It was January 1990. We sat astride our new bikes overlooking the estuary at Calicut, north Kerala. Coconut palms hung over the blue water. Wooden ships lay at anchor, sails furled along sweeping yards. Long narrow crowded fishing boats ran up onto the sandy beach to unload their catch. Huge hulks of vessels were being built nearby, a mass of heavy timber stitched together forming elegant Dhows.
This river, steeped in history of trade and seafaring with the Arabian Gulf and East Africa, and the scene of many of Sinbad the sailors stories, seemed a fitting place to start our ‘Southern Indian Bike Ride’
We were to follow the coast along threadlike pieces of land set in a tapestry of palm fringed luxuriant lagoons and backwaters down to Cochin and Quilon, where we would head inland over the Western Ghats and drop down into Tamil Nadu and onto the Bay of Bengal coast finishing at Madras. A journey of about 800 miles, an Indian ‘Coast to Coast’
Our bikes, the Hercules Hero, robust and the mainstay of Indian transport. Based on an old British Raleigh, the upright bikes had rod brakes, no gears, a hefty luggage carrier suitable for all kinds of cargo, and a large shiny bell. They were put together in a packed market street in Bangalore after much negotiation and haggling. For panniers we purchased some children’s school satchels and got a tailor to sew on some attachment points.
We followed small paths and tracks south keeping the Arabian Sea to our right for navigation. Our map showed little detail and in fact where there were gaps showing no roads we tended to head for these as it kept us off main routes. We soon learnt there were lots of paths and tracks in these empty parts.
Rivers and lagoons had to be crossed on precarious craft through this tropical nirvana. Sometimes we were pushing through deep sand along the beach, the refreshing breeze and crashing waves to our side.
The backwaters were a scene of activity. Cantilevered fishing nets, coconut palms, small river ferries, heavily loaded sand boats with tatty square sails, wooden country boats with their arched woven deck shades transporting cargoes of fresh produce.
The days drifted by as we cycled from village to village that were perched between the Arabian Sea and the backwater lagoons.
I am reading from letters I sent home “ The next day we cycled 35 miles to Ponnani, along small roads shaded by coconut palms and managed to put in a short cut thanks to help of a friendly local. This involved loading our bicycles into a canoe and being punted across a wide river by a man with only one leg, who when we arrived in the shallow water of the other side used his punting pole as a crutch and hopped ashore.”
“While coasting into a drinks stall, actually off the road, Warty fell off her bicycle which left her with a badly cut elbow which we had to sterastrip back together. It is now almost totally mended and luckily didn’t get infected as it was a deep cut.”
“Ponnani was a small fishing town, where attracted a lot of attention”
The Islamic north of Kerala with its historic links to Arabia and trade in spice and cloth, merged into Hinduism and Christianity. Kerala is diverse, separated from the rest of India by the western ghats, it’s influences are from foreign lands.
From my letters sent home, “this time of year is the festival season and we have come across many while cycling. Whether Hindu or Christian the same props are used, which are people riding on elephants holding ornamental umbrellas and lots of highly dangerous fireworks being let off. The Christian festivals seem to use Hindu drum bands, while the Muslims come along for the entertainment to both Hindu and Christian celebrations.”
“We heard the noise of drums and local music, the festival was congregating in front of the temple. There were elephants and a band of Hindu men wearing white longys and playing tribal drums and clarinet type horns.There were rings of small bells like tambourines being shaken. Other smaller groups came to join the main ceremony bringing with them their own music. There were even two transvestites performing some sort of religious dance. The noise and atmosphere were incredible and we were treated as special guests”
“Another day’s cycling got us to Quilon, which nearly killed us. We had great difficulty finding small roads and ended up pushing our bikes through soft sand to get round areas of water. The roads were in a terrible condition. However we managed 50 miles.”
From Quilon we left the humid tropical coast and climbed the Western Ghats to the plains of Tamil Nadu.
I am reading from my letters sent home, “From the mountains we dropped back down to the plains which is where Tamil Nadu starts. The road was bad and steep. We coasted down very slowly, leaving Kerala behind and approaching Tamil Nadu. The mountains here abruptly rise from the plains and act as a natural boundary and once at the bottom it was like you had arrived in a different country. There were far more ox carts, the villages were well spread out and there were large areas of agricultural land divided into small plots. Gangs of brightly coloured women harvested and planted crops, while men with their teams of oxen ploughed the fields and pulled water from massive wells to irrigate the land. It was much more the scene that one imagines of India, which is so different to Kerala.”
“Food and drink became more difficult to get hold of and we had to find reasonably sized villages to get vegetable meals. Tamil Nadu is the place for thali, everywhere has them and they are always excellent value, costing from twelve to eighteen pence for as much as you can eat. They are served on banana leaves and eaten with the hands”
A side trip took us up into the hills to Kodaikanal, a former colonial hill station. It was a refreshing break from the heat and fun rowing on the landscaped lake in wooden boats with brass plaques on them saying “Oxford 1920”
Back down to the plains we headed towards Tiruchi. Reading from my letters “The full moon was approaching and there was a big Hindu festival at Palani near Kodaikanal and the roads were busy with pilgrims walking to the festival. It was a sight, with all dressed in bright orange longys and saris. They had painted foreheads and wore necklaces of cardamom seeds and each carried a sort of wooden frame which had peacock feathers coming out of it. The pilgrims, who were mainly men, came from upto 200 km away from Palani and were all on foot as that is the tradition”
“ That night accommodation was hard to find and we were kindly put up in a government public works rest house at a cost of twenty pence”
“The next day was a long cycle to Tiruchi, a distance of 60 miles. We passed through fields with people working in them and saw wonderful irrigation systems, where ox pulled the water up in a leather scoop. Still on the pilgrimage route, many of the villages had small temples which had large painted stone horses outside them.”
Lunch stop ”There was a small hotel(restaurant) in the village which served an excellent banana leaf thali
and the crowds gathered to watch the whites eat. The window openings and doorway of the palm leaf hut were soon filled with inquisitive heads, which prevented any air movement and the climate became very hot and sweaty. Again we were not allowed to pay our bill”
Tiruchi, and Tanjore another days bike ride further on were bustling Indian cities which was quite different to what we had been used to. We had to get visa extensions here and the bureaucratic process was tedious, taking a few days. While we waited, “St Johns church, an old colonial church with an overgrown graveyard. The graveyard told so many stories. You could see which years cholera epidemics must have swept through the Brits. They dropped like flies in 1829-30 and all in their twenties. There were far more children’s graves in the early years and graves of mothers who had died during child birth.”
“Tanjore had a good station and we became trainspotters!” a mass of sidings with dirty steam locomotives shunting back and forth.
Our cycle tour continued to Point Calimere on the Bay of Bengal. “There were no flamingos (for which Point Calimere is famous for), food was hard to get and there was a strong headwind to cycle against. There were some interesting salt factories, with cantilevered wooden pumps that brought the saltwater into the evaporation pools. Neat piles of white salt were scattered around the salt flats.”
We followed the East coast north to Madras. We were now back in a coastal scene. “ The fishermen here sailed on what they call catamarans, which are squared off palm tree trunks lashed together with centreboards forced between the logs. They sailed with their crab claw rigs way out beyond the horizon on these makeshift rafts.”
At Poompuhar, a small coastal town “ we heard of a festival in a local village. It was impressive as it involved the temple car, which is a highly carved structure used for carrying the gods from the temple to another site in the temple complex. The massive structure is hauled by masses of villagers. A band is set up on the cart.”
We enjoyed the way our bike ride spontaneously immersed us into local life and customs. You never new when the next experience would unfold. It is this that continues to draw us to this means of travel today and we still enjoy the unpredictable adventure it brings.
We eventually arrived in Madras, leaving the tranquility of the coastal villages and were immersed in an attack on the senses of the most extreme shocking Indian urban environment. Reading from my letters, “Madras was a hot, noisy and busy city. Our hotel was situated in a road with many beggar families living on the street who we got to know. You get used to seeing beggars in India, but it’s not often you see whole families all living out on the roads. Well not in the numbers we saw in Madras. It wasn’t a pleasant environment; people shitting in the street, ox carts slowly moving past, porters carrying huge loads, piles of rotting vegetables, open drains, sick and disabled people sprawled along the roadside; yet there were families living here and this was their home. They were preparing food, breast feeding their babies and the few that had work were making stainless steel urns. There’s incredible organisation among these people with food distribution. Some of the beggars beg for food at restaurants and get leftovers, each group having their own patch they work on, the food is all boiled up and sold at very low cost to other beggars that just beg for money. The average meal cost about 3p. Chapatis are brought back to life by drying them in the sun and then reheating them. Along our street there were several of these road “cafes” which were made of a couple of small pots over a fire.”
“ You wondered how these people organised their lives. They must have married, but how did they with so little money and where and earth are all the kids conceived and born in this crowded slum/market street”
“Disease was endemic and there were many very ill people. Often you would see people being sick and all the kids had the black dot on the cheek, which is to ward off the evil eye which is believed to be a major cause of diarrhoea. Many local doctors recognise supernatural forces as being one of the causes of diarrhoea according to a UNICEF report.”
We sold our bikes in the market. A lad that helped us took the panniers for commission. We left Madras feeling rather shaken to continue our travels.