. We finally, after several sweaty hours, reached the famous Taj Hotel and the Gateway to India only to be told that the ferry we had planned to take to avoid the 7-8 hour ride out of Mumbai was not running. It was lunchtime and we decided to have lunch and consider options. We found a ferry service a few miles down the coast and backtracked getting on one of the small boats crossing the Arabian Sea to Mora and out of the city and into the towns and villages south of Mumbai as we started our journey south to Kanniyakumari the southernmost tip of India.
It wasn’t long before we had our first experience of the monsoon. The downpours are torrential and over the next few weeks, we experienced regular rain which can only be described as similar to having a bucket of water poured over us. We were to learn that climate change is impacting on the monsoon and it has gone on much longer this year resulting in severe flooding in areas including, Kerala which we passed through.
The roads, particularly in this area, would regularly deteriorate into cratered tracks with huge potholes and mud and gravel. We were soon covered in mud and dirt. This also meant having to use the brakes on the downhills, something I try to avoid as much as possible.
We also experienced our first selfie request and being filmed and photographed as we ride along. This takes many forms. Sometimes the man (always a man) will speak and ask the most popular two questions – where are we from and where are we going? We sometimes get asked how old we are! Also how much did Alice cost? Sometimes we are followed for miles without a word. Regularly, we are flagged down with the expectation we will stop to enable a selfie to be taken. When we say sorry we can’t stop, usually this is accepted with good cheer but occasionally it’s clear the driver or rider is angry we have failed to obey their command! We worked out that on average we got 20 selfie requests each day. If we stopped for everyone it would have added about 2 days of riding time.
South of Mumbai is quite mountainous and we found ourselves in rain forest passing through villages spotting Horn Bills and monkeys. It was a privileged insight as to how people live in these remote communities sheltering under plastic sheeting and corrugated iron roofs in some cases. It was, however, heartening to see so many children heading to school in their uniforms all immaculately dressed. We later learned that many schools provide uniforms and dinners to encourage children to attend.
We found hotels on the side of the road. If the sheets had been changed, this was a bonus. We ate at roadside cafes – looking out for the busy ones and always making sure the food was hot.
We ran out of money as the ATMs didn’t work. We were down to our last £1 when we managed to get £10 out of one machine enabling us to have breakfast.
We saw many of the old colonial building built during the time of the British Raj, mostly crumbling now but evidence of former glory.
We had our first lovely hotel experience in Panaji where we were the first guests of the newly opened #HotelGrandKadamba
The nights were starting to draw in cutting down on riding time and sometimes this meant that we had to ride the last few miles in the dark, as we searched for hotels on route.
We were looking forward to getting to Goa and riding along the coast. Our first tyre exploded as we crossed the border into Goa and I got a ride on the back of a scooter to the local bike mechanic to see if it could be saved but, it was a write-off.
We experienced our first festival, Ganesh Chaturthi celebrates the birthday of Lord Ganesh as we headed through Goa. All the villages erected shrines as a tribute to Ganesh and we watched the villagers parade carrying Ganesh aloft along routes lined with colourful lights. It did mean, however, that most of the shops and restaurants were shut over these few days making it challenging to eat.
It was wonderful to finally get to the coast and to see the Arabian Sea crashing as the wind picked up before the next rainstorm.
In Mangalore, we took a half-day to visit Taj bike shop. We needed tyres, a new pump and various bits to keep us on the road. This was also our first experience of Cafe Coffee Day where we spent many a long hour, (or so it seemed), trying to encourage the staff to make us a coffee as most of them seemed either unwilling or unable which, is a real drawback in a coffee shop.It was just as well that Alice had new tyres because as we headed over the border into Kerala we experienced some of the worst road conditions so far. Massive potholes, which were more like craters and all full of water. We had no idea how deep the crater was and at times the chain wheel got stuck in the mud and gravel.
Kerala has seen massive rainfall this year, which we experienced, and could see as fields were flooded and the rivers were bursting their banks. We were heading into Cochi, it was late and we got caught up in a procession through the town. The entire road had been decorated with lights and the parade was long including, a whole section of people carrying coloured umbrellas.
In Fort Cochi we enjoyed finding filter coffee and the views of the Arabian Sea. This area was heavily influenced by the Portuguese and there are numerous churches. It was Sunday and people were dressed in their Sunday best heading to church. We rode along a spit of land with the sea on one side and river on the other. It was magical. Kerala is a beautiful part of India with its wetlands, waterways and views of the Arabian Sea. It also has more of a European feel with its old colonial building crumbling with age and its Portuguese churches. However, as with all parts of India, the countryside is littered with rubbish dumped at the side of the road which includes mountains of plastic. It’s a depressing sight.
We were getting nearer the most southern tip of India where the Arabian Sea meets the Bay of Bengal. It is famous for its sunrise which we watched before changing direction and heading North-East towards Kolkata. The countryside in the deep south has many wind turbos. The villages are small and feel remote. There was no guarantee we would be able to find accommodation, so we had to plan the route carefully to make sure we finished the day in a sizeable town.
We had experienced mobbings throughout our journey. Wherever we stopped a crowd quickly gathered around us but, nothing on the scale which we experienced in this area.
It was impossible to stop in some towns as the crowd became too big and we couldn’t get off the bike to get water or food. People were also fascinated by Alice and had to touch her rather than just look which meant we couldn’t let her out of our sight.
On one occasion we ended up eating at someone’s house. This is what happened which can be looked at in different ways. We rode into a small town. It was lunchtime. We needed food and water. We still had lots of miles to cover, particularly because we were riding with the brake partially on because the disc was bent after a pannier fell off and got mashed into the brake. 😱
We were immediately surrounded by people – all men. We looked to see if we could spot a shop or restaurant to eat. We were asked questions about where we are from and going and the purpose of the ride. A man claiming to be from the press who didn’t speak much English started to make a note of what we said. We continued to ask if there was a restaurant nearby and where we could get water. We were taken down a side street and found ourselves sitting in a small room on upturned buckets. We were out of the crowd, but 4 men were asking us questions about our ride. We thought someone was getting us food and water but nothing arrived. We were hungry and thirsty and explained that we needed to go. We were invited back to one of the men’s homes where we were told we would be given food. It was difficult to refuse. We arrived and were introduced to a young woman, the daughter of one of the men, who spoke good English we explained what we were doing and this was interpreted for the men. More people started to arrive. More questions were asked and finally, some food was given to us. By this time we had been in the town for almost 2 hours. We thanked our host for the food and explained that we needed to leave. We were asked if they could take a photo. We agreed and this turned into numerous photos including selfies with many of the individuals present and us being filmed riding Alice down the road. We were presented with a gift, an of a bust of Gandhi. We thanked our host and finally left 21/2 to 3 hours after arriving in the town.
We talked about our experience, on the one hand, this was a wonderful example of Indian hospitality and generosity- we had been given food, welcomed into someone’s home and given a gift. On the other hand, we had been completely ignored. We had arrived asking to be directed to a restaurant but instead, we had been taken into a small room and asked questions with no water or food. We had explained that we needed to leave as we had a long way to go. This was ignored because of the interest in us and what we were doing. We had been given a gift which it was unrealistic for us to carry. It sounds ungrateful and maybe it is but this is one example of many when we have asked for something and have been given something very different. Anyway, we only covered about 60 miles that day which was way down on our original plan but we did have the experience of Indian hospitality and we were grateful.
In Chennai (formerly Madras) we had a day off the bike meeting up with two Canadians we had met at a bike shop in Georgia. It was lovely to swap stories and experiences and see friends. We went out to the Fort and having been frisked to get in, it was disappointing to see the decay and rubbish which littered the site.
The hotels on route, particularly north of Chennai were, at best, basic. It was unusual if the sheets had been changed and the beds consisted of a board topped with a thin mattress often not much thicker than a folded blanket. It was uncomfortable. It was also hard to get food on occasions. We had a particularly bad experience with the world’s dirtiest pillow. I don’t want to imagine how it got so filthy. 😱😳.
We were keen to get to Kolkata where we had arranged to meet the #OxfamIndia team. They had arranged for us to be interviewed by Radio Mirchi and speak at the Decathlon store.
We finally reached and crossed the Kolkata Bridge. We felt elated. We had cycled the coast of India and completed the Indian stage of our journey.
The Oxfam team were inspiring and we spent our day off hearing about the amazing humanitarian work they are doing as a result of climate change and their work on women’s rights.
We came away motivated for the next stage of our journey from Myanmar 🇲🇲 to Singapore 🇸🇬
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